art of resistance, Egypt, Palestine

Radwa Ashour: Living With The Sea.

The following is an excerpt from Radwa Ashour’s novel The Woman from Tantoura (translated by Kay Heikkinen).

11193228_756935071088032_1600094042379216030_n/Radwa Ashour, photo: Lobna Ismail, via Arabic Literature/

“The sea was the border of the village, lending it its voices and colors, suffusing it with scents, which we would smell even in the aroma of the large, flat stone-baked bread loaves. I don’t remember when I learned how to swim just as I don’t remember when I learned how to walk or talk.

In later years I headed for coastal towns. I said ‘the sea in Beirut and Alexandria is the same sea’, but it wasn’t. City sea is different: you look at it from the high balcony or you walk along an asphalt path and the sea is there, separated from you by a ditch and a fence. And if you decide to go to it you come as a stranger, sitting in one of the coffee shops on the shore, or carrying with you stranger’s gear – an umbrella, a chair, perhaps a towel and a swimsuit. It’s a limited visit: you come as a guest, then you pick up your things and leave.

Like most of the houses in the village, our house was entwined with the sea. I would go to it carelessly, almost unnoticing, two steps in the water meaning to wet my feet and then a wave would surprise me, wetting my whole garment.  I would jump back to the sand and in the flash of an eye it would turn me into a sand creature, then another jump and I would dive into the water all the way.

I would swim and play, alone or with the other girls and boys. We would share in digging, then ‘me, me, me…’. I would go down into the deep pit and they would spread sand over me until my body disappeared , leaving only the heads rising excitedly from its warm, sandy burial place. A grave surrounded by the laughter and devilment of the young.

Perhaps the sea, like us, is absorbed in watching and forgets itself in calm, or is gradually overcome by sleepiness after the long evening. Like the sea, we give in to the gentle torpor. We don’t notice until our mothers take us away, and we follow them like sleepwalkers. We settle into our beds, not knowing if we are in the house or on the beach, if what we see or what rings in our ears is the real wedding or a dream in our sleep.

The sea resides in the village. As for the train, it has set times, appearing  and the disappearing, like the night-haunting ghoul. We are disturbed  by the roar of its engines as it approaches, the earth’s shaking as it passes, the friction of the wheels on the rails, its whistle bursts, the hiss of the brakes because it is stopping. The train passes through the town daily, and has a station in the east, in Zummarin. Sometimes it carries local people like us; mostly it is ridden by English soldiers or settlers with business in Haifa or Jaffa, who come and go by train. My two brothers ride Abu Isam’s bus once a week, going to Haifa at the beginning of the week and returning at the end, to spend Thursday and Friday night with us.”

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art of resistance, Egypt

Remembering Hassan Fathy: To Build With The People.

The house still stands at the end of the curved, dusty road at the foot of Cairo’s great Citadel. It still has character and mystery; now, however, it is a unique work of art amidst its modern concrete neighbours.

It is the house where Hassan Fathy lived; a mansion without its master. That master was an intriguing man; one to whom some bowed, and many more raised a sceptical brow. He was seen as eccentric and a dreamer — the strange man who built his house of mud — not the man the world now praises; the architect who laboured for the people.

That is how Yasmine El-Rashidi (writing for Al-Ahram Weekly) describes her visit to Hassan Fathy’s house, on the centenary of his birth.

gal-post68/Hassan Fathy, photo via Design with Nature/

Hassan Fathy was born in Alexandria in 1900, and died in Cairo in 1989. He was a notable architect, a man with a vision, a man who truly wanted to use his knowledge to help his community. His mission was to provide a decent housing for all Egyptians and especially the poorest, the peasants  who lived outside the cash economy.

When he got his degree and was out on his first job (he was assigned to build a school in a remote farming area of the Delta) a life-changing experience happened to him – one that would help put him on a path towards different architecture. On reaching the village, he was shocked by the poverty of its residents, and wrote:

I suddenly felt terribly responsible. Nothing had been done out of consideration for the human beings who spent their lives there; we had been content to live in ignorance of the peasant’s sickening misery. I decided I must do something.”

And he did something, and kept on doing it for the rest of his life. He brought back efficient and sustainable building techniques, but also trained ordinary citizens to make their own building materials and even construct their own homes. He did not incorporate western ideologies into his architectural techniques, he rather used old techniques which were cheaper, sustainable and energy efficient.

