That Time in Cairo When I Met Mahfouz

Cairo, a steaming mess of a city that has the capacity to at first seduce and serenade you then almost immediately slap and violate you, and yet, despite it all you keep coming back for more.

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And here I was, back again. On the balcony of my scruffy room in the Hotel Hussein, the hotel named after the severed head that resides in the Mosque next door, the head of the Prophets grandson, the same head curiously also resides in the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, its curiosity that brings you to the Middle East, then keeps you here.

It was a day like any other, that is like any other day in Cairo. Crisp morning sunlight stinging your sleep deprived eyes, slurping down thick black tea with a boiled egg and triangle of cheese for breakfast, another dusty day stumbling around the lanes of Gamalaya in the shadow of the Fatimids. Then, just as has a habit of happening in this part of the world, you bump into a Nobel prize winner for literature.

It had been one of my frequent visits to Cairo working on my self-assigned street photography project, ( Previous Cairo Photography ) after my first visit to Egypt I began reading Naguib Mahfouz avidly and this project had been inspired by his words, the Egyptian Nobel laureate grew up in this overcrowded neighborhood, his childhood home a couple of streets away and this anarchic labyrinth the setting of many of his novels.

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My days usually followed a similar pattern, an uncomfortable night followed by a disappointing breakfast tinged with self-doubt and medieval view shrouded in 21st century exhaust fumes. I’m not a morning person. After breakfast I would surrender myself to the all-consuming city and the first coffee shop in my path. By sunset I would be back at the hotel and trying to wash the grime away in a lukewarm trickle of a shower. Feeling marginally rejuvenated I would head downtown to explore the 1001 hedonistic delights of Koshery and bookstores and maybe a cheeky bottle of Egyptian Stella.

My evening is progressing as predicted, I’m propping up a bookshelf in shop just off Tahrir square and flipping through the pages of novel by my favorite Egyptian scribe when a diminutive chap sidled up beside me and with a nod and wink said “So you like Naguib Mahfouz” Yes that old chestnut I thought. So we got chatting about Egyptian literature and my pompous idea of a photography project, my new friend said his name was Bhar and taught English literature at a Cairo university.

After a short while he said I should follow him to a private club to meet some of his friends, he seemed harmless enough so we left the shop and walked to a near-by side street where a gathering of Cairo’s intelligentsia engaged heavily in existentialism and smoking. I was made very welcome and held court slumped in a worn out arm chair with my coffee perched precariously on my knee.

Conversation flowed, cigarettes were extinguished and lit, tea followed coffee and everyone agreed my project was terrific idea, I should meet this person and that, I couldn’t really keep up with the questions coming at me from different corners of the small back room. That’s arranged then said Bhar suddenly, and lead me back outside into the street with waves and goodbyes to my new found friends as I left.

I had no idea what had just been arranged but scuttled along after Bhar, it was quite late now and the usually crowded streets pretty quiet, after about twenty minutes walking we entered a closed office of an Egyptian newspaper, we risked a rickety elevator up several floors then a long a fluorescent corridor and tapped on door and entered without waiting for the answer. To this day I have no idea who I then shook hands with, tea was summoned and a conversation ensued, me and my grand project, phone calls were made and suddenly a photographer appeared and took my startled portrait, had I just been interviewed I wondered as we said our goodbyes and left the building.

As we walked in the general direction of my hotel, I tried to re-cap with Bhar what had just happened, the bottom line when it eventually transpired was that I had been invited the following evening to meet Naguib Mahfouz at hotel beside the Nile.

The following evening, I tried to flatten the rucksack induced creases from my best T-shirt and headed downtown to meet arguably the most important living writer in Arabic literature.

Born in 1911 Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, like most great writers he was a divisive figure, known to be shy he was also very social able and approachable, these twin characteristics also lead to him being physically attacked, his daily routine of walking from his home to his office via Tahrir square had often been quoted in interviews, in 1994 outside his home an assailant stabbed him in the neck, already a frail man miraculously he survived.

I had no idea what to expect, I had some scribbled directions on a scrap of paper, the address was modern hotel overlooking the Nile. I found my way to the lounge some floors up and entered with that slight feeling of an imposter.

Mahfouz was unmistakably sitting on plump armchair in the corner surrounded by an entourage of devotees, a literary salon, conversation was hushed, his hearing-impaired questions to him were relayed through a friend sitting beside him. I was in good company and chatted with authors Raymond Stock and Gamal al-Ghitani and it was the latter that introduced me to Mahfouz and explained my project. Mahfouz approved of my idea and shared a childhood anecdote from the streets I was plying those December days. We shook hands and he wished me well.

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Shot made on 3200 iso Tmax pushed to the limit and smuggled passed airport x-rays

John Ezard writes: In 1990, when he was a physically wasted, half-blind yet zestful 79-year-old, I interviewed Naguib Mahfouz in the Ali Baba cafe overlooking Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, where he breakfasted for 40 years and which he had seen change from a Nile-side preserve of the rich to a demotic chaos. “The square has had many scenes,” he said. “It used to be more quiet. Now it is disturbing but more progressive, better for ordinary people – and therefore better for me also, as one who likes his fellow humans.” Any country is fortunate if it produces citizens like him.

