I reached photographer Xenia Nikolskaya in Moscow while she was on an assignment for her new job as director for education and exhibition projects at Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency. She gamely answered questions from her iPad while on a break, but the topic was far from mid-winter Moscow. It was, instead, about her extraordinary book DUST: Egypt’s Forgotten Architecture. The book documents the abandoned palaces and salons of an Egypt you don’t often see in the headlines: the golden age of Cairene opulence.
But Nikolskaya’s interiors, shot from Esna in the south to Port Said in the northeast, largely with an old Horseman 6×9 camera, say as much about the decay of modern Egypt as about the luster of the country’s early years. Nasser may have kicked the wealthy owners of these mansions out of Egypt, but it was Mubarak who oversaw the political and financial rot that allowed a country to let its own history fall into such disrepair. And Mohamed Morsi’s new government doesn’t seem to value its cultural patrimony any more than its predecessors.
An exhibition of Nikolskaya’s work opened this weekend at the Medelhavsmuseet in Stockholm. If you, like me, won’t be making it to Sweden in the next little while, you might instead enjoy this (slightly) edited version of our conversation.
Garbage City is the kidney of Cairo, a vital organ with a dirty job: clean, sort, and repurpose the dregs of the city. So you might expect a fair share of misery here. But not so, especially not today. Because today is Christmas Eve (January 6 by the Orthodox calendar), and almost all of the zabbaleen in this predominately Muslim metropolis are Coptic Christians. After migrating from southern Egypt looking for work, they began pig farming (a trade Muslims steer clear of because pigs are considered unclean in Islam) and initially collected organic waste as fodder before turning to the namesake trade of Garbage City: recycling for profit.
Sanaa’s husband, Antar, 39, comes home from work (he’s a treasurer at a local environmental group), having bought enough pork, beef, and eggs to feed 18 relatives after Midnight Mass. It’s a big event, not least because Copts—the Orthodox Christians who say they make up some 10 percent of Egyptians—have been on a strict Lenten diet (vegan except for fish) for the past 43 days. Christians elsewhere might recognize a 40-day diet that corresponds with the 40 days Moses fasted before receiving the Ten Commandments. But Copts add three extra days to commemorate the 10th century miracle in which Saint Simon the Tanner lifted the mountain the zabbaleen live on as a test of faith.
More from Christmas in Garbage City, now on Roads & Kingdoms
The call to prayer at sunset bursts into Somaya’s Kitchen, a one-woman, hole-in-the-wall-of-a-downtown-alley restaurant, as the feisty Somaya herself swings open its green doors covered in anti-military stickers.
Revolution-inspired art and photographs of early 1900s Cairo overlook political activists nestled between patchwork folk art cushions at three tiny, brightly painted tables, where passionate political debate is standard fare. Today’s table topics: Egypt’s constitution-to-be, a proposed restaurant and shop curfew, the need for interior ministry reform. The U.S. presidential election? Not on the menu.
“We’ve got more than enough to worry about with Morsi,” the 42-year-old Somaya says, roughly chopping a bundle of molokheya, bitter greens common in the Egyptian kitchen. “I didn’t even know about the U.S. election, and I don’t care. Whoever wins won’t make a difference to us.”
Dinner is served: rice with golden vermicelli, green bean stew, and roast chicken. No special today.
Arabic-language news of the U.S. election blares from a small TV in an electronics shop in Tahrir Square. 24-year-old Waleed has witnessed his share of Egyptian political instability from the window of this shop, and experienced plenty of financial flux as a result of it.
“Romney is unknown, too risky for the Middle East. He seemed excited to go to war with Iran in the debate,” he says. “With Obama we know what we’re getting—no change—and that’s exactly what we need right now.”
A mass of bodies and vehicles continues seeping into downtown from seemingly out of nowhere, flooding streets and alleys during the after-work rush hours (yes, plural). Many of those bodies end up in a hodgepodge of colorful plastic chairs in Borsa, the alleys around Egypt’s stock exchange, smoking sheesha and playing backgammon.
“We won’t care until America shows interest in Egyptian people, not politics,” 31-year-old professor Mona says, cupping her Nescafe with both hands for warmth as the night cools. “What happened to Obama’s 2009 promise of “dialogue” between the Middle East and West? I’m not seeing that exchange program on the ground.”
Along with the requisite football matches, breaking political news on Borsa’s flatscreens has arrested the attention of hundreds gathered here over the last few years.
Tonight, no one looks up as an aging bellydancer sways mournfully on screen.
While living in Imbaba, a rough part of northern Cairo, I walked to my favorite vegetable stand on a dirt alley one street in from the Nile. It was not the closest stand to my house, but Ahmed the vegetable salesman never tried to rip me off or force unwanted purchases on me. And then nature brought this gift: while picking through the carrots these three rose to the top. Here they are: my Odalisques.
[Photo Credit: David Degner]