Egypt mourns Evelyne Porret, the Lady of Tunis Village

The Swiss-born artist and potter had been a longtime resident of Egypt's Fayoum province for decades.

Swiss artist Evelyne Porret is credited with transforming the small Egyptian village she moved to/
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Fayoum’s Tourism Authority announced that one of the province’s most beloved residents, Swiss artist Evelyne Porret, passed away aged 81.

Porret was a longtime resident of Fayoum’s Tunis Village, one of the province’s most popular tourist destinations. She first visited the village in the early 1960s when she was in Egypt to see her father, a Christian missionary stationed in Cairo at the time.

On her first visit to Fayoum, she was accompanied by the renowned Egyptian lyricist Sayed Hegab, who she would later end up marrying.

Having dabbled in pottery back home, she made regular visits to ceramics workshops all over Egypt during the 1960s and 1970s, before permanently moving to Egypt in the 1980s to launch the Ptah Association for Training Urban and Rural Children in Ceramic Works, which remains the largest pottery school in Fayoum.

“She was one of the strongest and bravest women I ever met. To leave one’s home country and settle somewhere else isn’t easy, but she always told me that her strong love of the people and the village was what made her stay,” said Hussein El Saadawy, 34, a teacher at Porret’s school. Mr El Saadawy has known Porret for 20 years, having been one of her students when he was only 10 years old.

Since her death was announced on Tuesday, there has been an outpouring of grief on social media, with many of the country's top artists expressing their condolences and recounting their unanimously positive interactions with her.

"May God give her as much peace as she gave to those around her," fellow Fayoum resident and Egyptian painter Mohamed Abla wrote.

Porret was reportedly quite taken with Fayoum’s tranquillity and decided to build a country house on a large stretch of land there.

Her house, with its characteristic domed ceiling, was built entirely out of environmentally-friendly materials. The design was reportedly inspired by Hassan Fathi, a prominent Egyptian architect.

Porret is known for teaching other residents to build houses in this way, introducing them to the principles of environmentalism, which were near and dear to her heart.

During her early days in Fayoum, Porret would watch local children playing in the mud, which is quite abundant in the wet soil of the village that sits on the banks of Lake Qarun (Lake Moeris).

Inspired by how the children shaped the mud with their fingers, Porret decided to launch the village’s first pottery school which would go on to teach thousands of locals how to make a living through honing their pottery skills and selling their work to visitors of the village.

Tunis Village today is a popular haunt for many artists, who enjoy its remoteness and the craftsmanship of its people.

Porret’s fans credit her with being the first to bring this artistic spirit into the village and transform its culture and trade for the better.

Fayoum is one of Egypt’s poorest provinces and Porret’s efforts lifted thousands out of poverty as during the course of her life there, Tunis Village transformed from a sleepy locality to a popular holiday destination for wealthy Cairenes, many of whom built second homes there.

The increased interest in the village also resulted in the establishment of a number of high-end boutique hotels.

“She was singularly driven by altruism. She never turned anyone away and shared her knowledge and experience with great generosity,” said Mr El Saadawy.

Despite handicrafts being largely unexplored in Fayoum, Porret’s efforts over her decades of living there have made an annual handicrafts festival in the village one of the most popular events of its kind nationwide.

Porret’s burial service, which was attended by many of her friends and loved ones including village locals and expats, was broadcast live by a number of Egyptian media outlets.

Her body has been laid to rest at Fayoum’s Coptic cemetery.

She is survived by a son, who runs her pottery school now, and a daughter. She had both of her children from her second marriage to Swiss engineer Michel Pastori, who remains in Tunis Village until today.