Recently, one of the many facebook pages that upload vintage photography of all things Egypt, posted the picture above, with the following caption: “Al-Muizz li-Deen Illah St, Cairo, late 19th century. The photograph shows Sabil-Kuttab of Abd El Rahman Katkhuda, built in 1744 AD, which combines both the Ottoman and Mameluke architecture.”
The comments on this image were mostly melancholic longing for the good old days when Cairo was clean and orderly. Others pointed out that al-Muizz Street, supposedly shown in the picture, still retains its glory thanks to the government’s work in maintaining it. A recent facelift cost LE4 million.
The picture, however, is not of al-Muizz Street and it is not even taken in Cairo. This is Chicago during its World’s Fair in 1893 where the Cairo Street was a popular attraction. Behind the facades of “Ottoman and Mameluke architecture” were dance theaters, cafes and showrooms.
It is odd that residents of Cairo commenting on the image would not recognize what they purport to be a favored part of the historic city. Supposedly they know their city, at least this monumental historic city center, so well, that they might be able to spot that in fact what is pictured is not Cairo. Alas, this is not the case. In fact what happened is astonishing as commentators began to claim to have identified particular buildings in the image and even provided building names, dates and then proceeded to identify their architectural styles. These added details supplied by the anonymous audience of a facebook page, collectively begin to paint an alternative reality. This image, which received over 620 “likes” and 230 “shares,” was treated by the majority of viewers who actively engaged the post as a document of real Cairo.
"When one sees such pictures one feels paralyzed by the beauty of the past and the tragic situation that we now live.."
In Colonising Egypt Timothy Mitchell provides an account of an Egyptian delegation at the Paris 1889 World’s Fair, where a Cairo Street was also constructed. The Egyptians at that fair, we are told, were stunned by how realistic the recreation of a Cairo street was. It even included dirt and donkeys. But what was even more bewildering to the Egyptians there was the city outside the fair: Paris was itself an exhibition.
The circulation of the image above takes this anecdote about Egyptians in Paris in 1889 to a new direction. Now Egyptians are not at a fair (aware of it being a fair), rather they are sitting at their computer screens, probably in real Cairo, looking at old images of fictive Cairo as represented in a fair half way across the world more than a century earlier yet believing that the image is in fact of a lost, but real, Cairo that they didn’t get to experience. The blame for the loss of this Cairo is often put on fellow Egyptians, that there are too many of them, that they have not been able to maintain this beautiful old Cairo mostly because they reproduce too much. An epitome of internalized racism in which post-colonial subjects wish the disappearance of their own kind, their fellow nationals, in order to preserve a little piece of what they think is Cairo but is in fact nothing but an assemblage of facades purporting to be Cairo in Chicago in 1893.
"its all (ruined?) because of too much reproduction (too many children).."
Top: “And al-Muizz Street still retains its luster.” Bottom: “I love this area, when I was in Cairo I spent time there..”
A key issue here is that there is no real sense of awareness of Cairo’s urban history. There is not a single institution in Cairo, state or private, which archives the history of the city and makes it available to the public. There is no city museum.
In this situation the image flow on social media acts as an alternative to the museum and the archive. Except the issue of authority becomes highly contentious and data becomes highly elastic, they are often the best guess of the administrator of the facebook page, in other cases information is simply invented. Images are taken out of context with no default point of reference that viewers can return to in order to confirm what they think they see and read.
But given the contemporary state of affairs in Egypt’s dysfunctional government it may be a good thing that the Egyptian state does not hold authority over images and history (it is trying). The state and its institutions have been the prime culprits in image fabrication, history alteration, and fact falsification. This happens often out of incompetence and sometimes out of contempt. A recent official stamp announcing the “new Suez Canal” but using an image of the Panama Canal is just the latest example.
What does it mean to live in a city, or a country for that matter, that doesn’t take seriously the archiving and recording of its own (urban) history? It means that the space between fact and fiction, original and copy becomes blurred. It means that the very place of the city and its many layers of memory and history become vulnerable to forgetfulness at best and deceit at worst.