THE ORIENT in Focus is the title of a three-month programme of seminars, exhibitions and documentary films currently being held in Munich under the auspices of the city council. As part of this extravaganza, Bavarian city-dwellers now have the chance to get a glimpse of "The Markets of Cairo" through 24 photographs by Sherif Sonbol. When he was approached by Christine El-Gohari to contribute his vision of some fragment of Cairo, Sonbol wondered which aspect of this multi-faceted, dynamic city he should present to his German audience. One suggestion was to focus the exhibition on café scenes. But since his would be the only photographic exhibition to represent the vast portion of the earth denoted by the term "the Orient", Sonbol felt that the qahwa baladi would not provide a broad enough perspective. At the same time, he felt that a series of portraits, another option put before him, could not adequately communicate the vitality of the city he was being asked to capture on film.
Yet, while at one level the photographs that Sonbol has taken to Munich are pictures of markets -- Khan Al-Khalili, Rod Al-Farag and Al-Ghouriyya, to name but a few -- at another level, they are also portraits. There is none of the hustle and bustle that one would normally associate with the market place. Instead, Sonbol has snatched moments of tranquility, wrenching oases of silence from the hubbub of buying and selling. Early morning in the Khan, a shop keeper drinking a cup of Turkish coffee before he starts his work; an old man sitting by his sweets cart in front of the Turkish sabil on Al-Ghouriyya Street at night after most of the buyers have called it a day; the brass dealer smiling at Sonbol's lense surrounded by the arts and crafts he sells; the "libation bearer", a fruit seller with basket poised gracefully on her head making her way through what seems like a universe of baskets -- the human face of the market catching its breath or taking a moment to pause and reflect before the flurry of supply and demand redescends.