Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

An Ottoman and a gentleman

What new trends are Cairo's tastemakers setting, and why? Pascale Ghazaleh refuses to take straightforward style statements at face value

The new mall on Tal'at Harb Street
photos:Randa Shaath

The new mall on Tal'at Harb Street; inset: door to a new residence on Road 18, Maadi; bottom: how Gaudi! one of a series of new edifices in Maadi. This page, top to bottom: comfort or consumption -- a sofa by Zaki Sherif; pillars and palms at La Bodega ("more than just a restaurant, it's a way of life"); tongue-in-chic display at Beit Sherif; inset: guarding the entrance to Zamalek Residence no. 27, on the street formerly named after C Scott-Moncrieff, adviser to the Ministry of Public Works under British occupation

 
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Early one evening, we ventured down an alleyway off the Corniche near the World Trade Centre in search of Abdel-Wudoud. He was not difficult to find, although his warehouse is tucked away behind the Conrad Hotel, in a no-man's land that is neither the province of Sabtiya's ironmongers and lumber tradesmen, nor the territory of Wikalat Al-Balah's spare-parts stalls and textile vendors.

From the mouth of the alleyway, a surreal vista spread out before us: chandeliers and sconces hung by the hundreds from the warehouse's sloping ceiling; wrought-iron doors and stained-glass windows were arrayed in neat stacks against the walls; sections of panneling, bannisters from long-gone staircases, marble fountains, Chinese vases as high as an adolescent, ornately carved buffets, living room sets of the gilt Louis-Farouk sort so vastly imitated by the oyma artisans whose work adorns every self-respecting aspiring bourgeois living room... It was an eerie funfair of furniture, all the trappings of several large houses minus the edifices themselves, a ghoulishly dissonant array of eras and styles from Art Deco to rustic to rococo.

Abdel-Wudoud is something like Shiva, the god of destruction and rebirth. He is the Janus of the real estate industry. By the time a nineteenth-century villa is razed, his work is already done. He takes the kasr (breakage): balcony railings, bas-reliefs if they can be chipped off without damage ("most of them are worthless plaster," he sniffs), iron-work, marble inlays, fountains, basins, panels... Anything that can be carted away before the edifice is smashed to smithereens is taken to his lair and dusted down. There it will sit, awaiting a purchaser: an interior decorator who wants a particular piece for a hip new restaurant, perhaps, or newly-weds with exotic tastes, who are tickled by the idea that their bed once belonged to a minor member of the Egyptian aristocracy.

The old man sits deep inside the warehouse, in a tiny office. From his vantage point behind a huge desk, he can oversee the comings and goings of potential clients, and wax lyrical about all the buildings he has destroyed. "Yep, I pulled that one down," he will say. "I remember it well." His memory is an archive, carefully itemised, of all Cairo's vanished landmarks. His son, who holds a post on the Local Council of the capital's western sector, works with him, and points out the merits of various pieces with pride. He indicates a dining room set so elaborately carved it is almost frightening. The base of the table is shaped into a bear embracing a tree trunk. Each of the chairs is an assemblage of bears striking various poses. "There's not a single nail in that entire set," he notes. "It all fits together with joins and grooves. They just don't work like that anymore."

Abdel-Wudoud and others like him -- the owners of Huda Sha'rawi Street's antique shops, for instance, although they are small fry compared to the king of kasr -- thrive on this process of creative destruction. The disappearance of so many Ottoman-era beits, as well as nineteenth- and early twentieth-century villas and palazzi, is a sign of the times, of course: land prices are shooting up all around the downtown area; rents are stuck at levels unaffordable for many tenants, perhaps, but still far too low for landlords who are sitting on gold mines, quite literally, and know it. In this pressure-cooker of potential profit, something has to give. Often it is the tenants themselves, who are, after all, far easier to move than a building; sometimes, however, the scavengers move in, and then, after a decent interval -- memories are short, after all, in a city where there is just too much to remember -- the charming landmark bites the dust.

It is ironic, then, that during a time of such frenzied renewal -- more granite! more tile! more turquoise aluminium sliding windows! -- the past is coming to exercise such a powerful hold on the taste of the very same individuals who are making a packet out of its destruction.

