Cairobserver

Egypt’s cities: governed by spectacle

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In recent weeks there has been a series of media spectacles surrounding various figures in government demonstrating to the public that they are taking control of Egypt’s urban problems. The most notorious example is of course the president’s call for Egyptians to walk and use bicycles to travel around the city in order to decrease traffic congestion and to lower the government’s expenses on fuel subsidies. The announcement came during a morning event in which the president and members of the military academy took a ride in what amounts to an impressive photo op. The making of that photo op however entailed blocking streets and securing the area from bystanders. Behind the scenes of the cycling event was a traffic jam waiting for the event to end so that civilians in their cars and minibuses can have the road back to them.

While some cycling enthusiasts have embraced the gesture as pointing in the right direction, it should be noted that the president’s bike ride was not accompanied by a policy announcement or an actual government initiative to make Cairo and other Egyptian cities bike friendly, or pedestrian friendly for that matter. Once the cameras left the traffic returned and it was business as usual. The media spectacle was sufficient for some as it performed its palliative purpose without really creating real solutions nor proposing concrete steps towards making cycling or even walking a realistic mode of moving around the city for enough people in order for it to impact Cairo’s traffic, pollution or even obesity problems.

The spectacular approach to dealing with serious urban problems goes much further than issues of transport. Over the past several weeks there has been a series of reported cases of police and military forces using dynamite to destroy illegally constructed real estate across the country, from Cairo, Alexandria, Banha and other cities and towns.

As the video above shows these explosive acts of “applying the law” are insufficient to actually deal with the problem. Behind the collapsing building are many others like it. Egypt has hundreds of thousands, by the most conservative estimates, of these “illegal” structures, many of which were built during the past three years as a form of real estate speculation within the informal market. Furthermore, most of these buildings were in fact built “illegally” with the assistance of members of the state such as local government officials with ties to the National Democratic Party who profited by allowing such activities to take place while the country was experiencing political turmoil.

While using dynamite to destroy a few buildings sends a clear message that the very dysfunctional state that allowed these buildings to exist is now set to eliminate them, this is not a practical solution. Not to mention the million of Egyptian pounds wasted in this process of building and destroying and building again. There is no policy response created based on studies that provide long lasting solutions. Instead the state flexes its muscles, now that it chooses to communicate to the public that it is in control. This is happening while the state aims to build one million new housing units in a 40 billion dollar deal. What if a nationwide survey was conducted regarding these already constructed illegal buildings whereby criteria are set to allow for some constructions to remain and used as part of state’s affordable housing program?

Perhaps the winner of the prize for “most visible man in power” award is Alexandria’s governor. The official facebook page of the governor constantly updates Alexandrians about how the governor is literally taking matters into his own hands and is on the pavement daily dealing with issues such as trash collection, road construction and street vendors.

In the video above he is inspecting a site of where he will create a market for street vendors. The idea is simple, clear city squares of sidewalk vendors crowding the streets and give some of them an assigned space within an open air market place to allow them to make a living. Once more while this seems like a novel concept, but it is absolutely arbitrary and fails to tackle the problem within a policy framework. Instead there is an ad hock approach to the solution, as the governor himself is telling his army of assistants who should or shouldn’t have a space in the market. This is an unelected retired general with no experience or training in how to manage a city of four million residence and he is giving oral orders based on his personal judgement to solve a complex issue the is about economy, public space and social order.

These “solutions” might appear to work temporarily but they are fragile and have no solid foundations based on policies and laws that are applied consistently regardless of who is president or who is governor. These spectacular show stoppers are less about solving Egypt’s immense urban problems and are more about bloating the image of particular figures and the security establishments they belong to. Loyalties within the civilian ranks of the municipalities are to the general at the top first and foremost, if he is gone, the city falls apart. In other words, the lives of millions of Egyptians and their right to better managed cities is held hostage.

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[Bulldozers used to destroy makeshift shops with their contents as part of Alexandria’s governor’s show of force]

In another video (above) the governor braves the streets of Alexandria, yelling at shopkeepers and giving them a “last warning” before he sends “forces” to shut their shops. Citizens are treated as children. The state enforces the law with nothing short of thuggery.

A few concluding points: Egypt’s cities have serious urban problems. Some of these problems are visible on a daily basis and make for great opportunities for those in power to show they are in charge. However, more serious problems such as daily power outages, contaminated drinking water and failing sewage systems won’t be the subject of any photo ops or spectacular videos by officials any time soon. These are problems that require real solutions, something the state with its current structure is incapable or perhaps unwilling to provide. In fact the Egyptian state, with its dysfunctional institutions, thrives on failure and the ongoing state of emergency. Real solutions would threaten the very existence of the many strongmen who claim they are barely keeping the country together from total collapse.

Egypt’s cities do not need strong men who walk the streets with sticks. If the governor needs to leave his office everyday to oversee road construction, relocate street vendors and demolish illegal buildings then what is the need for the tens of thousands of state employees who drain the state budget on salaries but do little more than push papers?

Enforcing the law means more than selective application using dynamite and bulldozers. It means real reform so that the law and the legal system that enforces it function consistently and continually with no loopholes. It means conducting serious surveys and studies of the current situation and putting experts to work to provide tailored solutions that are long lasting. It means drafting sound policy rather than governing Egypt’s cities with nothing more than ephemeral spectacles.

Port Said municipality’s war on trees

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[In the name of development and modernization, Port Said’s sidewalks have been removed, trees cut, and streets damaged, making the already run-down city an even less hospitable urban environment to residents. Photo by Mohamed Kamal Mohamed. Click here for the full album.]

While cities around the world are working to improve walkability, create new public spaces, promote alternative transit such as biking, widening sidewalks and planting more trees, authorities in Egypt are doing exactly the opposite.

Last month residents in Suez Canal city of Port Said found their city under systematic attack by authorities. Without any public engagement over the planning and management of the city authorities began to remove century old trees that are as old as the streets they line. Not only trees but in many cases the sidewalks were also removed. Carrying out this task isn’t cheap nor easy, the obvious question then is: Why would the same authorities who fail to carryout minimum municipal management such as street cleaning, trash collection and maintenance of public buildings, why would these same authorities put so much effort into reducing the quality of life in a city already hit by economic stagnation and with its architectural and urban heritage disappearing everyday. Why put the effort to systematically undo the barely sufficient streetscape of the city?

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[The “modernization” of Port Said streets as seen by authorities involves the removal of sidewalks in historic districts and cutting century old trees. Photo by Waleed Montasser.]image

Why are Egyptian authorities doing to an Egyptian city what Israeli authorities regularly do to Palestinian village: uproot trees and destroy infrastructure?

But this is not only happening in Port Said, cities across the county are confronting the same practices carried out by state authorities. Even in some of Cairo’s relatively affluent neighborhoods authorities have been systematically butchering trees with no warning or excuse. Sometimes, as is the case of Port Said, such acts of state-sanctioned vandalism are presented as part of “upgrading” or “modernizing” the city. In Port Said the official excuse for such acts of destruction was to widen the street, despite the relatively small number of cars in the city and the lack of any public demand to widen the street.

An important dimension in all of this is the issue of governance, which was discussed in Aaron Jakes’ article in the Egypt Independent in 2012. The article was instigated also by an act of tree cutting that took place on his street in Zamalek. Jakes writes: “For over a century, an arrangement designed to strangle political initiative at its roots has continued to shape the state institutions that often wield the most direct influence over people’s daily lives.” The residents of Port Said, Cairo, Damanhur or Alexandria have no say in whether authorities can just show up one day and butcher an entire street worth of trees, or show up one day and dismantle the tram system as happened in Heliopolis, or show up one day and destroy the entire sidewalk as an act of modernizing the street.

