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Visions of Cairo

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Photo: Christopher Sturman

In downtown Cairo, miracles are performed on Maarouf. This narrow, tree-lined street in the eastern shadows of the Egyptian Museum echoes with the sound of hammers reshaping steel. Black motor oil glistens in pools on the sidewalk, and the small shops nearby are stacked floor to ceiling with auto parts or safety glass. Parked at the curbs, propped up on jacks, a century’s worth of automotive history awaits resurrection. Through improvisational genius and the ability to fabricate almost anything, mechanics here can return old Cadillacs to their 1920’s elegance and rebuild Turkish-made Dogans for another decade’s hard labor in the streets of Cairo. On Maarouf, even the Soviet Union can be patched together again and made to stagger on, in the form of the boxy black-and-white paneled Ladas that are the mainstays of the local taxi trade.

On a warm evening last spring, I went to an opening at a contemporary-art gallery called Townhouse, on a quiet lane a block south of Maarouf. Here, the hammering of the mechaniki was reduced to a faint, metronomic ticking, and the place buzzed with Egyptians debating the merits of a video installation and some large-scale color photographs of conspicuously untouristy parts of Cairo. A few older, professorial types mingled with the mostly young crowd, but everyone gave the work respectful consideration. Some were artists themselves, dressed in the black-framed glasses and fashionable casualness of art scenesters everywhere. But this juxtaposition of old and new, past and present, is typical of Cairo: a century ago, this alley was the entrance to a sprawling mansion that still sits, decrepit and alluring, behind a long wall. Now, Townhouse’s echoing white-walled space feels vaguely industrial, and unmistakably hip, and downtown Cairo has become the home of an astonishingly vibrant contemporary art scene.

Just as the temporal distance between Townhouse and Maarouf might seem to be measured more easily in decades than minutes, every part of Cairo is dense with competing functions and overlapping histories. I lived downtown in the mid 1990’s and spent much of my time going to events few people associate with life in Egypt: outdoor jazz by the Nile on Sundays, modern dance at the Gumhuriya theater, opera at the grand neo-Islamic Opera House. Mostly, though, I went to art exhibitions. It was a sleepier scene then, but there was something about downtown—palatial buildings in a haunting state of disrepair, traffic-jammed streets adjacent to alleys of almost pastoral beauty—that inspired creativity.

What I loved most about downtown was that it was originally intended to be French. Almost 150 years ago, the Khedive of Egypt laid out the district as a replica of Haussmann’s Paris, with stately apartment buildings, central étoile, and radial boulevards. At the time, France was synonymous with modern, and downtown was part of the Khedive’s very expensive effort to persuade the world that Egypt was a modern country. The world was largely unconvinced, and Cairenes soon reclaimed this faux-French urban space as their own: shops were refurbished, signs were rewritten, and boulevards were renamed. Today, downtown at street level feels like the archetypal Cairo district; it is only when you step back and look at the upper floors of the buildings that you recall the foreign influences.

Townhouse opened in 1998, which was the year I left the city and precisely the moment at which the Egyptian art world began to change dramatically. I returned to find out what had happened to the artists and galleries that I’d followed so closely a decade ago, and to explore what it now means to create contemporary art in the Arab Middle East.

"How can you learn to draw the body if you never see nude models?" I ask Rehab El Sadek as we sit by a café window in Alexandria, talking about her art education. "It is difficult," El Sadek offers, her laugh suggesting this is the sort of question foreigners always ask. "We used to draw in our houses, in front of the mirror. Or you can wear stretchy T-shirts." Now I laugh. "Yes, yes, I know," she says impatiently, "but the body still shows."

When I ask Egyptian artists about the challenges they face, nudity—and religion, government censorship, and many of the other things that preoccupy foreigners—is not generally what they talk about. Americans may be increasingly aware of fundamentalism in the Middle East, but Cairo is a little more liberal than it was a decade ago: newspapers demand President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation; couples hold hands in public instead of walking chastely arm in arm; and alcohol, once a closed-door activity, is sold openly at the new Drinkie shops. Besides, Egyptian artists have always had the equivalent of stretchy T-shirts, strategies that allow them to walk right up to society’s red lines—without stepping over them. They have enough freedom to create art, so what most of them talk about is the need to get their art out into the world. And at some point that conversation leads back to Townhouse, even among artists who don’t exhibit there.

William Wells, the Canadian-born cofounder of the gallery, does not look like a revolutionary. He is in his early fifties, with a soft but forceful way of speaking. When he discusses the operation of Townhouse, he almost makes it sound like a succession of mundane but vital tasks; to everyone else, Wells’s moves merit the scrutiny and speculation that U.S. diplomats brought to the study of the Kremlin during the Cold War.

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