The Prophets, aeroplanes and hajj trails depicted in elaborate Egyptian Graffiti, decorating the majority of peasant houses in Upper Egypt, are now in print.
A couple of weeks ago at the premises of the Higher Cultural Institute, a seminar was held to celebrate the issue of The Arabic Translation of Hajj Paintings by Ann Parker and Avon Neal, translated by Hassan Abd Raboh. The photography book, the latest product of the National Project for Translation (affiliated with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture) showcases gems of folk and indigenous art forms that appear in the graffiti.
The book was first published in the mid-nineties and opens up a whole new world of colourful images. Prophets are portrayed side by side with pilgrims on their holy trail in a truly original style.
“This book is more of a visual anthropological study written out of love,” explained Nahla Emam, professor of Rituals and Traditions at the National Folklore Archive. “It conveys the joyous side of religion, a nice change opposed to the penal side of religion that we are constantly reminded of,” she said, “this side is colourful and joyous, making us celebrate religion in various artistic forms, be it songs or paintings.”
She went on to explain that hajj paintings, in which the artist would depict Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein and the Angel Gabriel (four religious figures associated with Islam), are quite bold. The book explains that for every village there is a male indigenous artist. “However, in most hajj graffiti, The Angel Gabriel is drawn as a woman,” noted Emam.
The book marks the fact that the hajj graffiti is somehow connected to the Nile banks and vividly in the south. The further north you sail, the more tenuous the link becomes. Drawing such forms on the walls is itself a continuation of one of the oldest forms of mural that the ancient Egyptians left us.
Being a pilgrim (Hajj) in folk culture brings a new social status, meaning one has come back a different person: more pious, and religious. Emam adds that the hajj, although limited to those who can afford it, is a must for Egyptians; one completes one’s life journey.
“On a parallel note, the concept of advertising is a must when it comes to all major events in popular folk groups, from birth, circumcision, marriage, to death- hence the hajj Graffiti,” explained Ahmed Morsi Head of the Egyptian Society of Folk Tradition.
“The hajj paintings are also associated with hajj chants that would imagine the spiritual trip, and those awaiting the return of the pilgrims safe and sound,” added Morsi.
Decorate from the gate to the hallway and make the wife as beautiful as a gazelle- a sample of lyrics from a hajj chant.
“The paintings roam between metaphysical, religious and earthly rituals,” explains Mohammed el-Razaz, professor of folk arts. He added that the graffiti usually portrays the means of transport that the pilgrims use. However there is a significant amount of imagination because the indigenous artists have never left their homes. Hence, the ships have a crescent at top of their masts, and the two dimension proportions transcend the barrier of logic.
The journey to Mecca, which is in reality a long desert trip, is portrayed through green meadows, shaded with trees. It is a journey of the heart. The hajj graffiti also covers the folk celebrations associated with the return of the pilgrim.
“However, in Luxor, this case is quite unique,” El-Razaz explains, “they paint hajj paintings on their stores and not their homes, side by side with the promotional signs and slogans of their stores, as an additional means of decoration.”
Despite the fact that hajj paintings are evident in a few other Muslim countries, it is only considered a phenomenon in Egypt.