Myriam Weaves at Wissa Wassef

By Petrea Kelly

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    Myriam lives in the small Egyptian village of Harrania. In the distance she can see the pyramids of the ancient pharaohs, and nearby flows the famous Nile River. But to Myriam and many of the other children, the most interesting thing about their village is the Wissa Wassef School. The children attend a regular school to learn to read, write, and do math; then they go to the Wissa Wassef School to weave. This school is teaching the teachers and parents of the world some important things about children.

    At Wissa Wassef, Myriam weaves tapestries—pictures woven into fabrics that are admired as wall decorations. She works on a big loom, a large wooden rectangle with a row of pegs on each end. First she threads cotton string up and down the loom, fastening it to the pegs. Then the fun begins. She chooses her colors from among the many bright yarns tinted with natural dyes made from the plants growing around the school. With her fingers she pushes the yarns back and forth, over and under the vertical strings. Then she pushes down on each part of the row of yarn she has woven with a comb or knife to make it tight. It takes her many days to complete a tapestry.

    While she is working, Myriam can see and hear the sights and sounds of her village. Between the homes and buildings are tall, domed pigeon houses. Young children play, and dogs and sometimes chickens and sheep run in the street. She watches grown-ups leading camels loaded with dates, oranges, eggs, vegetables, and meats to the markets. A mother hen stops in the school yard to teach her chicks to scratch for food. A water buffalo plods slowly in a circle turning a waterwheel. A flock of birds flies high against the clear blue sky, sometimes alighting in a big tree to scold the donkeys grazing in the shade. Pigeons swirl and then dive into their houses. These sights give Myriam ideas for her tapestries, but she uses her imagination too. She has never seen a blue or pink sheep, but sometimes she weaves one into her tapestry. She likes to make patterns of colors—her trees have leaves with colors never seen in nature.

    Sometimes grown-ups come to visit Myriam’s school. They walk around and look at the tapestries that Myriam and the other children are making, but they are not allowed to give advice about what the children should weave. This is what makes the Wissa Wassef School unusual. Professor Ramses Wissa Wassef believes that every person is a natural artist but that by the time most people grow up they have learned not to be artists.

    The professor set up his school in Myriam’s quiet little village to prove his idea. He provided looms for several children, ranging in ages from six to eleven, and taught them how to string the looms and how to weave. Then he told them to make up their own designs. He did not allow them to follow patterns or to copy someone else’s work. Grown-ups were not allowed to criticize the things the children made. An artist once asked one of the children how she could weave without first drawing what she was going to weave. The girl replied, “I can’t draw; I can only weave.”

    Myriam and the other children have proved that they can produce works of art. People have bought the tapestries to hang in their homes, museums, and art galleries, so the children are paid for their work.

    People are learning from Myriam and her classmates that God has given all His children special talents. If we use our imaginations and work to develop our talents as Myriam has done, we can create beauty, too, in painting, drawing, music, drama, writing, sewing, building—or weaving.

    Illustrated by Shauna Mooney

    Photos courtesy of David B. Williams, Sonoma, California, and F. Weixler Gallery, Salt Lake City, Utah.