SHOPPER'S WORLD; From Azure Amulets To Baubles of Brass

By Nimet Habachy, New York Times, April 17, 1988
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LEAD: THE decorative arts that can be purchased in Cairo today reflect more successfully than ever the many periods and art forms of Egypt's history. There are representations of Pharaonic Egypt, Coptic or Christian Egypt as of A.D. 63, Islamic Egypt (which saw its artistic zenith during the Fatimid and Ayubid caliphates) and Mameluke Egypt (when a slave class ruled mercilessly but embellished Cairo generously).


THE decorative arts that can be purchased in Cairo today reflect more successfully than ever the many periods and art forms of Egypt's history. There are representations of Pharaonic Egypt, Coptic or Christian Egypt as of A.D. 63, Islamic Egypt (which saw its artistic zenith during the Fatimid and Ayubid caliphates) and Mameluke Egypt (when a slave class ruled mercilessly but embellished Cairo generously). In addition, Nubians from the south and Bedouins in the western desert add their share of color and originality to this already rich heritage.


New shops in Cairo are serving a twofold function: Preserving art forms long thought forgotten and nurturing a talented crop of young artists. The tourist is the beneficiary. There are items that are the delight of the visitor who has never contemplated an ashtray made from a woman's ankle bracelet, or a miniature Bukhara carpet woven in silk, or an azure amulet to ward off the evil eye. The items are exotic and the materials and colors employed sumptuous. In these shops a visitor is likely to find items that are one of a kind, especially at Senouhi and Safar Khana.


And in almost every case, the visitor will find that the multilingual proprietor of the shop is passionate about the work and well informed about the period and origins of the object. The shops mentioned are not places to bargain; that is best left for the bazaar. But, since the value of the Egyptian pound is about two to the dollar, the tourist with United States dollars does well. What follows is a sampling of several of the shops and their offerings.


The oldest and still one of the most impressive shops is Senouhi (54 Abdel Khalek Sarwat Street; telephone 910955; Monday to Friday 10 A.M. to 5 P.M., Saturday 10 to 1). The shop, which is within walking distance of the Cairo museum and Midan el Tahrir, the main square, is still the only outlet in Egypt for Harania tapestries, which are woven on high-warp looms strung with threads of local wool colored with natural dyes. They are the work of children who translate what they see around them in their individual style. Birds, trees and the countryside come alive in brilliant colors. Many of the subjects are indigenously Egyptian: the dovecotes that identify a village from afar and the water wheel turned by a gamoosa (water buffalo). The revival of this craft tradition was begun in 1957 by Wissa Wassef in the village of Harania, just outside Cairo. Some of the Harania tapestries are now collector's items. Prices, based on artistic value, can run into the thousands of dollars.


Tapestries in reds, yellows and ochers on a white field decorate Senouhi. In the desert these pieces decorate the entrances of gray and brown Bedouin tents. They are made of wool thread tightly woven into symmetrical patterns with decorative tassels cascading from the edges. Sometimes the strips are sewn together to make camel bags.


For women, there are elaborate headdresses and yashmaks (decorated face coverings) as well as intricate embroidery from the Sinai. The embroidery that decorates simple black cotton dresses is done in tiny cross-stitches in reds, greens and yellows and can depict everything from flowers to chickens. The pieces are so valued that they are taken off old dresses and sewn onto new ones. In this way the patterns are handed down from one generation of women to the next. Local batik work has evolved into an art form - the material is used for clothes, tablecloths and wall hangings. The Bedouin items cost $20 to $30; the batik items are priced from as little as $2.50.


Among the artists Senouhi has featured recently is Hassan Suleiman, who specializes in pastels and watercolors of Cairo street scenes. Another is Saad Isaac whose specialty is birds. The range of prices for paintings is $225 to $500 for large oil paintings. The shop, on the fifth floor of a commercial building, contains nothing that isn't of exceptional quality. Senouhi accepts payment only in Egyptian pounds.


Safar Khana, Refuge of the Traveler (6 Brazil Street, in the district of Zamalek; 340-3314; 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. except Fridays), is on the larger island, Gezira, in the Nile. One of the two proprietors is Sherwet Shafii, who has been promoting Egyptian art for 27 years in a weekly program on Cairo television. She is, along with her partner, Roxanne Petritis, particularly devoted to the promotion of Egyptian painters. At present, there are works on view by Abd el Wahhab Morsi using Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic motifs, and Mohamed Hamid Nada, who uses folkloric themes. Sawsan Amer paints ancient Egyptian subjects on glass. Yet the overall aspect of the work of all three artists is abstract. Paintings range from $175 to $350.


One of the more startling items on sale is a wanisa, a Coptic doll buried with the dead. The idea comes directly from the shawabties, the small statues buried with mummies to serve the deceased in the afterlife. There were 365 shawabties buried with Tutankhamun, one for each day of the year. A wanisa is made of animal bone decorated with cloth and ornaments. A wanisa costs $20 to $25 at Safar Khana. 


