Loula Lahham: Meet the woman who put Akhmim artwork back on the map!

Amira Noshokaty , Tuesday 9 Jul 2024

It is difficult to talk about the historic town of Akhmim in Sohag and its legacy of vibrant artistic women without talking about Loula Lahham.

Loula Lahham
Author, photographer and journalist, Loula Lahham. Photo: Ahram.

 

Since times immemorial, Akhmim has been known for its marvellous textile, skilful needlework, and signature motifs that date back to ancient and Coptic Egypt.

Lahham, 64, first set foot in the Upper Egypt town as a little girl on a school trip in the mid-seventies.

Akhmim, originally known as Khent-min after the god of fertility Min, served as the capital of the ninth nome (district) in Ancient Egypt.

In Coptic Egypt (325 – 641 AD), the town was known as Khmin. By 1527 AD, during Islamic Egypt, it had been renamed Akhmim.

In 2018, Lahham wrote “The Tales of Akhmim Women”, documenting the story of the talented women of Akhmim.

A speciality of Akhmim women was Kabaty (Coptic) textiles -- authentic hand-woven fabric favoured for its white colour, as worn by ancient Egyptian royalty such as Queen Nefertiti.

It was also the fabric from which the cover of the Muslim Holy Kabba was made and sent to Mecca every year.

In recent decades, the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development (AUEED), established in 1940, has focused its efforts on preserving the intangible heritage of Akhmim village and neighboring Hegaza village in Qena, to encourage Indigenous artists to pass on their crafts to their children, as well as support and market their products.

The first encounter
 

“It was part of the typical Luxor and Aswan trip. But our school wanted to add a social experience as well and not all about monuments so they organized a trip to Akhmim.”

“When we arrived in the town, girls our age came out to greet us with zaghareet, (ululations) and we were very happy.”

“These girls had nothing. They worked in a small building with some hand-made looms but they were very happy.”

“I thought how come this kind of art the whole world does not recognize?” she told Ahram Online.

“We became pen friends, we used to write letters, which was funny because we wrote in classic Arabic.

“The nuns in our school wanted to show us that there are those who have nothing and are suffering and there are those who also had nothing and were very happy that the world is not about the club parties, indeed, “she added.

First Job
 

In 1982, Lahham earned her college degree in French Literature from Cairo University.

At 22, She landed a job at the fundraising and media department of AUEED and worked there for many years.

She worked as the head of the proofreading team at the French-language weekly Ahram Hebdo and as a correspondent for the paper in Geneva.

Lahham earned a diploma from the Higher Institute for Folk Arts in 2005 with a thesis on Akhmim women artists.

“I view such art as a form of fine art, like painting, but they do it by sewing,” she told Ahram Online.

A few weeks ago, AUEED was accredited by UNESCO as an NGO that safeguards intangible cultural heritage in Egypt which is a well-deserved milestone to the old NGO.

“Ever since I walked into that centre in Akhmim, I thought they should not be left behind, I loved it and I thought this is my calling. I was enchanted by two women who taught the girls and believed in their artistic skills and also taught them some sewing skills: Magda Gobraeil and Gail Malley.”

Putting Akhmim back on the map!
 

Lahham is currently working on creating a space at the premises of the NGO in Akhmim, to document the history of Akhmim’s textiles and the women behind them.

“We are currently trying to put Akhmim on the touristic map, we are inspired by the Tunis village model in Fayoum, she explained.

The new centre will also serve as an outlet for Akhmim women to sell their products, Lahham noted.

Reflecting on the project with optimism, she said, "One thing I've learned is when we love what we do, we will feel that it’s our thing. I am very happy to go to work; I feel complete in Akhmim."

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