Themed under the old Egyptian saying Mein Fat A’adimoh Tah (He Who Loses His Past is Lost), the Center For Documantation of Cultural And Natural Heritage (CULTNAT), affiliated with Bibliotheca Alexandrina, opens El-Sennary House Festival for secondhand books at Sayeda Zeinab.
Organised by CULTNAT, ‘Mein Fat A’adimoh Tah’ is set to revive the original arts and crafts of modern Egypt. “We want to make the public notice our Egyptian heritage; here you will find the house divided into sections that display rug making, pottery, copperware, and Arabisque, in addition to the special gallery we have that displays the Egyptian streets 100 years ago,” Amr Ali Abdel Khalek, El-Sennary House manager told Ahram Online.
A small alleyway, next to El-Saneya School in the Sayeda Zeinab district in downtown Cairo, takes you directly to El-Sennary House, built in 1794 by Sudanese occultist Ibrahim Katkhuda, and became famous four years later for another reason. With the French expedition of Egypt, El-Sennary House became the assembly base fore more than 150 French scholars who conducted the first European study of Egypt, ‘Le Description de l’Egypte’ (The Description of Egypt), according to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's information guide.
According to Abdel Khalik, in 1996 former Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni assigned Bibliotheca Alexandrina to renovate the old house. Although only half of the house was renovated, El-Sennary House is in very good condition. “This is the only remaining house that dates back to the French invasion of Egypt; all the other significant ones were completely destroyed by the French army,” Abdel Khalik says.
A few steps down the courtyard, several booksellers display their products, including Dar El-Halal, Souk El-Azbakeya (Azbakeya Market), and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina bookstore on one side. On the other side, Culture Palaces of Egypt Association brought some of Egypt’s talented handcrafts makers to the festival. Mohamed Nagah, one of the pottery sculpturers says, “We are funded by the Culture Palaces and here to display our Egyptian heritage.” Although all crafts workshops are prohibited to sell their products in the festival, they all feel proud to participate in the festival.
Furthermore, Bibliotheca Alexandrina plans to add several workshops for pottery making and sculptures for children all year long. "Special needs artist Ayman Mahgoub is to conduct those workshops for children," says Abdel Khalik. Although Mahgoub was not present during Ahram Online’s visit, yet his contribution of colourful sculptures added an Egyptian décor to the place that had long been abandoned.
The Streets of Cairo and Alexandria 100 Years Ago
Next to Mahgoub’s work of art, Abdel Khalik takes us up the narrow wooden stairs to the “Egyptian Streets 100 Years Back”. The entire floor is a stand-alone exhibition. From one room to the next, you are literally taken back a hundred years and more, imaging the early days of modern Cairo and some streets of Alexandria. The top floor has an old terrace with large Arabesque windows and columns.
Taking a step down, you enter the main hall where Raafat Hamzawy sits with his associates listening to Egyptian legendary music composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab played on a gramophone. Hamzawy, an organiser and researcher of 19th and early 20th century Egypt, is solely responsible for this exhibition, bringing the Egyptian street to the viewer. “We have collected all personal belongings of the normal Egyptian over the years to bring back what Egypt was like 100 years ago,” Hamzawy told Ahram Online, touring the surprisingly packed hall.
From cameras, telephones, early portable oven for picnics, to parlour cases, doctor cases, carriage drivers, street signs, mailboxes, original drivers’ licenses, official work permits, and store signs and offers, the exhibition has it all. Every household item is on display. And all are, of course, not for sale!
Among the interesting stories Hamzawy shared with Ahram Online was the landmark changes that took over the streets as Egypt transformed from a sultanate belonging to the Ottoman Empire to an independent kingdom.
Hamzawy states, “Street name signs were changed from blue to green and the writing was also changed from the Persian style writing to a simple handwritten style.” To him the blue signs with the Persian style writing were best. Another interesting feature back in the day were the mailboxes whose colour was also changed from red to green during the same period.
“Some items were bought from small antique stores, others are personal belongings of people we know. We then research the piece to identify the exact date in which it was used,” he says. According to Hamzawy, it is the driver’s licenses and work permits that were the hardest to identify.
Another feature common 100 years ago on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria was quality control; something that lost its significance among most Egyptian industries today. Hamzawy made a stop at a statement issued by a Tarboush (Turkish male hat) maker. It said: Tarboush offered for 33 sagh (pence); if you are dissatisfied with your purchase, please return your item and we will refund you a five-pound bill.
Exiting the hall, Hamzawy points to a picture of King Farouk smoking a shisha, hanging alone in a corner. Underneath the rare image is written: ‘Qahwet Farouk El Awel’ (King Farouk I Café). According to Hamzawy, this café was not originally named ‘Qahwet Farouk El Awel’. It belonged to a local lady from the Bahary district in Alexandria. Once, King Farouk was passing by and he stopped for a quick shisha; the picture was taken then and he never returned to the café; however, after his only visit, the owner named her café after him and kept his portrait ever since.
The stories are endless. The items identify districts, streets, traditions, and people across Egypt; and touring with Hamzawy adds vivid scenes to each and every item displayed. Even telephone sets enjoy a special section in the exhibition. There is the big wooden telephone set that belonged to the army. Next to it there is the smaller look-a-like version, which according to Hamzawy is the portable army telephone set. There are also those that belonged to Abdeen Palace, courtesy of the kingdom officials, and those of El Omda (the farmers’ mayor).
Mein Fat A’adimoh Tah can be a day trip; despite the venue’s small size, it is these stories that visitors never get tired of that will make you stay a while. Abdel Khalik states, “Due to the current political uncertainty in Egypt and the lack of publicity, the venue and festival received media attention more than actual visitors but we are determined to repeat this event again in September.”
'Mein Fat A’adimoh Tah' continues until 24 July, from 9am to 7pm daily.
El-Sennary House, Haret El Mong, right behind El-Saneya School, Sayeda Zeinab