Creative Cities – A Literary Tour through Down Town Cairo

Creative-Cities: Re-Framing Downtown was the headline of the conference that took place on 31.10/01.11 in the Oriental Hall of the American University of Cairo (AUC) near Tahrir Place. The topic of the international symposium with speakers that traveled to Cairo from as far as Chile was the role of culture as a catalyst for development. Down Town Cairo and its structural evolution was at the center of discussions, especially concerning the Arts, its spaces and doers.

At the afternoon of the first conference day, several theme-tours revolving round literature, cinema, architecture and Down Town Cairo by bike were organised by the Cluster Mapping Initiative (CUIP) with the starting point at AUC Tahrir. I was lucky to participate in the literary tour led by Samia Mehrez, professor of Arabic Literature at the AUC and literary critic. The idea behind was to discover places related to the literary life in Cairo, that are depicted in contemporary Egyptian novels. Making the AUC Campus itself the starting point wasn’t pure image-cultivation. The institute from colonial origins is a motive and relevant setting in numerous novels. Mehrez referred to Edward Said’s “Out of Place” (1999), Ihsan Abdel Quddus’ book “Ana Hurra” (I am Free, 1952) and the work of Mai Khaled “Mi’ad Akhir fi Qa’at at Ewart” (The Last Seat in Ewart Hall, 2005) to exemplify the literary converting of historic changes that effected the life on campus.

We  glimpsed at the French Lycée in Muhammed Mahmoud street and headed for Tahrir Square, THE place of umpteen well-known and lesser well-known novels, blogs and other writings of Egypt’s Revolution in January 2011. Mona Prince’s “Revolution is My Name” (2014) was a well chosen example for a literary eye-witness account of its author.  As we walked on to the famous Café Riche with Zahret el Bustan right behind it, Mehrez explained to us what is by some literati labelled as “triangle of horror”.  Presumably Sonallah Ibrahim was the first to refer to Talaat Harb Square, Riche Café and the Cairo Atelier as such to illustrate the sometimes distressing rapidity with which rumors are spread in the intellectual scene that frequents those places. The expression also demonstrates the symbolic power that the in some ways closed literary circle exerts on the careers of its members and want-to be’s.

The Cairo Atelier in Karim al-Daula Street used to be an essential meeting point for writers and newcomers that sought for recognition in the scene. If you wanted to get accepted,  to rub shoulders and access the field,  up to the late 90’s Cairo Atelier was the place to visit frequently. In the Greekclub in Mahmud Basyouni Street you won’t see many of the avant-gardists who started to prefer the Bar at Lotus  Hotel , both of them have nice rooftop and a friendly atmosphere, but in price Greek Club is steepier. Right at the roundabout of Talaat Harb Café Groppi is situated, once famous for its excellent pâtisserie,  glamour and exclusivity,  wore off during the last decade. Currently Groppi is closed and nobody seems to know, when it will be opened again. But as Café Riche that also has been closed down for  a while after its former owner had died but was re- opened like three months ago – legends don´t die so fast.

Last but not least our group got the chance to visit the automobile club, the high-class clientele of which is persuasively pictured in Alaa al-Aswany´s homonymous book. A discussion on the literary and architectural representation of Cairo closed the inspiring walk through Down Town leaving most of its participants with a broadened view on the city.

Gamal Al-Ghitani – A Formative Voice of the Egyptian Literary Field

With the death of Gamal Al-Ghitani (9 May 1945 – 18 October 2015), the Egyptian literary scene lost one of its most formative voices of the present age. Born to a humble family in the Southern province of Sohag, he moved to Cairo with his parents and is said to have started writing at a young age.

While being trained as a carpet  designer near to the well-known market Khan Al-Khalili in Cairo, he continued writing short stories depicting the environment and the people around him. His career being intertwined with the political scene of the 60’s and 70’s,  he was imprisoned from October 1966 to March 1967 due to his critique against Nasser’s regime. Al-Ghitani was also a co-founder of Gallerie68, a magazine that became the literary voice of the so-called 60’s generation of writers in Egypt. It was edited by Edwar Al-Kharrat (*1926) – an acclaimed writer himself – with eight issues published from 1968-71.

In 1969 he started working as a journalist at Akhbar Al-Youm, a weekly Egyptian newspaper. Like other Egyptian writers, he had to “come to terms” with the political powers, a balancing act between freedom of expression and earning a living. It was and is not rare to find writers, some of them more critical to the power structures and the government than others, to ensure income by writing articles or columns for state-owned newspapers.

His novel “Zayni Barakat” (1974) which is set in the Mameluke era and seen as a veiled critique to the regime of the then president Gamal Abdel Nasser (reg. 1956 – 1970) is one of the most famous. It displays the structures of authoritarian rule, the utilization of fear, espionage and corruption by the groups in power and broaches the issue of religion, double standards and superstition.  . Zayni Barakat was written under Nasser’s successor Anwar as-Sadat (reg. Oct. 1970 – Oct. 1981). For his three volume oeuvre “Book of Illusions” (Kitab Al-Tagaliyat, 1983-86) Al-Ghitani was awarded the French Award “Laure Bataillon” for translated literature in 2005. This award, the most prestigious in France for non-French authors, sheds light on the range of his work and the recognition of his name at the international level.

