#FaceOfCairo #2: Yahia El-Refaei

This month’s feature introduces another Cairo-based photographer, Yahia El-Refaei, who I have recently started working with at his studio, Through The Lens. At just 21 years of age, Yahia is already involved in NGO work, photography as well as a General Management degree in the German University in Cairo. In addition to being a stellar photographer, he is also a humble, kind young man with a great sense of humor.

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“A photographer is not just a person with a professional camera. There is a lot of emotion that goes into the art of photography. You don’t necessarily need a top-notch camera to be a professional. What directs a good photo is the heart, and eye behind the lens.”

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“When you’re working in a studio, the biggest challenge is to capture a picture that reflects something about the person’s personality. One of the things I try to do when I’m shooting is to talk to my clients first and get to know them. By the time we start shooting, I keep talking, maybe crack a few jokes and only when they are distracted by a laugh, a frown or whatever else do I click my camera. It’s the best way to capture a natural photo in the ideally unnatural setting of a studio.”

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Generosity of Spirit: 5 Wonderfully Expressive Egyptian Phrases

Arabic is a remarkably expressive language in which many words and phrases often have no English equivalents by virtue of their reflection on the values and wisdoms specific to speakers of the language. While many are available and vary from one Arabic speaking country to the other, many acquire a cross-border popularity. In addition to the many quirks and humorous expressions used by Arabic speakers, there are also several wonderfully expressive phrases most particularly heard and used in Egypt. Whereas we tend to think of generosity as entailing more materialistic gestures, these phrases denote a different type of generosity- that of the spirit.

1. Na’eeman (نعيماً):
Usually said to someone after they shave, get a haircut or take a shower, the term is derived of the Arabic words ne’ma (نعمة) and na’eem (نعيم) (blessing and paradise) and is used to sort of congratulate someone on looking cleaner or fresher.

2. Nom Al-Awafi (نوم العوافي):
Where nom means sleep and awafi “wellness,” the term is used to wish someone a sleep free of the type of anxiety or illness that prevents one from a peaceful rest.

3. Kol Sana Wenta Tayeb/ Wenti Tayeba (كل سنة وإنتا طيب):
A phrase said on birthdays as well as religious and seasonal holidays. It translates into something akin to “may you remain well each year.”

4. Ghali W Al-Talab Rkhees (غالي و الطلب رخيص):
Whereas ghali (غالي) and rkhees (رخيص) (literally meaning expensive and cheap) are antonyms, the term is used when one is asked for a favor as a way of saying that any favor is affordable for the sake of a person as valuable as you are.

5. Rabena ye5aleek (ربنا يخليك):
This phrase literally translates into “may God keep you” or preserve the goodness one sees in you.

Portraits of Post-memory: Van Leo

A photograph stood in the shadow of Van Leo’s miniature faces-of-the-Egyptian-“Hollywood” collage that was showcased in the exhibit “A Rare Look” at the American University in Cairo. Tahrir Square (quite unrecognizable) loomed in a lonely corner of the exhibit. It was only natural that the sea of faces around would steal the limelight because at the time all these photographs were taken, no one would have yet known the importance of Tahrir Square.

Tahrir Square through Van Leo's lens

Tahrir Square through Van Leo’s lens

If the hegemonic determinant of identity is the extent to which one identifies with spaces and places, it is none other than Van Leo that shatters this view. Born in 1921 in the Armenian Turkey, Levon Boyadjian became the “master of Egyptian photography” through his extensive emphasis on portrait photography. Having fled with his family at the age of three from the Armenian genocide, Van Leo found exile in Cairo, in which remnants of his work are still found. Despite having lived the majority of his years in Egypt, Van Leo becomes difficult to read as an artist of exile. One reason for this is the scarcity of commentary on his work. The other is the fact that the majority of his work included numerous portraits of celebrities and others identified as “unknowns” as well as four hundred self-portraits of Van Leo himself. While the orthodox view depicts exiles as reliant on “memory” as a means of identity sustenance, with Van Leo it is possible to explore a rather different concept- that of “postmemory.”

Van Leo with his camera, 1944

Van Leo with his camera, 1944

“Postmemory”, a term developed by Marianne Hirsch, in her study of the children of Holocaust survivors, denotes the type of memory that is not accessed through remembrance or recollection but through “an imaginative investment and creation.” According to Hirsch, the children of exiles come to accumulate their “memory” based on the narratives they are told by their parents. She states,

“Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are displaced by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor re-created.”