Also available at Safar Khana are pillows covered with pieces of Persian rugs selling at $33 to $60. Crockery sets designed by local artisans featuring birds (a favorite Islamic motif) go for $33 for a five-piece set. Safar Khana accepts payment in Egyptian currency and traveler's checks and can ship purchases abroad.


In a very different vein is the shop called Barakat (12 El Brazil Street; 340-9651; 9 A.M. to 2 P.M. and from 4 to 8 P.M. except on Sunday). It looks like a Hollywood set for ''Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.'' Bracelets, earrings, necklaces and pendants lie in profusion in bowls or almost completely cover the wall. The materials used are colored beads, ceramics, leather and brass. It's a place to pick up last-minute presents without spending a fortune - items are available for as little as 50 cents. Decoration is frequently Arabic calligraphy, verses from the Koran or simply the word Allah. As Islam forbids the representation of the human form, callligraphy developed into the highest art with an infinite variety in style of script. Almost everything is available in blue glazed ceramic, since blue keeps away afareet (devils).


One of the more spectacular items I saw on my most recent visit was a freestanding brass calligraphy work with the word Allah fashioned so that it could be read on one side from right to left in Arabic and on the other side from left to right in English. Of course the name of the prophet Mohammed is often used, as is Kaf-Fatma, the hand of Fatima. Fatima is the prophet's wise daughter from whose fingers come wisdom and good counsel. Kaf-Fatma may be worn as a locket or charm. Calligraphic items are priced under $5.


Upstairs in a low-ceilinged attic is a vast array of small pieces of furniture, stools, tables and pearl-inlay holders for Korans done in mashrabia, carved wood. The furniture items sell $20 to $35. A fairly new line of painted terra cotta sculptures of laborers is charming and costs $2.50 to $7.50. Among the figures is a juice seller with drinking cups strung about his galabia (long cotton gown) and a mother holding one child by the hand while another is seated astride her shoulder holding onto her head. American Express traveler's checks, but no American Express cards, are accepted.


Mameluke (4 Aleph Hassan Assam Street, Zamalek; 340-2437; Monday through Saturday 9:30 A.M. to 8 P.M. in summer, until 7 P.M. in winter) sells costume jewelry and Islamic furniture pieces, Bedouin mirrors and headdresses. The Bedouin headdresses are made of white silver, a kind of nickel alloy. Silver chains fall from large rings on either side of the headdress and end in little bells. Miniature Turkish carpets woven in silk thread, the smallest measuring 3 1/2 by 6 inches, sell for $10 to $20. Many are sold already framed for display on a wall. Glass lamps with stripes of painted enamel calligraphy (like the ones in Cairo's mosques) cost $14 to $175. The carved anklets made into ashtrays can be had in copper and nickel for $7 and up. Pastel-colored kilims from Marsa Matruh, a town on the Mediterranean coast near El Alamein, are priced at $18 a yard. This is a shop carrying items with prices from 25 cents to $500. Mameluke accepts payment in Egyptian currency and in traveler's checks.


El Ain (73 El Hussein Street in the district of Mohandesseen; 349-3940; daily except Friday from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M. and 5 to 8 P.M.) should be visited as much for its content as for its decor. It is owned by Azza and Randa Fahmy and was designed by Azza Fahmy's husband, Nabil Ghali, who is an architect and interior designer. White walls, tile floors and mashrabia dominate. The latter is used for shelves, shutters, tables and screens from which to hang richly colored cloth. Mashrabia paneling can be custom made. The price depends in part on the kind of wood used: azizi, the older wood is more expensive than the lighter colored mosky. Custom-made mashrabia starts at $2,000 for a screen about 3 by 6 feet. Among the rarer offerings are wood panels carved with the 99 names of God. These used to be placed over the doorways of Arab homes. The copies sold at El Ain sell for $750.

Other items I saw only in this shop were exquisite copies of lamps of the Fatimid period. The originals can be seen in Cairo's Islamic Museum. One lamp, which cost $250, was an elaborate brass fixture with several different compartments hanging from several chains. The brass was so intricately worked that it looked like lace with the light shining through. El Ain will ship merchandise to the United States.

Less grand items such as calendars on papyrus in Arabic numerals and bill holders with a Nubian motif are also available. Baskets made of henna twigs and multicolored Nubian straw disks with leather centers, which can be used as wall decorations, are priced under $15. There are also heavy Bedouin bracelets in silver with semiprecious stones -carnelian, alexandrites and coral -that are not particularly expensive. Lastly, there is a line of cotton fabric with miniature flowers and birds, Mameluke motifs that are printed close together, and reminiscent of a Laura Ashley design. The colors are soft and the effect attractive. The material is sold by the yard, the price ($2.50 to $3.50) depending on the intricacy of the design. El Ain accepts Egyptian currency only.


NIMET HABACHY is the host of the WQXR program ''New York at Night'' and a guest commentator during intermissions of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.


A version of this article appears in print on April 17, 1988, Section 5, Page 6 of the National edition with the headline: SHOPPER'S WORLD; From Azure Amulets To Baubles of Brass.