Cairo, like many cities across the globe, underwent a significant process of urban transformation in the mid-19th century. At the core of these transformations, which can be traced in cities from Latin America, Europe, and Asia, are sewage systems, street lighting, and drinking water systems. Most of these major infrastructural changes happen below street level, which explains why commentators on the 19th century often look up at what is visible, buildings, and rarely look below their feet. Also important to note that contrary to the dual city narrative 19th century infrastructural changes were implemented in both new and old parts of the city, with varying difficulty and speed for obvious reasons. Cairo has fallen victim to urban history that has elided the complexity of the city’s urban transformation during that time. I have already argued before that Paris was never along the Nile. On a recent trip to Paris I walked down the uniform apartment blocks of Haussmann’s Paris and stayed in one such building where behind the homogeneous facades are often small apartments reached by rickety small wooden stairs. Cairo’s 19th century (and early twentieth century) apartments were often dismissed as hastily-built Parisian simulacra in analysis obsessed by reductive East/West dichotomies and which privilege the eye. A closer investigation of Cairo’s “Parisian” architecture beyond reducing architectural history to facade reading, reveals a different set of socio-economic constructs that produced these buildings.
The focus on the above-mentioned aspect of 19th century urban development in Cairo has kept the major changes of that era in the footnotes of the official narrative. Today, as the city is desperately in need of comprehensive urban transformation and upgrading it is important to highlight the less visible but major projects carried out 150 years ago around the reign of Ismail that continue to shape the city today in ways more fundamental than mere aesthetics. Here are 7 major 19th century projects that reshaped Cairo:
1. Stabilizing the Nile Banks: The Nile in Cairo shifted with season which made the prospect of urbanization Nile-side a difficult one. Stabilizing the banks of the river, completed by 1865 and filling the adjacent areas that previously flooded made urban development possible and added riverside properties to the city’s real estate. However before the prospect of real estate the first large Nile-side building erected along the newly stabilized river were the new barracks of the Egyptian army (1865-68) known as Qasr el Nil. Tahrir Square would have been underwater if it wasn’t for this major infrastructural project. Qasr el Nil Bridge was also erected following the stabilization of the river and was opened in 1871.
2. The Northern boundaries: The areas north of historic Cairo near the recently built train station (1854) consisted of small hills which were flattened and and used in the draining and filling of the city’s lakes further south. Near by there were fields of radish فجل which were removed to make way for a new neighborhood named Faggala فجالة and Sakakini further north. A square was planned fronting the train station as the city’s northern entrance and Shubra street (tree-lined and extending north to Muhammad Ali’s Shubra palace) was connected to this area directly.
3. Abdeen Area: To the west of the old city was a small lake fronted by the estate of Abdeen Bek. The area was surrounded by marches to the west and slums to the east. The estate became the location for a new royal palace (moving the seat of power from the citadel down to the level of the city) and the new palace was built in 1863. The lake and marches were filled and a city square and new streets extending from the new palace were planned. The neighborhood of Abdeen was born.
4. Azbakiyya: Another area that was radically transformed was the posh district of Azbakiyya which overlooked a lake. The lake was filled and transformed into a garden during the rule of Muhammad Ali and the garden was redesigned again during the rule of Khedive Ismail. The transformation of Azbakiyya included the creation of several small public squares such as Khazindar and Attaba as well as Opera Square. The famed Cairo Opera House (1869) was built along side the public garden and several hotels were erected on the west side of the garden which was a linking space between the edge of the old city and the westward urban expansion that became downtown.
5. The East Bank: Major avenues were planned to crisscross the city connecting the western edge of the old city to the Nile. Such new streets were Emmaddidin, Muhammad Farid Bek, Almalika (Ramsis), Merit Pasha and Qasr el Aini. Ismailia Square (Tahrir) began to take shape by the 1870s as well as surrounding squares such as Bab el Louk and neighborhoods such as Mounira, Dawaween. These newly planned areas were paved with water systems underground, sidewalks and trees above and street lighting installed before building lots were developed by individuals.
6. The West Bank: Also following the stabilization of the river the west bank, which was raised two meters above water level, was available for development. Although it largely remained agricultural several new projects were implemented: The Orman Botanical Garden and the Giza Zoo as well as the Pyramids Road. A new Giza palace was erected as well.
7. Gezira Island: Known today as Zamalek, the island was consolidated out of several smaller islands and was largely left as a retreat with a palace and garden erected to host the French queen during her visit (today’s Marriott). With the exception of the palace the island was meant as an escape, a natural landscape dotted with wooden shacks/huts which gave the island its name. Eventually parts of the landscape were formalized into gardens and later streets were implemented such as Gezira St., Gabalaya St., Nile St., and eventually Foad St. (26th July).
These major projects were initiated during the reign of Khedive Ismail, however earlier projects took place during his grandfather’s rule such as the opening of several streets through the old city and the legislation of Tanzim laws for urban management. Also other major transformation took place later in the 19th century such as the filling of Khalij al-Masri (1890s) and the creation of Cairo’s first tram line in its route on what became today’s Port Said St.
Last December the Geothe Institute hosted a panel discussion titled “Artists as Urban Catalysts in Downtown Cairo.” The event was organized by Beth Stryker and Omar Nagati (Cluster) and supported by the Ford Foundation. Invited panelists represented two types of stakeholders in downtown: property owners (Karim Shafei, CEO of Al Ismaelia Real Estate Development, and Bruce Ferguson, Dean of the School of Humanities representing the American University in Cairo), and representatives of cultural organizations (founding member of the Contemporary Image Collective Heba Farid, Townhouse Curator Ania Szremski, filmmaker and co-founder of Cimateque Tamer El Said). The panel was moderated by Mohamed Elshahed (Cairobserver).
The panel aimed to bring together the above mentioned representatives in an open public discussion to re-examine what the organizers called “the classic appropriation of artists as catalysts for urban regeneration by real-estate developers seeking future gentrification,” asking how things might play out differently in Cairo. However, a key word in that sentence is difficult to translate into Arabic: Gentrification. Although the discussion was held in English (with Arabic translation available), it was important to note the untransability of the conversation’s central concept. The unavailability of a direct translation of the term/concept doesn’t mean the processes of gentrification do not exist in Cairo but it points to the need for analysis and theorization grounded in the Egyptian context.
AUC’s downtown campus, much of which is no longer in use, could potentially act as an anchor for cultural activity downtown and provide much needed space for independent artist organizations as well as to its own students to maintain the link between the now suburban university and its downtown urban past. The university has not taken an active role in realizing that potential, however it has made its Falaki Theater available for public performances and events. Al-Ismailia on the other hand is actively engaged with arts and culture in downtown; not only do several arts organizations rent space from the company, Al-Ismailia is also the main sponsor and organizer of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival.
The three arts spaces represented (CIC, Cimateque and Townhouse) while they rent the spaces they presently occupy, their relatively short-term leases mean insecurity and potentially being forced out of their premises due a variety of economic factors. In other cities, particularly in Europe, similar arts organizations were able to negotiate deals with municipalities in which long-term leases were granted, sometimes with no rent, which has helped such organizations thrive by focusing their funds into their creative activities while catalyzing the regeneration of their urban contexts (which municipalities are interested in). Such a process is not possible in Cairo as the state; the governorate (the closest Cairo has to a municipality) does not seek artists as catalysts for areas it manages where underused buildings could be transformed into cultural centers. Nor does the Cairo governorate have a development plan or vision in which independent culture plays a key role in transforming the city. Thus, Cairo’s independent artists and the cultural organizations they establish depend on their relationship to private property owners when it comes to establishing a space. The three speakers on this side of the debate explicated the opportunities and challenges they face in this matter.
It is important to note that Egypt has a massive centralized Culture Ministry with an immense budget and numerous spaces including nearby downtown at the campus of the Opera and in downtown such as the National Theater. However these spaces are often inactive and unwelcoming not only to audiences but also to artists. The ministry’s budgets mostly go into paying wages, not into programming.
Two competing voices emerged from the audience; on one hand some applauded the work of Al Ismailia and its support for the arts in downtown. One audience member argued that as artists “no one owes us anything” and that artists must find ways to establish their spaces without relying on support from private interests. On the other hand, others voiced concern with those sentiments and argued that in the Egyptian context when contemporary art lacks cohesive institutional support, private developers and property owners have an increased responsibility to support artists with affordable spaces.
The panel discussion revealed the need for a mediating entity between the various and sometimes conflicting interests of stakeholders. As moderator I suggested the need to establish a “Downtown Arts Council,” an independent body that incorporates members of the various stakeholders on its board and which acts as a mediator, organizer, advocate and promoter of the arts in the district. Such councils have been established as non-profit organizations in cities around the world for several decades and they have had a key role in the stimulation of cultural and artistic life in those cities. An arts council for downtown Cairo will allow artists to focus on their creative work and not be burdened with logistics while acting as a buffer between the two co-dependent yet unequal (in financial terms) main players in this scene: the artists and the property owners/developers. The institutional structure of arts councils differ around the world and their relationships to the states and ministries of culture also differ and range from direct support by the state to parallel operations and autonomy. Cairo’s downtown arts community and other stakeholders will need to sit down on many occasions besides this panel to decide on which model works best for Cairo’s context.
To this end the organizers staged the panel around the critical questions: “How is Cairo different from other cities, such as New York and Beirut, where such cycles of gentrification have taken place? What role may the underutilized AUC campus play in providing a cultural anchor Downtown? What are the advantages and downsides of private sector partnerships between real estate stakeholders and independent artists and arts organizations?” They created this initial forum seeking “to explore potential local strategies for sustaining artists’ access to the generative contributions they make to urban development.”
The arts can be an engine for urban regeneration and development while urban development and investment can enrich the arts, but striking this balance without repeating the mistakes of other “creative city” experiments will be difficult. This panel discussion was an important first step in starting a meaningful conversation. Cluster organized the panel discussion as the first in what they are developing as an ongoing series of stakeholder meetings related to the arts and urban development in Downtown Cairo. Maintaining that conversation, evolving it and reaching useful conclusions and outcomes will be work that the stakeholders will have to carryout for themselves and in cooperation with one another, otherwise such panel discussions risk becoming ephemeral one off events with little tangible impact on the issues discussed therein.
For more information and for a video of the discussion click here.
Mantiqti is a free newspaper issued by Egypt Media Development Program (EMDP) dedicated to the Borsa area of downtown Cairo. Publisher Tarek Atia moved his office to the area nine months ago and quickly he and his staff became an integral part of the community, the neighborhood. “For some Borsa is the financial district with the stock exchange the central bank and the headquarters of the national bank, for others it is the café district with 34 cafés all within an area delimited by three major streets,” says Attia in his publisher’s note in the inaugural issue.
Borsa is an area that falls within three streets, which are Sherif, Qasr el Nil and Sabry Abu Alam, forming the triangle of mostly pedestrian streets. Within this area are three major pedestrian streets: Elwy, Sherifeen and El-Qadi El-Fadel. EMDP presents a new perspective on community engagement which bridges the activities of the company with its local physical context, the neighborhood, producing a new kind of media product that hasn’t been experimented with in Egypt, the hyperlocal newspaper.
Within its 16 pages the paper includes a variety of content ranging from investigative reporting to editorials and opinions. Advertisements for local businesses such as the popular yet hidden hole in the wall restaurant fas7et somaya emphasize the hyperlocal focus of the paper. A calendar provides information for daily events throughout the month ranging from festival events part of Hal Badeel or D-Caf or events in near by venues such as theaters and galleries.
A map with landmarks in the area with historical anecdotes serves a double function, it highlights the historic quality of the area by providing brief but interesting factual information while providing an easy to read representation of the area too small to get this kind of detail in other conventional maps. The scale of the area of focus is the strength of this project. The stories that will emerge from these few blocks in the city center will have relevance in areas across the city, but the scale of investigation here will hopefully produce clearer more direct observations, questions and solutions that will help Cairenes think of issues such as trash collection, parking, street vendors among others in a fresh new way.
While Cairo deserves a city-focused free daily or weekly newspaper that makes the city the core focus of its journalistic endeavor, the neighborhood is another scale that is often neglected by existing national newspapers. Downtown, Zamalek, Imbaba, Sayyeda Zeynab, Maadi, Heliopolis, these are all parts of Cairo with their own sense of place and community despite the absence of the governance and media infrastructure needed to engender this sense of locality. In these and other neighborhoods a sense community and belonging continues to define individuals’ identity. We’ve seen this sense of local/neighborhood-based identity play out in other recent initiatives such as the Heliopolis community efforts to safeguard the area’s architectural heritage or in new initiatives such as Nassya. Cairo will only become a better city when these locally-rooted community initiatives become stronger and eventually infiltrate governance structures and local decision-making processes. One of the necessary steps to do this is creating a media sense of awareness of locality. Mantiqti could potentially pave the way towards helping other communities formulate their own locally-specific community-driven newspapers. Mantiqti is both a development project and a purely commercial enterprise at the same time positioned between the past and future of local media in Egypt.
Despite covering a small geographical area, Mantiqti faces a big challenge: its focus is a subpart of a neighborhood, a particular part of the larger downtown area is an area of complex relations dominated by passersby (the users of the cafés), rather than a stable residential core. Perhaps this explains why in the first issue of Mantiqti editor Alia Hamed wrote “Borsa Constitution,” a kind of proposal for a set of six points for all users of the area to abide by and agree upon, ultimately for the public good of the community (residents, passersby and shop owners alike). The Borsa constitution, a citizen’s charter, is an EMDP initiative signed by over 50 local business owners and residents.
The second issue of Mantiqti will be out in May, look for a copy when you’re in the Borsa area. Hopefully other hyperlocal newspapers will emerge across the city, building the sense of community and cohesion that has been missing for so long.
This post was updated on May 1, 2013.
The second edition of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) kicked off earlier this month. The program lasting over three weeks includes performing arts, visual arts, music, film, edutainment and “urban visions,” a program of free contemporary dance and theater events in public spaces. Festival organizer Ahmed El Attar is clear about his intentions: “to highlight that public space is the space for the exchange of values and practices between people, and that while politics and protest have paved the way in the last two years, art is another legitimate means of engaging with the world.” This is not just another urban renewal cultural event; there are specificities here that make this seemingly familiar concept of employing culture as a driver for urban development different in Cairo in 2013. The Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival is making space “for ideas to be discussed and projects to be planned, for audiences to be inspired and provoked.” While the political landscape continues to be illegible, and while clashes continue to sporadically erupt and while many are waiting by the sidelines to decide their next move, and while questions surround the future of the arts and freedom of expression D-CAF rushes in to actively become part of the conversation and of the process shaping the future of downtown Cairo and beyond.
One of the most successful aspects of the festival is the appropriation of space in downtown in new ways (dancing, theater and performance in public space), reusing spaces that have been closed for years (film screenings in Cinema Radio), or reimagining the uses of already functional spaces (concerts in Shahrazade Cabaret).
[The Great War by Hotel Modern (The Netherlands) - April 16 - Falaki Theatre - Photo by Mostafa Abdel Aty]
One of the performances we attended was The Great War by Hotel Modern, a Dutch visual arts group (four persons) that combines puppets, theater, music, film and performance. The group performed twice in Falaki Theater, part of the downtown AUC campus. Using miniature sets placed on stage with small cameras transmitting images onto a projection, the group narrates World War I in less than an hour combining top down narrative (using a map of Europe with symbols for monarchs and armies) to the scale of individuals taking part in the war and a detailed retelling of soldier’s experiences on the war field. The stage set included various miniature sets for different scenes including a water tank for the scene of a sinking ship and another with dirt, herbs and paper cutouts for scenes involving distant cityscapes and battlefield fighting. All the sets, including the dirt, were shipped from the Netherlands. Making such a performance available in Egypt to a public audience is in itself new. The entry ticket for this event was 20 LE (Students: 10 LE).
[SADAT (Egypt) - April 18 - Shahrazade - Photo by Mohamed Elshahed]
Another event we attended was a concert by SADAT (Egypt-Shaabi) and El Rass & Munma (Lebanon-Hiphop) at the famed Shahrazade nightclub on Alfi Street. SADAT is a popular Shaabi singer; a genre that crossed into the mainstream in new ways after the revolution and which now has an expanding audience crossing through Egyptian society. The concert was electric. The venue made for a perfect location for this kind of event. On most nights Shahrazade, one of downtown’s older nightlife establishments, hosts belly dance performances with a few tables for a predominantly male audience. The audience at the concert was diverse across the spectrum and the place was full. Currently there are few venues in downtown that host concerts or dance parties regularly; such events are often located in more exclusive venues with strict monitoring of those entering (males must be accompanied by females, or if you look not “classy” enough you may be denied entry, and often there is a high minimum charge). None of these obstacles were in place for this party/concert, which may explain the genuine fun that was visibly had by the audience. The entry ticket for this event was 30 LE.