New Gourna Mosque/New Gourna Mosque, photo © Hassan Fathy/

He brought back the use of mud brick, also known as Adobe. As Simone Swan writes:

Adobe became Fathy’s technological passion, and he remained loyal to it not only because of its durability over millennia—some adobe structures in Egypt are more than 3000 years old—but also because of its thermal properties: In many desert climates it maintains comfortable temperatures within a range of three to four degrees centigrade (5-7°F) over a 24-hour cycle. Furthermore, it is plentiful: Approximately one-third of the world’s people already live in houses made of earth.

In a world were architecture is praised mainly for its aesthetic value, Hassan Fathy’s vission is more than necessary. In Architecture for the Poor, he writes:

Although I believe that the appearance of the building has the most profound effect upon its inhabitants, yet one cannot house men in the Parthenon. One’s beautiful designs must serve the humble everyday needs of men; indeed, if these designs are true to their materials, their environment, and their daily job, they must necessarily be beautiful.

Boys Primary School Courtyard, New Gourna/New Gourna Boys Primary School, photo © Roger Viollet/

Unfortunately, precisely because of his vision and commitment to society, Fathy encountered many setbacks during his long career. As Swan puts it: “His commitment to the poor made him an outsider in Egypt, one who was regarded as a threat to vested interests in industrial building materials, banking, real estate and large-scale contracting.”

Still, he managed to work on more than 160 projects during his lifetime. In 1946 he started working on the Gourna Village project where he incorporated new designs and urban planning with older, more sustainable building techniques. Decades later, the model village is falling into serious disrepair.  World Monuments Fund (WMF) made this video in hope of carrying out a project to safeguard the site.

In 1957 Fathy designed a prototype of temporary housing for Palestinian refugees, in 1967 he worked on New Bariz Village (Kharga), his best known community project.

In 1972 he published To Build With The People, a year later translated by Chicago Press and published as Architecture for the Poor, which catapulted Fathy’s work to international fame. The revised title was not Fathy’s choice, but that of the publisher, and it is precisely that revised title that illustrates the issues Fathy faced in his career in relation to his vision.

I think that there is a big problem in that English translation, just like there is a big problem when we talk about charity instead of solidarity. The problem lays in the dynamic of power, in the hierarchy, in looking down on.

Let me quote Eduardo Gaelano on this one: “I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.

Fathy’s architecture was about people – seeing their needs, helping them, working with them, learning from them. Sure, they were peasants, they were poor, but they were also more than that, and Fathy’s architecture went beyond that. And it wasn’t and isn’t architecture that is limited to poor people. It was and is architecture that promotes sustainable, modest and yet beautiful way of living. That is what we all need to consider, rich or poor, if our wish is to preserve our nature, our culture and our future.

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Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Assia Djebar: I Write Against Erasure

Remembering Howard Zinn: To Be Hopeful in Bad Times

Remembering Pablo Neruda: Pablo Neruda, Presente!

Remembering Nadia Anjuman: One Day, My Hands Will Become Weavers

and more.

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art of resistance, Egypt

Yusuf Idris: An Aimless Sort of Running (The Aorta).

Yusuf Idris was a great Egyptian writer of short stories, plays and novels. Here is an excerpt from his short story The Aorta (the story can be found in Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East). It was translated from the Arabic by Trevor J. Le Gassick.

Yusuf_Idris_portrett/Yusuf Idris, photo via wikimedia/

It wasn’t important that there was running; what mattered was that it was happening all over the place as if Doomsday itself had come. A very peculiar type of running it was, not like someone in a hurry, or fleeing in terror, or racing to save a life. No – an aimless sort of running, as if those doing it were trying to find some spot from which to actually begin their running and hurrying.

And so no one knew the goal or purpose of the others, all being in a state of watchful anxiety, concerned that one of them would find his own point of beginning which would then, no doubt, define their own. That’s why you saw people running so madly, crazily, and trying so desperately yet unsuccessfully to watch where the others were heading. Whenever anyone appeared at all hesitant and slowed down, or became more purposeful and increased speed and so seemed about to discover his goal, then dozens would rush toward him, hoping to arrive before him, to be the first to set off after a clearly defined objective.