Especially relevant to Hirsch’s concept of postmemory is the survival of traumas characteristic of the Holocaust. Although the children of Holocaust survivors know nothing of the experience of the event itself, they build this pseudo-memory in relation to the stories their parents have told them. Reading Hirsch’s Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile, one cannot help but discern a similarity between the exiles of second-generation Holocaust survivors and Van Leo. Despite the fact that he moved out of Armenia at a very young age, Van Leo’s parents had indeed, witnessed the Armenian genocide. As such, evidence of “postmemory” is especially apparent in the case of Van Leo. Yet how can one imagine a memory?

Photography, as a means of remembering and imagining a memory is a particularly relevant tool to Van Leo and Armenian exiles at large. Such importance is known to be dual in nature. On the one hand, it was a mobile skill that exiles could take along where they moved. On the other hand, Armenians in exile have often used the accumulation of photographs as a mechanism through which to “sustain memory and testimony to collective pasts.” As such, family portraits of Armenian families for example, have acted as important symbols in the memory of Armenian exiles since they are, in Hirsch’s words, “defined by their context as much as their content.” This notion holds true for a vast amount of Armenian exiles except Van Leo, whose decision to refrain from photographing just Armenians greatly distorts the meaning of photography to exile.

Since his photography was comprised of portraits of multinational subjects rather than pictures of his Armenian family or other Armenians living in Egypt, Van Leo greatly distorts mainstream Armenian ties to photography. While his work comes to disclaim his position within the orthodox view of Armenian exiles, Van Leo provides leaves limited yet fruitful indications of his placement as an artist of exile. Indeed, his extensive self-portraiture serves as a reminder that the Armenian Van Leo photographed and that was worthy of study was himself.

An important question to raise therefore, is the significance of portrait photography and specifically of self-portraiture. Portraits by their very nature, invite immense interest as the viewer attempts to make sense of a mere face standing before them. Glenn Jordan emphasizes this particular nature of portraiture by stating that,

“We, the ordinary viewers, invariably seek to read faces and to create narratives about the lives of those whose expressions we feel we have deciphered. We feel that, by virtue of our status as fellow human beings, we can discern or deduce what emotions, attitudes and experience lie behind or beneath photographed facial expressions.”

Singer and actress Dalida

Singer and actress Dalida

On a note more specific to exilic experience, Jordan adds that portraiture may in fact, be an expression of oral history. Like Hirsch, his project was undertaken under the assumption that photography was important for the exiled artist as a mechanism of sustaining memory. Indeed, his article An African Presence in Europe is a project that attempts to combine photography and oral history in reference to Somali exiles in Europe. Jordan’s concept, applied to Van Leo, makes for a compelling analysis that discerns an oral history quite unlike the one assumed by Jordan and Hirsch.

The “oral history” to which Jordan and Hirsch make reference involves a narration of the experience of exile through photographing exiled subjects. A necessary element of this narrative is the establishment of the nature of the “history” being narrated through the photograph. In Jordan and Hirsch’s projects, the history being narrated is clearly the history of the exiles in their homeland. In Van Leo’s case, the history he narrates through his photography is that of Egypt, albeit a history that is only discernable through his eyes as an Armenian exile.

A snapshot of Van Leo’s Egypt is essential in understanding the type of history his photography narrated. In a preface to his interview with Van Leo, Akram Zaatari captures the image of Van Leo’s Egypt,

“Women threw off the veil, artists and intellectuals congregated in cafes. Cairo was a profoundly multi- cultural society, and it was against that multiculturalism that the Arab nationalism of the 1940s and I950s defined itself.”

Actress Mervat Amin

Actress Mervat Amin

It becomes clear from Zaatari’s quote above that the Egypt Van Leo had lived in was profoundly different from the Egypt we know today. Indeed he explains that the Egypt that emerged from the 1952 revolution is “self-consciously Arab.” One may thus infer that the Egypt Van Leo saw was a multicultural rather than a “national” community, much unlike the Egypt that lived after the departure of its many foreigners and the emergence of a narrative that established the notion of “being Egyptian.” Indeed, in Akram Zaatari’s interview Van Leo states that,

“Egypt has three estates: the First Egyptians, the Arab Muslims who dominate politics and society; the Second Egyptians, the Copts, whose Christian religion predates the arrival of Islam: and the third Egyptians, a multinational hodgepodge that includes Armenians like him.”

While Van Leo narrated an Egypt that was defined by multicultural faces and movie stars, he established himself in such a context, as one of Egypt’s third citizens. One can comfortably accommodate such a view given the fluidity of “citizenship” in Van Leo’s Egypt.

Van Leo has allegedly taken over 400 self-portraits, playing different personae including a pilot, a serial killer and a starlet. In Zaatari’s interview, Van Leo claimed he was simply experimenting. Yet the profound interest he took in self-photography and his self-identification as Egypt’s “Third Citizen” raise questions about the relationship between self-portraiture and identity. It is none other than the renowned German philosopher Theodor Adorno that provides great insights about such a relationship.

