Ways of Remembering

Through framed images of its public icons, Cairo searches for a lost past

A portrait of the former Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat hangs in an old office factory in the Mena El Basal and Gomrok neighbourhood of Alexandria. The portrait has stood here since the 1970s. Images by Amina Kadous
Elections 2024
Photographs by Amina Kadous Text by Sukruti Anah Staneley
28 February, 2023

In the alleyways of old Cairo, in its cafes, warehouses and barbershops, framed portraits of Egyptian icons are ubiquitous. Kings, presidents, religious and political figures are all immortalised on fading walls, held up as symbols of a glorious past. The figures may have faced defeat, death, resignation or the collapse of their empires, but what they represent in the public imagination seems to firmly hold on, kept alive in pictures hung across the city.

In 2015, the photographer Amina Kadous returned to Cairo, her hometown, after five years of being away. While she was gone, the city had changed in fundamental, historic ways. The 2011 Tahrir Square revolution deposed Hosni Mubarak, the fourth president of Egypt, who had been ruling since 1981. Mubarak’s reign had been marred with accusations of corruption and abuse of power. As a result of the revolution, he was ordered to stand trial and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. Five years on, what changes had this tectonic political shift induced into the landscape of Cairo? In what ways had the city altered, and equally significantly, in what ways had it not? Kadous set out to explore these questions in a photography project ongoing since 2017.

To her, the framed portraits that hung everywhere in the older parts of Cairo embodied a city attempting to negotiate its past and present. In an introduction to her project, she describes Cairo as “a city of icons,” noting that it is part of Arabic culture to “glorify public icons, a concept rooted in our traditions and ethics.” Her project attempts to interrogate this almost ritualistic etching of the country’s public icons on the city walls. It probes the idea of memory and the act of remembering itself. She asks why “old iconic figures exist in such abundance” in the visual landscape of the city and what that represents.

The answer emerges in the longing for an imagined glorified past. Kadous describes it as a yearning for Egypt’s al-zaman al-gamîl—the good old days—a nostalgia for a lost, ancient glory which may or may not have ever existed. She speaks of many of Cairo’s residents being “raised on the stories of a glorious era,” that people hope will one day return. This hope is pinned on the remembrance of past icons, each of whom represents different political ideologies. The inhabitants of the spaces these historical figures exist in may change—the café’s owners, the apartment’s residents come and go—but the icons remain on the cracked walls, almost forging a new relationship with each subsequent generation. “The images on the walls become part of the identity of the place itself,” Kadous told me. “Some people are attached to the icons.”

In one photograph in Alexandria along the northern coast of Egypt, in the neighbourhoods of Mena El Basal and Gomorok, we see the inside wall of a security office at a cotton manufacturing company. Between the countless framed messages praising Allah are four clocks without hands. Above them rests a portrait of Muhammad Anwar El-Sadat, Egypt’s third president, who served from 1970 to 1981. Sadat succeeded Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was a commander of the Free Officers movement—a group of nationalist army officers—which triggered a revolution that toppled the Egyptian king Farouk in 1952.

A portrait of Farouk can be seen on a begrimed wall in another photograph Kadous makes. Mohammed, who works in a shoe workshop in Al Darb Al Ahmar, an old historic neighbourhood of Cairo, looks up longingly at this portrait. The area is home to many artists’ workshops, and the local population has struggled for decades to build a sustainable economy. “I wish his days would return,” Mohammed told Kadous. He preferred to live in the possibilities of that imagined past rather than the strange and harsher realities of the present.

Mohammed is not alone in this. In his introduction to Between the Eyes by David Levi Strauss, the artist and critic John Berger writes, “People everywhere—under very different conditions—are asking themselves: Where are we? The question is historical not geographical. What are we living through? Where are we being taken? What have we lost? How to continue without a plausible vision of the future? Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a lifetime?”

These questions, a collective nostalgia and a sense of a constructed history permeate Kadous’ work. The sites of al-zaman al-gamîl stand in contrast to the present, the idea of an authentic, pure and unblemished past confronts a messy and, as Kadous said, “miserable” present. Her photos speak of this tussle, of a city trapped between many imagined pasts and uncertain presents.

Nermin Elsherif, a critical geographer, designer and urban researcher from Egypt, writes that “examining nostalgia as a discourse in which the imaginary of the ideal nation is negotiated offers insights into the values, expectations, and frustrations of the proponents of al-zaman al-gamîl. It reveals how they imagine themselves as ideal citizens in an imagined ideal nation.” The tension that we see in Kadous’s work stems from her own negotiations with the imagined ideal nation, exploring her own identity and ties with a city she once knew, which changed fundamentally while she was away.

