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.
Intern Report: Destination, Egypt?
Ever since a formerly anonymous Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire a year and a week ago, the Arab Spring has blazed unceasingly, notably in Cairo’s Tahrir Square where, in the last year, the Egyptian people have managed to ouster their former Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak. Just three weeks ago, the fourth most populous Arabic state held the first round of primaries for parliamentary elections, the first elections since Mubarak’s resignation.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis—though they have no plans to forge a formal coalition—will prove to be formidable foes against the military establishment that has been in control. General Molla’s military has felt the increasing disaffection on the streets and has been trying desperately to rope the protestors back under their control by—you guessed it—savagely beating and shooting them while publicly denying all accusations of violence. In the most recent military crackdown, 17 people were killed in a week… Molla’s method of catching bees with honey.
It could make for great street theater, as Nathan and Matt would arrive during the final round of parliamentary primaries. The people are clearly very badly in need of a sensible leader—not a general, not a mullah, but a visionary with compassion for his countrymen. May I suggest this man?
Tourism has suffered tremendously since Egyptians people have taken to the streets. Stability seems the political equivalent of parting the Red Sea. Anyone brave enough to visit Egypt as a tourist would probably receive a hero’s welcome. Egypt’s attractions, from the ones built by chosen people to the resorts along the Mediterranean, are empty, and the country’s tourism webpages are virtual ghost towns, scarcely updated and eerily devoid of any mention of Cairo. Furthermore, an understated component of the Salafi platform involves the promotion of “Halal Tourism,” Islam’s brand of radical R & R.
Granted, we are not against some sort of correction of the cultural excesses of package-tour-Meccas on the Red Sea like Hurgada, which Nathan visited with a bunch of sweaty Germans years ago. Hurgada is a place where wrinkly and orangish Germans and Italians gather on the beach to expose themselves pre Bunga-Bunga. It’s all so aberrant that the only people who will work the resorts are the Copts, Egypt’s oft-pissed-on Christian minority, who are distinguishable because that carve a cross into their forearms at a young age. Yipes.
So while we are no fans of Hurgada, this idea of Halal Tourism worries us. Or is maybe worth investigating. Either way, halal is best for deciding how to slaughter a goat, not for deciding how to spend your precious vacation days.
The real culture, then, is still along the Nile, not the Red Sea. It took some digging to find any cultural activity in Egypt that doesn’t involve nightsticks, gunfire, shouting or brutality, but we’re intrigued by the dark Egyptian Street Art: shadows painted on the walls of alleys and dusky corridors of the city that calls itself “The Vanquisher”.
Cairo will perservere. It has seen worse. It has survived plague, famine, war, assassination, and Elizabeth Taylor’s rendition of Cleopatra. And in fact, Cairo became (and remains) the center of the film and music industries in the Middle East, producing stars whose names can be conjured with a quick wiki search. For a bumping example of contemporary Egyptian music, pop star Amr Diab is worth checking out.
Anyway, Egypt’s weather in January is supposed to be some of the best of the year there, but if the military government still has the internet shut down by then, reporting from Cairo could be tricky. Tell us what you think.
—Chad, Intern #1