This whole activity made the place, if viewed from high above or far away, seem to pulsate with sudden throbbings that then dispersed and subsided, it all happening at more than one place at a time. You would have thought the square paved with smooth veneer, if it had not been for those sudden pulsations occuring here and there that alone gave signs of life. You would have thought it all veneer of stone, or the human b eings gathered there lumps of multicolored rocks. No one knows whether blows were struck or not. Well, actually, I personally was struck by more than one blow, vicious painful blows. But it was impossible to know who was doing the striking because one had no constant neighbor and the continous fluid movement prevented you getting so much as a glance at the hundreds passing you or whom you were passing. In any case there were, most certainly, blows struck.

And what a surprise then! How could I ever have guessed that turning next moment to the person right beside me – the very first close neighbor whose features I had been able to properly examine – I would find, to my shock and amazement, Abduh!

But even as food Abduh was completely unappetizing, disgusting even; he was thin and weak. He never showed a glimmer of defiance, never faced up to anyone else to assert or defend his own existence.  He was ‘good’, that weakly, negative sort of goodness, as if he had a double hernia or something, and he sang sweet songs when by himself. He seemed ‘foreign’, out of place wherever he was, as if he’d never found his own country. When things got too much for him, he’d cry. His eyes would suddenly fill with tears. But there’d be no redness in them; the flush would gather into his nose, which would seem to swell and fill with the secretions.

Yes, for three whole days, morning, noon, and nights, I’ve been looking for you, Abduh, turning over the pavement stones in Cairo, breaking into houses, asking, demanding, pleading for help in finding you, searching every road, every street, every alley. My strength finally sapped, I fell asleep only to wake up in a rage of despair at finding you: my dream, my nightmare, and the pain of my hours awake or asleep is the thought of truning around sometime and finding you there, Abduh! 

‘Where have you been, Abduh, and where did you hide the money?'”

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Egypt, travel

Looking For The Sun: Going South Along The Nile.

I’ve already written about the photographer Myriam Abdelaziz and her project Menya’s Kids, which deals with child labor in the quarries of Menya, Egypt. It was about time to shine some light on one of her other projects – Going South Along the Nile, published on LensCulture. Abdelaziz writes:

In Egypt, where my blood is from, I traveled south…

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I needed to be closer to the sun. I was looking for a warmer place. I wanted to be with people who see the sun everyday, people whose skin has darkened, filled with all that sun. I knew that every single place, every single thing I would see there would be filled with that sun, I knew the South would give me this infinite warmth I badly needed, not to be bathed in but more inundated by, so I traveled south….

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Going south of Egypt, life only exists by the borders of the Nile river. Many tiny villages have been lining the edges of the river for hundreds of years, some only to be destroyed to give space for archeologist excavations to explore older times, or for modern hotels to be built.

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Going south I met the sun I was looking for and the people filled with it… every place I went felt timeless, while I knew it could be the last time I might see it.

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I photographed to keep this warmth I needed so badly with me.”

as/all photos © Myriam Abdelaziz/

For more on this project, go to LensCulture. For more on Abdelaziz and her work, visit her facebook page, and see her profile on Rawiya.

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P.S. While going through these photos, I recommend listening Omar Khairat’s relaxing and beautiful music. He’s one of the most successful and well-respected Egyptian composers of all time.

 

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art of resistance, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine

Remembering May Ziadeh: Ahead of (her) Time.

May Ziadeh (Marie Elias Ziadeh, born in Nazareth, Palestine in 1886, died in Cairo in 1941) was one of the key figures of the Nahda in the early 20th-century Arab literary scene, and is known for being one of the early Palestinian feminists. Ziadeh was born in Palestine to a Lebanese father and a Palestinian mother, and moved to Egypt where she wrote for Arab newspapers and periodicals.

may ziade iwan behanceMay Ziadeh /image © Iwan/

Her poetry and essays were pioneering, she wrote numerous articles and editorials and was noticed for her translation efforts and intiatives concerning English, German, and French novels of the peirod. Shortly after the Russian Revolution, she raised the issue of socialism and other political ideologies of the day in a series of articles.

In 1921, she convened a conference under the heading “The goal of life”, where she called upon Arab women to aspire toward freedom, and to be open to the Occident without forgetting their Oriental identity. Ziadeh also wrote sensitive biographical studies of three pioneer women writers and poets, Warda al-Yaziji, A’isha Taymur, and Bahithat al-Badiya.