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[The court building in Heliopolis, Cairo was fronted by a row of trees that disappeared over night. Photos by Michel Hanna.]

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Members of the Port Said community complained and attempted to bring media attention to their ordeal but little was done to improve the situation. Below is a statement by two community initiatives concerned with Port Said’s heritage and urban future. The statement refers to the most recent constitution which protects the right to a a healthy environment and requires state institutions to protect natural resources (trees in this case) and to strive for sustainable development. Needless to be said, who cares what the constitution says if the structures of state institutions responsible for urban affairs do not allow for civilian oversight nor accountability let alone allow actual community participation in decision making.

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As a side note, for the sake of context, it should be remembered that Port Said along with other Suez Canal cities are set for major urban transformations which have not been disclosed to the public. These transformations are part of the controversial Suez Canal development scheme financed by Gulf capital in partnership with the Egyptian military. Additionally, Port Said’s municipal authorities are always members of the security apparatus due to the city’s “strategic” position. This means that the governor and all those working for him are more concerned with whatever they perceive as “security” over the constitutional rights of residents to a tree and a sidewalk.

What kind of urban present and future could possibly come out of this stubborn, self-destructive, security-minded, authoritarian system that can no longer be called a municipal system?

image[Local residents can only document the damage. This is a typical image of butchered trees in Port Said, photographed by Waleed Montasser.]

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[Another image taken by Michel Hanna who documents the continuous and relentless tree butchering process carried out by municipal authorities in his district of Heliopolis, Cairo. Here is an example of what authorities call “tree trimming,” otherwise known as urban beautification. Michel’s blog “Coal Swamps" is mostly dedicated to documenting these acts of tree-killing.]

Resident Perspective: Madinet Nasr

Resident Perspective is a series of standardized interviews with Cairo residents to get their views on the city and their neighborhoods. Share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

Where in Cairo do you live?

Nasr City. Intended to be widely spaced, for the elite. Ended up being densely urbanized, full of cars, with barely any passages for pedestrian usage.

List the most positive and the most negative aspects of living there.

Positive: The urban fabric is easy to understand, thus you’re less likely to get lost. There are a lot of close-by services, so you don’t really need to get out much.

Negative: There are a lot of gardens, which are poorly maintained, all gated off from the community instead of embracing the community. The streets are too wide to provide space for cars, making the thermal environment rather hot in summer. Buildings were intended to be with basement garages, that ended up being workshops or cafeterias that bestow a wide range of noise at odd hours throughout the day and during weekends. Buildings are extremely ugly, with barely any rhythm in style or shape. Ceilings are low and do not offer decent ventilation for indoor spaces. Most buildings are higher than was initially planned, which results in a dense community of massive number of cars, and a skyline that is cramped with horrid architecture.


How do you move around Cairo (modes of transport) and what would you like to see different regarding the future of transport in the city?

I use a car. I would much rather use a bike to a close-by metro station that can help me move around the city and enjoy the weather and sun. Maybe during summer, i would more likely park my car to the metro station, but i would definitely want to drive a lot less and save time wasted in Cairo traffic.


How does your district fit within Cairo? What would you like to see changed in that relationship between your neighborhood and the city?

My district is far but well connected within the city. I would like a stronger connection via metro lines and/or tram lines.


What are your top complaints about Cairo and what would you suggest to solve those problems?

Traffic: we need decent public transportation, plus on a broader scale providing job opportunities outside of the capital (decentralization). Harassment: social awareness and strict laws set to allow women to move around safely. Noise: I have no idea what can solve this problem except general decency, but it’s killing me!


What do you like the most about Cairo and what are your favorite places in the city.

I like Muizz Street the most in Cairo and older Cairo spaces such as Darb 1718. I also love Nile cafeterias and spaces that provide seating in-front of the Nile, i would love it if it were public open spaces, not just private paid for spaces. (Club 33, leftbank-Zamalik & Platform-Maadi).

Do you relate to the historic heritage of your district or of Cairo in general? Do you think you have a good sense of history of the city? Would you say you are have “civic pride” or are proud to live in Cairo?

I am extremely proud to be living in Cairo, that’s why I want it to improve.


Do you understand how the city is governed/managed? Do you think your community/district would be better or worst if residents from the community/district were involved in local government (محليات)?

Yes, and I would believe people’s involvement can actually change a lot.


In the context of Cairo, what comes to mind when you think of these keywords?

Public Space: Markets such as Ataba, or Boulak where people are free to use their space as they will and intersect with different lives from all over the city.

Green Space/Parks: Parks stranded away from the community with gates and tickets, like those of Nasr City.

Gated communities: An inevitable response for people who have the means to close off from the intolerable city.

Museums What comes to mind is the Egyptian museum with poorly maintained artifacts, with barely any description.

Unplanned districts: Places full of potential and capacity for improvement.

Downtown: A misguidedly-utilized district in Cairo, that can be maintained with much more respect in regards to its history.

If you could move to another district in Cairo where would you move to?

I would move to a gated community such as; Rehab or Madinaty.

 

*If you would like to tell us about where you live and share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

Cairo’s Traveling Peep Show Boxes

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By Manar Moursi

It’s late in the afternoon on Sunday in Manial. Spring has arrived and bubbles are blowing in the air from an ice-cream cart look-alike. Two Cookdoor (fast food chain) employees in identical orange uniforms are seen peeping through the holes of what appears to be a cart but is tinted with pastel colors with a faceted form. A performer’s voice rings clear over this untouched quiet stretch of a corniche in Cairo with the words of a mawwal of Sheikh Immam:

“Protect your candle from the wind

Whether you choose to love or not

The morning is light dear fish;

Love whom you wish”

The ice-cream cart lookalike is the Wonder Box or Sandook El Agab, a storytelling-public art and design project inspired in form and function by the ancient Sandook El Donya/raree that were in use from as far as China to Europe and the Middle East from the 15th century onward. Earlier this month, two seemingly familiar objects a giant disco ball with Islamic patterns and an ice cream cart lookalike, visited the neighborhoods of Heliopolis, Bayn El Sarayat, Shobra El Kheima, Manial, Moqattam, Zamalek, and Ezbet Khairallah to awe and inspire audiences.

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The traditional Sandook El Donya often took the form of a simple wooden box with magnifying lenses and a set of prints inside, which along with the storytelling talents of the showmen that accompanied it were a medium through which the public was transported through a magical journey of stories and places they had never seen before.

Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti is credited for the design of the first raree/peep show boxes in 15th century Europe. Alberti’s innovation was a mechanism which allowed users to look at perspective views through a small hole in a wooden box. Once viewers set their eyes near the hole they entered a private space of wonder beyond the mundaneness of their daily life. The traditional Sandook El Donya traveled from Italy to Egypt and once here, was modified with a form particular to this region, with puppets and “aragozes” that personified stories relating to this context.

Mahatat, a collective which brings art to public spaces along with curator Aida El Kashef conceived the idea to revive the medium of the old Sandook El Donya with new forms and techniques in early 2013. A year later, after receiving a generous grant from the Swiss Cooperation in Cairo, they invited 9 artists from multiple disciplines including architects to storytellers and musicians to work collectively on the design, construction and animation of 2 boxes with contemporary forms and techniques. These two boxes would begin their journeys across Cairo traveling from Moqattam to Shobra El Kheima.