He wrote of life and his fellow humans. I was fortunate to meet such a soul. He passed away a couple of years later.

No doubt this will be my last post of 2019 so I wish you all the very best for the holidays and the coming new year. Thank you for following and all your support.

Am I homeless or a Digital Nomad? The next few months are going to be unknown, exciting and a new chapter.

Stay Tuned and a coffee would be much appreciated

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Middle East Print Sale

Photographs really should be printed and hung on walls; I say this as someone who loves photography not as a photographer.

As I work towards launching a new website dedicated to print sales I am offering a generous discount to raise the necessary funds, buying a print will go a long way to supporting my work as well as the opportunity to own a beautifully crafted image.

The prints are made at a London lab that pride themselves in producing the highest quality Giclee prints using the latest Epson professional Ultrachrome inks on beautiful archival rag paper.

Only $75 for a 30cm x 40 cm print (+ postage) other sizes are of course available.

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The images on this post are just a sample; please do search my website and Facebook page for alternatives.

(Please note a few images are not available due to lost hard-drives when I fled my house in Syria)

Have a browse and drop me a line and I will forward a detailed price list.

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Thank you for your continued support.

An Old Man In Cairo

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Having wandered the fetid alleyways of the Fatimid’s all morning I found myself sitting in a tiny coffee shop no bigger than an average size bathroom, the old man was sitting on the opposite row of benches, the sun couldn’t quite reach over the mud brick walls of the Cairo labyrinth, it was December and cold outside and the door had been pulled shut, the old man had shown little or no interest in the foreigner sitting an arm’s length in front of him, I on the other hand was obviously drawn to him, the lines etched onto his face like a map of the winding lanes that had brought me here.

With two Nikons dangling from my shoulders the old man must have guessed my intention, I smiled and raised one and he nodded approval somewhat reluctantly, I snapped one shot in the dull fluorescent light, then the door opened and the old man looked towards the light coming from the alley and I made the second image.

From my El-Hara project.

El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

Prints Available to Purchase

Portraits and Cairo Coffee

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A typically beautiful Cairo morning, cool in the dusty shadows with cats basking in the warm November sun.

I crossed the not yet busy square of Midan Hussein dodging a bread delivery boy balancing a rack of fresh baladi bread on his head; I slipped into my usual first port of call for coffee, one of the many joys of Cairo is never having to walk far to find a coffee shop.

While I waited for my coffee I loaded some film and set my pen and notebook on the chair beside me, I looked over at the man sitting opposite pulling heavily on his Nargila, I said good morning and noticing the portrait looking over his shoulder I asked if I could take his photograph, he nodded and I made just the one frame, my coffee had arrived and we both resumed our morning ritual.

 

From my El-Hara project.

El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

Prints Available to Purchase

Cairo Time and Tram Lines

Time for Mahfouz is a constant theme, in the opening chapter of Midaq Alley we hear hara-1Kirsha argue in favour of the instillation of a radio leaving the poet without a venue to recite his stories, “everything has changed” insisted Kirsha.

The tram lines seen here along Sharia Port Said are, like the coffee shop poets, a thing of the past, the trams would rumble over the junction coming from Sayyida Zeinab often with small boys hanging from the last carriage.

In the name of progress and to help alleviate Cairo’s ever increasing traffic chaos they were ripped up to make way for more cars and buses.

 

 

 

From my El-Hara project.

El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

Prints Available to Purchase

Cairo Cops

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Eating my breakfast several floors up I watched the two policemen going about their business of guarding the tourists flocking to be fleeced in the Khan El Khalili bazaar, personally I have always felt a policeman should cut an imposing figure, but this pair were holding hands and gazing into each others eyes as though Cupids gold tipped arrow had only just pierced the constabulary tunic.

I finished my hearty boiled egg and jam roll, had a second cup of tea then wandered down to my room to pick up my camera, I feel photography should never be rushed, like law enforcement, when I returned to the restaurant the couple were still absorbed in each other, the square below was quite noisy as usual but I swear I heard the guttural strains of an Egyptian love song.

I had more than enough time to compose my shot and rattle off a couple of frames.

 

From my El-Hara project.

El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

Prints Available to Purchase

Cairo Hara Tea Boy

My friend Gomer had some business to attend to and asked if I wanted to tag along, we set off along a side street from Darb al Ahmar and meandered through the alleys, we climbed a low wall and threaded our way carefully through a smoldering rubbish tip, I wasn’t sure what Gomer’s business was but it didn’t seem like a meeting with his bank manager.

In fact our destination soon became clear as we entered a car repair workshop, the alley didn’t seem wide enough to get a car along it, I sat in a corner on an oil drum with a carpet thrown over it, there was a sheep tethered in the other corner, Gomer’s friend shouted along the alley for some tea.

The tea boy’s face looked kind and gentle and seemed out of place in the harsh depressing surroundings.

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El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.