|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
24 - 30 May 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
photo: Randa Shaath
A glass of teaNo spasms but stillness, for this is all that counts
Profile by Youssef Rakha
Nabil Tag arrives in Cairo in the mid-1950s, dishevelled and uncertain. He never dreamed of living in the metropolis but he always knew that if he were to attend university he would have to dwell in either Cairo or Alexandria. What awaits him outside the railway station is a place he has no particular desire to be part of. For the first time ever he will be wholly responsible for himself. He knows no one. And as if this is not painful enough, in a week's time he will sit the College of Fine Arts admission exam: he must demonstrate the ability to work with materials he has heard of but not yet seen, producing, for example, "a charcoal sketch of a plaster statue, or a gouache still life..." He has still to attend the week-long preparatory course the college offers to applicants who need help, however.
At least he knows where he is going. Scribbled on a scrap of paper in his pocket is an address: "My cousin had a friend who owned a room in Dir El-Malak. He was in the army so most of the time he was not using the room, and my cousin arranged for me to take it while he was away."
More than 50 years after the event, Tag's voice still keeps the rhythms of his birthplace, the village of Mit El-Ghoraqa, near Mansoura. "It was terrifying for me because the first time I came, you understand, nobody came along with me." Tag sounds childlike as he says this.
He hoists his luggage -- a large rustic basket -- into a taxi, and hands the address to the taxi-driver.
Tag might have had the address, he did not really know where he was going. Daily, he had walked the five or so kilometers separating the family house from his secondary school in Talkha but this was a familiar route, a journey he trusted. Even Mansoura was not too far from home, and it had all the city life he thought he would ever need: "I used to love the cinema: Tarzan, and an American detective serial called El Diablo."
The journey from Ramsis to Dir El-Malak, by contrast, did not inspire the same sense of security. Never mind the fact that less than an hour after he arrived Tag had already set up house in the room: Cairo seemed overwhelming. "Perhaps the most important factor is that I wasn't used to being on my own, without the support of the family. One small example: I had to get to college in Zamalek by tram, imagine how long this took. Nor was there anybody really guiding me through the streets, no." He moved in with another cousin, a student at the Faculty of Commerce. "He was better off and it was impossible to live together. War broke out in 1956, the college closed and I went home. When the college opened again, I lived near by in Imbaba. Little by little," Tag sighs, "Cairo started to thaw." First he met the artist Mustafa Ramzi, a Cairene: "I thought he was a bey." Tag plays up his accent now. "But students from the provinces increased in number, there were a lot of us who managed to get in and we would stick together for reassurance. The Cairo girls used to start talking to me -- for a laugh," he adds. "They found that thick Daqahliya accent of ours very amusing."
Daqahliya is so deeply entrenched it colours everywhere else. Tag's father was a civil servant at the Ministry of Health in Mansoura. Among the very little art Tag saw as a child were the illustrated promotional ink-blotters produced by drug companies that his father regularly brought home; one, he remembers, featured ancient Egyptian medicine. The paradox is that when Tag was born (a week before the date on his birth certificate, 1 January 1939), life in a Delta village hardly supported a child's talent for drawing. "Until I went to secondary school," Tag explains, "I didn't know there was such a thing as drawing -- other than illustrations in anatomical textbooks. I didn't realise one could get a degree in something called the fine arts. But I got an excellent mark for biology, because one of the questions involved drawing the skeleton of a rabbit." Once, he brought home a block of stone from the riverside and began to carve a relief of his father's face onto the surface. "The response was muted; they never understood what I was doing." In Talkha, though, he had an art teacher, Youssef Ghattas, a student of Hussein Bikar, who did.
"An affable man, he founded an arts club for students and brought us reproductions of contemporary paintings we would never otherwise have seen."
Ghattas showed Tag how art can transcend its functions; eventually he pointed out how one could make art one's career. "One of my uncles, a relatively cultured merchant, managed to persuade the family that it was not such a huge disaster, my decision to do fine arts, that I was not going to end up belly-dancing." During the admission exam, he was working on a statue when professor Abdel-Aziz Darwish gave him a mighty clap on the shoulder and declared that he should join the painting department.