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Storytellers Laila El Balouty and Ahmed Mostafa collected stories from taxi and microbus drivers, as they were seen as vehicles which contain and collect everyday stories and myths that circulate around the city. These stories were merged and augmented through fictional devices. El Balouty and Mostafa worked in close collaboration with musicians Shadi El Hosseiny and Abdallah AbouZekry who composed the musical backdrop to the stories. Meanwhile architects Manar Moursi (of Studio Meem) and Mohamed Hassan worked alongside the visual arts team (comprised of Maya Gowaily, Yasmin Elayat and Youssef Faltas) to coordinate and integrate their structural constraints in the design of the two boxes.

For the design aspect it was important to visit and see existing traditional sandooks here in Cairo which are currently housed at the Agricultural Museum in Dokki and the Geographical Society in Qasr El Ainy. Further research was done not only on historical forms and techniques but contemporary uses particularly in India where the tradition is still alive in small towns across the subcontinent.

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The artists decided from early on that one sandook would integrate traditional techniques with cutouts and projection mapping inside it while looking more futuristic from the outside. In contrast, the other sandook would integrate more interactive techniques while appearing to be more traditional in its exterior. Both sandooks were designed for private immersive experiences for the 4 viewers that were able to look through the holes at a time. The idea was to have 3 stories per sandook and to select members of the audience who could peep through the holes per story. The stories would be repeated in each performance site in order to allow more people to enjoy the experience. An important design objective was therefore to create a strong visual statement with the outer form of the sandook that would still captivate the non-peeping audience as they listened to the storytellers.

For the design aspect of the first sandook, I was inspired by a recent visit to Mashhad in Iran and the mirrored Islamic patterns that seemed to have psychedelic transcendental impact on those who witnessed their interiors.  I found those patterns repeated in egg shops and maklas (nut and seed shops) that dot Cairo. Seeing that mirrors were also employed as animation tools in the praxinscope-like techniques used inside the traditional sandooks, it was decided that mirrors in an Islamic pattern would be projected on a geodesic sphere to reference in some way both the context and these traditional techniques.

The form of a sphere was employed because of its purity and the desire to connect visually to magic crystal and disco balls. The designers wanted Cairo to have it its own giant disco ball that would travel accompanied by two storytellers and fantastical animated illustrations inside. The end result looked futuristic, like a giant space ship had landed in Bayn el Sarayat and in front of the Bazeleek Church in Heliopolis. Traveling around the city in an open truck the mirrors reflected light in brilliant patterns along their path.

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The sphere was built as two geodesic domes that fit perfectly onto each other and these domes were further broken into 2 types of triangles that were attached together by joints that could be connected and disconnected. The idea was to construct something that can be assembled and disassembled easily on-site and then stored in a compact form in Mahatat’s office for future use.

For the second sandook, the form was derived from the everyday ice cream carts that one sees regularly around the city. The ice cream cart fulfilled both functional (size of projection screen) and aesthetic requirements as it was meant to disarm the viewer who would be called at by its everyday familiar sight with a slightly different palette of colors and form only to discover a whole set of digital interactive wonders to be experienced by peeping through its holes. In this sandook, the peeps were in a two level, dual layered experience for the viewer to move through. The peeps themselves were meant to be somewhat immersive thus their inward facing facets that acted as beehives of sorts to draw the viewers in.

The two sandooks will be traveling to Germany this upcoming July to perform at a university there. Upon their return to Egypt, the goal is to travel with both through different towns and small cities along the Delta.

Once out on the streets, the sandooks acted as transporters through time and space and purveyors of both edification and pleasure. In one story on the loss of the legendary Simon Bolivar’s sword, a drive through the city takes viewers to visit statues of the downtown midans, which come to life to startle and delight the viewers with their personal histories and contemporary stories.

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Where Life and Death Share a Space

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[A cemetery dweller in front of her (home).]

by Zeina Elcheikh

“I want to move from here, after all it is a grave, and I did not die yet”. These words may sound morbid, or perhaps coming from the afterlife. Yet, they were those of Mona, a lady I met at a strange place in Cairo. A place overcrowded like the city itself, not only from above the ground, but also from beneath…

During a stay in Cairo, where studying informality in the city was the main focus, I went to learn more about an unconventional type of informal housing: the cemetery dwellers, or the City of the Dead. Perhaps when this area, now stretching for about 7km, was established in 640 A.D. for the dead, no one had thought that it would become later a city of its own. Even the dead, resting in peace underneath, could not have expected that the living would eventually compete with them over space, their “home.” However, life has apparently treated those alive in such a way that they did not have any other chances for finding shelter.

Mona lost her husband few years ago. She cannot pay the low rent in the nearby informal area, so she came here with her younger son. The tomb is owned by her late father, thus it provides her with an accommodation free of charge. The widow was also lucky enough to have the tomb located in a strategic spot: on a narrow street where cars pass by, so she started a small business: a little shop. Her older newly-wed son is coming to join her with his bride, as his very low income is not enough to pay even a very low rent.

With my knowledge about burial customs from where I come from (Syria), I could not imagine how a tomb could be a suitable place to host activities of daily life. An Egyptian colleague explained broadly the concept of underground chambers, where the Dead are interred. She also mentioned the two rooms above the ground where family members could stay overnight, when they come to visit their late relatives, especially during religious festivities. A torabi (tomb keeper) gave me more details on how the burial system is undertaken here. There are two underground rooms, or spaces, so the dead are divided according to gender. These spaces, are not completely sealed, so a new comer can easily be added. The sight of four jars on the corners in several burial plots, reminded me of the four canopic jars, largely influenced by Ancient Egyptian customs, as well as the burial system itself. However, the torabi told me that many people insist on being buried in a single-person tomb, the type which I am more familiar with in Islamic culture, and which is called lahd.

I met a doubtful man, in his forties, who followed my husband and I with questions: “Are you coming from any authority in Cairo? Do you belong to a local or international TV channel? Are you journalists?” With my non-Egyptian accent and my student card, the torabi was also doubtful of my intentions, but he was less suspicious. However, he did not say much. He told me that he said a lot to the journalist who made a documentary last month, and the government does not want to change the living conditions for people here. Another torabi was so kind to walk us to the burial plot of an Egyptian famous actor’s family. He opened the gate and we entered. The family is a descendant of pashas. And even here, where death supposedly makes all people equal, signs of wealth cannot be missed. And people are divided, yet again in Cairo, into (very) rich and (very) poor.

Apparently our presence was not completely welcome. People know each other very well in the city of the dead, and a stranger is immediately recognized as such. People were staring at us, and to avoid being considered as a foreigners, we had to raise right hand and say every now and then “Essalamu Alaykom” (peace be upon you), the typical salutation. And it partially worked out. My curiosity kept arousing to hear the stories coming from people who did not mind to share their thoughts.

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[Tombs surrounded by aspects of daily life.]

He used to come frequently here yelling and threatening us that he will throw us out. His funeral was just few months ago. Now he is among us, silent forever”. This was how Amal spoke about the owner of the burial plot, where she lives with her husband and five daughters. Before entering and talking to her, I asked my husband not to enter. Her husband was not at home, and that would be socially unacceptable. But when I joined him outside after my short meeting with Amal, he seemed to be in shock. He told me: “These two little kids wanted to rob me. The girl even asked me if I was looking for a mozza (hot girl, sometimes a prostitute)”.

I was warned not to go alone to the City of the Dead, as I would be subject to many unwanted encounters. With actually being there, all these rumors were put to rest. Stories followed from grave keepers and dwellers were frightening: they included cases of illegal new-borns burial or even secret hiding of murdered bodies. That is why many grave keepers said that they insist on having a burial permission before digging, but others do not demand the paperwork as long as they are paid handsomely.