To break the rules of truth-telling conventions of realist narratives and to imitate the themes and narrative techniques of the Arabic literary heritage, was a characteristic trait of Al-Ghitani’s novels. He belonged to a generation of writers that had rediscovered indigenous forms of narrative heritage. Playing on “magic realism”, this approach was common in Third World literature. Al-Ghitani is praised for his description of the life of the poor and marginalized in Egyptian society, the struggles of the powerless against those in power and for integrating historic elements and heritage in his writings. Al-Ghitani was also editor-in-chief of one of Arabic’s leading literary newspapers, Akhbar Al-Adab, from 1993 to 2011

What shouldn’t be left unmentioned…

On the political level, Gamal Al-Ghitani expressed his concerns about the intrusion of religion into the political sphere, namely attempts stemming from the Muslim Brotherhood after its long-term member Muhamed Morsi came to power in June 2012. While criticizing the involvement of religion, the concern about islamization of state institutions and of the jurisdictional system is understandable, Al-Ghitani’s unfettered support for Abdalfatah Al-Sisi and the military regime was a blow not only for some of his fans. From someone who experienced the consequences of totalitarianism, the restriction of freedom of expression, one doesn’t expect  justifications for the crackdown on demonstrators, journalists and other dissident voices by the military forces. The glorification of Sisi as Egypt’s savior from extremists and foreign conspiracies in comparing him to Nasser, seems absurd and outrageous to many. It is to mention that he was not alone with his eulogia on the military forces.  Some illustrious intellectuals like Alaa Al-Aswani share his views and openly advocate their support.

Why this should be mentioned? Maybe because intellectuals should stay critical of society, power structures and regimes of all shades. And also while praising them and underlining the importance of their work, commentators should not ignore the  ‘uncomfortable’ aspects of it.

L’Orientaliste – Home of Antique Books and Maps at the Heart of Down Town

Searching for some Egyptian books from the 80’s I came across a treasure that turned out to be well known in the Egyptian intellectual and Ex-Pat community.  L’Orientaliste in Kasr El Aini Street no. 17,  is situated not far from Talaat Harb Square and might have escaped my view if I would’t have spotted the antique books in its windows by chance.

Most of them dating from the 19th and 20th century are scholarly pieces from the fields of sociology, anthropology, oriental studies a.o,  travel reports and memoirs by French writers, mostly orientalists. The name of the shop already alludes to its routes in the francophile setting. Actually, I had my first broader conversation in French outside my flat (living with an French flatmate) with the lady at the front desk. The shop was established as early as 1936 and is since several years owned by Hassan Kamy, a former Opera legend in Egypt.

Interested in details, check out this article on L’Orientaliste and Mr. Kamy’s life story: http://egyptianstreets.com/2015/08/04/the-secret-life-and-journey-of-egyptian-opera-legend-hassan-kamy/

One can browse in their catalog that also includes old maps, photos and postcards and directly reserve ones personal treasure: http://www.orientalecairo.com.

Books, Café and Handcraft : The Falak

The café Falak – Books and Art Work is located in Gamal ad-Din Abu al-Mahas Street Nr. 7 off Kasr al-Aini Street, right after a roundabout. The opening hours are quite convenient from 10 am to 12 am in the evening. Besides books you find a shop with hand-made jewelry, postcards, posters of classic Egyptian movies, knitted goods and other art handicraft. As Café Falak offers the usual soft drinks, cold and hot Sandwiches but also a choice of main plates and some coffee variations.

The atmosphere is comfy with upper-Egypt style carpeting, music played at a reasonable volume and art photography on the walls. You find groups of young adults as well as  a few children with their  parents. With an average age round 30 the place seems to be a meeting point for the middle class Egyptian as well as Non-Egyptian young adults.

Concerning books, you find an array of contemporary literature by new stars of the scene like Ahmed Mourad, (Vertigo, The Blue Elefant), Youssef Rakha (The Book of the Sultans Seal, The Crododiles) or Ahmed Khaled Towfik (Utopia) as well as ‘old-stagers’ like Sonallah Ibrahim , Ibrahim Adel Meguid , the women rights activist Nawal El Saadawi (Women at Point Zero a.o.) or the legendary Naguib Mahfouz (too many…).

From a first personal impression it seems  that Falak is a meeting point for people working in the NGO and Arts sector and is frequently used to discuss and plan projects. Speaking of  art, you shouldn’t skip Medrar for Contemporary Art one floor above Falak. Founded in 2005, the gallery not only exhibits  contemporary art work but also holds workshop and festivals, one of which is the Rozname , a periodical competition and forum for visual art. It focuses on contemporary work by young Egyptian artists.  On the 14th of September the closing ceremony of Rozname 4 will be held starting from 7 pm at the venue.

The spreading of the concept bookshop-café-art space has caught my attention. I assume that it became popular since the 2000s, with a rise around 2005 til the present. I would be keen on inquiring further onto this phenomenon.

A map to locate the Falak:

map Falak Café