Parlous times

The curious relationship in Egypt between private life and the outside world is embodied by the parlour, whose function in Egyptian homes reflects all manner of paradoxes. Egyptian society is obsessed with social convention, status and appearances in the public domain; individuality and privacy rarely survive in the quest for cultural and moral homogeneity. And yet zealous efforts are exerted to ensure that certain aspects of life in the private domain remain safely cloistered at home, sheltered from the merciless gaze of the collective Other. The parlour, or ‘good living room,’ is the threshold between these two worlds: a tidy, edited, Sunday-best glimpse of the forbidden inner sanctum, with all the scandals – unveiled daughters and unmade beds contained therein.

It is telling that in Western society, where public and private increasingly overlap, there now remain few homes in which this room exists, guests and strangers gaining direct admittance into the living room and beyond. And yet here in Egypt, even the tiniest of homes will sacrifice a bedroom in order to be able admit the outside world on their own terms. Photographer Ahmed Kamel enters these rooms in his exhibition Images from the Parlour, currently showing alongside Tarek Hefny’s 2-Colour Cities under the heading Cartography at the Contemporary Image Collective.

Kamel’s photographs show Cairene families posed in this space between two worlds, couples and children framed by the near-intimacy of their parlours, with the décor and furnishings providing tiny clues about their lives. The family album mood of the images is belied by the families themselves: the women are veiled indicating an awareness that these images would be viewed by the outside world, and the awkward demeanour of many of the adults could only have been born out of the acute, often uncomfortable, self-awareness captured in posed photographs. Think: passport photos. The children, immune from this malaise, temper the sobriety of these photos with an unembarrassed exuberance, here smiling, there saluting for the camera.

The walls of these parlours meanwhile speak the emotions which the grownups will not allow themselves to articulate publicly: one dour couple sits rigidly staring at the camera, her husband’s arm placed stiffly on his wife’s shoulders. Above them are two framed photographs, one of a matronly, stern-looking figure in black, another of the couple themselves on their wedding day, facing each other but looking at the camera, he with his arms round her waist, she with his arms wrapped round his shoulders. It is a highly contrived pose, the couple again unsmiling, and something about the newlyweds’ expression as they stare down at themselves seems to be saying, ‘I told you so.’ In other images it is the décor itself which constitutes the narrative. The impossibly garish paradise garden scene covering the wall of one room creates a bedlam of colour which almost eclipses the couple and their five children sitting in its midst and which might be interpreted as an attempt to create a utopia missing from their own lives. In other images it is the minimalist, almost characterless, appearance of the rooms which strikes the viewer: a rejection of the kitsch extravagance of fake Louis XV furnishing so beloved of Egyptian soap opera makers, and a public declaration of belonging (or aspiring) to a better, more refined, class.

In 2-Colour Cities photographer Tarek Hefny presents portraits of 15 Peugeot 504 taxis from 15 different governorates. The cars are all photographed in profile, their drivers standing proprietarily alongside them, against a backdrop of the governorate in which that particular taxi operates. Each taxi is a variation on two colours, varying according to location, the one exception being the huge white estate licensed to make the lonely long-distance journeys between governorates and photographed against a stark desert background. As in Images from the Parlour, it is the setting of these images and more specifically the juxtaposition of their anonymous subjects against the often vibrant backgrounds which makes them so compelling. Viewed as a set the pictures are aesthetically striking, and there is something of a pop art quality to the repeated motif of the taxi in its many two-tone variations.

Overall Cartography is an excellent exhibition which presents a fascinating glimpse of these public and private spaces.

Contested space is the subject of the American University in Cairo’s photographic exhibit Searching for Unity: Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel. The exhibit is a collection of photographs taken by students who, led by AUC professor Saad Iddin Ibrahim, visited these four countries over the course of three trips. They met with militia leaders, governments, civil society groups and politicians and their photographs document these journeys through the region’s turmoil. Many of the pictures are visually striking, in others their subject matter serves as a reminder of the tragic absurdity of the situation: ancient olive trees, uprooted by the Israeli army and now symbolically chained to a public building in Bethleham; a display of t-shirts bearing Israeli propaganda messages such as an image of an F-16 Fighter Jet above which is written, ‘America don’t worry. Israel is behind you’; graffiti at a checkpoint proclaiming, ‘God is just too big for one religion’.

It is a sad truth however that many of these images – the wall wending its terrible path through decimated villages, Palestinian stone-throwers, carcasses of residential buildings destroyed by Israeli bombing in Lebanon and IDF soldiers in Jerusalem’s old city – have become almost symbolic through repetition, as familiar and as instantly recognisable as images of apartheid South Africa, Madonna baby shopping and the Starbucks logo – and have therefore lost some of their power. That they are so deeply ingrained in the collective cultural subconscious makes one wonder whether this is in fact why, 40 years after the end of the 1967 Six Day War which precipitated the start of the current never ending conflict, nothing has changed – misery in Palestine being the odd sound in the car engine which the world has trained itself to ignore.

Originally published in al Ahram Weekly

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3 Responses to Parlous times

  1. Ki says:

    Great article. El salon el modhab was one of the reasons I left….I now miss the wonderful kitschiness of it all. Ikea pales in comparison to Mobelyat el Barbeer we 3abd el Rehim 3amr. Does the online version of the article feature any of Ahmed Kamel’s photographs?

  2. Amnesiac says:

    Thanks, Ki. I assure you that you soon remember why you despise green, brown and gold sofas when you are actually sitting on them.

    Check your lifeofki email for photos.

  3. Basil Fawlty says:

    In honor of this post, I’m going to cover my blog in plastic until someone important comes to read it.

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