We kept walking, surrounded by the tombs and curious eyes. Then, I heard some voices coming from the left side. I asked my husband if he still has curio to explore this place like I do: he nodded in agreement. There, a lady and a man were sitting and reading few verses of Koran. They were visiting some of their relatives, the dead ones, and came to bring some food and money to the torabi in charge of the tomb. “If we do not do so (bringing goods and money to the torabi) the graves could be illegally sold, or we might have a stranger buried among our family members” said the lady. The man added “My family had in the past seven tombs and burial plots. Now we only have two. I am here to show the torabi that someone is still following up on the family’s belongings. At least I will be securing a place for myself when I pass away”.

Some people eventually move all together, others stay and commute to where they work. The families who remain are typically families of tomb keepers torabi or sabi torabi (assistant of the tomb keeper). But others like Mona, and they are many, have no other place to go to except a family-owned tomb. A tomb that keeps her away from wandering homeless on the streets. Tomb life is (literally) informal: water comes mostly from a public tap on the street, electricity through illegal connections, and septic tanks instead of sewage networks (in order not to damage the deceased).

The City of the Dead deserves a visit. While it cannot be seen as tourist attraction, the site will interest a particular kind of visitor. Among the many uncommon encounters in Cairo, my visit to the City of the Dead was particularly enlightening. It is a place with extreme contradictions. Whether it is a failure of housing policy, uncontrolled population growth, or just a search for a cheap (free) accommodation, living among the Dead has become a (sad) reality. I understood the state of being alive as more than breathing and having vital parts still functional. I was enlightened by experiencing a place that is far more than what it appears. City of the Dead made me aware of the intimacy of life and death, so much complexity in one meter above ground and another below. It is a place more controversial than Cairo itself. A place where life and death share intimate space.

Zeina Elcheikh is a Syrian architect, holds a M.Sc. from Stuttgart University. She worked with German International Cooperation and the French Institute for the Near East in Syria. In Egypt, she joined the UNESCO office as an intern, while writing her M.Sc. thesis on Nubian Culture and Tourism in Southern Egypt.

Scaring the Landscape in Sharm el Sheikh

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By Karim Maged


Since late 2013 early 2014 the South Sinai Governorate began the first steps towards a redevelopment project of the Hadabat Um el Sid (a clifftop of centuries old dried coral reefs) in Sharm el Sheikh.


Recently, a series of geological studies and construction studies were undertaken by Ain Shams University, Cairo University Environmental studies center and the Building and Housing Research Center (المركز القومي لبحوث البناء و الاسكان). This was out of the belief that there were several dangerous cracks in this natural formation which threaten the collapse of the whole cliff, its residents, and hotels. Residents welcomed the project, which was handed over to the Arab Contractors, and was to be supervised by the هيئة المجتمعات العمرانية and have المجموعة المصرية للاستشارات الهندسية as the consultant. Renovation and stabilization work started away from the residents’ homes and the coastline. Up to this point the project plans were not made available to residents who believed the project was away from the coastline and their homes.

However, on April 28th 2014 bulldozers and diggers entered the vicinity of the coast line where the cliff is located in what is known as ard el mazad and began dangerous digging. This resulted in sand particles burying the reef under the cliff which is protected by decree 2035; delineating protected marine zones of Ras Muhammed, Abu Galom and Nabq. In this case the marine coastline off Hadabat Um el Sid falls under the jurisdiction of decree 2035/1996 in the Ras Muhammed zone.

On April 29th residents wrote power of attorney letters to Sinai Reef’s lawyer who filed a police complaint. The police complaint was later followed up (تم استيفاء المحضر). A cover up soon began and the police complaint was not transferred to the prosecution as late as May 5th 2014. A telegraph template to the prosecutor general was handed out and residents sent in several telegraphs demanding the complaint be transferred to the prosecution. Sinai Reef pressed ahead so that a written legal order would be issued to halt the project. Eventually the prosecution summoned us on May 10th and several residents who went ahead and gave their testimonies.

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On April 30th Residents were mobilized and Dr Mamdouh Hamza began writing his report, which was to be presented to the prosecution. Not only was the project dangerous to the reefs but also it could potentially cause the cliff to collapse because it was structurally flawed. The LE80 million project will not stabilize the cliff but it would cause it to fall faster. The project will change the aesthetic landmark nature of the cliff by creating a stamp concrete facade. The project will also brush over the root of the problem (a leaky old sewage/water network), rather than fix it.

The governor came to the site with heavy police presence and threatened the protesting residents saying that their actions will result in consequences. He also stressed that residents and their lawyers do not have a right to have a copy of the Environmental Impact Assessment- EIA - (stark violation of law 4/1994; law 9/2009). This confrontation was captured on camera. Up to this point we received by our own efforts the EIA but no master plan of the project was provided. The EIA was a rubber stamped copy, which did not specify the exact areas under construction.

The governor verbally agreed to halt construction until the Prime Minister held a meeting to discuss; no written order out of the South Sinai Governorate was issued.

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In the process a meeting with the prime minister took place on May 6th, the South Sinai governor, Minister of Environmental Affairs Laila Eskandar (who we lobbied for her to attend since all environmental paperwork was signed by the South Sinai Ministry of Environmental Affairs representative under orders from the governor), Dr Mamdouh Hamza  and ourselves (Sinai Reef). The PM agreed with Dr. Mamdouh and halted the project while a new coordinating committee be made up and all plans disclosed and a re-study of the project be done as per Dr. Mamdouh Hamza’s new recommendations: planting Cacti, using natural support techniques, and fixing the root of the problem—the sewage system. The South Sinai governor did not formalize his agreement to the outcomes of this meeting.



Earlier this year Sinai Reef filed paperwork for licensing and was studying a project to be executed with bedouin fishermen in cooperation with the Ministry of Environment, my co-founder in Sharm el Sheikh was even appointed in the South Sinai governorate environmental committee. The governorate would have financed part of our proposed project. Since the Um el Sid crisis and our success in halting construction the governor has pulled the paperwork. The two-month waiting period for licensing elapsed and according to law 84/2002 any objections, either from the Ministry of Interior or the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MOSS) should have already been communicated during that period. As it stands our sources confirm the paperwork is at the governor’s desk who asked for his legal council’s signature and sent it to the South Sinai Directorate of Security despite the paperwork already having the Cairo’s (central government/state security) approval. The MOSS representative in South Sinai (وكيل وزارة التضامن الاجتماعي) asked us not to send court warnings, needless to say we did and plan to litigate for our license.
 
For official statements, video testimonies of residents please see our Facebook page (the website didn’t happen because funding stopped when no paperwork was officiated)
https://m.facebook.com/sinaireef
And on twitter @sinaireef
The website under construction except for statements is http://sinaireef.org
English Media coverage:
http://www.madamasr.com/tags/sinai-reef
http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContentPrint/1/0/100445/Egypt/0/Coral-reef-in-Sharm-ElSheikh-at-risk-Activists.aspx

Resident Perspective: Maadi

Resident Perspective is a series of standardized interviews with Cairo residents to get their views on the city and their neighborhoods. Share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

Where in Cairo do you live?

Maadi. A place full of teachers and oil workers. It is greener than other areas, but still full of traffic and noise.

List the most positive and the most negative aspects of living there.

Other areas are a lot more exciting - with more local life and areas to explore. Maadi is a very easy area to live in for an Ex-pat - everyone pretty much speaks English and it is easy to buy things that you would find in the West.


How do you move around Cairo (modes of transport) and what would you like to see different regarding the future of transport in the city?

Mostly taxis, sometimes the metro and as often as possible the Nile Taxi, however that gets expensive. I wish there was an easier, cheaper ferry access for the city. I know there is a ferry, but I have no idea how often it comes or where it stops etc.


How does your district fit within Cairo? What would you like to see changed in that relationship between your neighborhood and the city?

