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Update: Letter from Cairo

In the spring, Diwan, which looks like a smaller version of a Barnes & Noble, or one drawing from both Western and Arabic culture, opened in Zamalek, one of the city's wealthier neighborhoods. Alongside a large collection of contemporary American fiction, the store carries almost every Egyptian film ever made. Egypt is the Hollywood of Arab moviemaking, and its films are among the gems of world cinema, ranging from the high nightlife musicals and smoky black-and-white romantic dramas of the 1930's through the 50's, to the more experimental European art film-influenced productions of Youssef Chahine. With its frequent book parties and special events, Diwan has become a meeting place for young professionals, mostly Egyptian but some expatriates as well. "There are plenty of Pizza Huts and McDonald's," owner Hind Wassef says. "This is an aspect of American culture we can really use."

Right next door to Diwan, on what's something of an Egyptian yuppie row, is one of the city's more fashionable restaurants. La Bodega occupies an entire floor in a block-long century-old mansion. The restaurant's name is Spanish; one side is a pan-Oriental fusion restaurant and the other is an American interpretation of a French brasserie. Co-owner Maher Maksoud, whose mother is Irish and father is Egyptian, says the cosmopolitan mix is intentional. "We wanted to invoke the feel of those classic Egyptian movies," he says, "to bring back Cairo nightlife in its heyday."

Maksoud is referring to a kind of golden age of Orientalism, an idea which, though somewhat discredited in the West, is still a point of pride in the Arab world. Arabs use the word Oriental to describe their own music, food, style, and themselves in pretty much the same way European travelers and adventurers used it over the last several hundred years, conceiving of everything east of the Balkans, from the Levant to Japan, as a single entity. The difference is that Westerners used the word to describe what wasn't the West. The Arabs don't see it that way. For them, "Oriental" is a large concept accommodating mixed origins--a thing, an idea, a person--that has come to rest here, where the world began.

A recent show at Townhouse, Cairo's preeminent gallery, played explicitly on this theme with several large Robert Rauschenberg-like canvases comparing Batman to the ancient Egyptian god Anubis. Contemporary American art has borrowed from pop culture and illustration since at least the sixties, but this served as a kind of reminder that, after all, hieroglyphs were the first cartoons.

Townhouse Gallery was founded by William Wells, a 50-year-old Canadian who spent a lot of time going back and forth between Egypt and England before deciding to settle here in 1998. "I didn't really know for sure that there was contemporary art in Egypt," says Wells. "But I knew Egypt, and I knew something was going on just beneath the surface." Wells's hunch paid off. Townhouse's artists have attracted attention from European collectors, and the gallery is now the center of a nascent art scene.


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