by Suzanne Labry
A Quilter in Cairo—How American Girl Dolls Helped the Zabaleen Learn to Quilt
American Girl dolls can be chosen to resemble the child who owns one of them. Photo courtesy of the American Girl company.In the early 1990s, Twing Pitman, a quilter from the United States, was living in Cairo, Egypt with her husband, who at that time was the general manager of Egyptian operations for a big oil company.
One day, a remarkable young woman named Laila Kamel** from a Cairo-based non-government organization known as the Association for the Protection of the Environment (A.P.E.) came to visit Twing’s husband, asking whether the company had any old computers or equipment that they might be willing to donate to A.P.E.’s efforts to help a marginalized community in Cairo known as the Zabaleen, or “garbage people,” so-called because they collected and recycled trash from city streets.
Twing’s husband asked for more information and Laila Kamel told him about the “learning and earning” school for women and girls, which incorporated all the elements of normal school subjects but in the framework of “a recycling project revolving around the transformation of clean rags into marketable products.” (Many Zabaleen children are born at home without birth certificates, which means they are not eligible to attend regular school because a birth certificate is a requirement for admission.)
She told him that the school was teaching girls how to make rag rugs from cotton scraps donated by fabric manufacturers and that they also would like to teach quiltmaking but didn’t have anyone who knew how. Impressed with the A.P.E.’s efforts, Pitman’s husband immediately thought of his wife, an accomplished quilter who, as luck would have it, just happened to be looking for a volunteer opportunity.
That’s how she came to be a weekly volunteer with several talented Coptic Christian needlewomen who all became involved in teaching quilting at the Habachy Center in the Cairo slum of Mokattam Village.
A little Zabaleen girl stands among mounds of garbage in Mokattam Village.Photo courtesy of barkenakedilsam.com.
“Those first sessions were truly basic: how to use scissors and how to measure accurately—so many things we take for granted that are often learned in school, but these girls had never had a chance to go to school,” Pitman recalls. “We started out making a nine-patch block, using sandpaper templates and marking with pencils. Such things as matching thread color to fabric were also taught. An extremely talented artist named Chadia Iskandar, who is still involved with A.P.E., was brilliant at putting the colored scraps we got from the garment industry together into fabulous harmony.
“Those first efforts were pretty dreadful. The girls were making full-sized quilts and they would get discouraged when things didn’t turn out right and had to be done over,” she continues. “That’s when I had the idea to start them out making doll quilts. With smaller quilts, their mistakes could be corrected quickly and they could have the satisfaction of seeing results even in an afternoon.”
It just so happened that American Girl dolls, 18” dolls that can be chosen to resemble the child who owns one of them, were then all the rage among little girls in Cairo’s large expatriate community. The Zabaleen girls began taking their little quilts especially made for American Girl dolls (along with other products they’d made) to various charity sales in the expat community. Pitman often joined the girls at these events.
“One of my volunteer jobs was to teach them a bit of English so they could understand basic questions such as, ‘Do you have any blue rugs? Do you have any quilts for baby girls?’ and respond,” she says. “It was slow going, as many were shy, but they loved trying and giggled with pleasure when they understood and were able to offer what the customer wanted.”
The doll quilts were an immediate hit, with moms snapping them up for their daughters as quickly as the Zabaleen girls could turn them out. Of course, this was a complete win-win situation, as the new quilters saw their efforts pay off monetarily while their skills improved and the moms and daughters who enjoyed the little quilts had a unique memento of their time in Cairo. (In an interesting aside, Pitman encountered one of the recipients of those little quilts many years later back in the United States. She told Pitman that she still had her American Girl doll quilt.)
From doll quilts, the Zabaleen progressed to baby quilts, then to lap quilts, and as their precision and knowledge developed over time, finally to large, bed-sized quilts. Along the way, Pitman saw the skills learned through quilting be applied to other areas.
“I noticed that most of the girls who came to the school wore clothes that were held together with safety pins. I showed them how to sew buttons, which they loved. A young mother told me she wanted to know if she could make pajamas for her two sons. She could do patchwork but she didn’t think she could make a garment. I told her that the process wasn’t all that different and I showed her how to measure and cut the fabric. She was so proud when she told me that she was able to make those pajamas for her boys!”
Zabaleen handmade items for sale at a fair-trade market. Photo courtesy of ROOTA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the Zabaleen.These days, Pitman divides her time between North Carolina and Idaho, enjoying her grandchildren and still quilting. She keeps in touch with the Habachy sisters, whose efforts to sell Zabaleen quilts and other handmade items in the United States are the main support for the “learning and earning” school back in Cairo. She tries to attend the annual sale of items the Habachy sisters hold every December in New York City and she marvels at the artistry and quality of the quilts that are now being produced by Zabaleen women. They’ve come a long way from the days when little quilts made for American Girl dolls were among their proudest achievements.
**Laila Kamel is now known as Dr. Laila Iskander Kamel, and she served terms both as Egypt’s Minister of State for Environmental Affairs and Minister of Urban Development. She has been widely recognized for her work with Egyptian grassroots organizations and she received the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work with the Zabaleen.