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Wissa Wassef
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In order to understand how Ramses Wissa Wassef's novel venture first took shape, it is valuable to follow the background from which his ideas emerged.

Papyrus - 1982

Ramses' deep interest in crafts can be traced to 1935, the year that he returned to Egypt after the completion of his studies. After eight years of living abroad, Ramses had returned home in search of his culture with a determination to find his place in its milieu. It was during the early years of his return that he would take long walks through the old quarters of Cairo. This particular district had been one of his favorites, and it was there that he would wander through the narrow streets and alleyways studying the buildings and speaking to the dwellers.

Outings in the old quarters also gave Ramses the opportunity to encounter a number of craftsmen - weavers, potters, glassmakers, and stonecutters alike - all inheritors of ancient traditions and techniques. From these meetings he gained a knowledge of skills that he eventually went on to use in his own architectural work. Perhaps more importantly, his contact with these craftsmen gave him the opportunity to study their situation closely.

Before long he realized that eventually these crafts would vanish. Although these men were honest tradesmen, no new force or creativity could be expected from them, and many of the craftsmen he knew had died without having trained any apprentices.

These facts deeply effected Ramses and thus led him to reflect on man's condition in the age of the machine and to discuss the problem with his colleagues. He later wrote, "Everywhere I found reservations in the face of increasing mechanization, and the damaging discipline of abstract education to which human beings are subjected during the most important period of their lives-when they are becoming people."

For Ramses Wissa Wassef, once broken a tradition could not be renewed. By using their own training methods, craftsmen used to hand down their skills from generation to generation. Currently used methods only resulted in routine mass production. Modern educational systems, he felt, could not form craftsmen.

On reaching this point in his thoughts, he made the following conclusions:
1) Artistry and craftsmanship are aspects of a single activity.

2) A demand exists for handicrafts, which at present is not satisfied by either art or industry. Therefore, production by craft methods can still be economically viable.

3) The creative energy of the average person is being sapped by an abstract conformist system of education, and by the extension of industrial techniques to every field. But while the machine threatens to reduce human beings to passivity, it also frees them to develop a potential that will wither away if it does not find real fields for action.

4) The capacity for artistic creating exists in every child, but it needs fostering and protecting against superficiality.

"The idea or feeling", Ramses later wrote, "which ultimately drove me to act, was to all appearances a very Utopian one...



When I try to formulate it however, all sorts of cliches and common place ideas creep in. I had this vague conviction that every human being was born an artist, but that his gifts could be brought out only if artistic creating were encouraged by the practicing of a craft from early childhood."

It was in 1941 that Ramses Wissa Wassef was asked to build a small primary school in the old quarter of Cairo. This architectural project gave him just the educational opportunity he had been seeking. Wanting to provide a fairly simple technical process as a vehicle for the children's efforts, he asked the committee, which had initially commissioned the building, if it were possible to let him teach weaving to the children after school.

Here, it is interesting to note that Ramses knew little of the practical aspects of weaving before taking on the project. In preparation, he read up on the subject at length and experimented with the craft on his own. He also learned how to prepare and use natural dyes; a practice he felt would give more control over the colors produced. Since that time, only natural vegetable dyes have been used on the wool that goes into the tapestries.

Admirers of his achievement frequently ask why Ramses Wissa Wassef chose weaving as the medium for his experiment. Here it is fitting to include the answer, in his own words:

" I chose it, (weaving) because I saw it as a way of getting the children to produce images by means of a craft technique, of starting them off on an activity that involved a union of body and soul, a balanced combination of manual work and artistic creation. This could have been done in other ways, but in fact the technique had to be chosen carefully. Drawing, painting and modeling are not craftsman's trades, while mosaic work, ceramics, wood, stone and metalworks do not present the same balance between art and craft. I felt that tapestry-making would provide the happy medium for the experiment I was planning."

Having once obtained permission to set up a few weaving looms, Ramses then brought in a local weaver to introduce the technique of weaving. Using high-warp looms, which are known to resemble the very earliest looms, and which leave the artist the greatest freedom in creating his designs, the children began their work. At that time the warp consisted of twisted cotton, but later linen thread was substituted. The weaving was done with local wool, which Ramses had taught the children to dye.

Fayoum - 1982

Although Ramses soon found the results to be satisfying, he himself knew that the experiment needed more time and that it would have to be carried on further. The committee, however, did not find the project commercially feasible, and Ramses quickly realized that it could not continue at the school. It was at that point that he asked some of the young weavers if they would like to work with him privately; and so it was in the late 1940's that three of them went to work at his home.

By 1949 Ramses was faced with a great responsibility. These children had now reached their mid-teens and their futures rested in his hands. If they were to continue weaving as a career, they would need a proper environment and circumstances in order to pursue their work. On the other hand, if they would not be weavers, they would have to go out in the world to find other livelihoods. Observing that the children's results were superb, Ramses knew that not to pursue the experiment would be a great waste. It was with considerable courage that he finally chose to help these children to become professional weavers.

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