***


Comfort or consumption -- a sofa by Zaki Sherif Pillars and palms at La Bodega ("more than just a restaurant, it's a way of life") Tongue-in-chic display at Beit Sherif
When, in 1952, the monarchy was ushered out of power, the members of the royal family did not always have time to gather their belongings before departing hastily. One young prince, barely more than a child at the time, remembers leaving his small apartment in Abdin Palace still furnished with his belongings. Years later, he returned to Egypt, and was advised it would not be impossible to retrieve at least a few of these possessions. As he told Max Rodenbeck, who recounts the incident in Cairo, the City Victorious, he visited a small shop behind the palace. There he did indeed find a few favourite items, among them a gilt chair and a first edition or two.

Had the prince not returned to reclaim his heritage, someone else could well have appropriated it. Items that had once belonged to the family of Mohamed Ali -- or could credibly claim such illustrious affiliation -- were enjoying a surge in popularity. The public that purchased them seemed eager to recover a history it had not known -- or at least not directly. Until the early 1970s, royalty and its trappings were still stigmatised by associations with feudalism and exploitation. Thereafter, a new aesthetic rose to prominence. At first, it was a timid process: those who chose to furnish their homes with bits of Ottoman mashrabiya or portraits of the members of the royal dynasty were antique dealers, eccentrics, intellectuals, or those who had actually inherited such pieces, and saw them simply as family heirlooms, attractive for their sentimental value, perhaps, but neither intrinsically better nor worse than other (tasteful) alternatives. They were part of family history; statements about one's class, of course, but which had been around for long enough to fit fairly seemlessly into the living room landscape. Tante Halima's teapot may have been a Limoges, and more valuable for that (a point not to be neglected when the royals and their hangers-on found themselves facing increasingly hard times), but, more importantly, it was Tante Halima's, and one had fond memories of tea parties, attended by one's dolls and teddy bears, in which the pot featured prominently.

A spread on the home of architect Abdel-Halim Assem and architect and interior designer Naela Toulan, featured in the December/January 1998/99 issue of medina, seemed to make just that point. Toulan was quoted as saying: "You know, when we got married, we wanted everything which was en vogue but you soon grow out of that and want something that can stay with you for the rest of your life." In that spirit, a large portrait of Abdel-Halim Pasha Assem, the master of the house's great-grandfather, could be juxtaposed seamlessly with a Neo-Pharaonic nude.

"Objects," writes Pierre Bourdieu in La Distinction, "are not there to fulfil a technical or even an aesthetic function, but simply to signify this function and to formalise it, in a sense, through their age, to which their patina bears witness. Thus reduced to the state of instruments in a ritual, they are never questioned as to their function or their convenience: they are part of the necessity accepted in terms of self-evidence, to which their users must adapt."

Soon, then, emblems -- formalised signifiers, if necessary -- of the monarchy began to appear in the new furniture galleries that were sprouting up all over Cairo: boho-royalists could purchase the royal flag, a wood sculpture of the crescent and three stars. Portraits of Kings Farouq and Fouad were also available, as were military uniforms from the pre-Revolution era. Perhaps the most devoted collector of such mementos is Maged Farag, who has produced volume after volume of pictures and words related to the royal family. Printed on heavy pale grey paper and bound in luxurious deep green leather, the Royal Albums feature "real" photos of banquets, weddings, receptions, dignitaries and royals at work and at play... They could almost be one's family albums, left lying carelessly on the coffee table. Farag has also amassed a large collection of royal memorabilia, including a carriage, several uniforms, and portraits galore, as well as a plethora of medals and books, letters and firmans...

The appeal of such paraphernalia, it must be said, lies partly in its kitsch value. But with portraits of the king going for as much as LE10,000, collectors concerned with authenticity must be fairly serious about their habit. And in many homes, it is clear that kitsch is just not a consideration. In a recent issue of a local English-language magazine, an interior decoration feature showed King Fouad in full military regalia gazing sternly down a sweeping staircase. The king's expression left no doubt that he was the source of inspiration behind the rest of the interior: a resplendent gilt salon was adorned with Ming vases and real -- or imitation -- 19th-century French crystal chandeliers and the other rooms -- while hardly of the desirable majestic proportions (architecture, or at least the proportions of living space, seems to be shrinking as aspirations rise) -- were laid out as palatially as possible.

