The Block

Sand-hued, appliquéd fabrics re-create the vast expanse of desert of Amal and Medhat Mahmoud’s home country, Egypt. Appliqué, an art form that has a long tradition in the country, is customarily worked by men called tentmakers. They collect brightly coloured clothes (mostly of the sought after local cotton called Egyptian cotton and cut them into pieces, which are then stitched onto a ground fabric. It is still a common practice to see Egyptian men creating and selling their hand-made items (including pillow cases, bedspreads, wall-hanging, cushions and quilts) at local bazaars, such as Cairo’s only surviving covered market, the Tentmakers Bazaar.

In keeping with Islamic beliefs, the motifs, which are often copied from tomb wall-paintings, do not incorporate human forms. Egypt’s pyramids, the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World and the only one remaining intact today, are a popular theme in appliqué work. The three featured in the background of this piece symbolize the pyramids of King Khufu, Khafre and Menakaure (Khufu’s son and grandson). King Khufu’s pyramid––Egypt’s largest pyramid that now contains the king’s tomb––is also known as the ‘Great Pyramid,’ and according to Greek historian Herodotus, it took ten years to prepare the site at Giza and 100,000 workers took another 20 years to complete the structure. In the foreground, a camel, the traditional mode of transportation, treks through the desert under the hot rays of the sun.

Egyptian appliqué at Textile Research Centre, Leiden

Cultural Profile

The Arab Republic of Egypt is called Maṣr in local Arabic, literally meaning the country. It is the doorway between Africa and Asia, located in the north-east corner of Africa. It is a land of great contrasts: millennia-old ruins surrounded by modern buildings of steel and glass, donkey-drawn carts traveling alongside city traffic, and people dressed in traditional attire (shirt-like garments called galabiyah for men and brightly coloured, long-flowing gowns for women) interspersed with those in Western dress. The nation is home to many famous monuments including the Suez Canal (one of the world’s largest and most important artificial waterways), the Sphinx, the Abu Simbel Temple and the Aswan Dam. The Nile, the world’s longest river, runs through the country creating a fertile green valley and delta in which most of the inhabitants live. Arabic, the written and spoken language for over 13 centuries, is the official language.

The majority of Egypt’s population has historically been rural and agricultural, but limited availability of land in the twentieth century prompted many to people to move to urban areas, resulting in one of the world’s highest population density in the valley of the Nile. The country, one of the oldest nation states in the world, is at the same time one of the youngest as 50% of its population is under 25 years old. While the population is mostly composed of ethnic Egyptians, Bedouins, Siwis, Nubians, Beja and Dom people inhabit various areas of the country.

Considered one of the cradles of civilization, Egypt’s written history goes back many millennia. Ancient Egyptians are credited with early developments in agriculture and writing through hieroglyphs and papyrus, as well as a wide array of inventions from toothpaste to bowling to door locks! The country remains a cultural hotspot in the Arabic-speaking world. Egyptian cinema, for example, is very prolific, having produced almost three-quarters of all movies shot in Arabic.

Family life remains very important to Egyptians and kinship plays a principal role in social relations. Egyptians pride themselves on their hospitality and place great value on honour and dignity. Socializing, which includes attending outdoor markets (bazaars) is the main form of recreation. Reciting poetry, part of the country’s long artistic tradition, is a popular pastime. Egypt has made a lasting contribution to Arabic and international music with Umm Kulthum, a singer nicknamed the Star of the East, who is still much revered in the country. The musical tradition of the Nubians is also of note, while the entrancing notes of the rababa and the singing of Upper Egypt have fascinated generations at home and abroad. Dancing, another popular cultural activity, is customarily segregated for men and women.

National crafts include carpet weaving and hand-knotted carpets, spinning, weaving and dyeing fine quality cotton, beadwork, and gold and silver smiting.

Embroidery is done with both metal and thread to adorn clothes and features mostly flowers and animal designs. For example, the Bedouin women display colourful designs on their black clothes according to their marital status: unmarried women will wear blue embroidery while the married ones will wear red embroidery.

Immigration to Canada from Egypt began in the 1950s and during the next decade, Egyptians formed the majority of new-comers from Arabic countries. Most are highly trained individuals who, having found success as professionals, technicians, business leaders and administrators, have made significant contributions to Canadian society and business. They have established various organizations, such as the Egyptian-Canadian Association that work to both preserve and promote Egyptian culture. The 2011 census reports there are now over 73,000 people of Egyptian origin living in Canada. The largest concentrations are found in Ontario, followed by Québec, Alberta and British Columbia, with the biggest single centre in Montréal.


Sponsor: Patrick and Irene MacPhee, in memoriam Esther Van de Walle-Willems | Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons