Very rare blue skies in our usually polluted city.
(Happy Mother's Day!)
Very rare blue skies in our usually polluted city.
(Happy Mother's Day!)
Lovely piece by Nael Shama in Le Monde Diplomatique on how Morsi and other Egyptian presidents did not understand Cairo, unlike Nasser who made it the centerpiece of his modernist societal project:
Only Nasser — who clipped the wings of the aristocracy and uplifted the poor, creating a viable middle class — bonded with Cairo. The expansion in education and health services and the establishment of an industry-oriented public sector gave rise to, and consolidated, Egypt’s middle class in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956, he vowed steadfastness against the tripartite aggression (Suez) from the rostrum of the widely revered Al-Azhar mosque, in the heart of Cairo’s old Islamic city. “I am here in Cairo with you and my children are also here in Cairo. I did not send them away [for protection from air raids],” he said, to affirm his loyalty to the city.
Nasser did not travel much during his reign. He was not a big fan of the tourist retreats of Egypt’s pre-revolution aristocracy. He stayed in Cairo, and there he died. In the autumn of 1970, Nasser resided for a few days in Cairo’s posh Nile Hilton during the emergency Arab summit convened to put an end to the bloody Palestinian-Jordanian conflict — Black September. On the night of September 27th, on the balcony of his hotel room that overlooked River Nile, Kasr El-Nil Bridge and the lights of the city that never sleeps, he told his friend Mohamed Heikal: “This is the best view in the world.” On the following day, he died.
Sixth of October Bridge is missing parts of its railing. Although only one armored vehicle was fell off it.
With one eye on the railing rather than the road and another on his phone, my cousin searched for a scandalous picture on his phone. “I found it! Look at actress Elham Shaheen sleeping naked next to Mahmoud Abdel Aziz!” he said, showing us a blurry picture of a clothed Menna Shalabi and Kareem Abdul Aziz cuddling under a blanket that’s only a few inches short of their neck.
“And then she gets mad when Abdullah Badr calls her a whore,” my father said, shaking his head, and passed the phone to my uncle to see.
“Oh, it’s art! It has a message within the dramatic context; it’s purposeful!” my uncle quoted the common intellectual defense of nudity in films in a singsong manner.
“The message is: I am a whore,” my cousin replied. They guffawed.
The laughter died once the Ministry of Finance finally came into view, it was reportedly attacked by MB supporters on Wednesday night with Molotov cocktails. 24 hours later, parts of the building were on fire again. On the seventh floor, bright yellow and orange flames were dancing unfettered by the three fire trucks parked in front of the building. The firefighters, distracted by their sandwiches, had pointed their hoses a tad too low, accidentally watering the shrubbery in front of the ministry instead of putting out the fire.Read More
The radio program The World just ran a piece I did on the Cairo arts scene and particularly on how artists are taking advantage of the current chaos/freedom to use public spaces they were barred from before and to connect with new audiences.
I also spoke to several other artists, but due to time constraints, those conversations didn't make it into the piece.
Artist Hady Kamar, for example, took time to chat with me about the difficulties of defining "revolutionary" art and the reasons behind the (modest but noticeable) increase in new arts spaces and initiatives in Cairo.
"I think a lot of people are doing more now on their own because a lot of the promises of the revolution weren't fulfilled, " Kamar said. "For example, openness -- societal openness or just a political openness. You can only rely on yourself and you can't sit around relying on [the fact that] the government is going to assist with this or we're going to become a place where there are going to be a lot of cultural spaces, without people taking it on themselves and doing it themselves. "
Kamar is one of the artists behind the charming new Nile Sunset Annex, a one-room exhibition space (in an apartment/studio in Garden City) that puts on a monthly show of physical (as opposed to digital) work and that, in my view, plays with the boundaries between professional art-making and other forms of creativity and craftsmanship, as well as those between genres (in the two shows I've gone to I've seen drawing, music, furniture replicas and embroidery).
The other artists I had the pleasure of meeting recently is Amira Hanafy, who did a piece entitled Mahdy's Walk for the gallery Art Ellewa (in the informal neighborhood of Ard Ellewa). In fact, I am part of Hanafy's piece, an aural portrait of the area made up of conversations with residents and visitors, recorded while following a circuit through the neighborhood. The walk took in one of the remaining open fields in the area, a patch of emerald-green barsoum that will undoubtedly be gone in a few years (there are already half-built apartment blocks standing on its edge) and the sound collage features conversations about the area's history, break-neck development and problems: land speculation, security, garbage collection.
While not all art can (or need) be socially or politically engaged, this particular moment in Egypt is such that many artists are both looking for new models to organize and sustain themselves and for ways to break out of Cairo's small alternative gallery scene and engage wider audiences. Hanafy's piece and the work at Art Ellewa generally is a great example of art that is embedded in, and relevant to, the community that surrounds it.
www.cuipcairo.org is a new website that acts as a central repository of information on events, initiatives, organizations and more that have to do with Cairo's built environment. Bookmark them, there's an events calendar function that has recently been added and is very handy for tracking what's going on about town. More info available in this PDF.
I've written something on the London Review of Books blog about the last few weeks -- and the dispirited, unsettled mood -- in Cairo.
I start by describing a little unwanted detour I had to take recently.
The street lamps on the Kasr El Nil bridge are out. The Semiramis hotel is battered and shuttered: during the latest round of clashes the hotel was looted by a well-armed mob that showed up one night at 2 a.m. The staff called the army and the police, in vain. As our taxi turns the corner by the Semiramis – on the edge of Tahrir Square, a few minutes from the American Embassy – there’s a crowd of young men in the street in front of us. A boy with a keffiyeh wrapped around his mouth winds up his arm and lets loose, aiming squarely at our windscreen – but his hand is empty, he’s just joking. Another boy waves us through. The first boy comes running over and, hanging on the open window, yells at the driver. I’m too flustered to catch what he says, but it’s clear we won’t be let through. We head back to the bridge, back across the Nile, up the other side and home by a different bridge.
And go on to discuss how masked teenagers closing down major thoroughfares for kicks is the mildest form of the trouble we're in.
This week, my Latitude post looks at the recent decision by Egyptian authorities to impose earlier closing times. I am against this — not in the absolute, but because the decision has been hastily prepared, Here's the crux of my reasoning:
This is why the government’s recent decision — made without public consultation or forewarning — to impose closing times on shops, cafés and restaurants nationwide came as such a shock. The authorities argue that forcing stores to close early will save electricity, something of a necessity because Egypt is constantly on the brink of brownouts. (This summer there were even prolonged blackouts when the national grid collapsed because of air-conditioner use). The curfew, it is hoped, will also improve traffic by sending people home early, and impose order on residential areas that are otherwise kept awake at night by street noise.
At least that’s the theory. Shopkeepers, chambers of commerce, business associations and much of the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government say the decision will hurt an already struggling economy. Many also fear that enforcing strict closing times will only exacerbate the traffic problem, at least at certain times — especially since the government intends to impose the new rule without preparation. Metro and bus service has not been increased, for instance, and no special provisions have been made to accommodate shorter working days, like increased parking space.
After the government’s original deadline for closing most shops at 10 p.m. and restaurants at midnight — Nov. 1 — came and went with nary a change in behavior, it relented. It pushed back the curfew for shops to midnight and the deadline for implementation to next week. Some restaurants and bars will also get to stay open till 2 a.m.
Read the whole thing, of course.
Friend-of-the-blog and fellow gentleman flaneur Matt Hall has a new piece at PRINT magazine about Cairo's hectic printing district alongside Mohammed Ali St, which is where one gets business cards and other office stationary. The article is not online (you can get a copy of the mag through the link above though) but Matt has some extra material up on this blog he contributes to:
When Flaubert travelled to Egypt in 1849 in the guise of an oriental adventurer, the famous novelist accompanied his friend Maxime du Camp to the summit of great pyramid. Precluding any sense of a pioneering accomplishment, Flaubert reached the summit at dawn only to find pinned to the capstone… a business card.
The light increases. There are two things: the dry desert behind us, and before us an immense, delightful expanse of green, furrowed by endless canals, dotted here and there with tufts of palms; then, in the background, a little to the left, the minarets of Cairo and especially the mosque of Mohamed Ali (imitating Santa Sophia), towering above the others. On the side of the Pyramid lit by the raising sun I see a business card: ‘Humbert, Frotteur’ fastened to the stone.
The card gave a Rouen address, Flaubert’s hometown. It had been placed there as a gag by Maxime.
My own contribution to the wonders of Egyptian business cards will be a lot less literary. I recently found this one, for an upholsterer, while cleaning out my desk:
Flaubert might have approved.
This film about the call to prayer in Cairo sounds cool — it looks at the project to unify the Adhan (on the grounds that the cacophony of different mosques was disagreable, I suppose). I actually love hearing the dissonant Adhans of Cairo, particularly when in the medieval part of the city (which has a high density of mosques with high minarets) — it can be a very beautiful thing to hear all of these calls, precisely because they are not in sync. I wonder if the question of noise pollution might not be better handled by improving the quality of speakers mosques use (the distortion they cause can be awful) or better yet, not using amplification altogether.
The directors have a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to finish the film — help out here.
Speaking of the geography of the current street protests in Cairo, and my observations from this morning and this afternoon, here's a quick map that shows much of the city is now cordoned off.
Update: I've corrected some errors on the original map and added a couple of more details. See also this latest post on the fighting moving to Nubar Street, and some history of the names of these streets.
I went down to the warzone near the Interior Ministry this morning around 9am. There were a lot fewer people, but still a few hundreds out (no doubt their numbers will increase throughout the day.) The fighting stopped last night on Mansour Street, but seems to be moving to a second front on Nubar Street one block over. Once again I got close to the ministry as conscripts were eating their breakfast and cleaning crews were coming in and there are more truck-fulls of Central Security Forces and Army APCs. Everyone was just loitering around, the on the frontline barricades a few CSF were standing guard.
To get around the barricades you have to go around on the sidestreets of the Abdin neighborhood, and you see pretty much the same thing on the hand. Protestors having breakfast (it's amazing that even in the thick of the fighting the ambulant salesman are still there, selling sticky sesame-studded date bread and other goods), cleaning crews (one rather amusingly wearing a Halliburton uniform) and of course TV camera crews. The crowds, as they were, seemed to have moved to Nubar Street but were not engaged in any clashes when I was there, keeping a distance from the CSF barricade. Noubar Street is narrower than Mansour Street and appears to have seen some looting, notably at a small computer mall complex whose windows have been broken. People seemed to think that was the new center of fighting, and despite the calm, said there were sporadic clashes.
I thought that since the world is leaning about Downtown Cairo's street names, some history might be in order. The neighborhhood were the clashes have taken place is an administrative one and contains several ministries other than the interior ministry, as well as parliament, and the nearby (lower on Mansour Street, across from the ministry) beautifully renovated new office of the Freedom and Justice Party's MPs.
Mohammed Mansour Pasha was a two-time prime minister of Egypt, first as a member of the Liberal Constitutional Party and then for the Wafd.
Mansour Pasha could refer either to an Ottoman Sultan of Egypt (1642-44) or, more likely, a short-lived Minister of the Interior (1879) according to the ministry's own website. This is more likely because the neighborhood dates from that period and most streets bare the names of contemporary officials.
Nubar Pasha was Egypt's first prime minister (and served two more times) and an Armenian from Izmir, in modern Turkey. He was quite a fascinating character, and is associated with Khedive Ismail's accumulation of debts from the construction of the Suez Canal and lavish spending (such as building palaces to entertain Napoleon III's wife, Eugenie) that eventually brought Egypt under direct British control. Nubar Pasha collaborated with France and Britain, Egypt's biggest lenders, to reduce the power of the Khedive and begin the transformation of the country into a constitutional monarchy.
Here's a take on the recent events in Egypt by Nate Wright, an Arabist reader and Cairo-based freelance journalist. My own take coming up soon. Update: see this map to get a better idea of where's where.
After a week of violent clashes between protesters and police forcesin November, the military moved in and built a concrete wall betweenthe two parties on Mohamed Mahmoud street, the main thoroughfarerunning from Tahrir Square towards the Ministry of Interior. Lastnight, activists toppled the wall using metal beams and ropes, and thebattle lines were dramatically shifted.
Now, police officers are facing down protesters on Mansour street.It's a good distance from Tahrir but a lot closer to the Ministry ofInterior. The sight of tear gas raining down, motorcycles ferrying outthe wounded and protesters standing their ground recalls the clashesin November on Mohamed Mahmoud street and again in December on anearby street. But these similarities mask the changing geography of the battle.
Mansour street is straighter and wider, making it a lot easier forspectators to watch from a distance. The slight bend in MohamedMahmoud street meant that in order for people to see the tear gasthemselves, they often had to be fairly close to the front lines. WhenI walked down Mansour street this evening it was clogged withthousands of people -- many more than I'd ever seen on Mohamed Mahmoud.
Our own Ursula Lindsey will be joining our friend Jack Shenker (of the Guardian) and others at the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo to discuss Jack and Philip Jason (sorry!) Larkin's text and photo publication on urban planning in the Egyptian capital, Cairo Divided. See below for details.
January 18 2012, 7 pm
Hosted by Megawra and CIC
Jack Shenker presents 'Cairo Divided' together with Wafaa Nadim, Ahmed Zaazaa, Ursula Lindsey and Mohamed El-Shaheed
Amid an uncertain tide of political change, the controversial ‘satellite cities’ project is dramatically transforming peripheries into new urban centres and consigning old focal points to a life on the margins. Against the backdrop of national revolution, photographer Jason Larkin and writer Jack Shenker collaborated for two years to produce ‘Cairo Divided’, a free hard-copy publication exploring the capital’s rapidly-mutating urban landscape.
Please visit the project's website for more details.
From Cairobserver, a site about Cairo's urban heritage and one of the best new Egypt-based blogs of 2011:
Take the lift at Cairo Tower to the top and look at the skyline. Besides the TV&Radio building from the 1960s and the ministry of foreign affairs from the 1990s, a couple of bank towers, the rest are hotels, mostly built with Gulf investments during Mubarak’s tenure. What does that tell us about Egypt, about Cairo? There are no condo towers for the wealthy because they opted to go suburban, there are few or no office towers (besides the two Sawiris towers further north) because most businesses that aren’t multi-nationals are too small to rent space in an actual office tower so they rent cheap-rent residential apartments. Big telecommunication companies don’t need office towers in Cairo because they went to the desert and built their own “Smart Village.” And media companies also went to the desert and built “Media City.” The skyline isn’t telling of a very healthy economy. The kinds of investments that typically make a city work have all abandoned the city.
The result of decades of petrodollar and comprador capitalism...
Here’s an exercise in how I think the votes in the proportional part of Egypt’s parliamentary elections will be calculated. Let’s take the beautiful district of Kasr al-Nil — the Fighting Lions! — where The Arabist is based, covering parts of Downtown Cairo and the tony island of Zamalek. This district slants liberal compared to the rest of the country. These are the results that have been published in the press:
To give you an idea of how complicated the voting process is because of the mixed system used — 1/3 individual candidaies with two seats per district (one each for professional and worker/peasant) and 2/3 for party lists — here are pictures of the ballots being used for a central Cairo district (the pictures were taken inside the polling station on Port Said St, Sayeda Zeinab district)
The first one shows the individual candidacies, which voters have to choose two candidates from — among 122 possibilities:
Much easier is the party list ballot, from which they choose one party out of 16:
My former neighbor, Miguel Angel Sanchez, is featured by the NYT's photography blog. I've been talking to Miguel about his project for years, and stupidly have not yet taken up his offer of a portrait. Check out the slideshow here.
On the right, Amm Rabia, a super-friendly bawaab on our street, now immortalized.
Miguel will be exhibiting the photos starting next week — here are the details:
Date:Sunday,December 11, 2011 Time: 7 PM
Venue: Palace of Arts, Cairo Opera House
Exhibition will be running from December 11, 2011 until January 9, 2012
The Arabist is published and edited by Issandr El Amrani, a writer and analyst based in Cairo, with contributions by friends.
The Arabist is a labor of love. We don't make much from ads, so please contribute to keep us going.
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