The majority of the festival events are free of charge such as the play Alice by Sawsan Bou Khaled and Hussein Baydoun (Lebanon), which was performed in the Viennoise Hotel. The building, once a hotel but closed for decades, has been used recently by a variety of art events such as the recent photo exhibition Studio Viennoise and the annual Cairo Documenta, adding a new and different kind of venue to the geography of arts and culture in Cairo.
Other free events include the InterLAB/Tele-exhibition hosted in Hotel Viennoise and Medrar Space in neighboring Garden City. Augmented Airspace is another free visual arts installation by Dia Hamed (Egypt) and Lot Amoros (Spain) located in Elwi St, behind the Egyptian Stock Exchange. Face the Vitrine is an installation by Ganzeer & Yasmin Elayat (Egypt), which takes place in a public storefront on Mahmoud Bassiouni St.
The festival’s film program focused on contemporary West African Cinema, an important contribution to the context of Cairo where arts and culture, including cinema, typically look north to Europe and North America, creating a bilnd spot that encompasses the artistic and filmic expressions of the rest of the world including African cinema. The film program is entirely free of charge and the screenings are hosted in the Goethe Institute and Radio Cinema. Films include Blind Ambition by Hassan Khan (Egypt, 2012), Underground/On the Surface (Egypt, 2013), Ai Weiwei: Never sorry (USA, 2012), Burn It Up Djassa (Ivory Coast, 2012), and Hope Travels (Burkina Faso, 2011).
[100Hands (The Netherlands) - April 5 - Borsa - Photo by Mostafa Abdel Aty]
A particularly important aspect of the festival is its Urban Visions program which brings contemporary performances to public spaces and buildings in downtown Cairo but also to Hadaeq El Nil Club, El Badrasheen, Giza and the Ahmed Bahaa el Din Cultural Center in El Doweir Village in Assiut. The program’s performances use “non-traditional sites such as historical buildings, storefronts and alleyways as sites for performances, thus engaging audiences and performers with the city in a new way.” All performances in Urban Visions are free of charge.
Overall this festival is an important intervention in Cairo’s spatial and intellectual public space and it comes at a critical time when questions over arts, expression, and public space are most pertinent. In the absence of a coordinated effort by the state to use its infrastructure, its finances and its institutions such as the Culture Ministry to promote arts and culture, D-CAF contributes to adding to the complexity of downtown’s and Cairo’s arts and culture landscape. The learning curve the organizers have shown since last year’s edition of the festival is commendable.
[TRAFFIC by Tomeo Verges (France) - April 5 - Mahmoud Basiouny - Photo by Mostafa Abdel Aty]
There are critics out there who choose to not take part in these activities, or complain that some events require ticketing or that there are too many corporate sponsors, some are even complaining they don’t like the name because it brings to mind the kind of coffee pointless in drinking. However, self-righteous sentiments such as these might be cool in Brooklyn or East London where other options might be available and where a variety of independent institutions often with sizable budgets organize events, concerts and festivals year round. D-CAF is creating space for Egyptian artists and audiences and providing Egyptian audiences access to international artists who otherwise would not perform in the country. While there are alternative events taking place such as Hal Badeel Festival, they are not competing events rather they are complementary and belong to different calibers.
The Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival goes on until 28 April; catch a show before you have to wait for next year’s festival. You can find the program here.
A visible City: The tangible and intangible Heritage of Downtown Cairo
SUMMER SCHOOL in CAIRO 15-26 June 2013
APPLY NOW! until the 10th of May
IF YOU WANT TO…
Get in touch with the real DOWNTOWN
Discover (your) CAIRO
Learn how to recognize a plan typology
Learn about oral history methods
Learn how to deal with interviews
Eat the best chocolate dates in town
Produce the first architectural guide of Downtown
Work in an intercultural/intergender group
Get in touch with other students
Listen to the most updated researchers
BE WITH US!
THE SUMMER SCHOOL IS OPEN TO
> 10 students from Germany from the faculties of Architecture, Urban Design, Urban Planning, Landscape architecture.
> 10 students from the Architecture and Urban Design Program of the German University in Cairo (GUC).
> 8 students from Cairo from the faculties of Architecture, Urban Design, Urban Planning, Landscape architecture. Particular attention will be given to choose students from different Universities.
WHO CAN APPLY:
Students who already completed the fourth semester of Architecture, Urban Planning or Landscape Architecture studies.
HOW TO APPLY:
With a short cv, a letter of motivation and a selection of three previous projects (6 pages A4, pdf-file, max.10 MB). It is not mandatory that the projects are related to architecture. Language of the application is English.
Please send your application via email to:
Deadline is the 10th of May 2013.
The selected participants will be informed at beginning of May.
Join us on facebook: summer school_DOWNTOWN
The grants will cover flight costs and accommodation for the 10 students coming from Germany. Infrastructure and food for all students will be assured. All students will work both at the GUC Campus and on field.
AIMS and CONTENT
The summer school aims at raising awareness for the tangible and intangible heritage of Downtown Cairo, initiating and reinforcing the link between students, academics and inhabitants towards the histories and the built heritage of the old quarter of Ismaelia. This link will reinforce the feeling of proud towards the city, which is the necessary basis for any action of maintenance and restoration.
In mixed groups, students will implement schematic plans of the standard floor of different buildings; analysing it and classifying them in typologies. At the same time, they will interview the inhabitants, to collect their histories related to the buildings. A guide on the tangible and intangible heritage of Downtown will be published.
> German University Cairo – GUC
Prof. Barbara Pampe, architect
Prof. Vittoria Capresi, architect
> University of Stuttgart, D
Prof. Arno Lederer, architect
Carla Schwarz, architect
Leonie Weber, architect
> DAAD (Cairo University) / German Archaeological Institute DAI, Cairo
> Alia Mossallam, historian
> Studio Matthias Görlich
Matthias Görlich, graphic designer
and the participation of :
> Ahmed el Bindari, CULTNAT, Cairo
> Omar Nagati, CLUSTER, Cairo
> Xenia Nikolskaya, Freelance Photograph, Cairo
> Yasmine El Dorghamy, Al Rawi, Egypt Heritage Review, Cairo
> Karim Ibrahim, Takween Integrated Community Development, Cairo
> May al-Ibrashy, Megawra, Cairo
> Mohamed Elshahed, Cairobserver, Cairo
IN COOPERATION WITH
Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments
German Archaeological Institute – DAI, Cairo
Takween Integrated Community Development, Cairo
The Summer School is initialised and organised by the Architecture and Urban Design Program of the German University Cairo GUC in cooperation with the Faculty of Architecture of the Technical University Stuttgart and fully financed by the German Academic Exchange Service DAAD.
CONCEPT: BALADILAB 2012
By Samah Selim
Mara Naaman, Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature: Portraits of Cairo. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
In January and February of 2011, Egyptians descended upon public squares throughout the country to bring an end to the thirty-year regime of Husni Mubarak. For those eighteen days—and on many other occasions throughout the following year—the people of Egypt wrested control of public space from the physical and discursive grip of Mubarak’s police state and reconfigured the material and symbolic spaces of their cities to express a revolutionary vision of subjectivity, community, and citizenship. Cairo’s Tahrir square—and its downtown environs—was of course the most visible and most symbolically charged center of these insurgent acts of occupation and celebration, and the whole world watched in wonder and trepidation as Egyptians struggled to forge a new and radical language of being-in-the-world.
Mara Naaman’s timely book, Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature: Portraits of Cairo, was published during that heady year (and includes a brief postscript referring to the events of the revolution). The book addresses the production of urban space in the modern Egyptian literary imagination and offers the reader an erudite and engaging analysis of four acclaimed novels that all take Cairo’s downtown as their main setting. Naaman’s exploration of the sometimes utopian, sometimes brutal and bloody history of dreams, desires, and struggles that have shaped this seminal space in modern fiction and architectural practice subtly and persistently evokes the ghost of a future become the present. The book is thus important reading for anyone seeking to understand the affective power of “Liberation Square” within the context of modern Egyptian history and cultural production.
The book includes a preface, introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. The preface, introduction, and chapter one set out the main conceptual and historical framework within which Naaman situates her literary readings. Chapters two through five each deal with a contemporary novel by a leading Egyptian author—Radwa ‘Ashur’s A Piece of Europe (2003), Khayri Shalabi’s Salih Hisa (2000), Idris ‘Ali’s Poor (2005), and Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (2002)—while the conclusion, “Wust al-Balad as Neo-Bohemia: Writing in Defense of a Vanishing Public Sphere,” raises some very interesting questions about location and the relevance of national narratives to the contemporary political imagination.
In the preface, Naaman takes note of the political impetus underlying modern Arab fiction as a whole, tying this impetus to the framing and contestation of real and imagined spaces: “Contemporary Arab authors,” she writes, “have used fiction as a way of responding to crucial, and often traumatic, historical moments…where questions of political authority and power are largely enacted through struggles over public space” (xx). She then sets out the framework for her reading of her chosen novels against the background of a broad range of disciplinary and theoretical interests and concerns—urban and postcolonial studies, architecture and art history, and globalization theory:
I hope to show the way in which the notion of the modern Egyptian subject has evolved in direct relationship to the changes manifest in the space of the downtown….Ultimately I hope to show how the contested nature of the downtown—as a spectacular imitation of European modernity, as Egyptian public sphere, as a site for staging revolution, and as a modernist ruin—was and continues to be central to the notion of what it means to be Egyptian. (xxi)
Naaman goes on to reflect on Cairo as an “oscillating landscape” whose neighborhoods are situated as “allegorical spaces through which we can read the history of the nation” (xxv). Through the accumulated passage of time and the imprints of generations, streets and neighborhoods take on the phantom nature of the palimpsest; “home” is constantly rewritten as part of an uncertain yet imperative project of liberation. The downtown, she writes in a poignant assessment, “remains a contingent space, marked by traces of the past and spaces of familiarity, but never offering a sense of a secure present” (xxv).
Naaman uses the Arabic term “Wust al-Balad” (center city; downtown) throughout the book rather than an English translation to signal the iconic status of this particular space in modern fiction as well as national history. She weaves a careful account of the area’s dramatic architectural and political history into her literary analysis of the way in which the four novels inscribe questions of agency, identity, language, critique, and nostalgia in spatial terms. The famous history of Khedive Isma‘il’s new city, Isma‘iliyya, or “Paris on the Nile,” and the great Cairo Fire of 1952 (during which furious crowds burnt a large chunk of this new city to the ground) are thus both major leitmotifs that recur at key points in the book. Naaman’s description of the process by which the novels’ characters engage in revisionist “mappings” of these histories in space is thus also an apt description of her own critical method (7). The bulk of this critical method is presented in the book’s introduction, “The Urban as Critical Frame,” and covers a broad cross-section of works and authors: the Cairo School of Urban Studies; Gwendolyn Wright’s work on French colonial design; Chicano border studies; and the work of Timothy Mitchell, Arjun Appadurai, and Sabry Hafez on (respectively) colonial modernity, global flows, and the “new novel” in Egypt.
At times, Naaman’s theoretical framing sits uneasily with her evocative and subtle readings of the novels themselves. Naaman closely follows a certain strand of postcolonial studies that proposes a spectacular, Western-authored (colonial) modernity as the presumed antithesis of a kind of authentic or antediluvian local identity and where points of contact or relationship are somehow inevitably defined by suspicion, corruption, or violation. Isma‘il’s new city is offered as “a spectacular imitation of European modernity,” a place that has “internalize[ed] the gaze of the West” (xxi, 1). In such a place, the circulation of capital takes the primary form of staged spectacles of consumption and public entertainment (the lavish department stores, clubs, and cafés of Cairo’s rich). Modernity then becomes an ontology: a fixed and external object (of desire or refusal) rather than a social habitus shot through with contradiction and struggle. The notion that “Egyptians [were] mere spectators in the staging of their own modernity” leads Naaman at times to problematic culturalist readings of political events (Timothy Mitchell quoted in Naaman, 12). For example, the Cairo Fire of 1952 becomes “a debate over what it meant to be modern” rather than a violent rejection of the political and economic structures of a collapsing colonial regime (16). She further argues that “the ‘Urabi rebellion of 1881-2, the revolution of 1919, the workers’ protest in 1946, and the fires and subsequent revolution in July 1952” were all a result of “the Khedive’s complete indifference to the older districts of Cairo (in terms of their architectural and infrastructural neglect)”—or more simply put, to “colonial modernity” (23, 32).
Naaman’s capable and sensitive close readings, however, point to the limits—if not the inadequacy—of this theoretical staging to describe and elicit the rich and complex texture of the novels themselves in their reflections on agency, identity, and loss in the modern Egyptian context. In chapters one and two (“Specter of Paris: The Staging of Cairo’s Modern City Center” and “Reconstructing a National Past: Radwa ‘Ashur’s Revisionist History of Downtown”), Naaman beautifully captures the way in which both the urban-architectural and the textual function as narrative acts that produce legibility and meaning for subjects and readers alike. She further builds on this insight in the next chapter, “The Indigenous Modernism of Khayri Shalabi: Popular Intellectuals and the Neighborhood Ghurza,” by elaborating on Michel de Certeau’s poetics of walking as a form of pedestrian enunciation and Jonathon Shannon’s exploration of modernity and musical improvisation in Syria. In her reading, the palimpsest of the city—the downtown and its “shadow thoroughfare[s]” (77)—is metaphorically composed by the active handling or use of its material structures (‘Ashur’s narrator, The Gazer, “re-members” the downtown by walking its streets and visually summoning its ghostly monuments) or by the continual crossing and re-crossing of porous, shadow borders inscribed into the urban landscape (Salih Hisa’s celebration of multiple social identities and languages; The Yacoubian Building’s crumbling vertical hierarchies). Ultimately, the book’s greatest strength lies here: in its compelling, engaged, and almost tender attention to the materiality of urban space as a lens that brings a whole history of collective desire, aspiration, and struggle into focus through the medium of fiction.
Toward the end of the book’s final chapter, “The Nation Recast through a National Bestseller: Alaa al-Aswany’s Ode to Downtown Cairo,” Naaman tentatively suggests the possibility of claiming this history-in-fiction as a living portrait of the imagined nation—“a master-narrative” as she puts it, “for the Egyptian experience” (167). Meanwhile, the resurgent “neo-bohemian” public sphere of the downtown that she describes in the book’s conclusion has once again metamorphosed into a fully insurgent space of struggle and contestation (169). In this moment of exhilarating and dizzyingly unreadable futures, Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature does an admirable job of underlining the ways in which “a reworking of the past vis-à-vis our cities is an important part of the process in determining who we are (and want to be) in the present” (176).
Samah Selim is assistant professor of Arabic literature at Rutgers University and the author of The Novel and the Rural Imaginary in Egypt 1880-1985 (Routledge, 2004).
[This review was originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here. This review was also published in Jadaliyya]
Learning from Cairo seeks to engage the current political and urban transformation unfolding in Cairo as a critical context for examining relevant international case studies and best practices in areas ranging from housing, transportation, public space, and local governance to informality. Learning from Cairo emphasizes a comparative and interdisciplinary approach bringing practitioners, academics, officials and local stakeholders into dialogue, with the objective of generating an ongoing critical urban discourse, and future visions for Cairo.
Friday, April 12th, 2013
Public Plenary sessions
9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Oriental Hall, Palace Building
American University in Cairo
(Arabic and English translation will be provided)
9:00 - 9:30 am Coffee and Registration
9:30 - 10:00 am Opening Remarks
Urban Political Change: Southern Perspectives
10:00 am - 12:00 pm
Khaled Fahmy, Department of History, AUC
Gautam Bhan, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Delhi
Mokena Makeka, Makeka Design Lab
Mohamed Elshahed, Cairobserver
12:00 - 1:30 pm Lunch and Prayer
Right to the City: Emergent Practices in Latin America
1:30 - 3:30 pm
Heba Raouf Ezzat, Cairo University
Jennifer Bremer, Department of Public Policy and Administration, School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, AUC
Lindsey Sherman, Urban-Think Tank, Caracas/ Zurich
Diane Singerman, Department of Government, American University, Washington D.C.; Tadamun: Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative
3:30 - 4:00 pm Coffee Break
Cities in Transition: Public Engagement and Civic Design
4:00 - 6:00 pm
David Sims, Author of Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control
Damon Rich, Division of Planning and Community Development, Newark, NJ
Gregers Tang Thomsen and Selva Gürdogan, Superpool, Istanbul
Ayman Ismail, Department of Management, School of Business, AUC
Saturday, April 13th, 2013
(please register for one tour only)
9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Tour 1. Urban Core
Led by: May Al-Ibrashy, Megawra
Mohamed Elshahed, Cairobserver
Tour 2: Desert Cities
Nabil Elhady, Cairo University
Rick Tutwiler, Desert Development Center, AUC
Tour 3: Informal Settlements
Yahia Shawkat, Shadow Ministry of Housing
Khaled Abdel Halim, Department of Public Policy and Administration, School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, AUC
Kareem Ibrahim, Urban Development Consultant | Co-Founder of Takween ICD
Tours end with a joint lunch in Al-Azhar Park
Sunday, April 14th, 2013
9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.
Parallel Working Sessions
9:00 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Falaki Academic Center, American University in Cairo
24 El Falaki Street, Bab El Louk
Coffee and Registration:
9:00 a.m.-9:30 a.m.
Morning parallel sessions:
9:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Session 1. Mapping Informality
Omar Nagati and Beth Stryker, CLUSTER
Gregers Tang Thomsen and Selva Gürdogan, Superpool
Discussant: Mohamed Elshahed, Cairobserver
Session 2. Evictions and Urban Citizenship
Gautam Bhan, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Delhi
Yahia Shawkat, Shadow Ministry of Housing, Cairo
Discussant: Joseph Schechla, Housing and Land Rights Network, Cairo
Session 3. Design Innovation and Urban Development
Mokena Makeka, Makeka Design Lab, Cape Town
Mohamad Abotera and Ahmed Zaazaa, MADD Platform
Discussant: Amr Abdelkawi, Department of Construction and Architectural Engineering, School of Sciences and Engineering, AUC
12:00 p.m.-1:00 p.m.
Afternoon parallel sessions:
1:00 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Session 4. Community Activism and Avenues of Participation
Kareem Ibrahim and Diane Singerman, Tadamun
Damon Rich, Chief Urban Designer, Division of Planning & Community Development, Newark, NJ and Founder, Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP)
Discussant: Khaled Abdel Halim, Department of Public Policy and Administration, School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, AUC
Session 5. Security, Segregation and Borders
Aida Elkashef, Filmmaker
Lara Baladi, Artist
Omnia Khalil, Urban Action
Video presentations and panel discussion
Discussant: Samia Mehrez, The Center for Translation Studies, AUC
Session 6. Research/Design Interventions and the Informal City
Lindsey Sherman, Urban-Think Tank, Caracas/Zurich; Chair of Architecture and Urban Design, ETH Zurich
Dina Shehayeb, Shehayeb Consult
Discussant: Magda Mostafa, Department of Construction and Architectural Engineering, School of Sciences and Engineering, AUC
Closing Session, Oriental Hall
Oriental Hall, Palace Building
American University in Cairo
4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.
More information to come.
With support from the Ford Foundation
and the American University of Cairo
Department of Construction and Architectural Engineering, School of Sciences and Engineering
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
School of Business
The Architecture Students Association (AA)
Additional sponsorship by
D-CAF is coming back to Downtown Cairo,
opening its doors to the public from 4-28 April 2013
Egyptian contemporary artists and performers will be joined by leading international names in a month-long calendar of independent music, performing arts, film, visual arts, street performances and workshops.
For information on D-CAF 2013 program please visit: www.d-caf.org
and d-caf blog: www.d-caf.org/blog
[Alice, a play presented as a world premiere in this year’s D-CAF, by the Lebanese Sawsan Bou Khaled and Hussein Baydoun]
The Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) opens its doors to the public for the second year, from 4-28 April 2013. After the successful launch of the festival last year, D-CAF is back with a rich program of contemporary performances and visual arts to be shown in historic locations and outdoor spaces in downtown Cairo. D-CAF is currently Egypt’s largest international contemporary multi-disciplinary festival and, throughout the month of April, Cairo audiences will enjoy a wide variety of independent theatre and dance performances, music concerts, visual arts exhibitions, film screenings and workshops.
D-CAF 2013 will feature some of Europe’s leading independent acts who will perform in Cairo - many for the very first time - alongside artists from Egypt and the region. For organisers this broad diversity of art forms and performers is what makes this festival unique: ” At D-CAF, we’re not presenting a single art form or a single trend. Rather, we’re trying to give Cairo audiences a snapshot of what is available, worldwide, in contemporary art today,” says Festival Director, Ahmed El Attar. “We’re trying to make the experience as varied as possible to cater to the widest possible audience”.
As a result of this focus, D-CAF’s month-long program of events will this year encompass around 130 international and Egyptian artists presenting work in a variety of art forms: this includes the D-CAF performing arts program which will include several internationally acclaimed acts such as Algerian Director, Kheireddine Lardjam’s play “End/Igne” performed by Compagnie El Ajoud and Anatomia Publica, a contemporary dance piece choreographed by renowned French choreographer, Tomeo Verges, who will also stage two original dance creations with Egyptian performers specially created for D-CAF. Dutch Theater Group, Hotel Modern, is also among acts featured and will bring their iconic theater piece “The Great War” to Egypt and the Arab world for the very first time. The D-CAF music program this year celebrates modern sounds representative of the streets and the revolution in a series of Thursday night concerts, throughout the duration of the festival. A star-studded line up of music acts will include America’s celebrity DJ Khadafi Dub, Tunisia’s Emel Mathlouthi and Egypt’s Dina el Wedidi and SADAT.
[The Dutch company Hotel Modern’s piece: The Great War.]
Building on the success of last year, D-CAF will once again present its Urban Visions program, a rich calendar of contemporary dance and performances taking place in the streets around Tahrir Square. These include the Netherlands Dance Group, 100 Hands who will be performing in Egypt for the very first time.
The festival’s visual arts program is this year curated by Cairo-based independent arts institution, Medrar for Contemporary Art, who will be exploring the digital frontier of contemporary visual arts through a series of collaborations between Egyptian and international artists. The D-CAF film program will explore underground and resistance cinema with a special focus on Contemporary West African Cinema. Meanwhile, the Edutainment program will offer a series of public seminars and workshops, including workshops for artists and for children delivered by Britain’s renowned Bootworks Theater Collective.
According to Ahmed El Attar: “We want to use D-CAF as a platform to attract, into Egypt, regional and international performers who are shaping the world of contemporary art but whom Egyptian audiences rarely get to see. The Festival also hopes to create opportunities for collaboration and cross-fertilisation between these international names and Egypt’s own thriving independent arts scene.”
The Cairo Urban Resource Library is a project initiated by Omar Nagati and Beth Stryker (CLUSTER) and is supported by the British Council. The idea is simple: to create a publicly accessible architecture and urban studies library in a central location.
The library is located in the premises of CLUSTER, Cairo Laboratory for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research, at 43 Sherif Street, 3rd Floor.
The library is a work in progress and is soon to be opened to the public. Architect Omar Nagati and curator/architect Beth Stryker believe having a well-stocked library of urban and architectural books available to architects, planners and students is an important piece of “infrastructure” that is lacking in Cairo. At present most of the books in the library are from Nagati’s private collection but they are looking to partner with others owning similar libraries willing to collaborate as part of the project. CURL will also accept book donations (email below for contact).
The library is being cataloged in Arabic and English and its cataloging system will be a parallel system to Rufoof, which is an initiative that aims to catalog Cairo’s many and separate art libraries. CURL aims to veer more in the direction of urban/architectural libraries using an especially designed system.
Cairo’s lack of public libraries and specialist libraries focusing on items related to the city or urbanism and architecture in general, makes CURL a particularly significant project. Another resource library for architecture and urbanism is available at the premise of MEGAWRA in Heliopolis. One of CURL’s objectives is to link architecture resource libraries across Cairo via the shared cataloging system. Also important to note that university libraries, including those in architecture departments, have limited collections and those which maybe more up-to-date, such as AUC’s or GUC’s libraries, are less accessible to the public and are far outside the city center. Thus, students of architecture seeking to further develop this knowledge beyond the classroom will need alternative and specialized libraries such as the one being built in downtown by CLUSTER.
CLUSTER already has plans to expand the library to include a maps section and to seek Cairo-specific works such as dissertations, student projects, development agency reports, etc. They are also looking to develop a lexicon of Arabic terminology to match with contemporary and recent terms and concepts that appeared in the professions of planning and architecture, which don’t have Arabic translations.