In another photograph, we see a man gazing out from what looks like the kitchen area of an old coffeeshop. A portrait of Nasser hangs above a television. Meanwhile, the television plays a 1955 film starring Farid Shawky, recognised as the “king” of Egyptian cinema. If it were not for the tiny pops of red on the screen or of the red hoses of hookahs aligning the top right shelf, this could be mistaken for a monotone, greyscale image that is the hallmark of old photographs.
Kadous’s work also includes a throwback to the Mubarak era. In one photograph, Kadous shows us the forgotten remains of the palace of Ottoman statesman Said Halim Pasha. After his assassination, in 1921, the palace came under the control of King Fuad I and was converted to a school called El Nasriyah during the British colonial period. The school was well reputed and ran till 1952. Since then, this relic of the Ottoman Empire has closed its doors to the public. In her photograph, we see the grand structures of the Italian architect Antonia Lasciac: tall, mustard walls that might be slightly discoloured from decades of abandon and a deep, forest-green frieze, with light streaming in through broken window panels. In the middle is an ageing printed photograph of Mubarak.

This was a rare find. Since the Tahrir Square revolution, traces of Mubarak’s portraits are hardly seen in Cairo. “You are confronted by his famous smile and gaze as you enter the room,” Kadous said. “His famous photo used to be hung everywhere during his days and it was demolished completely after the revolution, trying to leave no traces of his time. Yet some appear in hidden places like this one.”

In his book The Act of Seeing, the German filmmaker Wim Wenders writes, “The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes. In other words, what you show people, day in and day out, is political … And the most politically indoctrinating thing you can do to a human being is to show him, every day, that there can be no change.” Though Egypt has seen many political changes, Kadous shows us the stale leftovers of a past that seems to be always imagined as better than the present.

The icons revered on Cairo’s walls are not always political. Her work shows scenes of Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria alongside Mary and Jesus, tucked behind mirrors and pasted bills. In one photograph, inside an old spice shop, we see a wall covered in papers and pictures of the pope, held together by binder clips. In the foreground, we see another small image of the pope between a set of rusty scales. “The owner has multiple symbolic portraits of Pope Shenouda III and the Virgin Mary with Jesus hanging on every wall, protecting the space,” Kadous said.

For her, this photo project is not only a way to understand her city, but to also document what she sees as in the process of being erased. Those who took part in the Tahrir Square uprising were fighting for a renewed future. In the stirring, rebellious hope of that moment, they perhaps would not have foreseen that, a decade later, Egypt would be in the throes of another regime cracking down on dissent. Under the present government of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Cairo is further undergoing new measures that could once again change it fundamentally. “Roads and bridges are being built at the cost of historical spaces,” Kadous said.

Not pictured in her work is the shiny New Administrative Capital being built by Sisi’s government on the outskirts of Cairo, about forty-five kilometres from the Nile. A Reuters report described the “Designed as a high-tech smart city that will house 6.5 million people and relieve congestion in Cairo, it includes government and business districts, a giant park, and a diplomatic quarter as yet unbuilt,” a Reuters report described. Some believe that this new capital will deepen existing gaps between classes, while others are outraged by the shifting of large funds away from an already crumbling capital city that they fear may soon become a relic. In essence, they worry that the capital itself is being erased and shifted out.

In this landscape, Kadous records and documents the remnants of old Cairo. She interrogates the hope of al-zaman al-gamîl, the atrocities of the colonial reign and the future of the city. She described the camera “as a tool of healing” during a process of change. “The reason I picked up photography was so we can document the change before it happens,” she said.

In one photograph of an old pharmacy—or agzakhana, as they used to be called—there is an older couple. The woman looks back with a determination and her husband beside her looks worn out, tired. Behind them sit the portraits of Nasser and Sisi, sharing a space, though their regimes are separated by nearly half a century. Kadous chose to name this photograph “History Repeats Itself,” because “people call El-Sisi the ‘Nasser of our time.’” The woman in this photograph considers herself a Nasserite and a socialist. She remembers with a fondness how “glorious” the Nasser era was. Despite her husband being a strong anti-socialist, the couple remains bonded together.

Yet, in Kadous’s work, what we see are not simply portraits of people but a portrait of the city itself, and the ways in which it is remembered. We see the relationship between the people she places within her frame and the people they choose to frame on their walls. Through this emerges a layered canvas of Cairo, the narrative of an ongoing contestation to define both its past and its present.