"One of the ways that demand is created," writes Russell Lynes in The Tastemakers, "is by changing people's tastes, or at least inviting them to change, and by making the pressures to give up what seemed good yesterday for what should seem inviting today so strong that they are almost impossible to resist." If this is true, then the increasing popularity of the past, as manifested in private interiors, public venues and even government buildings, could be just a fashion. Enough concrete blocks, the trend could signify; out with the bunker, in with the mini-Versailles. The austerity of the 1960s was dictated by financial constraints, but also buttressed by a conscious (if rarely expressed) intention to assert the moral superiority of asceticism. The villas of the ancien régime's scions were transformed into schools or hospitals -- luxury placed in the service of the people, as a visible manifestation of the regime's socialist policies. Everyone could benefit from amenities only a privileged few had enjoyed -- although, in the transmogrification that ensued, it became clear that this was not necessarily the case. Broken windows went unreplaced, partitions went up, floorboards sagged under the combined weight of hundreds of millions of civil servants and their spartan metal desks... Sometimes, it seemed that revenge was the true message here. At least the slow decay of the former ruling class's dwellings served as a constant reminder of its members' demise.

Today, 16 years after the initiation of the Open-Door Policy, new tastemakers have taken centre stage. Perhaps enough time has passed for the monarchical era to grow blurred, and fade into a comfortable haze of nostalgia. Although some still regard the architecture of downtown Cairo, say, with a measure of contempt ("What do we care about those buildings?" someone snorted recently; "they were built by foreigners -- nothing to do with Egypt"), there is growing concern that the frenzy of demolition work and the inexorable spread of flashy storefronts will put paid to a precious part of the country's architectural history. Last year's cultural events celebrating the downtown area, and organised with the specific aim of raising awareness of the city centre's value, pleased many intellectuals who saw no need to link their political views of Mohamed Ali's family with the intrinsic historical importance of its members' endeavours.

Advocates of restoration/ preservation, however, hardly see the new mall on Tal'at Harb Street as a step in the right direction. The architect of the neo-Art Deco edifice cannot claim that it seeks to blend in with its surroundings, although it draws directly on the visual discourse of downtown Cairo's architectural heyday. It is shiny and new, despite the explicit nod to its neighbours and predecessors. Like the Supreme Constitutional Court, it takes a measure of inspiration from the inter-war years, a period in Egypt's history associated with political pluralism and a measure of cultural openness. In this sense, the choice of typically Art Deco features for the mall would seem to tie it in more consciously with a purely Western architectural register -- it was, after all, Italian, German and French architects who designed many of former Ismailia's most characteristic buildings -- while the Supreme Constitutional Court, built after the fashion of a Pharaonic temple, seems designed to impress upon commuters the majesty of the law as well as its impartiality. In what could be the ultimate irony, the Pharaonic heritage is the only one deemed "Egyptian" enough not to contain specific religious or cultural overtones. It is surely no coincidence that the court resembles the mausoleum of nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul so closely. Writing in the January 1998 issue of medina, Aly Hatem Gabr remarks that the secular nature of the Egyptian nationalist movement, "and its deliberate appeal to all Egyptians, encouraged the search for a uniquely Egyptian architectural language, allowing for a few, tentative forays into the Neo-Pharaonic."

In contrast to such serious endeavours, nightclubs and restaurants are also witnessing a rediscovery of the past; but here, the intention seems very different. Perhaps the most prominent examples of this wave are Cinzano, Zinc, Tabasco and their ilk, the posse of restaurants and bars that have mushroomed across Cairo in recent years. Most of these hangouts share certain features -- an air de famille, one could say. The walls are roughly whitewashed or sponged in earthy ochre tones; wrought iron features prominently in one form or another; creative reuse of common items (e.g. the glass beads that adorn the back rests at l'Aubergine, the chains strung with amulets and the brass bedsteads hung on the walls at Zinc) is important. The look can span the gamut from sha'bi-chic to Khan El-Khalili-tongue-in-cheek. In some of these venues, the feel is more Art Deco; in others, it reminds the visitor of nothing so much as the house of a late-nineteenth-century village notable -- the 'umda, perhaps, whose wife took such pride in her Wedgwood soup tureen, Venetial crystal chandelier and chintz-covered settee. In contrast, at La Bodega, still the newest of Zamalek's new watering holes, the look is part of an unabashed attempt to "build gourmet culture," as project manager Yasser Ssembatya sums it up. The vehicle for this undertaking, however, strives to reproduce an opulent, if eclectic, early-20th-century colonial official's home, whose occupants have accumulated a variety of objects on their extensive travels. Certainly, La Bodega's décor has been scrupulously planned and executed, and it flatters all the senses. All high ceilings, matte wood floors and open spaces, it features murals by Djenane and Mira Shehadeh, artwork by Elizabeth Washburn, and sculptures by Mo'taz Nasreddin -- among the latter's contributions, perhaps the most arresting is the tableau at the entrance, in which elegantly clad cocktail drinkers seem to be emerging from the wall. Regulars and newcomers alike ooh and aah at the stunning bathrooms. Designed by Rasha El-Gammal (whose houseboat gallery, moored in Kit Kat, is a paean to Damietta's woodworkers), they feature coloured glass washbasins that emit an ethereal glow when the lights are dimmed.