CLUSTER welcomes contributions to the library, including donations of books from publishers or individuals, pertaining to Cairo architecture and urbanism.
For further information or to inquire about how to join the CURL network, support this library or to donate books contact CLUSTER at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The author of Architecture for the Dead, Galila El Kadi’s new book on Cairo’s central area and its development since the 19th century is a much needed addition to the literature on the city. The bi-lingual book, in French and English, combines disciplinary approaches such as history, social history, urban geography, architectural history and urban morphology. The Cairo central area “is composed of the medieval city, the modern city established in the mid-19th century, and the new district extensions dating back to the middle of the past century, which have received activities migrating from the original sectors as well as recent innovative technological activities. The CCA (Cairo Central Area) is the product of fusion of diverse areas that were separate cities in the past but have become central districts of today’s metropolis.” (14)
The area covered in El Kadi’s book is what David Sims referred to as the formal/historic core. It includes 1000 year old streets as well as more recent development dating from the 1970s. Districts included in this core are: Boulaq, Azbakeya, Ismailia (downtown), Daher, Old Town (a large area with several historic districts known as the medieval city, known touristicly as “Islamic Cairo”), Mounira, Garden City, Roda, Zamalek, Doqqi, Giza, and Mohandessine.
[Limits of the Cairo Central Area, according to El Kadi, p.15]
The book is divided into three well illustrated chapters each looking at the central area of Cairo with a different set of tools. The first addresses Cairo’s centrality within the national and regional contexts. The second provides an analytical approach to the city’s anatomical development over two centuries with particular attention to issues of urban form, pattern, landmarks, distribution of functions, and evolution of residential areas. The final chapter zooms in on a neighborhood, a square and a street to reveal further details about the layers of the city and its anatomy. In this final chapter architectural typology takes a leading position as the scale of analysis shifts from the urban to accommodate the architectural scale. Questions pertaining to urban morphology and fabric string the three chapters together.
[Ramses Street, an architectural catalogue, p. 157]
The third chapter is particularly interesting. The author identifies parts of the urban anatomy then follows three approaches in analyzing such parts to “grasp these spaces in their material and intangible dimensions.” The first approach is historical and aims to “grasp the initial moment of the urban project’s conception and its evolution.” The second approach is morphological and it “inspects the elements of urban make-up and analyses the interrelations between the hierarchy of thoroughfares, the forms of land division and the constructions.” And the third approach is what the author calls “sensitive” which “reflects on perceptions, impressions and illustrates the memories linked to specific place and imparts a new meaning to it.”
Galila El Kadi’s Cairo is a much needed, well researched, clearly written, and richly illustrated addition to the literature on Cairo. The book makes some significant departures from previous works on Cairo by demarcating the Cairo Central Area as a unit of analysis rather the conventional approach of focusing on parts of this central area (downtown, or the medieval city) severed from their context. The book also provides a wealth of new information regarding urban transformation of various districts over time. For example the district of Garden City is rendered in four maps on page 228 which show the development of this zone from 1930 to 2006. Such maps, and diagrams in addition to photographs provide an easy to read wealth of information that shows change over time rather than the conventional snapshot view of a particular location during a particular time. This is a book about Cairo as a changing and moving city.
The book concludes by suggesting that a close reading of the city’s development over the past several decades reveals the resilience of the central area as a focus of the city despite decentralization plans by the government. Perhaps this study will attract the attention of policymakers, and consultants who have mislead previous governments that moving away from the center is a worthwhile endeavor. It is time to reconsider plans to escape Cairo and to focus development and regeneration plans back to the center where the spirit of Cairo lives on.
Goethe Institut [5 El Bostan Street, Downtown, Cairo]
December 8, 2012
6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
Tamer El Said, Filmmaker, Co-founder of Cimateque
Heba Farid, Artist, Founding member of Contemporary Image Collective (CIC),
Project Coordinator of the Photographic memory of Egypt program for CULTNAT
Bruce Ferguson, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the American University in Cairo
Karim Shafei, CEO of Al Ismaelia Real Estate Developments
Ania Szremski, Curator, Townhouse Gallery
Moderated by: Mohamed Elshahed, Founder and Editor of Cairobserver.
This panel discussion explores the role that artists and arts organizations are playing in the development of Downtown Cairo. A direct dialogue between representatives of Al Ismailia Real Estate Developments and The American University in Cairo with artists and cultural organizations currently staking out cultural outposts downtown (including Townhouse Gallery, Cimateque, and CIC), the panel re-examines the classic appropriation of artists as catalysts for urban regeneration by real-estate developers seeking future gentrification. How might things play out differently in Cairo? How is Cairo different from other cities, such as New York and Beirut, where such cycles of gentrification have taken place? What role may the underutilized AUC campus play in providing a cultural anchor Downtown? What are the advantages and downsides of private sector partnerships between real estate stakeholders and independent artists and arts organizations? Through critical conversation this forum seeks to explore potential local strategies for sustaining artists’ access to the generative contributions they make to urban development.
This program is curated and organized by Beth Stryker and Omar Nagati/Cluster with support from the Ford Foundation and the Goethe Institut. It is part of a series of activities sponsored by the Ford Foundation that aim to provide a platform to facilitate communication and learning among Egyptians working on issues affecting the urban environment.
الفنانيين كمحفز للعمران
معهد جوته: 5 شارع البستان – وسط البلد
السبت 8 ديسمبر، 2012
من الساعة 6 إلى 8 مساءا
تامر السعيد، مخرج، الشريك المؤسس لسيماتيك
بروس فيرجسون، عميد كلية العلوم الإنسانية والاجتماعية، الجامعة الأمريكية في القاهرة
كريم الشافعي، الرئيس التنفيذي لشركة الاسماعيلية للتطوير العمرانى
انيا سريمسكي، المنسق، تاون هاوس جاليري
تحت إشراف: محمد الشاهد، مؤسس ورئيس تحرير كايرو ابزرفر
تسعى هذہ الجلقة إلى خلق حوار نقدى ما بين مطور العمران ومؤسسات مالكة لأرصدة عمرانية (الإسماعلية و الجامعة الامريكية) من جهة، ومؤسسات ثقافية وفنية ذات مواقع متقدمة فى عمران وسط المدينة (تاون هاوس جاليري، سيماتيك، مجموعة الصورة المعاصرة) وذلك لإستكشاف الدور الذى يلعبة الفنانون فى تطوير وسط المدينة، وتطوير رؤى بديلة ومستدامة للإطر المؤسسية والمالية للساحات الفنية والثقافية (منهم من يتعرضون لخطر الإنتقال خارج وسط المدينة بنهاية عقودهم الإيجارية قصيرة الأجل). وسوف يتم التعرض لأمثلة إقليمية ودولية بمدن أخرى من خلال رؤية مقارنة لدراسة دور الأرصدة االثقافية والإقتصادية فى تطوير الثراث العمرانى لوسط المدينة.
ينظم هذہ الجلسة كلا من بث ستريكر وعمر نجاتى بدعم من مؤسسة فورد ومعهد غوته. وهى جزء من سلسلة من الأنشطة التي ترعاها مؤسسة فورد والتي تهدف إلى توفير منصة لتسهيل الاتصال والتعاون بين المصريين العاملين على القضايا التي تؤثر في البيئة الحضرية.
Bottom up approach to communicate heritage: a project in Downtown Cairo
How would it be possible to link the everyday users of the historical city with the tangible values of the building heritage?
Downtown Cairo is the district developed under the Khedive Ismail at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The city plan was inspired by the streets and squares pattern introduced by Haussmann in Paris, and several European (and Egyptian) architects built palaces and apartment buildings using a rich stylistic vocabulary. Nowadays Downtown is the main lively heart of the city, hosting small shops, offices, houses, cafes and restaurants in a complex social, religious and functional equilibrium. A general lack of regulations regarding how to deal with the heritage and an old rental system are the main reasons for the neglect of the architecture and numerous demolitions of the old Ismaelia buildings. Some studies and projects started surveying and analysing the architecture and the intangible heritage (oral histories) of Downtown, but the main problem still remain the lack of interactions and communication between these scientific works and the inhabitants of the historical buildings:
The first step for the conservation is knowledge.