She was perhaps best-known for hosting a Tuesday salon, which remained active for approximately 20 years (1911-1931), during which time May’s house, where it was held, was the pole to which the greatest writers and intellectuals of the age were drawn.

Antje Ziegler writes in her essay May Ziadeh Rediscovered:

„ If May’s, in comparison to other women of her time, nearly unprecedented literary, journalistic and rhetorical efforts to find public recognition, can be seen as a steady search for social integration, the founding of her salon appears to be the logical culmination of these efforts.  Open to men and women of varied religious, national and social background, this salon contrasts with the other famous Egyptian salon of the period, the politically influenced salon of Princess Nazli Abu Fadil, exclusively visited by men.

May Ziadeh was a prominent, but moderate representative of this ‘age of enlightenment’, who did not equate modernity with the denial of cultural heritage in blind imitation of the West.  Strongly dependent on integration herself, she advocated the reconciliation of conflicting views all her life.“

lebanon 2010 July 377Ziadeh /photo via northshorewoman/

Very well known but still mysterious in its nature is her correspondence with Khalil Gibran (who lived in New York), which extended over two decades, though the two never met. Ziadeh became one of the most prolific writers of the new genre of ‘shi’r manthur’, prose poetry or poetic prose.  Her reputation as a critic also grew first of all in connection with Khalil Gibran, whose works she helped make famous in the Arab world with her articles.

Ziadeh never married. At the end of 1920s, she suffered a series of personal losses, beginning with the death of her parents, her friends, and Khalil Gibran. She fell into a deep depression and returned to Lebanon where her relatives placed her in a psychiatric hospital to gain control over her estate. She eventually recovered and returned to Cairo where she died. She left more than 15 books of poetry, literature and translations. I believe none of her works are available in English, unfortunately.

img_34391/image via Bambi’s Soapbox/

Gibran’s letters to Ziadeh were published in a book Love Letters (Ziadeh’s family did not want her letters published, so we do not get to read her responses to Gibran). It feels appropriate to finish this post with one of Gibran’s letters to Ziadeh (written in May of 1921). He writes:

“Where is my letter, May? Why have you not sent it to me? I am eager to receive it, and I want all of it, every little bit of it. Do you know how much I desire to receive that letter after having read a brief snatch of it—a divine fragment which arrived to announce the dawning of a new day?”

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art of resistance, Egypt, travel

Egypt, a Love Story.

Denis Dailleux is a French photographer who has spent last two decades photographing Egypt (Cairo mostly). Fascinated by the city and the spontaneus kindness of its people, Dailleux keeps on discovering new stories and capturing new faces. I already presented a lot of his work – From Mistress of Cairo to Martyrs of the Revolution, Sudan series, and Mother and Son.

I recently read Naguib Mahfouz’s The Coffeehouse (his last novel), a lovely little novel about friendship, life’s little pleasures (like the coffeehouse Qushtumur) , memory and loss.  Translator Raymond Stock notes that the novel is: “Fittingly final, as it is really a work of literary nostalgia“. Somehow, the novel brought the same feeling I have when I go through Dailleux’s photos of Egypt. As Mahfouz writes:

“Qushtumur the coffeehouse saw us take leave of our youth and our first steps into manhood. We spent our lives between work, culture, and evening conversation.”

So, I went through Dailleux’s photos again. The following ones are a mixture from his series Egypt, my Love, On the roofs of Cairo, Cairo (book selection), and On the footsteps of Oum Kalthoum, photos taken over a twenty year span (from 1992 to 2013). These photos are a testimony of love, love of life and human beings, universal love, beautifully captured in time and space.

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//all images © Denis Dailleux/Agence VU//

For more on Dailleux and his photography – viist his Agence VU profile, and his official website.

 

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art of resistance, Egypt, travel

Cairo’s Souq El Gomma: A City within a City.

Jason Larkin is a photographer whose work I already introduced writing about Cairo Divided – The Escape of the Elites. He has done a lot of projects in Egypt, Cairo particularly, but each one of them seems so fresh and inspiring. His work never feels worn-out, it never screams been there – done that. There’s always a buzz of excitement and discovery  which just goes to show how Cairo is a true city of stories, a city of diversity, and a well of inspiration. And Larkin is great at capturing that.

Larkin’s project, Souq El Gomma, captures Middle East’s largest informal market gathering.

Artist statement:

” ‘A city within a city, built in the morning light, and which disappears with the last of the day. An infinite and intertwining network of commerce colliding for just a few hours a week.’

