I'd always heard of Fayoum for its stunning natural landscape – Lake Qaroun, Wadi el Hitan, and the nights spent laying beneath the stars in the middle of the desert that somehow make you become one with everything around you. So I tried it all, and I loved it. Could Fayoum really have anything else to offer that could rival this? And that's when I found myself walking through Tunis Village during their pottery festival for the first time.
"Pottery is what changed Tunis; I just taught them pottery."
Tunis Village is on the opposite end of Fayoum, across from the lake; it sits on a slightly higher plateau, so you can catch a glimpse of the lake from almost anywhere inside the village. The village itself is one long, slightly narrow pathway lined with pottery schools and their galleries; branching out from the pathway are smaller alleyways where the villagers live, the walls of their homes turned into murals bursting with bright colors. But it wasn't always this way.
The village of Tunis hit an unexpected turning point about 40 years ago with the arrival of Swiss potter Evelyne Porret, who chose to settle in the village and set up her workshop and gallery. Unable to resist the children who'd come to her workshop to play with the clay, she began to teach them the basics of pottery; these same kids became the first graduates of Porret's pottery school.
"Pottery is what changed Tunis; I just taught them pottery," she says humbly. According to Porret, what distinguished the pottery pieces made in Tunis was that the children were never formally taught any drawing techniques, they simply drew what they saw in nature: plants, animals, landscapes. For Porret, this is the definition of art – work that's natural and spontaneous, not only for the sake of commercial benefit.Fast forward a few year's and Porret's husband, also a potter himself, met with Egyptian potter Ahmed Abou Zeid to try out new techniques and ovens. One thing led to another and Abou Zeid ended up relocating his workshop and gallery to Tunis Village, and raising his son Mohammed to be a potter as well. After years of investing in the village through this handicraft, hosting open houses in their home where they would invite friends and family to the village to see their pottery work, the Abou Zeid family watched as 2011 led to a massive drop in tourists visiting Tunis village. Expanding on their family tradition, they invited other potters from the village to showcase their handiwork and invite their clients, family, and friends to the open house. As the network of potters expanded, this family tradition evolved into what's now the Tunis Village Pottery Festival.Ahmed Abou Zeid sought to celebrate Egyptian pottery, one of the oldest handicrafts known to mankind, dating back to the ancient Egyptians. He was keen to bring potters from all over Egypt to the festival to reintroduce their techniques to the world, not only showcasing their final products but also creating works during the festival in front of visitors. “The festival would cost us 3,000 EGP, so we'd take 100 EGP from each potter showcasing their work; it made all of us feel like the festival belonged to us," recalls Mohamed Abou Zeid, Ahmed's son. Beyond showcasing their work, the festival also includes panel talks about the history of different pottery techniques and a pottery symposium that would involve several of the potters present at the festival. Other handicrafts have also been woven into the festival through various exhibits in recent years, making it more about understanding and experiencing local handicrafts, not just buying them.According to Mohamed Abou Zeid, every year marks the opening of a new pottery school; there are now 13 pottery schools in Tunis Village, including Evelyne's original school. "We now have three generations of potters," he says. "Evelyne and my dad, their students, and the third generation who graduated from their schools.”
While the festival brings large masses to Tunis over the span of three days, it doesn’t affect pottery sales so much as it gives Tunis Village its reputation worldwide, and gives a visitors a look inside the world of Egyptian handicrafts. This year there were more than 80 exhibitors set up between the entrance to the village and Evelyne's school, which, although situated at the very end of the village, was the very cradle of art and change for Tunis Village.Walking through the Tunis Village Pottery Festival didn't feel like I was walking through an exhibition for handicrafts; it felt more like I was walking through the everyday life of the people of Tunis. Students were selling their handmade pottery at school, and everyone was getting on with their everyday lives without the sense that they're there to sell their work. Housewives were selling local, homemade food, children were running around and playing; with beautiful handiwork wherever you turn, Tunis still has this way of making you feel like you're right at home.