This project has the main purpose to start and encourage the communication between specialists and inhabitants in both directions, developing and supporting the awareness of everybody towards the architecture of Downtown. The coffee shop in Mohamed Mahmoud Street was selected to introduce small modification in the objects of daily use with a corporate design based on images of buildings and information about Downtown. It becomes the location for activities related to the architecture of the area. On the other hand, the project team is collecting the memories and stories of the inhabitants related to the places to document and to share the link between the tangible and the intangible heritage of Downtown.
The Downtown project is initiated by Vittoria Capresi and Barbara Pampe - Architecture and Urban Design Program GUC - and financed by the German Academic Exchange Service DAAD.
More info: www.baladilab.com
UPDATE November 22, 2012: The launch event on November 27th has been canceled.
UPDATE December 13, 2012: “Take a coffee with your heritage” launches TODAY!
Built in the 1930’s, Cinema Radio is located on Talaat Harb St. (formally Soliman Pasha St.), the most frequently visited street in Downtown Cairo. The building is composed of two main elements: an office building fronting the street and a cinema reached through a passage. The office building is made up of over 120 rooms and the cinema building (originally one large cinema hall with Cairo’s largest screen which was later split into two separate levels) now hosts a cinema and a theater, each 1,500 sqm, which are both currently vacant. The passageway runs through the office building leading to the cinema, with commercial space lined on both sides. During the glory days of Downtown, Cinema Radio premiered Egypt’s most prominent movies and was frequently visited by the affluent society of Egypt.
No this is not about “westernization” or inauthentically copying some European monopoly on 20th century modernity. The cinema was among a series of large movie houses built all around Egyptian cities by Egyptian private investors who have built a great deal of wealth since the early 1920s following the 1919 revolution and the establishment of Egyptian financial institutions such as Bank Misr and its companies including Misr Studio (for film production). This was the golden age of Egyptian cinema and these deco movie houses were the spatial manifestation of that new form of public sphere, one that is rooted in the 20th century (the spirit of the time, zeitgeist) and not in the spirit of Europe as Eurocentrists propagate.
As the film industry suffered, the former capitalist elite was eradicated after the early 1960s nationalization of private wealth, the buildings that stood as testament of a vibrant private sector economy (office buildings) and active film industry (the large screen of Cinema Radio) deteriorated and were later occupied by new tenets who tried to use the space in ways that accommodated their needs. The building is emblematic of the disappearance of downtown’s prestigious status which is a story not unique to Cairo but one which can be found in downtowns all across the world from European capitals such as Lisbon to North European cities such as Detroit. Regeneration of these downtowns is a controversial proposition and is challenging.
The challenge: What to do with real estate which was built to fit a particular economic strata and architecturally and spatially reflects a level of grandeur? The other aspect is the historical value of this real estate, these buildings are not abstract square footage. This real estate has the additional value of heritage and history and acts as testament of Egyptian modernity and historical development. Losing this real estate is akin to losing the documents, the evidence and facts on the ground that showcase Egypt’s 20th century modernity IN SPITE OF colonialism not because of it.
Some have imposed a western-centric leftist critique of the idea of regenerating downtown Cairo. In western capitals, built with the wealth generated from two hundred years of colonialism, slavery and exploitation, the discourse of preservation is a right wing one. Rightly so anti-gentrification movements represent resistance to such approaches to urban development. However I would argue that this perspective is not universal and should not be applied wholesale outside the context of western metropolitan centers, particularly European capitals. In the Egyptian context, reviving a history of modern Egypt, spot lighting it and making it accessible to a wider Egyptian and visiting public could have the potential of resisting colonial and neocolonial narratives about Egyptian inferiority and “failed modernization.” This is a debate for another post.
[Video: Al-Ismaelia’s Karim Shafei takes al-Masry al-Youm on a tour of Cinema Radio]
Cinema Radio should be seen in this context. It is currently owned by Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments and the company intends to bring the building back to life in its efforts to invest in downtown. The building had been largely vacant, like many downtown buildings and the company was able to reach deals with former tenents and buy the property. The property is challenging however because of the vast scale of the cinema which as I said above reflected a much more vibrant film industry in Egypt. Today it would be impossible to fill such a hall for film screenings everyday and therefore it will be difficult to be financially sustainable. The necessary approach is to think outside the box which led to a recent deal struck with the popular TV program El Barnameg to film its shows in front of a live audience using the theater space.
[Video: Teaser promo for Season 2 of El Bernameg TV show featuring Cinema Radio]
This intervention should be the first step in a longer process of renovation and revitalization that will utilize the office building as well as the commercial spaces in the passageway leading to the cinema. Architect Hassan Abouseda has created some preliminary proposals for the building’s revival featured on his website.
[Cinema Radio facade of the office building facing Talaat Harb Street with passage in the center leading to the cinema in the back. Before and after renovation image from Hassan Abouseda architects]
[Current state of the Cinema facade showing the original understated modernist 1930s facade and additional adjustments added by the previous owner, which will be removed during renovation]
[Interior of the cinema space, the upper tier, which sits above the theater space on the level below]
Photo Cairo 5: more out of curiosity than conviction
14 Nov – 17 Dec 2012
Photo Cairo 5: more out of curiosity than conviction is a large-scale contemporary art project in Downtown Cairo.
14 November-17 December 2012
Preview: 8pm, 14 November
Artists: Mohamed Abdelkarim, David Degner, Ahmed El Ghoneimy, Samir ElKordy, Saskia Holmkvist, Iman Issa, Hassan Khan, Basim Magdy, Elizabeth Price, André Romão, Ben Russell, Hanaa Safwat, Sarah Samy, Noura Seif, Mahmoud Tarek, and Sama Waly
Townhouse Factory Space (information point)
Contemporary Image Collective (CIC)
Mahmoud Bassiouny st shopfront
PhotoCairo 5 is about ways in which reality is splintered and shifts of subjectivity are made. Involving international and local, emerging and established artists, this exhibition explores the ability of art to trigger affective responses within the viewer.
PhotoCairo 5 explores forces at play in reshaping reality, such as paranoia, the act of recognition, and altered states of consciousness. Bodies, materials and knowledges radically unreconciled to their political, architectural, institutional surroundings appear across the show: from the tale of a hysterical dancing spree near the site of the European Parliament, to an impossible monument to the revolution, and the absurd power dynamics of a re-enacted citizen’s arrest gone wrong.
The project takes its title from a passing comment in Harun Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution, in which existing footage of the Romanian revolution of 1989 is narrated with attention to the position and motivations of the person filming. The comment refers to the decision – more out of curiosity than conviction – of a state TV camera operator to ‘glance’ the camera sideways at an emerging protest, against instructions. Farocki’s treatment of the material calls attention to this gesture over the depicted event. If art is to handle ‘revolutionary acts’, here the camera operator’s innocent curiosity and bodily uncertainty takes the place of grand representational gestures, yet crucially, allow us to witness the awakening of a radical reality.
17 November, Goethe Institut, Bustan St
Contributors: Mia Jankowicz; Angela Harutyunyan; Malak Helmy; Noura Seif, Mahmoud Tarek, Sarah Samy, and Sama Waly; Basim Magdy, Jasmina Metwaly, and May Al-Ibrashi; Hassan Khan.
Since early 2011, in common with many of their international colleagues, Egyptian artists have been subjects of a debate concerning their relationship to politics as artists, activists, or citizens.
This symposium aims to expand upon the oft-cited truism that it is nearly always ‘too soon’ to make art—not because this sentiment is not usually true, but because it tends to foreclose a reflection on what nevertheless goes on as a creative process in the exceptionally exciting ‘too soon’ moment anyway. Through examining this critically neglected space, and from a position of near-exhaustion, we might locate a link between the revolutionary moment and the artistic one.
Harun Farocki screening programme
24-28 TBC November, Beirut
Harun Farocki is a German filmmaker and artist best known for his experimental documentaries produced since 1969. In more than a hundred films and installations he draws our attention to the visible and invisible complexities of everyday life, consistently pushing formal boundaries with the persistent eye of a critical observer to raise questions dedicated to social coexistence, power relations, politics, the cruelty of warfare, and the growing dominance of capitalism. With his distinctive camera and montage techniques Farocki assesses the fabrication of perceptual habits and how it is altered by the advent of new technologies. In collaboration with Beirut, Cimatheque and the Goethe Institut, PhotoCairo 5 will present a series of screenings of Farocki’s works. The recurring theme of labour is the subject of the long-term international research project “Labour In A Single Shot” started jointly with film critic and curator Antje Ehmann. It entails a series of filmmaking workshops, the most recent being Cairo, realised by Beirut in cooperation with CIC, Cimatheque and the Goethe Institutes in Cairo and Alexandria. The screening programme will segue the concerns of the workshop and PhotoCairo 5.
