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.

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Thesiger, Me and Mesopotamia

WRE_x1556Wilfred Thesiger died the summer of 2003, the same year I moved to Damascus, I remember hearing the news on the BBC World Service while living in one up one down hovel in the Old City. For those familiar with his life and work its probably no great surprise that his was a source of inspiration for mine. We have taken very different paths but somehow serendipity is what it is. My exhibition Syrians Unknown which should really have ended some time ago is still hanging at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which also holds the archive of Wilfred Thesiger.

Last November I had the privilege to finally visit the marshes of southern Iraq, Thesiger was there in the 50s and talks of political upheaval and the imminent demise of a culture stretching back 5000 years. The political upheaval has pretty much continued since then, he predicted the marshes would be drained, and they were, but were re-flooded, the quest for oil, war and drought have all taken their toll, and yet, a unique way of life continues, in many ways much as it has done since Sumerian times.

Very little photographic documentation has been made over the last forty years, mostly due to the war but my intention is to create a body of work comprehensive enough to be of future value and add to the legacy of Wilfred Thesiger.

Plans are underway for a return to Mesopotamia and discussions are happening regarding potential publishers but as ever funding is the major stumbling block, purchasing one of my prints would go along way towards me recouping some of my costs-the rent can wait.

Your help really is essential and much appreciated

30×40 cm Hahnemühle Photo Rag fine art paper with a wonderfully soft feel, boasts a lightly defined felt structure, lending each artwork a three-dimensional appearance and impressive pictorial depth.

Signed Editions 60 Euros

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Thank you for your supportWRE_x1556

Day Trip to Basra

Basra third largest city in Iraq

We had visas and letters of introduction and were quickly ushered towards the diplomatic booth, the guard look at the ink smudged pages of my passport with a bemused smirk and called to his colleague for guidance, the advice was simple, just stamp them in. He did and we were.

As frontiers go Basra international airport was a breeze and minutes later we were driving through one of the most depressing landscapes the Middle East has to offer. The road potholed and broken, shops shuttered, orange flames and plumes of black smoke rise from refinery towers, silhouette of derricks against a filthy sky.

There are not many reasons to come to Basra these days, war and oil being the obvious ones, the taxi driver was asking why we were here, which company he asked several times, engineers he questioned, no sir, we are archaeologists.

I am not an archaeologist. My companions though were and it was their connections with the antiquities ministry that granted our papers. I quite liked saying I was an archaeologist and tried it out a few times at check points. In my time working across the Middle East I had used a number of nom deplumes, poet, actor, artist, once at hole in the fence crossing from Qamisli in Syria to Nusybin in Turkey the Syrian guard asked me to paint his portrait, I gulped but he gave a garrulous belly laugh, slapped me on the back and waved me through, better stick to poet I thought that time. Archaeologist had a ring of Indiana about it and I have been thinking about hats ever since.

Basra was deserted, we drove through shanty suburbs with streets empty, a mangy dog and few nervous cats, I walked the along the corniche beside the Shat Al Arab, a rat scrambled over packets of biscuits on sale inside a kiosk, I wasn’t hungry. I sat and chatted with an old guy fishing, he was cheerful and happy for me to sit with him, rusting wrecks and old pleasure cruisers were moored near-by, a hint of history and a more prosperous past, black flags were fluttering on the far bank, rubbish was clogging the water below the pier we were sitting on, any fish? I asked my new friend-I didn’t catch his name, some he said but very small, I think he was killing time more than expecting to catch his lunch. I glanced at the modern bridge spanning the waterway, built by the Italians he explained, very big he said proudly, very expensive. There was little else around that promised progress and little sign of promised prosperity. Its been 15 years since the fall of Saddam and 11 years since the British military turned tail and abandoned Basra to the Mahdi army and while the fighting has stopped the sad mess that survives is one fueled by oil greed and tribal domination, street protests are now common.

Basra third largest city in Iraq

The map made the stroll to Basra Museum seem simple enough so I left the fishermen and wandered off, the solid concrete blast wall outside the Basra International Hotel was a canvas of halcyon images, a mural of Mesopotamian Marsh life, the wetlands thought to be the Garden of Eden are now as far from Paradise as they could be, as I would find out in the coming days.

Basra third largest city in Iraq

I reached a checkpoint and deflected the questions with the aloofness of visiting professor, archeologist on my way to the museum I smiled, they check my bag and were very impressed by the size of my camera and soon had me snapping selfies. It tends to be like this in the Middle East, checkpoints can go one of two ways.

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Past the checkpoint the street became wider, more water filled potholes, rubbish filled wasteland, more military, I walked alone and kept my camera in my bag. Suddenly the sound of boots and gasps of hht hht hht across the road, a small platoon of soldiers all had their weapons trained on me, one behind the other they snaked out of the gate of a tennis court, it took me a few seconds to process what was happening and bring a smile to my face and resist the temptation to get my camera out, just a training exercise of Iraqi army volunteers, they raided an abandoned building and I went to the museum.