It is connected well with the metro and buses. I wish there were more ferry options.


What are your top complaints about Cairo and what would you suggest to solve those problems?

1. Traffic (just too many cars on the road). 2. Garbage (there is no system for picking it up or for where people should throw it. There is also not enough garbage cans (but with no one to empty them, what is the point?) 3. Pollution (see number 1 - too many cars, see number 2 burning garbage is not a solution).


What do you like the most about Cairo and what are your favorite places in the city.

What I like most about Cairo are the people, the adventures to be had, and all the corners to be explored, there is so much history! Favorite places: Downtown, Zamalek, Khan El Khalili.

Do you relate to the historic heritage of your district or of Cairo in general? Do you think you have a good sense of history of the city? Would you say you are have “civic pride” or are proud to live in Cairo?

I don’t know the history of my area, except that it was built with keeping it more green in mind. There are beautiful trees and plants in many spots. Spring is a beautiful time to be here. I am definitely proud to live in Cairo. I believe that some people just have no idea what Cairo is really like and I am spreading the word.


Do you understand how the city is governed/managed? Do you think your community/district would be better or worst if residents from the community/district were involved in local government (محليات)?

I don’t understand how it is managed. I think there are too many big problems happening for the government to be worried about things like traffic, garbage and pollution even though I believe these things are extremely important. The country needs some stability in order to work on these issues. It seems like having a community/district government could help bring these kinds of issues to the table.


In the context of Cairo, what comes to mind when you think of these keywords?

Public Space: Filled with people, crowded.

Green Space/Parks: NONE (I know there are some, but you really have to look and make a day out of it).

Gated communities: Too many

Museums CLOSED, The Museum, of Antiquities is alright, I wish it had better lighting and a better layout, but with a guide it is OK. But there are countless other museums to visit, however, so many are closed. Sad.

Downtown: Love it! Full of character, great places to go out for a drink or to a gallery, every time I go there are new places to discover.

If you could move to another district in Cairo where would you move to?

Zamalek, or on a houseboat! They are more central and seem to have a calmer, less crowded feel to them!

 

*If you would like to tell us about where you live and share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

Egypt’s Museum Websites: Out of “Site”, Out of Mind

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So you want to visit Cairo? You heard that because tourist numbers are so low lately there are great deals to come to Egypt and you thought “I can’t go to Egypt without seeing the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, and walk around Historic Cairo, maybe explore a few museums.” Like most tourists in the twenty first century, the first thing you do to get yourself excited about the trip is you go online, do some “research” and Google some sites you might potentially want to visit. A search for the Egyptian Museum brings you to the site pictured above, “last updated May 2003.” There isn’t even an official website for the pyramids, the world’s top archeological attraction!

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Museums are public institutions, they need an audience. Without an audience a museum is nothing but a glorified storage facility. In order for museums to build an audience, local and international, they need promotion. A museum’s website is perhaps its most important promotional tool but when that website is not updated for more than a decade it can have a reverse effect.

So what should the website of Egypt’s most important museum do? It should be informative and look good. A good museum website should include information such as the mission of the museum, collections, current exhibition (assuming that the museum even curates temporary exhibitions), as well as activities/events, amenities/services, and visitor information. For a major museum, the site should be multilingual, well designed and visually appealing.

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Unfortunately the image above is a screenshot of the current museum website, which is a true reflection of the dysfunctional system of heritage management in Egypt and the total lack of any serious museology in the entire country. Not only is the site poorly organized and out of date, it is not informative and terribly designed. How can the Egyptian government be serious about increasing tourist numbers or increasing museum visitorship while retaining such dismal representation of this historic institution on the world wide web?

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The website of the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, another one of Egypt’s most important collections and which has been closed for what feels like eternity, is also a terrible website. Of course in this case the main priority should be that the museum is open to the public before even thinking about creating a beautiful website for it. The same goes for tens of the country’s museums which have been closed for years sometimes a decade and which have fallen out of the tourist map but also out of the collective memory, like they never existed, partly because there is no online presence to these museums. Out of sight, out of mind.

Even the few sites which continue to be popular and are relatively well managed, such as the Coptic Museum, also has a terrible website. Again, this is one of Egypt’s most important museums yet its website resembles a personal page done in the 1990s by a high school student. Shameful!

The Egyptian Ministry of Culture, or whichever centralized institution responsible for managing Egypt’s public museums, continues to miss the point of museums: to attract as many visitors as possible who should leave satisfied wanting to come back. By the same token, the point of a good museum website is to attract increased web traffic which should translate into actual foot traffic. For example, check out the website for Cairo’s Museum of Modern Art, the museum that should have the region’s most important collection of modern art. Now that you’ve visited the website, are you inspired to go? No? Well good, because it has been closed anyway.

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The Supreme Council of Antiquities, which had been turned into its own Ministry of Antiquities in 2011, centrally manages many of the country’s museums. Here is a list of the museums managed by that institution with some links to visitor information for a small selection of these museums. While this is an admirable improvement over the dismal web presence of Ministry of Culture managed museums, this is still a catastrophe.

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In the meantime museums around the world are not only maintaining updated well-designed websites, they are growing their web presence with blogs, advertising, virtual tours, and downloadable apps and audio tours. Not to mention that most major museums have already been utilizing social networks for years now: the British Museum has a Twitter account, Qatar’s Mathaf (Arab Museum of Modern Art) is on Instagram and every museum big and small around the world has an active official Facebook page.  This is happening while the Egyptian Museum is still requiring visitors to leave their cameras at the door like it is 1991. Museum management seem unaware that a picture taken by a happy visitor and posted on social media is free advertisement for the museum that is far more effective than all the fake tourism TV adverts the Egyptian government has paid for in the past.

Museum websites are practically an industry by now with annual conferences and meetings dedicated to the topic. There are global standards that have been in place for some time now: notice for example how the websites of Mathaf, Tel Aviv Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (three vastly different museums in different locations) share the basic visual structure. An easy to access horizontal strip with links to visitor information, exhibitions, “about us”, contact, etc.

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How many museums are there in total in Egypt? in Cairo? What about Historic Cairo, is there an informative well-designed website dedicated to that “open air museum” with information about the various monuments, events and with suggested walking tours, an up-to-date list of talks and lectures about the historic city, its architecture, culture, recent research? What could be the impact of creating a positive web presence for Egypt’s vast cultural and touristic sites?

Local talent to do the job is available but the vision and political will for those in charge is, as usual, lacking.

There are entire industries, obviously tourism and hospitality, which depend on the increased traffic to museums and other cultural sites; so perhaps private initiatives can take the lead and approach the government with a plan to create a network of websites for Egypt’s museums and historic sites. The government won’t take the lead, but then again officials aren’t losing their jobs for their incompetence or because museums are not attracting visitors. So this might be another situation where civil society needs to act sooner than later.

La Viennoise Hotel: Art From Sandouk El Dounia to DCAF

Cairobserver.com is a media partner in this year’s D-CAF. During the festival several posts will appear on the blog covering some of its venues and events.

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The building known as La Viennoise, standing at the corner of Mahmoud Bassiouny and Champollion Streets in downtown, has become a sort of an alternative art institution for over a decade. It is difficult to construct a complete history of the building, as for many others around the city, without access to municipal records and in the absence of a proper institution concerned with archiving and documenting the history of Cairo. Nonetheless there are bits and pieces of information that can begin to help us understand the origins of this property.