Tag's residence in Imbaba marks the beginning of his most vital period, the decade or so during which he made his mark (1956-66). Through Mohyi El-Labbad -- a friend Tag acquired in his second year -- he worked part-time in Sindbad magazine, Dar El-Ma'arif and El-Mesa newspaper: "There were financial problems but El-Labbad, who had worked in journalism since he was a young man and had the necessary connections, endeavoured to keep doing this."
His graduation project centred on the process of paving the streets by hand: he befriended a group of Upper Egyptian workers whom he followed around Cairo and invited to his room in order to paint studies of them. "A lot of people thought I used actual asphalt, whereas all I used was black paint, because I felt the black had to be all over the place. My feeling for black dates back to the village: during the day you never saw the men, who would be working in the fields. All you saw were the multifold black formations of women's clothes, floating around everywhere." The project earned him a month in London: "I had no money to take the train home and yet there was a plane ticket to London in my pocket."
Tag graduated in 1961, and for two years that he singles out for their richness, he was awarded a post-graduate residence in Luxor, where "the clarity of the air was such it almost eliminated perspective, and I understood the two-dimensional ingenuity of the ancient Egyptian masters."
Luxor over, Tag stopped painting and devoted himself to the more lucrative journalistic opportunities he could now command. Since arriving in Cairo he had rarely been still. "I had nothing to worry about, no hours to abide by and very little money to spend. I would park myself at a moulid or an open-air circus with my sketch book. The last bus to Imbaba was the only appointment I kept."
In Luxor he was impressed by the ancient art, but realising the limitations of his means, the encounter increasingly paralysed his own painting.
"One had to pay one's debts to the family, anyhow. First you were young and you were trying out your luck, now that you can make money you have no excuse." He worked for the monthly Al-Fikr Al-Muasir, and Abdel-Fattah El-Gamal's weekly literary supplement of El-Mesa: Less profitably, he collaborated with El-Labbad and many others on a short-lived Egyptian-oriented children's magazine, Karawan. His aesthetic interest in the disinherited brought him closer to the left-wing Sixties Generation, and at one point he shared a flat in Agouza with the colloquial poet Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi, the novelist Khairi Shalabi and the artist Makram Henein, among others. Late in 1966 he married a young Swiss teacher, and by 1967 he had accompanied her to Lausanne. For the next ten years he studied printing and taught graphic art. Down-to-earth Swiss artists, notably his brother-in-law, made "the artist's struggle" seem hollow: "They thought of art as a profession like any other, their sole livelihood. They never had spasms of egotistical self-righteousness the way we do, they accepted having to do other things to get by."
Arriving once again in Cairo, this time in the early 1980s, Nabil Tag felt relief that his newborn son would not grow up a foreigner among the Swiss. He had become weary of "distorted media reports of what is happening in the Middle East. Many Swiss people are biased against Arabs to the point of being unfriendly on the street. When Palestinian revolutionaries highjack a Swiss plane, the police immediately phone Tag's house: What does he do? Why does he live here? Does he have valid papers? Etc etc"
Appointed in Al-Ahram Al-Iqtisadi, his illustrations evolve into widely published caricatures: "Caricature has never interested me and I never thought of myself as doing caricature. It is just that, nowadays, the way things are, and regardless of the subject you might be tackling, things resolve themselves into comedies in a very strange way. The only way you can approach 'issues' is through making a humorous critique."
Eventually, he acquires a studio in Fayoum, and holds his first exhibition in Cairo, the result of "playing around" -- something he has not done for nearly two decades. By the time he receives us at his house in Heliopolis, his son has just married and is leading "a healthy life outside this infected realm." Tag draws our attention to the fact that there is nothing on the walls.
He is much happier without the compulsion "to make a mark on others," as he puts it, "to satisfy your ego, to satisfy society -- until you realise that your ego and society are two aspects of the same blinding interference."
In the lives of even the busiest bees in Mit El-Ghoraqa, there comes a moment when everything is done and one can sit in the shade and have a glass of tea: this stillness, this peace is more rewarding than the dogged urge to play Prometheus.
"If it is in you to do something you'll do it, whether or not you have spasms. And the spasms are unnecessary anyway, because in the end all you really have to do is live your life. Maybe it takes this many years to realise, to learn how to live your life."
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