Invisible City, Italo Calvino

This story is an exploration of the myriad people, objects and spaces that make up Cairo’s Souq El-Gomma, the Middle East’s largest informal market gathering. Every Friday this trading metropolis materialises, with no formal direction or control, no one idea and ultimately no boundaries, it encompasses the aperture between the living city and the city of the dead. Colonised by the economically marginalised the trade is in the detritus of the city, here Cairo’s flotsam and jetsam is sorted, salvaged and sold on. This organic and dynamic entity offers up a window into the lives of other people and more fundamentally a window into the life of the city itself.

Commissioned by The National M Magazine. Published in Sowar Magazine, Ojopedez.”

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/all images © Jason Larkin/

For more of Larkin’s great photography, visit his official website.

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art of resistance, Egypt

Cairo Divided: The Escape of the Elites.

Jason Larkin is a photographer that keeps on “producing” great work. He is internationally recognised for his long-term social documentary projects, environmental portraiture and landscape reportage. For me, it’s mostly his work in and around Egypt that keeps me excited. He did a wonderful series Past Perfect, photographing the museums of Egypt. By deciding how the past is presented and memorialised, museums not only preserve the past, they also play an important role in the construction of our ideologies, identities and the understanding and interpretation of ourselve.  That is why Past Perfect was Larkin’s way of revealing one more layer of Egypt’s identity. In Suez: A Life Line, Larkin captures the importance of the Suez canal,  a 192 km passage dividing Africa from the Middle East and a crucial source of income and foreign exchange for Egypt. Larkin’s Egyptian project I wish to focus on today is Cairo Divided.

Artist statement:

From a population of one million at the beginning of the 20th Century to over 18 million today, Cairo’s expansion has been rapid. Most capitals are magnets, but the speed with which the Egyptian one has grown in the last century is testament to both its remarkable centripetal power and surrounding vacuum of opportunity.

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For centuries, Cairo’s growth has been checked by geography, bounded by a narrow strip of fertile, Nile-irrigated land, with nothing but desert beyond. Now, faced with the city’s barely contained chaos and alarmed by the growing slums, Cairo’s elites have begun to dream of escape. Along the Ring Road, billboards advertise exclusive new private developments – Utopia, Dreamland, Palm Hills, Belle Ville and The Egypt of My Desires. Cairo’s future, it seems, lies outside the city’s boundaries, in the desert, where it can be built from scratch.

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Drawn in to these vast spaces, and surrounded by the drone of construction, I was mesmerised by the exposed layers of new urban centers being developed among the desert dunes. In focusing on these landscapes I wanted to capture the reality of fantasy lifestyles in mid-production, to document the extravagance of a few whose wealth put sharp focus on the fact that 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

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The surreal remodeling of the landscape shows little appreciation for the environment it is rapidly colonising. From the decisions of a few, Cairo is morphing its periphery into its core whilst condemning the previous centre to a life on the margins. I felt witness to a mass exit strategy taking shape, and with the camera, recorded the foundations of abandonment in pursuit of self-interest and exclusive isolation.

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/all photos © Jason Larkin/

For more on this project and Larkin’s other projects, visit his official website.

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art of resistance, Egypt

Picture Egypt.

Picture Masr (Egypt) is a tumblr page run by Mohamed Elshahed. He wishes to present “Egypt (mostly Cairo) beyond your Google image search results. The beauty of everyday life and all that is ordinary.” No pyramids, no camels, and no sphinx here.

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/all photos © Mohamed Elshahed/

Elshahed also runs Cairobserver. For more on him and his projects, read an interview on Mashallah News. For more on Picture Masr, got to tumblr.

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Egypt

Menya’s Kids (Child Labor, Egypt).

Myriam Abdelaziz is a French photographer of Egyptian origins,  born in Cairo. Her work tells stories of its participants. Her inquiry into the stories of people takes her around the globe searching for narratives that overcome physical and cultural barriers and often reveal what we have in common: glimpses of solitude, hope, insecurity, dignity. She is the member of the only all female photo collective of the Middle East – Rawiya.

Her project Menya’s Kids deals with child labor in the quarries of Menya, Egypt.

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/all photos © Myriam Abdelaziz/

For more on Abdelaziz and her work, visit her facebook page, and see her profile on Rawiya.

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