La Viennoise was built in the 1890s; a decade, which witnessed a construction boom in Cairo, particularly in what became today’s downtown area. According to the website of al-Ismaelia, the building’s current owner, it was commissioned by an Englishman. Based on the building’s design and façade details and on the fact that it was built during that particular period, it appears as though its architect was most likely French. Behind the eclectic neo-classical/neo-Renaissance façade of the corner building are three stories of high-ceiling apartments with generous spaces fit for high-end turn of the century downtown Cairo lifestyle. The building has two entrances, one on each of the streets it overlooks, each entrance leads to a stairwell with elevator and each floor is flanked by two apartments.

The layers of over a century of life are visible throughout this structure thick with memory and traces of its many lives, a true urban palimpsest.

La Viennoise is the host space to some of this year’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival’s events, namely Bill Cowie’s “Art of Movement,” video above, “a 30 minute dance work choreographed by Billy Cowie incorporating live and virtual 3d dancers.” The piece premiered at the Kyoto Experiment in September 2013. The building was also the location for a workshop by the Baladi Lab, part of their “Take a coffee with your heritage” series of meetings.

In addition to hosting art events as part of D-CAF, La Viennoise has been the site of other iconic art exhibitions and experiments in recent years, but how did it all start?


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

[Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, El Nitaq Festival, Cairo, Egypt. 2001. Copyright Lara Baladi]

The first art event in La Viennoise took place in 2001 as part of al-Nitaq Art Festival when artist Lara Baladi welcomed the pubic to view her photographic installations, which were shot and shown in La Viennoise.

Baladi’s family owned the building at the time, it was inherited by five sisters from their Lebanese-Egyptian businessman father, who purchased it in the 1940s. During the period of nationalization the Egyptian government confiscated the property. It was only during Sadat’s mandate that it was returned to them. After years of lawsuits, the five daughters, in their 80s then, were able to get back, amongst other parts of the building, an entire floor, until then occupied by a hotel, the Pension Viennoise. Some of the other apartments in the building, as well as the shops, were rented by the state to tenants from the time when it was confiscated. Further lawsuits were necessary to get those individual tenants out. By the early 90s many of the lawsuits were settled and most of the building, except for the shops, was in the hands of the five daughters of Abdallah Mirshak, Baladi’s great grandfather. Thus, her choice of the building as the site and object of her installation was not ad hock. When she searched for a location to execute her Sandouk El Dounia (the world in a box) “La Viennoise was not a priori ideal, although it turned out to be, but it was accessible.”

Baladi shot and exhibited her photographic project in La Viennoise. The artist asserts, “The ‘box’ was in fact La Viennoise. My work was both the space and in the space.” The main piece was a large-scale collage upon which the viewer would stumble after losing oneself and strolling about the corridors. The collage was installed in a green room that was once one of the bedrooms in the pension. Sandouk El Dounia intentionally blurred the boundary between the space, the artworks that were exhibited, the photographs that composed the collage and the art happening orchestrated by the artist in the space on the opening day. The space was transformed into a world of its own, a backstage of an archetypal city in which unfolded a theatrically staged morality tale. Baladi arranged a mise-en-scène that involved the visual artworks mixed with the characters photographed in the space walking around and performing the photographed characters, amid the spectators. While people ambulated through the spaces and bats were flying above their heads, a street seller, who Baladi had agreed with to participate to the opening, distributed inflatable pink plastic rabbits (one of the character’s accessory), offering them a trace of the world Baladi set up in the box of La Viennoise.

This artistic intervention initiated La Viennoise as a unique space for art and exhibition. La Viennoise was and remains everything the white cube gallery space is not.

Baladi’s family offered the Townhouse the space for more exhibitions. The Townhouse Gallery managed the space for eight years when it was used for various exhibitions such as those during the two Nitaq Festivals. Nitaq Festival opened the door for artists to explore downtown Cairo as a space for reflection and artistic creation. In that period of extensive art production in the Cairo art scene, the Townhouse played an bigger role than it had until then by encouraging increased artistic production and artistic collaboration.

About Nitaq, Negar Azimi wrote: “An initiative of three independent galleries (Karim Francis, Mashrabia and the Townhouse), the downtown arts festival was unprecedented in the degree of excitement it created in the city, and importantly, the view it provided as to the tendencies of a new generation of artists working within idioms that defied prevailing notions of contemporaneity. Engineered to start on the very day of the 2001 Cairo Biennale’s opening, the second Nitaq in particular served as an “off” version in every sense of the term. While the Biennale was characterized by a reliance on tradition both in concept and curation, Nitaq would prove most unconventional, shaking up stagnant conceptions surrounding the use of space, medium and the potential for dematerialization of the art object. Like true post-modernists, the preferred avenue of expression for the artists at Nitaq was multi-media installation executed with conceptualist tendencies. A number of the Nitaq artists, Lara Baladi, Amina Mansour, Hassan Khan, Wael Shawky and Mona Marzouk among them, have since gone on to exhibit widely internationally.”

Artistic interaction with particular downtown spaces such as Baladi’s Sandouk El Dounia opened the door for artists and galleries to investigate the potential of creating art with and about Cairo’s spaces, exploring different vocabularies and mediums in ways that actively engage with specific sites in the city.

In 2001 Karim Shafei rediscovered downtown Cairo because of the Nitaq festival. Lara Baladi’s show at La Viennoise drew Shafei’s attention to the building and the urban heritage it belongs to. The neglected, dusty and decaying condition of La Viennoise’s grand interiors inspired the conception of al-Ismaelia, a real estate venture aiming to dust off properties such as La Viennoise, many of them abandoned or underutilized with little or no impact on the local economy. Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate and Development acquired the building in 2008 and has since managed it. While the company envisions refurbishing the property in a way that preserves the architecture and interiors, the scale of the building and of its rooms limits possible options for adaptive reuse. Because La Viennoise is a listed heritage building its transformation must follow strict guidelines. Given the particular grandeur of this property it will most likely be reincarnated as a nostalgic boutique hotel. However, there are no concrete plans for such a renovation and in the meantime the company has continued to open the doors of La Viennoise as a space for alternative artistic adventures.

Since its acquisition by al-Ismaelia La Viennoise has hosted several acclaimed exhibitions such as the Cairo Documenta exhibitions in 2010 and 2012. More recently the building was the home of the exhibition Studio Viennoise, a “tribute to the history of studio photographic practice in Egypt” which ran from 14 November to 16 December 2012. And in 2013, a “Museum to the Revolution” was set up in La Viennoise as part of an exhibition titled “Horreya/Kharya,” a word play on “freedom” and “shit” which in Arabic are distinguished by a dot.

While these recent exhibitions and performances such as Bill Cowie’s “Art in Movement” keep La Viennoise an active artistic space, what’s next? What is to be learned from Cairo’s singular experiment with art in abandoned/decaying architecture? Cairo is awash with other similar structures in a variety of locations, from Helwan’s abandoned mansions, to Bulaq’s unused industrial warehouses. Rather than becoming laboratories for artistic production while they await their fate to be determined, by the market or other forces, these buildings remain empty and inaccessible. While many such structures are in private ownership, many others are state-owned. Could the Cairo municipality learn from the experiment at La Viennoise and develop a strategy to open abandoned and underutilized historic structures to artists to activate them and bring attention to them? On the other hand, have artists working in Cairo approached such structures as generative elements contributing to the artistic process rather than simply treat them as new venues to show the same art that would have been shown in a white-walled gallery? Is there another fate for decaying buildings in Cairo?

Note: Thanks to Lara Baladi for her generosity and for sharing her work on Cairobserver.com

Spotlight on Gypsum Gallery

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Six months ago Gypsum Gallery opened in an apartment on Bahgat Ali Street in Zamalek. The gallery is ready to launch a new solo show by Alexandria-based artist Mahmoud Khaled and on the occasion Cairobserver sent Aleya Hamza, the founder of the gallery, some questions to help us situate Gypsum in Cairo’s artscape. For more information visit the gallery’s website and “Like” its Facebook page to stay connected.

