Weaving prosperity in the countryside

15-04-2015 06:28 PM

Sherine Nader

On Friday 24 April, the Association of Upper Egypt marks 75 years on its establishment



The baby’s cries echoed through the still, cold night. Inside their collapsing mud house, the fellah (Egyptian peasant) and his wife looked on helplessly as their pneumonia-stricken infant burned with fever. The village doctor had prescribed medicine and warned that the boy’s life depended on their administering them correctly. The treatment was expensive and the family had many mouths to feed, so spending scarce money on one child meant starving the others. The parents made the painful decision to feed the family and leave the little boy to his fate.
The tale is no fiction. Not only is it true, but it was all too common in rural Upper Egypt and reflects the abject poverty of peasants in the first half of the 20th century. A huge gap had developed between prosperous modern towns, centres of commerce and education, and the countryside steeped in poverty and ignorance. The government did little to save the fellah from his misery, and many of the wealthy elite turned their backs on the less fortunate. But one man came who was so appalled by this distress that he decided to leave all the riches of the world behind and lend the poor a helping hand.



The misery of ignorance
Henry Habib Ayrout, S.J. (1907 – 1969) was the son of a wealthy Egyptian architect of Levantine origin. Ayrout was educated at Cairo’s prestigious, Jesuit-run Collège de la Sainte Famille and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he had other plans. During his youth he had travelled the countryside where he observed the peasants and was touched by the misery of their lives. He felt that God was calling him to a life of service for the needy and marginalised, and decided to join the Jesuits and dedicate his life to the poor. Ayrout travelled to France to study theology, philosophy and sociology and earned a doctorate from the University of Lyon in 1938. His dissertation on the Egyptian peasant was later published as Moeurs et Coutumes des Fellahs (Mores and Customs of the Fellahs) and translated into Arabic and English. It discussed in detail the struggles of the fellah whom Fr Ayrout considered “the cornerstone of Egyptian society”. Fr Ayrout’s focus was not on the land or the agricultural economy, but on the fellah “as a human being” because “man comes first.”
Fr Ayrout endorsed a concept not too familiar at the time, and which he believed was key to the eradication of misery: social responsibility. In his words, “A separation… has occurred between the upper and lower classes, between the city and the countryside, between them and us… It is our duty to liberate him… This is the duty of the upper classes and those who profit from the fellah.”

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Offering part of themselves
Upon his return to Cairo in 1939, Fr Ayrout was placed in charge of several one-class schools in villages in Upper Egypt. He called on the elite of Egyptian society to help him change the life of the poor, first through education and later through a wide scope of services and human development activities. He published a magazine, Eux et Nous (Them and Us), in which he encouraged the young and better-off to lend the poor a helping hand. He believed it was the duty of the wealthy and educated to reach out, not only by giving money but by offering part of themselves to the less fortunate. “The problem is to undertake and achieve the task of education which requires more understanding, personal care and love than committees, speeches and official decrees,” he wrote. He called for “man-to-man contact” with the poor because “only such contact can raise a man”.
In 1940, Fr Ayrout founded the Free [from Tuition Fees] Schools of Upper Egypt association, now known as the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development (AUEED). The association started by collecting donations and relied on volunteers to fix the one-class schools and build new ones in impoverished villages. Fr Ayrout also called upon religious congregations in Egypt to run some of the rural schools and services. By 1950, the number of schools had reached 122.
The greater goal of the association, however, was yet to be achieved; educating the younger generation was the nucleus from which other activities emerged offering services to the poor, Muslims and Christians alike. Dispensaries were established to provide healthcare, informal classes for school dropouts and those who had received no schooling, literacy classes, libraries, vocational training, community centres, female empowerment programmes, environment awareness workshops, integration of the handicapped, and heritage revival centres.