In a semi-public space like La Bodega, attractive bathrooms are important, of course. They also suggest, however, that there is a subversive and paradoxical process at work here: traditionally private spaces, carved out slowly during the 19th century, are becoming public once more. The specialisation of various spaces in the home, and their dedication to specific functions, is neither a universal nor a natural phenomenon; in fact, it is an extremely recent development. As Catherine Hall writes in "The Sweet Delights of Home" (A History of Private Life: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War), the "novel idea of separate rooms for children and of a demarcation between eating and cooking was associated [during the 19th century] with the idea of a different space for men to work in. Such homes had major implications for furnishing, as warmth and comfort were increasingly stressed."

The other side of this coin -- the differentiation of living space into public and private arenas -- was of course the growing tendency to set aside some parts of the home for display. As any of the homes featured in Egypt's many new design and decoration publications will show, the process is far from complete -- it is still rare to see someone's bathroom spread across the pages of a magazine in this country. Exhibition, however, is a prime consideration nevertheless, and is taking over more and more space: were it not, why would so many society hostesses choose to entrust the way their homes are set out and decorated to "professionals" rather than trusting their own taste? The answer, whichever way one looks at it, is that they are convinced they have no other option. Taste must be acquired gradually, over generations; those who would like to catch up now would do far better to let someone else choose the message they will be sending, as well as the paper it is written on and the colour of the ink. Lucky, then, for the tastemakers at least, that insecurity is so prevalent as to imbue this suggestion with credibility. Lucky, too, that those who seek so ardently to impress their soon-to-be friends can afford to do so -- that newlyweds (or at least the in-laws), say, can afford to bring an interior decorator into the marital abode and splash out on an all-chintz reception room (cabbage-rose wallpaper, carpets, curtains and upholstery), or a brothel-red guest bathroom with faux-marble detail and mirrors on the ceiling. The result, perhaps ironically (and perhaps not), is more often than not a home with no space at all for its 24/7 inhabitants: all salamlek, no haramlek.

Again, La Bodega is the pioneer in this transformation of public into private and private into public space. Besides giving diners and drinkers the impression that they are just visiting a friend (albeit a fantastically wealthy and relatively well-travelled friend), it will be the venue for artistic events and worthy causes -- perhaps a fundraiser for autistic children. Hearkening back to a time when Egypt's "foreign communities" were the country's real movers and shakers, it will offer entrepreneurs a bite of culture and a chance to savour their generosity along with their tapas. In so doing, it will cross the final frontier, and make individual conscience a commodity to be consumed and displayed.

***

Guarding the entrance to Zamalek Residence no. 27, on the street formerly named after C Scott-Moncrieff, adviser to the Ministry of Public Works under British occupation How Gaudi! one of a series of new edifices in Maadi.
Door to a new residence on Road 18, Maadi
It is difficult to say if such trends are being led by interior decorators unleashing their creative talent on private homes, or if newcomers to the entertainment scene provided the impetus. Until a few years ago, most restaurants, bars and nightclubs were fairly straightforward affairs in terms of interior decoration: standard Euro-glitz or five-star hotel fare featuring wall-to-wall mirrors, plush banquettes and perhaps a long, shiny bar. Themed venues, which were most often the offspring of an American chain, usually borrowed inspiration -- Tex-Mex, south of the (US-Mexico) border, or straightforward neon and plastic fast food -- from their parents when they came to town. Then things began to change. The Marriott Hotel, after all, has some claim to its over-the-top take on the neo-Islamic heritage embodied in the central palace, but later additions (the towers or the restaurants, say) are resolutely "continental." Visitors to the Conrad, on the other hand, upon which Abdel-Wudoud can gaze from his lair, are immersed in a strangely -- almost intentionally -- fake Art Deco world. Here there is no claim to authenticity, simply to "good taste;" and, while the bid may fail miserably, in this sense at least, the irony of the boho-ethnic and the ponderous honesty of massive colonnades and neo-Pharaonic details dovetail.