Gypsum is located at 5A Bahgat Ali Street, apt 12 (third floor) in Zamalek

Tell us about Gypsum, what kind of gallery is it?

Gypsum Gallery is a Cairo-based gallery with a focus on contemporary art. The vision of the gallery is to take the progressive, dynamic and investigative art practices associated with non-profit spaces in Egypt into a commercial gallery context. Gypsum represents 8 mid-career artists who live and work between Cairo, Alexandria, Beirut, Kuwait, Amman, Tehran, Basel and Berlin with a program of solo shows and participation in art fairs. I am absolutely committed to forging long-standing relationships with our artists, to taking calculated risks, and to building a rigorous platform for the production, exhibition and collection of contemporary art.

Tell us about the physical space of the gallery, was it difficult to find a space suitable for exhibition and what did it take to transform a residential apartment into an art Gallery.

Gypsum is located in beautiful, well-lit converted apartment on the third floor of a residential building in Zamalek. The main exhibition space consists of two large interconnected rooms with hardwood floors and high ceilings. One room has a large window with an expansive view giving on a lush garden, one of the perks of Zamalek being an island on the Nile. Two rooms, an office and a multi-purpose room (black box, bar, inventory) make up the rest of the space.  In a dense urban center like Cairo, it is practically impossibly to have a purpose-built space unless it is located on the peripheries of the city, or it’s public sector. This explains why the majority of art spaces are converted, whether it’s an apartment, a villa, a factory, a garage or a storefront. As much as possible, I tried to recreate a versatile white cube environment in which the works take center stage while maintaining a personal atmosphere in an accessible location that caters to a wide range of audiences.

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How does Gypsum fit within Cairo’s network of galleries?

In a way, Gypsum Gallery is the bastard child of the commercial galleries of Zamalek and the non-profit spaces of Downtown and Garden City (and now Agouza). Perhaps the most striking difference with the commercial galleries is that we are not exclusively focused on Egyptian art or limited to a particular medium such as painting or sculpture. Our geographical location inevitably shapes the program and of course its natural that I’m drawn to artists that work with familiar questions, but the gallery is part of a larger network of spaces that operate within a global circuit.

How would you describe the art scene in Cairo at the moment and what role can a space like Gypsum play in that scene

I think it’s a very stimulating and intense moment. There is a certain shift in the level of self-awareness that is taking place across the board from artists and galleries to audiences, and I believe that this is critical for building a solid art scene, and I’m very excited to be part of that. I see Gypsum as an adventure. Our role is to set up this model in a turbulent historical junction, to remain resilient and to have an understanding that change does not happen overnight.

Egypt is still producing some of the Arab World’s most sought after artists, yet their market is mostly in the Gulf, how do you explain this uneven distribution of where art is produced and where it is consumed

The arts infrastructure in Egypt is dysfunctional. Non-profit spaces have been stepping in to provide the educational needs that art schools are battling with. Established international Egyptian artists rarely show in Cairo because their galleries are elsewhere, and there is almost no market for the works that they produce in Egypt. Once we establish a new system of patronage with an awareness of contemporary art, things will change.

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[Installation of Gypsum’s inaugural show, photo courtesy of Gypsum Gallery]

Tell us about the artists you currently represent

What connects this group of exceptional artists is singularity of their vision, and their commitment to pushing their practice to its absolute limit. Since the gallery opened its doors almost six months ago, it has been an incredible journey working with each and everyone of them, the majority of whom I have work with or known for more than ten years. I’m always overwhelmed by their faith and generosity.

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What is the current show and what comes next in the short and long run.

Our current show is a solo show by Alexandria-based artist Mahmoud Khaled called Painter on a Study Trip. This ambition and pensive show spans photography, sculpture, painting, text, video and installation to reflect on artist’s own classical training as a painter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Alexandria and its complicated relationship to the language and values of contemporary art. Khaled’s series of interrelated new works is designed with the Gypsum Gallery space in mind. The show is the gallery’s biggest production since our inaugural show and is as beautiful and poetic as it is conceptual.

The season ends with two more shows: A solo by Amman-based Ala Younis who will present a new body of work that closes the third installment of her trilogy about Arab Nationalism. UAR is research-based project centered on Nasser, the hero and the myth, and Younis has been invited to participate with it in the Kamel Lazaar Foundation Projects. Following is the first solo show by Taha Belal (of Nile Sunset Annex) in which he takes on a formal and physical investigation of media images. We restart next season in June with two highly anticipated solo shows: a new ground breaking painting exhibition by Mona Marzouk, and a show by this year’s Abraaj Prize winner Basim Magdy.

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[Current show at Gypsum Gallery. Photos courtesy of Mahmoud Khaled]

Kafein: Global coffee culture fused with the taste of Cairo

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To the pleasure of many seeking a delicious coffee downtown in a friendly and laid-back space, Kafein is a new café that is quickly becoming a meeting point for friends like it has been there for years. Dina and Nadia, the entrepreneurs behind the new venture, are clearly doing something right. Cairobserver sent them some questions to introduce us to Kafein and the concept behind it. Make sure to stop by Kafein, where not only can you consume delicious coffees and tees but also read the latest Cairobserver print magazine. Visit Kafein’s Facebook page and “like” it to stay connected.

Kafein is located at 28 Sharif Street in the pedestrian alley behind McDonald’s

Tell us about Kafein, what is the concept, where is it, what’s on offer

Kafein is brand new café/gallery space in Downtown; actually it is technically located in Abdeen. We serve a wide selection of artisan coffees and premium loose-leaf teas, seasonal juices, and will soon have a small selection of tasty sandwiches and treats on our menu. The walls of Kafein also serve as a gallery space for local artists to exhibit their works. Our vision is to add a new element to the café scene in Cairo—a particular seriousness about caffeinated and non-caffeinated beverages paired with a commitment to creating an atmosphere that inspires thinking, creativity, new friendships, and dreams. The concept behind the space is to really fuse global coffee and tea culture with the spirit and tastes of Cairo.

How does it fit in Cairo’s café culture?

Cairo’s café culture is very rich and diverse; there are literally cafés in every nook of this city. As café frequenters, we tend to avoid or actually boycott the chains for political reasons. On the other hand, we regularly go to particular ahwas in our neighborhood in Abdeen as well as more up-scale cafés in Zamalek and occasionally other areas of Cairo. As customers, we were frustrated by the lack of cafés in Downtown, the absence of affordable and good quality spots in general, and the gap between ahwas and the overpriced joints in Zamalek and other areas.

The politics of Kafein are informed by our personal likes and dislikes with Cairo’s café culture. Kafein is also a burgeoning art gallery, which we think is important in order to enhance the visceral experience of being in the space as well as to have art be part of one’s mundane activities, such as grabbing a coffee. Our first exhibition, “The Visual Meal,” was curated by Art On The Go and featured works by Menna Genedy, Amal Salah, and Amy Arif, who also helped in many stages of the café’s preparation.

Egyptian ahwas are both an inspiration for the design of Kafein and helped to inform our decisions about our menu. By using several items from the Egyptian vernacular in a modern composition, we aimed to create an atmosphere that is simple, oddly familiar, and a little quirky. We thus combined unstained wood, recycled steel chairs, water pipes, tawate2, wedding-like strings of lights with labeled jars of tea and coffee, hand-stamped paper items, chalk-board menus, etc..