Housed in what was once one of Saddams palaces, the museum opened in 2016 with help and support from the British Council and British Museum, I pushed the large wooden doors open and walked into the main hall with glass cases with pottery, coins and artifacts that date back as far as the first millennium BC. The importance of the archeological heritage of Iraq cannot be underestimated and the small museum in an almost forgotten Iraqi city is small sign of hope. I would later drink coffee with the indefatigable director Qahtan Alabeed who deserves so much credit for this beacon of light in such a dark place.

Basra Museum

Outside the heavens open and a deluge not seen since Noah, I splash my way towards the hotel, soaked to the skin a car pulls up beside me and the driver tells me to jump in as if kidnapping was not an actual threat.

What are you doing man he says as I drip all over his upholstery, its like summer in England I tell him with a smile, yeah, he says but are the roads this fucked? We weave around the rapidly flooding road, we pass the Italian bridge that leads to Iran now just a faint outline in the mist, I think of Sinbad who set sail from Basra in the time of Harun al Rashid as we pass a listing Dhow moored in the dirty Shatt al Arab, Sinbad battled many monsters in his quest to right wrongs, the British took his name in 2006 as they set out to right the wrongs created by the invasion of Iraq, Sinbad is a myth and Basra is a mess.

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The driver pulls up outside my hotel and we chat a while longer, an old woman shrouded in black is standing in the middle of the street begging from cars passing on either side of her. Sistani saved Iraq the driver re-iterates, Sistani not Sinbad then.

Basra was a bustling hub of global trade in the 1950s, elegant villas and tree lined boulevards, the British writer and traveler Gavin Young was working in a shipping office then when he met the legend that is Wilfred Thesiger,Thesiger was headed to the Marshes and Young was keen for adventure and tried to persuade Thesiger to take him along, I will be back in six weeks for a bath said Thesiger, come with me then.

I too am headed to the Marshes and will be back for my bath very soon.

While you are here:

I have added two new sections to the blog so please take a look:

Safe House  and Travel with lots more content on its way.

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Istanbul Street Photography

“Sometimes I felt that my happiness issued not from the possibility that Füsun was near, but from something less tangible. I felt as if I could see the very essence of life in these poor neighborhoods, with their empty lots, their muddy cobblestone streets, their cars, rubbish bin, and sidewalks, and the children playing with a half-inflated football under the streetlamps”

 The pathetic protagonist, actually he does not deserve the title protagonist since clearly the city is the hero, Kemal is the love sick overtly obsessed character from The Museum of Innocence beautifully crafted by Orhan Pamuk, like so much else of Istanbul Kemal is of the past, pathetic he may have been but at least he pounded the pavement in pursuit of Füsun, Facebook and Chatroulette has confined the modern stalker to malodorous bedrooms filled with tobacco smoke and crumpled tissues.

Kemal my friend if only you had carried a camera instead of pilfering underwear or whatever it was you filled your grubby little pockets with, then we too could see the essence of life in those poor neighborhoods.

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Street photography is somehow the vehicle and the destination, with a Nikon slung over my shoulder I set off on a journey of no particular route or terminus, exploring a city in transition, in constant flux, and often my happiness is not in the image I have digitized or burned on film but that understanding that comes from a curious eye.

For those that missed it here is a previous post on Street Photography in Istanbul;

Istanbul Street Photographer, A Social Media Story

I have been in Istanbul four years now and high time I organized my Street Photography archive, anyone interested in seeing more images or perhaps the stories behind the images, or should you want to learn more about technique and the fiddly bits do please feel free to get in touch.

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The First Bombs in Damascus

I never bought vegetables from his shop, I’d pass by several times a day and would always say hello, always promising myself to buy something from him one day, I never did, there were lots of similar shops and some even closer to my house. Did he mind I often wondered?

Those first days of the war in Damascus were the scariest, we knew it was coming, sometimes we were anxious, other times it seemed it could never happen on such a beautiful day, then almost overnight it arrived, all the shops closed and the streets emptied, gunfire filled the night sky and small mortar bombs landed in the narrow streets around my house, nobody came to collect the rubbish.

The shock and adjustment took a few days to sink in, the kids came out and collected the rubbish, shops were re-stocked and open again, life slowly emerged from behind the gated houses, the war continued but we adjusted, money had to be earned and food had to be put on the table.

The little vegetable shop though stayed shuttered, I walked past often expecting to see him sitting in the patch of sun on the other side of the alley, his pot of tea and cigarettes on a little wooden table.

The old man died under the first bombs, I never knew his name and never bought vegetables from his shop.

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Syrian school children walk past the old mans shop, Damascus 2012.

I lived in Damascus ten years until I was forced to leave my house in the summer of 2013, now in Istanbul I am sharing some of my memories.

More from my Damascus diary; Do You Have Any Weapons Asked the Syrian Officer?

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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