The interior decorators, collectors and enthusiasts who have spearheaded the more self-conscious side of this phenomenon, for the most part, see nothing strange or unusual in the sudden craze for history, whether picked up off the garbage heap (sometimes quite literally) and placed in the centre of the living room for shock or "pure" aesthetic value, painstakingly imitated in Damietta (minus the patina of age, which diminishes somewhat the owners' earnest desire for truth value), or imported from Europe. Ironically, this last choice may well be the closest anyone has come to historical authenticity, since a notable's house at the end of the nineteenth century would probably have featured many pieces lugged across the waters from England or France. Under Ismail, writes Gabr, "Cairo... became a construction site for buildings that often appear to be more 'European' than those of their European counterparts." One need look no further than Abdin Palace for proof; but Abdallah El-Nadim's critique of the elite's inferiority complex is also an eloquent condemnation of its increasingly Westernised consumption patterns. Today, when that particular wheel has come full circle, one can hang a Bukhara in one's living room if one is actually Westernised enough to be comfortable with a touch of ethnicity, or upwardly mobile enough to recognise such a piece as a mark of true distinction (not to mention wealthy enough to afford said ethnic touch); or one can take pride in one's blue velvet "Aubusson" settee, machine-embroidered in a workshop off Port Said Street.

Perhaps, then, the passion for the past lies simply in dissatisfaction with the present, and the feeling that the future has already proved disappointing. The European architectural styles that prevail in buildings commissioned during the early 20th century, Gabr argues, "[reflect] the emphasis of Egypt's rulers on European designs as befitting a modern, progressive city government." If so, what could the Supreme Constitutional Court possibly represent?

Of course, there are those who will take the pragmatic view. As designer Ayman Ezabawi remarks: "The heritage of the 1920s and '30s is the only thing you can collect without it being a crime." True, it is difficult to imagine the Supreme Council for Antiquities indulging a craze for Pharaonic headgear, say; as for the monarchy, it is the province of no official organisation, so hunters can continue to enjoy open season -- at least for a while longer.

There are signs, too, that at least one way of expressing this particular infatuation has run its course. Interior decorators like Amr Khalil have been seeking inspiration beyond the imagined opulence of a late Ottoman harem for a while now, and turning instead to the slightly more ascetic appeal of Egyptomania, as Khalil did when choosing pieces for the Eugénie, which offers exclusive cruises on Lake Nasser.

Khalil's Zamalek apartment, on the other hand, is a trove of eclectic treasures. The walls are scarred and water-stained; lines of poetry have been scrawled straight on to them. A massive Chinese urn stands next to a leopard-print Ottoman; the fireplace is flanked by outsize sconces (which may well have illuminated a street corner during a previous incarnation); close at hand is a brass log-holder embossed with the royal crescent-and-three-stars motif. A table by the window is completely occupied by a collection of opaline vases with petal like rims, held by sculpted hands; red, blue, pale green, spotted, striped... There are knick-knacks everywhere: a multitude of tiny frames, vases, lamps, bric-a-brac, a mixture of empire and rococo. The overall effect is thoroughly decadent -- and resolutely humourous.

"They just don't understand the game," says Khalil of the earnest royalists. "They've taken the whole thing seriously. It's fun to mix things, to readapt and reinterpret. It's just a trend. In the 1960s it wouldn't have been, because it would have been misunderstood. Now some people do it the right way, and some just follow because they know it's the fashion. The things being used now were not in houses, they were in the streets." For Khalil, the important thing is age: the fact that a given object was actually there, that it bore witness to a certain period.

So the fine line between irony and bad taste remains elusive. Khalil sums it up laconically: "It all depends on how it's done."

***

So the people who take the style seriously -- the empire console, the Victorian sconces -- are usually those who could not have experienced it the first time around. Tongue in cheek is for those who can afford it, after all, in every sense of the term. There are two layers of irony at work here: one afforded by the distance of history, the other by the voluntary degrading or displacing of the object, its decontextualisation. Brass beds are not comfortable -- they squeak, as Amr says -- but they are comforting. One imagines one's grandmother could have had one, even if she didn't. So the "irony thing" is for those who have received a Western education -- those for whom multiculturalism is a given, not something they must earn anew every day.

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