In terms of the menu, Egypt has so many herbs that it grows itself such as chamomile, hibiscus, sage, anis, lemon grass, mint, etc.. You find some of these items in their loose form at ahwas and some cafés sell tea-bag versions. While we have imported a range of hand-blended artisan black, green, and herbal teas, it was important for us to also feature these local products. For example, we serve al-‘aroosa tea in an enamel-painted teapot from Aswan with dried mint from Siwa. We also offer what could be considered the summer drink of New York City—cold-brew iced coffee.

The other way in which we are trying to break the boundaries between ahwas and cafés is in terms of accessibility. We want Kafein to be a space that anyone can go to; this was a priority when we set our prices. While we understand that not everyone can afford to pay five pounds for a cup of tea, we hope that having regular ahwa items such as tea and Turkish coffee at the same prices as neighboring spots will help to make the space more inclusive. We are also really excited about the fact that people who do not normally come to Downtown are making the trip to sit at Kafein, and thus our space is actually bringing people to this area.

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Kafein has a sister establishment nearby, Dina’s Hostel, how did you go from the hostel to the café?

Dina opened Dina’s Hostel in December of 2009, since then the hostel flourished, starting with four rooms and growing to eighteen. Due to the political unrest in the country, however, tourism has suffered; thus we decided to create a new business. More significantly, however, we wanted to create a space that we felt was sorely missed in Downtown. Kafein is in many ways an extension of the philosophy of Dina’s Hostel Art Space, which is founded on the belief that we need more spaces in Downtown and elsewhere for people to gather.

Why did you choose to open your café in downtown over other parts of the city?

We come from two very different places. Dina is from Alexandria and Nadia is from New York. For the past four years Abdeen has been a home to both of us. Thus we both had the feeling that we wanted to create a particular kind of space in our own neighborhood. Downtown of course has its own historic establishments in addition to the ever expanding cafés in the streets surrounding the Borsa. Yet investors and business women and men alike seem to be flocking to more residential and more affluent places like Zamalek, Maadi, and newer areas outside of Cairo in 6th of October and New Cairo. As entrepreneurs, however, we wanted to create a space to bring people once again to Downtown.

This space is a labor of love, how did you go about the design, the branding and all the elements that make up Kafein

The initial inspiration for the design was to mix different elements of particular New York City cafés and Egyptian ahwas, both spaces we are intimately familiar with and love. Using this as a starting point, we began to design the space, menu, and concept of Kafein. All of our friends helped with their expertise. We are especially indebted to the very talented Valerie Arif who brilliantly designed our logo and worked with us in creating the identity of Kafein. And to Angela Smith who offered her expertise in Australian cafés to help us to create and standardize the drink menu for Kafein. It’s a new place, so we are still actually creating the brand and developing its own distinctiveness. Prior to opening our doors and during this “soft opening” period we have received so much great feedback and assistance from family, friends, guests, and passerby’s, and we are extremely grateful for everyone’s generosity and support.

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What was the most challenging aspect of getting the place up and running?

Instead of using a contractor or engineer, we did all of the construction work on our own with individual craftsmen and laborers. In hindsight dealing directly with laborers is extraordinarily difficult. Further, while we have familiarity with the field of hospitality, this is a very new business for both of us and there is a huge learning curve. From small decisions about what size and shape cup a latte should be served in and whether a cappuccino should have chocolate powder on the top to learning how to train and manage café staff in order to offer the quality of service that we envision, we have our hands full. It’s an ongoing process and we are still working out the kinks.

Why do you think young people haven’t been able to translate their creative energies into more spaces such as Kafein? Is it the finances? Red tape?

There are probably hundreds of reasons why one would not want to open a business such as Kafein. If we were to specifically speak about “Downtown,” there is a great deal of stereotypes about what you can and cannot do or what would work in terms of particular types of businesses in this area. While some people, including guests, have commented that Kafein is out of place, we think it’s actually in the perfect space. When we took the place we did not do the classical business plan and research the location, calculate a forecasted profit, hire consultants, etc.. We saw potential in this old-clothing shop and decided to go for it. Our neighbors are mostly men’s clothing shops with interesting-styled displays that are irregularly frequented since Shawarby Street is no longer the shopping center that it once was. In some senses it makes sense not to put a café/gallery in the midst of such shops, but we rather like the idea that Kafein is in the middle of all of this. Each day we have pedestrians stare at the café and the guests sitting in our open-air space. Shouting out and telling them that they are welcome, “etfadalou,” however, breaks down the initial shock from the unfamiliarity of the space and actually changes their entire interaction with it. This interface and the slight discomfort accompanied by the meeting of spaces and people is actually a bit exciting.

What are your plans for the future?

We are actually currently working on opening up a second branch in Zamalek. We did not intend to open two cafés, but by chance we found an amazing spot in Zamalek that could not be left. The space there is a bit larger and we will have a descent-sized kitchen, which will allow us to have a full food menu beside the beverage one. We know that Zamalek is overburdened with cafés so we are designing the space to be both a café and a particular type of cultural center. We also hope to be producing more of our own products such as bakery goods and juices in the near future. For Downtown, we are looking forward to our upcoming art exhibitions and a continued engagement with our community.

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Hassan Khan Exhibition and Kodak Passage

Cairobserver.com is a media partner in this year’s D-CAF. During the festival several posts will appear on the blog covering some of its venues and events.

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A historical perspective and urban context*

Pedestrian passageways are a prominent feature of downtown Cairo, having been influenced by the Parisian arcades of late nineteenth century.  Today many of these passageways and gaps between buildings have been transformed into back alleyways, housing multiple activities and uses that are often invisible from the street. Coffee-shops and bars, restaurants and food-stands, crafts and small workshops, mosques and prayer corners, stationary shops and bookstores, galleries and antique stores have taken up occupation, while many passageways remain closed, uninhabited or dilapidated.

Kodak Passage is both an exemplary and exceptional space. What used to be a narrow dead-end service alleyway between Adly and Abdel Khaliq Tharwat Streets, through a 1920s art deco ensemble (now owned and managed by al-Ismaelia), was turned into a pedestrian passage as part of a larger experiment of pedestrianized zones Downtown during the 1990s. Kodak store, labs and garage/warehouse used to occupy the western flank of the passage, while Café de Brasil occupied the central bay of the eastern side, and remains today, though shuttered.  Surrounded by a number of emerging art, film and design spaces (CIC, Cimatheque, and CLUSTER), the passage was identified by CLUSTER as a rare opportunity to introduce to this end of Downtown a pop-up gallery space, and to engage art interventions that may serve as a catalyst for urban development and revitalization of surrounding buildings, shops and passageways.

The current exhibition space occupies four different storefronts along the western side of Kodak Passage, ranging in their size, clear height and physical conditions. Setting up these spaces required major architectural renovation and upgrade of the infrastructure, in addition to installing the necessary exhibition walls, lighting system and other audio-visual elements. The exhibition curation, design and architectural renovation were undertaken by CLUSTER and the project was produced by Orient Productions and Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF). The two-month long renovations included the input of different national and international installation crews, as well as direct input from the artist. The Hassan Khan exhibition was designed and curated by CLUSTER to present a procession of exhibition spaces, interjecting the artist’s ouevre amidst the public and pedestrian activities of the arcade.

Hassan Khan exhibition opening: March 30, 6pm

Exhibition schedule: March 30 - April 26, 12pm – 8pm

Koday Passageway, 20 Adly Street, Downtown Cairo

For more information: http://d-caf.org/event/category/visual-arts

The Hassan Khan exhibition is part of this year’s D-CAF Festival. D-CAF has over the past two years worked diligently to reinvent public space, changing perceptions, and as a result drawing in the public for a renewed interaction.

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*Text and Photos courtesy of CLUSTER