The most sought-after
The real focus of the association is not education in its narrow sense but development of the entire village community. From its inception the association aimed to help villagers realise their unique worth and raise their self-esteem. A major aim is to improve the situation of women in Upper Egypt, discover hidden talents, promote creativity and innovation, and raise awareness on gender equality. Staff in schools, dispensaries and community centres are given training to improve their professional skills and introduce them to a humanitarian approach to social development. All schools are connected to the Internet, thus offering modern education to students; most have even earned the quality assurance certification granted by the Ministry of Education. AUEED schools are the most sought-after schools, and villagers rich and poor alike strive to enrol their children.
It is no secret that government policies and regulations often constrain creative, free-spirited thinking. A law issued in 1956 determined that no school should have less than six classes; consequently some schools merged and others had to close, cutting AUEED’s schools down to 35. Another decree in 2002 turned tuition-free schools into ‘private schools’, thus forcing them to accept tuition fees. Since more than 70 per cent of the students come from destitute families, tuition fees in these schools are not compulsory. The association relies on donations to pay for the tuition of poorer children and provide all sorts of activities at the community centres free of charge.
The association operates in Cairo, Alexandria, Minya, Assiut, Sohag, Qena and Luxor and operates 35 formal schools in which 12,000 children are enrolled, 18 parallel schools, 63 literacy classes, three dispensaries, 21 mother and child health centres, 10 vocational training centres, 14 public libraries, five micro-credit units, and heritage revival centres such as the Hagaza woodwork training centre and the Akhmim community centre for textiles.



Hidden talent unleashed
This year AUEED celebrates its 75th anniversary. With time, its success stories have grown from the individual level to include entire communities.
A major success story has been the cultural revival of the textile industry in Akhmim, Sohag, some 450km south of Cairo. The project started small but soon gained international renown. Akhmim is a town on the east bank of the Nile renowned since antiquity as a major textile centre. When textile factories using mechanical looms emerged all over Egypt and a railroad was built on the west bank of the Nile, attracting commercial activity to the west-bank city of Sohag, the golden days of Akhmim were over.
In 1869 a school and community centre were built in Akhmim by Franciscans, but these left in 1939. The centre struggled on until the late 1950s when Father Ayrout met women from the Grail, an international movement of lay women who worked in underprivileged areas, and in 1960 a group of Grail volunteers headed by American Gail Malley arrived. After the initial culture shock the women started to learn the language, become acquainted with local traditions and earn the confidence of the villagers. They created a co-operative for local women, who were mostly confined to their houses and rarely had any education. They hoped to lead these women on a journey of self-discovery to realise their potential and eventually change their lives for the better. Creativity and spontaneity were encouraged; no rules were set and the girls were free to do whatever they liked. This practically unleashed their hidden talents.
At first the girls wanted to act. They created theatrical performances based on stories of their daily life; most of those were hilarious adaptations of their adventures with their mothers-in-law.




Finding their vocation
One day the girls said: “We want you to teach us embroidery.” The women in charge of the centre decided that they did not want to follow the common embroidery patterns but to experiment with something different that would reflect the rich cultural heritage of Akhmim. They decided to use traditional hand-woven cloth from the few remaining local artisans to embroider reproductions or adaptations of old Coptic motifs. The embroidery project was an instant hit because it allowed the girls to use their innate talent in a useful way and earn some money. The girls, most of whom were illiterate, became responsible for whatever activity they undertook. They planned, organised, assigned chores, sourced material and supervised the embroidery workers. They soon acquired organisational, decision-making and communication skills, teamwork and responsibility-taking. Once a week, the centre organised an excursion for the girls to open their minds to new environments and let them enjoy the beauty of the world. It was during one of those excursions that some of the embroidery girls said they did not want to embroider standard motifs but to attempt scenes from nature and everyday life.
The spontaneous embroidery started as naïve depictions, but as their skills improved the women’s work became better structured and more complex. The artists were encouraged to improve their artistry and given freedom to choose the textiles and threads. Each artist soon developed her own style. Most of them could neither read nor write, but the artistic skills they showed were remarkable. Soon, a very special system of work was set in which the artists themselves were responsible for the operation of the entire project.