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In A Portrait of Non-Identity, Gerhard Richter explores the one self-portrait Adorno had taken before his death. He builds on a critical statement made by Ronald Barthes who in turn explains that Adorno’s photograph is “the advent of…(the self) as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity.” The notion of separating identity from consciousness has deep implications regarding self-portraiture of the exiled artist, indeed because Adorno was also an exile in the United States. It is highly plausible that by taking so many self-portraits, Van Leo was also engaged in the process of dissociating consciousness from identity, in a manner that would allow him to reconcile his position as a third citizen of Egypt. By picturing himself as a pilot or a serial killer, in an Egypt that was not so rigidly defined by certain notions of “Egyptianness” Van Leo has been able to create a category of existence within the country of his exile that included his belonging as well as his exclusion.

And that is the utmost beauty of Van Leo’s photographs. They may be seen as little more than a collage of handsome faces. Yet in their entirety, they do in fact represent a place, an Egypt that today’s viewers have almost no knowledge of- an Egypt that is now too late to attempt to remember because it has not existed for today’s Egyptians.

Actress Zubeida Tharwat

Actress Zubeida Tharwat

Actor Roshdy Abaza

Actor Roshdy Abaza


An Egypt too late for memory.

#FaceOfCairo #1: Mahmoud Gawish

This month features Cairo-based photographer Mahmoud Gawish. I met Mahmoud early in 2012 at a photography course. Now best known for shooting Egyptian indie band Cairokee as well as singer Zap Sarwat, his work has extended to include a whole range of things, from weddings to product-shooting to landscapes.

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“For me, photography has always been about happiness. When I take a photo of someone, I always see a smile through my lens.”

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“But sometimes, the best shots are taken spontaneously and only in those pictures do you see more, you see the person as they really are- all their small quirks, the things their heart beat for, and the picture comes to life.”

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“If there is one thing I learnt from working in this field is that you get to see people as they really are, regardless of whatever fame they may have. I respect Cairokee because they do what they do for the love of music, not for money.”

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“I’ve been doing a bit of traveling lately. I just came back from Beirut and when people ask me about it, I say it’s beautiful place but when we travel we often see the best of that place and so we judge Cairo rather harshly.”

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Check out Mahmoud’s Facebook page here

Narratives of Dissent and Conformity

Perhaps more than prayer, television series (musalsalat) have become the single most distinguished feature of Ramadan for the past few years. If you miss the TV ads, a drive through Cairo is enough to acquaint you with the faces of this season’s soaps. And just as this is hardly a new phenomenon, the same old and tired questions continue to be probed with every beginning of the holy month.

How obscene are the topics?

How can we adapt the content to the spirit of the holy month?

Of course, the range of series available each year will always provide one answer or the other to these queries. And yet it is a third question that appears to be more relevant now than ever.

Are we projecting reality?

For several years now, the answer has been, for the most part, a hesitant yes. The “realist” trend in Egyptian art found its precedents in the work of Taha Hussein and Tawfik El-Hakim’s establishment of colloquial Arabic in the 1930s and later in Naguib Mahfouz’s literature and was in turn, inherited by directors such as Salah Abu-Seif, Youssef Chahine, Tawfiq Salah and later Shadi Abd el Salam as well as critics such as Samir Farid and Sami Al-Salamony, who come together in constitution of a politically conscious cinema that continues producing films conscious to the reality of the Egyptian street.

Whether Abdel Nasser, Sadat or Mubarak, the production of art has continued to influence and be influenced by power dynamics. And thus while the inclination towards politics in film production is nothing new, it is the musalsalat that have noticeably taken a similar turn towards politics since January 25.

In 2011, we saw that several series sought to present narratives at the heart of, and favorable to the Egyptian uprising. And yet thousands of users called for the boycott of many of these soaps. Two examples include Samara, whose lead actress, Ghada Abdel Raziq, has publicly condemned the revolution and Adam, starring Tamer Hosni, who was famously kicked out of Tahrir Square.

What is interesting here is that as opposed to settling for the mere notion that reality was being represented; viewers were interacting with and questioning the very representation of that reality. Whether it is questioning the figures that seek to represent it or the very ideals and concept being projected, we find this a concurrent trend since Jan 25.

One of the biggest hits last year was Al-Da’eya (The Preacher). The series narrates the story of Youssef (starred by Hany Salama), a young sheikh whose television preaching has brought him fame, wealth and a lavish villa in which the struggle between religious fundamentalism and moderate interpretations of Islam plays out. Thus for example, Youssef lashes out at his younger sister Marwa for bringing home a birthday cake (“Muslims should celebrate only religious holidays”), he rejects the man Marwa wants to marry because he’s an actor (haram) and when he discovers that another younger sister is secretly playing the violin (haram, again), he smashes it to pieces. Youssef eventually rediscovers both his love for music and moderate Islam as he falls in love with Nesma (actress Basma), a passionate activist and violinist.

