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Traces, Fragments, Scraps: Collecting Cairo’s Discarded Images

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[The author's mother and aunt, Beirut, 1954. Courtesy Yasser Alwan.] [The author's mother and aunt, Beirut, 1954. Courtesy Yasser Alwan.]

[In this two-part essay we present a selection of captivating photographs from roughly the first half of the 20th century in Egypt, collected by Yasser Alwan and held by the photography center Akkasah at NYUAD. The essays by Akkasah director Shamoon Zamir and Alwan provide valuable context and insights into how to understand this particular collection. The first selection of photographs, with Zamir's essay, highlights the collection's poignant snapshot photographs, while the second group with Alwan's essay showcases a range of studio portraits. - Editor]

A photograph is always a fragment, but its unique persuasive power lies in appearing to be a complete and self-contained whole. The relationship of these found photographic fragments to the rest of Egyptian society (today, at the time they were made, and in terms of how this society is depicted elsewhere) is what caught my imagination from the moment I saw them.

I discovered the photographs by accident during my explorations of Cairo - the physical, historical, social, and imagined city that has become my home. A photograph of my mother and aunt from Beirut in 1954, has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, so I knew that there had to be personal photographs in Egypt.

My first find was on a visit to the sprawling Friday flea market that centered around the Imam al Shafi’i mosque and mausoleum and spilled over to the quieter parts of the surrounding cemetery. That was in 1993. The market has since been squeezed into a few streets further south underneath and around the Tonsi bridge. It was hard to believe that these photographs had been thrown out with broken-down furniture and old magazines and newspapers. Dealers in remains and fragments of all sorts, the collectors of Cairo’s junk, still ply their trade and can be heard crying out vecchia rubabakya throughout the city every day, although most prefer defective electrical items to paper waste.

Those first photographs led me on a decade-long journey to old neighborhoods and the various bouquinistes of Cairo. I met the Soor el Azbakeya sellers of used books who were located at that time in Darassa, east of Al Azhar, in what’s now a parking lot. They moved back to their “original” location at Ataba Square after the work on the second line of the metro was completed. Today, they can be found in the area that the authorities have allotted them, cramped into tiny kiosks and overwhelmed by pedestrian metro traffic. I also got to know the booksellers at Sayeda Zeinab Square and went on to meet those who had inherited their livelihood from their fathers. These latter dealers constituted the elite of this metier with their own informal shops and warehouses in Hilmya, Ahmed Maher, and Al-Qal’a, The shops were usually dilapidated apartments stacked from floor to ceiling with books, newspapers, magazines, and all sorts of printed material.

These storehouses contained treasures like a first edition of The New Woman by Qasim Amin, early editions of L’Egyptienne, Al Kashkuul, and even Sufi manuscripts. A stunning, life-size gravure of King Farouk was once offered to me by one of these dealers for a good price of 3,000 Egyptian Pounds (almost $900 then). I declined, sensing that it had found its way out of its original home by less than transparent means.

Finding these photographs was serendipity, but collecting them became a passion. I never planned to collect photographs like these, preferring to make my own. But these images drew me into a kindred relationship. They were made by men and women who were my kin – the photographers who worked in Egypt professionally and as amateurs long before my arrival. They showed me how people liked to present themselves to the camera, especially when poses, props, and costumes recurred over time. These presentations usually remained in the realm of the private. These were the photographs that families would share with their friends when they came to visit, or the wedding photograph that would be on display at home. They were not meant for mass consumption. Yet they reflected prevailing tastes, fashions, and attitudes.

Because I saw them as part of Egypt’s history and society, these historical documents contained lessons for me as I was making my own portraits here. Through them I could glimpse my adopted country in a way that wasn’t otherwise available to me. I was looking at my larger Egyptian family and examining the ways professionals and amateurs used the medium when people weren’t afraid to be photographed “as they were.”

These are the material remains of a social sensibility that is no longer apparent, or that no longer exists, or perhaps never existed at all except in the imagination of photographers and their sitters. I understand that they are not complete, that they do not reveal a complete picture, but neither does even the best historiography nor the best sociology. That does not lessen their substance for me. In fact, they are more compelling precisely because they are incomplete, because they require me to engage and reconstruct details of both the sitter and the photographer, as well as the fashions of the time, the reasons the image came to be made, and how it was eventually discarded.

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