Lives transformed
The women and girls who used to be confined to their houses, unable to go out or engage in any activity, soon became the managers of the community centre under the watchful eye of AUEED. Today, they meet regularly to discuss administration and their artwork and assess each other’s work; each artist gives an overview of her piece and should be ready to receive praise and defend critique.
As the embroidery project expanded the need for textiles increased, while at the same time local artisans were leaving for the new factories. The women decided to venture into weaving, a craft previously dominated by men. The idea revolutionised Akhmim and was met with astonishment by the local men, since manual weaving requires a deal of physical strength. The women, however, were ready to meet new challenges and break taboos; soon the new looms started to produce not only bases for the embroidery but also beautiful table cloths and bed covers that used traditional motifs.
The women are given full flexibility with respect to their working hours and are always allowed to work from home except for the weavers, who have to work in groups of two on work shifts of five hours.
The Akhmim community centre organises an annual exhibition in Cairo to sell the products of the artists, and the profits help improve the women’s living conditions. By adopting a system that encourages creativity and self-governance, the association not only helps increase the women’s income but also creates a new generation of self-sufficient, emancipated women who can take matters in their own hands.


Standing ovation

In 1987, Sister Celeste Khayat of the Sacred Heart Society (Religieuses du Sacré-Coeur) set foot in the village of Bayadiya, Minya, some 250km south of Cairo. She became the music teacher in the AUEED’s al-Fagr al-Gadeed school and soon discovered that some of the children had exceptionally beautiful voices. Believing that art can change the lives of people, Sister Celeste decided to form a choir which started in 1989 by singing some traditional folk songs and participating in the end of school year celebrations. The rehearsals always took place after school hours in the balcony of the nuns’ residence; some of the children were taught to play simple musical instruments to accompany the singers. The children were excited to be part of the choir as it gave them a chance to discover their hidden gifts and express themselves. Some of the naughtiest boys in school, like eight-year old Salib, changed dramatically and became more disciplined and committed.
In 1990, the Bayadiya choir was invited to sing at the Union of Churches celebration held annually in Cairo. It was the first “real” concert for the choir and the first time for the children to travel alone outside the borders of their village. Convincing the parents to send their children, especially the girls, to Cairo was painstaking and after long negotiations with the children’s families, the choir finally made it to Cairo. They sang excerpts from The Prophet by Gibran Khalil Gibran and what a success that was! On that night, the young singers of Bayadiya received their first standing ovation. A new chapter unfolded for the choir.
In 1993, in preparation for the AUEED’s golden jubilee, Sister Celeste travelled all the villages of Upper Egypt to discover new voices to add to the choir; it was no longer the choir of Bayadiya but the Upper Egypt Association Choir. An operetta was written especially for the choir and was performed at al-Hanager theatre in Cairo. Since that day, the choir has gained international acclaim; their repertoire includes traditional folk songs; songs written by Gibran Khalil Gibran, Fouad Haddad, and Ahmed Fouad Nigm; in addition to operettas written especially for them. The choir performed at the Cairo Opera House, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Egyptian Academy in Rome and several Germany cities.
The choir celebrated its silver jubilee in 2014. During these 25 years, it changed the lives of Upper Egyptian children, helped build their characters, and gave a voice to the poor. Many of them pursued careers in the arts; some of the girls became music teachers and the once-naughty schoolboy Salib who started as a junior singer at the Bayadiya choir is now a member of the Warsha theatre company.




Dared to dream
In the 75 years of its existence, AUEED has transformed the lives of thousands of villagers in the most underprivileged and destitute communities. It is a story worth telling, the story of a man who dared dream of a better future for the poor and of young men and women who believed in this dream. It is a story of self-giving, compassion, service and love. It is no longer the story of them and us but of all of us working hand in hand for the development of society as a whole.

Postscript: As for the baby boy who was left to his fate, he did survive after all because of a volunteer nurse at the association’s community centre who managed to give him the necessary medical care.

Watani International
15 April 2015




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