The Edge of the Image screening programme
5-11 December, Cimatheque
The Edge of the Image is a work in progress programme that observes the filmmaker’s attempts to deal with the technological transitions of the medium throughout the history of cinematic language. Through five films and a discursive platform, and in the context of a time of larger transitions, this programme re-questions the transitional periods in cinema history, and investigates moments when the image has pushed its edge and risen up against its given boundaries.
In keeping with the educational remit of many Egyptian art institutions, and with CIC’s investment in peer mentoring in the last months, a number of artists are engaging in a process of peer mentoring in order to develop works specifically for PhotoCairo 5. Artist Doa Aly has mentored the artists Sara Samy, Noura Seif, Mahmoud Tarek, and Sama Waly. This process is also a form of research for Aly, who has been commissioned to write a text noting the tensions and issues of the formation of young artists; the process is a critically concentrated version of arguably the most successful way artists are ‘trained’: talking to other artists. The commissioned works can be found in the exhibition, and Doa Aly’s text will be published alongside the PhotoCairo 5 catalogue in March 2013.
PhotoCairo 5 is dedicated to the memory of Shaymaa Sabra, beloved member of the CIC staff who passed away on 28 October 2012.
Curatorial essay by Mia Jankowicz, click here.
For more information see the PhotoCairo 5 Facebook page.
Walks is a series of posts which will address certain urban and/or architectural themes which can be investigated by following a short walking route with suggested sites and clues.
Theme: Public Space (parks and squares)
Time to complete walk: 2-3 hours depending on how long you spend at each stop.
Lookout for: fences, security, thresholds, pedestrian areas, landscaping (particularly shade trees).
Start this walk at Saad Zaghloul Square in front of the memorial gate for the opera complex in Zamalek. The Square is adorned by a statue of Saad Zaghloul by Mahmoud Mukhtar. The statue stands on top of a tall pedestal in the form of four adjoined closed lotus bud columns. Turn your back to the square and enter into the opera complex. Note the multi-layered threshold which marks a clear separation between the sidewalk (a public space) and the campus of the cultural buildings surrounding the opera house (another public space). First the Moorish style monumental gate architecturally marks the point of entry from the square into the complex, however there are other security-oriented, yet dysfunctional, layers: a metal fence with a small opening the size of a regular door (not fit for the scale of the space, nor inviting/welcoming for passers by to enter this public space), once through the metal fence there is a dysfunctional metal detector that is only there for appearances in addition to a policeman also there for an appearance of security but with little utility at this location.
Once inside, the complex (1) is fairly pleasant with a collection of buildings, many of which are from the 1930s when this was Cairo fair ground, that house various cultural institutions, such as the terribly organized and managed Museum of Modern Art and the music library. Walk through and exit from the back gate near al-Galaa Bridge.
[On Tahrir Street between fences separating various public spaces. The building seen here is the former Museum of Egyptian Civilization which has been under “renovation” for a decade, a clear case of corruption in plain sight.]
Turn left onto Tahrir Street. This is a rather strange pedestrian experience walking between Galaa Square back to Saad Zaghloul Square where the walk began. To the right (South) is a park (public space) and to the left (North) is the opera complex (public space) and you are walking on the street which is clear public space yet there are fences all around. Both the park and the opera grounds are fenced making the street a long caged space. A telling moment of the security paradigm that governs the way public space and sidewalks are currently designed is in the middle of Tahrir Street at the Opera Metro Station exit which blocks nearly the entire sidewalk forcing pedestrians to walk sideways between the exit and the park fence.
At the end of the street walk into Tahrir Park (must pay 2LE) and explore its landscaping and statues (2). Note the section which had been taken away from the park and occupied by a military post (predating 2011). Also note the behavior and interactions between park staff and patrons.
Next, exit Horeyya/Tahrir Park and cross the street north to Andalus Park (3), another landscaped public space with a little bit of history and a lot to observe regarding its contemporary condition and design. Note the entrance right on Saad Zaghloul Square which is permanently closed (typically public spaces should be accessible from the most high visibility and high pedestrian traffic points if their purpose is to invite as much of the public as possible. The entrance however is to the side on the street facing the Novotel Hotel. There is an entry fee as well: you have two choices, a 2LE ticket for the lower part of the park or a 5LE (10LE for foreigners) to enter the lower and the upper part of the park which was designed in 1935 by Mohamed Bek DhulFaqqar with Moorish inspiration. This part of the park is worth a visit.
[Views of al-Andalus Garden where the ticket is 5-10LE.]
Before exiting this green public space note the relationship between this park and the Nile. This is a park along the river, yet you can hardly see it nor feel that connection. The park is divided from the Nile, where there is yet another and a different kind of public space along the waterfront, yet all those public spaces are subdivided and separated.
Exit the park and return back to the starting point at Saad Zaghloul Square, take note of the Qasr el Nil lions and proceed to cross the bridge. The bridge (4) is one of Cairo’s prime public spaces for promenading, mostly because of the lack of publicly accessible Nile-side spaces. The bridge is also bi-polar, during the day it is a city bridge dominated by vehicular traffic, while at night it transforms into a social space where the sidewalks throng with couples, friends and families and traffic is squeezed into one lane per direction as the pedestrians park their cars to enjoy the view.
Once across the bridge, you are now entering the vast ambiguously defined urban space that is Tahrir Square (5). From an urban planning perspective this isn’t a typical square in the sense that the relationship between the open space and the architectural edge (how the buildings define and contain the space) is fragmented and lacks form. Much can be said about this part of central Cairo but give yourself time to stand at several points and observe the space, how it is used, how cars and pedestrians flow through it, how security regimes fragment the pedestrian space and have put up obstacles but also how people have taken matters into their own hands to deal with those hurdles to make it work. A particularly clear example of the above mentioned observations is the space directly in front of the Mogamaa building.
[Gomhoreya (Abdeen) Square during Al Fann Midan when the public is invited to make use of the space. On most days however the square isn’t well-used because of lack of basic amenities such as benches, proper lighting, shade trees, restrooms, etc.]
After Tahrir get back on Tahrir Street and stay on it in the direction of Abdeen Palace. Halfway between Tahrir Square and Abdeen Palace there is an interesting urban space, Bab el Louq Square (6). This long elliptical space is surrounded by a collection of buildings from the first decade of the 20th century to the 1960s. A notable building is the central market on the south side of the square. The square was once a major hub for several tram lines but now it has been transformed into a parking lot. It is easy to stand here and imagine a different kind of square where the center is a pedestrian space with benches and shade trees rather than parked cars.
Continue on Tahrir Street towards Al Gomhoreya Square (Republic Square) facing Abdeen Palace (7). This is an important space in modern Cairo’s urban history because it is facing the modern seat of power which moved to this location from the Citadel in the 1860s and it was also the site where after the military coup of 1952 the power of the new regime was put on display in the form of military parades. Today the square is where Al Fann Midan street festival takes place on the first Saturday of every month, a new chapter it the square’s life which reflects the political events of last year.
This is another city square with history and potential for increased public life. With some simple design interventions the square could be far more pedestrian friendly. To the north are the buildings of the municipality (governorate) and to the south is a fragmented fabric of residential buildings. This square is significant urbanistically because it is one of three major spaces in Cairo which link the pre-19th century city with the 19th century expansion. The other two spaces are Azbakeya Garden and Ramses Square.
Conclude your walk by exploring Mohamed Farid Square (8), at the beginning of Emad Eddin Street, one of modern Cairo’s most beautiful and important streets. The square is one of 9 circular square scattered around downtown Cairo. Note the contrast between this space and Talaat Harb Square (9) when it comes to the way the architecture defines the urban space. The architectural container of Mohamed Farid is a collage of shapes, sizes and architectural styles that reflect a greater economic diversity than its counterpart at Talaat Harb. Also note in all of these circular squares how pedestrians, shops and vehicular traffic interact. Most of these circular squares are adorned by statues of figures from Egypt’s modern history.
Further reading related to this walk is Cairo’s Street Stories:Exploring the City’s Statues, Squares, Bridges, Gardens, and Sidewalk Cafés by Lesley Lababidi, published by AUC Press.