Yet while the character of Youssef may arguably “be the most nuanced depiction of political Islam on the screen to date,” the series’ finale does not stray far from old and tired suggestions for outright policing of religious fundamentalism. The closing scene features Youssef attending one of Nesma’s performances at the Cairo Opera House while antagonist sheikh Ali seats himself a few meters away. Just as he whips out a silent gun and aims for Youssef, the police silently rush in time to arrest him.

Of course, these ideals coincided neatly with the events preceding and following June 30.

This year, we hear that the series Ahl Eskenderia (The People of Alexandria) has allegedly been prevented from screening by the security apparatus for its coverage of the January 25 revolution and focus on the corruption of a police officer in Alexandria. With that, and in light of everything else going on, the prospects of freedom of expression seem drastically low.

And yet at the end of the day, the production of knowledge and art will both continue to be influenced and manipulated by power. These dynamics mean that in addition to asking ourselves whether we are presenting reality, how we are presenting it and who is doing the presentation, we need to push for and create the spaces in which to share alternative narratives.

Remembering Om Al-Donya

The first time I remember questioning what being Egyptian meant was about fourteen years ago when, standing in the kitchen of our Gaborone home I asked my mother, “Mama, are we more black or white?”

Having grown up in a place where the remnant tensions leftover by Apartheid were still very real even to children as young as nine years of age, the question of whether I was more white, black or colored (to use the terms of the time) constantly gnawed at my mind. At school, I would always be part of the somewhat ambiguous category of the “Arab kids”- a group made up of Egyptians, Iraqis, Iranians and others that were not really Arab at all but whose features put everybody at loss for categorization.

At home, my parents did their best to avoid the question. Whether this was because they did not actually have an answer or did not want to be the ones to fling me into the bickers at school, I never knew. What was certain was that while they insisted that we were wheat colored– which is a term many Egyptians still use- their main focus was on instilling in me the knowledge of and love for Cairo- home.

And it was through their recollections that I soon came to hear the phrase om al-donya.

And so my questions shifted.

Why is Egypt called Om Al-Donya (Mother of the World)?

Perhaps the most famous answer to this question is that it “is the oldest civilization of the world” and yet to most om al-donya is a much more evasive concept. It is the memory of the calls of the karawan at dusk and the melodies of Om Kalthoum’s Ya Sabah El-Kheir and Mohamed Kandil’s Ya Helw Sabah ringing flowing through the city’s streets each morning. It is the recollection of an era during which the chivalry (gad3ana) of the Egyptian accounted more for its labeling as om al-donya than history.   It is the remembrance of a state of mind and time in which there was to life a certain quality of music- a rhythm that made up the ordinary fabric of everyday living.

By the time we moved to the Gambia several years later, Egyptian became no longer a vague identity that was both geographically and politically far off. The existence of a large community of “Arabs” meant that I came to think of myself as Egyptian (masreya) as opposed to part of something bigger. For the first time, I came to hear my Arabic as Egyptian Arabic. I recognized certain quirks as Egyptian humor.

My affection and attachment to the city grew through my parents’ narratives especially that my own knowledge of Cairo was limited to short vacations through which I saw very little of the city that is now my home.

When I moved back to Egypt to start my university degree, I was stunned by how little remained of the city that has been constructed in my mind for so long because the truth is, Cairo is a difficult place. It is easy to slip into endless complaints about the usual things: the traffic, the noise and the pollution. And yet what struck me most was that the dreariness which the city had come to accept its own injustices. For years, it seemed to me that to live in Cairo was to internalize the notion that you had to be on one side of some kind of privilege or the other.

And then came January 25. The single most vivid memory and dear memory of the revolution to my heart was the sound of “Ya Masr, it’s been a long time, we have missed you” reverberating within my chest as I watched brows contract and mouths outstretch with a unity that I had never seen before and through which I regained my sense of belonging to the space that I had felt had been robbed of its sense of shared humanity.

But until now, I find that no words can unpack the remnants of three years of triumph and defeat, of dreams and downfalls, of the sheer contradiction bred on Cairo’s streets. It seems that now most headlines and literature on Egypt reflect a dichotomy in which you are either lead to believe that there is no hope in the country or to believe in a false sense of progress.

As time wears on, my motivation for starting this blog was the need to create a space in which narratives, experiences and visions from and about the city can be shared. A space in which we can move beyond than this dichotomy.

A place to remember Om Al-Donya.