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A Question Without an Answer

October 14, 2006

A while back I blogged about my inability, combined with the frown-upon nature of photographs in Egypt that made up my lack of photos of day-to-day life in Cairo. Imagine my joy when I found that the Arabist, a Middle Eastern blog, had linked to a Vanity Fair photo essay of Cairo and Sinai. Finally! I thought. A simple, internet-based way to share some of the sights that had become so familiar to me.

Wrong. Every since I started picking up the New York Times Magazine years ago, articles with photo essays have a way of getting under my skin and bouncing around in my mind that has started to lead me to believe that I should be a journalist, although that’s an discussion for another day. The photo essay – with accompanying article – is an explanation of the Egypt that isn’t open to tourists, and as a study abroad student, something I only see in glimpses, in a sort of self-preserving peripheral version. And so I link to this article with same caveat found within it:

At the end of my meeting with the anonymous Egyptian official, in late March, he gave me a polite admonishment. “You’ll write whatever you want, obviously,” he said, “but all I ask is that you not scare people about Egypt.”

Vanity Fair: Under Egypt’s Volcano

There are other things that strike me in this article. Call it the Star Trek universal translator effect. In the article, all the responses of the Egyptians interviewed are in English. I am almost certain that the writer is translating conversations he had in Arabic. He mentions the word shamsiyaa. He speaks with Bedouins. The English used is just too strongly American to be from the mouths of working-class Egyptians.

And the photographs. While all stunning examples of photojournalism, I can’t help but notice the focus on black-and-white photography, and the penchant for photographing things as if hiding in a corner. The subjects are individual, stunning and alone. Much like this article, the photos are a telling of the upset and frustrated side of Egypt. This is not bad. For a country that has always called tourists on the nostalgia of pharaohs and grand empires, and now to more exotic crystalline beaches, there is a staggering part of Egypt that a “Treasures of Egypt” tour cannot see. But like the portraits, it is not so black-and-white. There is a intense pride in the city itself, called in Arabic “the mother of the world” and the more women in hijabs I see, the less severe and sad them seem. Trying to make a picture stand as a metaphor for the ills of a large country is hardly possible, but neccessary all the same.

So look at the photo essay, and read the article, and don’t be scared. Because this is the scary side. But that’s not all there is.

One Comment leave one →
  1. J Renteria permalink
    October 28, 2006 1:29 pm

    Hello – I am looking to conduct some research in Cairo [as well as other cities in South America and Europe] about urban transportation and the different relationships people build with the city through these systems. I plan to gather ‘oral histories’ through random conversations on these systems and also through photography and film. I studied in Jordan last semester and have a very basic background in Arabic. I have been in contact with transportation people in Cairo, but I was hoping that you could give me a better understanding of how feasible – being a young women, from the States?, etc – you think a project of the sort would be in Cairo. Any suggestions or help will be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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