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To Cairo with loveFayza Hassan
I had not met Cynthia Myntti when she came to Cairo in 1997 to research Paris on the Nile, a book on Cairo's architecture from the Belle Epoque, recently published by the American University in Cairo Press. Nor did I bump into her during the ten years she worked here on public health issues. All I knew was that she was an American anthropologist who had just written a book on Cairo. Another one.
"A striking redhead with bright blue eyes," as her husband describes her, Myntti completely lacks the pomposity of those foreign "experts" whose condescending manner implicitly proclaims that, not only are they more versed in our history and architecture than we are, but that they have also unearthed a few shameful secrets which they are about to unveil. She simply seems surprised and delighted to have brought her project to fruition. "I am neither a professional photographer nor a historian, but I fell in love with downtown Cairo and its fin de siècle architectural style, and this book was one way of expressing my feelings," she said.
building in Al-Daher Street
Zamalek, 5 Mahmoud Azmi Street
Zamalek, 5 El-Kamel Mohamad Street
motif on downtown Omar Effendi
motif on building in Youssef El-Guindy Street
motif on Sakakini Palace
Bishara Al-Kafuri Street
When the idea of the book began to take form in her mind, Myntti contemplated hiring a professional photographer. She soon realised that her contact with the nooks and crannies of the capital which had taken her fancy had to be more intimate. "I did not feel I could be comfortable enough with a stranger to explain why a particular street, building or garden fence meant so much to me, while I looked at others, albeit similar, with indifference. My choices were purely subjective and as such, had to be dealt with on a one to one basis," she explains.
Walking through downtown Cairo with her camera, she perused the built landscape, directing her lens at details which, for most of us, pass unnoticed. She took 4,000 pictures, 170 of which have been collated in Paris on the Nile, creating an architectural eulogy to the past glory of Khedive Ismail's capital, later emulated by his successors. Bearing in mind that Myntti does not relate the entire story -- a fact which she readily points out herself -- since she left entire parts of the whole out of her selection, leafing through the book, one is suddenly confronted with the incredible richness and variety of styles expressed in the work of architects who flocked to Egypt from the world over and were given free rein to follow their inspiration and satisfy the tastes of "Egypt's landed gentry, industrialists, technocrats, and urban elites, but also [those of] the Turks, French, British... Belgians, Austrians, Greeks, Americans, Armenians, Italians, Jews from Vienna, Livorno and Izmir and Arabs from the Ottoman provinces of Syria," she writes in her introduction.
Myntti's walk through Cairo was not conceived within a specific framework. Nor does it aim at being exhaustively informative. "I have not systematically covered one particular building type, architectural style, era, or neighbourhood. Instead, I simply took pictures of what I liked, what struck me as charming, grand or amusing from street corners and full buildings to their decorative details," she warns, characteristically omitting to insist on the fact that she purposefully left out the decayed aspects of the same street corners, buildings and decorative details. One could ascribe this selective recording to a desire not to hurt any feelings by showcasing the painful scars inflicted upon the former dwellings of a cosmopolitan elite by near half a century of neglect and misuse; then again, perhaps Myntti suffers from an acute -- and totally unjustified -- case of optimism that has led her to believe that the remnants she has fallen in love with will somehow be restored to their original glory and preserved, remaining for many years to come, a charming anachronism on which to rest one's eyes in the invading jungle of fear-inspiring high rises.