In the late 19th century a delegation of Egyptian scholars were traveling to Stockholm to the Eight International Congress of Orientalists via Paris where they stopped to visit the World Exhibition. Timothy Mitchell describes their accounts in his opening chapter “The World as Exhibition” from his book Colonizing Egypt. Their journals, all describe an essential quality of Western culture: the notion of the ‘spectacle’. They reported that the exhibitions were recreating scenes from the orient at large in complete detail and systematic fashion, almost teleporting the visitors into cultures of the East.
In the modern ‘West’, life has been presented as an ‘immense accumulation of spectacle’, where everything that is lived becomes represented (Guy Debord). Egypt’s history of aesthetics and visual representation differs greatly from that of Europe, the geo-political and social formations, the ‘strictures’ of the graphic image in some Islamic teachings, ways of looking and the particular conduct of the gaze, culminate in a visual politics that is not easily adopted by a pair of Eurocentric eyes. Yet, at the same time, in a post-colonial Egypt, many intellectuals, scholars, artists and cultural producers have come to operate in similar mechanisms and politics of visual language, imagining their own society as a Debordian spectacle. 

It is obvious the best selling books still range from David Robert’s well-drawn illustrations of Egypt’s heritage in the 1840’s, to Thames & Hudson’s contemporary Street Graphics of Egypt. This is not a reminiscence of colonialism, in which the ‘empire writes back’, it is rather a passion of accumulating the other, reducing it to a set of visuals. My parents are not art collectors, but they appreciate art, and every now and again, my father buys a little drawing, a watercolor painting or a limited edition print. A small diptych of watercolor paintings illustrating abstract forms of fellahin 1 or Bedouins- I can’t recall, has graced our living room for as long as I can remember. I never questioned the choice of paintings until recently, they are quaint little paintings- but really problematic. It isn’t the quaintness that makes them awkward, it is that they epitomize everything we are not, i.e. from a rural background, in juxtaposition to family photos they are the ‘other’; and also they are completely fictionalized subjects. I’ve been to my family’s hometown in Beni Suef 2, I’ve traveled around the country side; these characters are a semblance of the artist’s imagination, one that very much appeals to us.

These seeming innocent illustrations escape the realm of affordable ‘Sunday afternoon paintings’ and find themselves at the core of ‘high quality’ art. Semblance makes it difficult for the artist, writer or cultural producer to remain true to the subject they are portraying. Politics of cultural production and self-reflexivity may no longer hold in their work as they commit this act of representation. Similar to the distance between the photographer’s lens and the subject being shot, how close can you get without violating the subject being represented? The paintings in our living room essentialize the women depicted, flattening them into a two-dimensional plane, easy to appreciate and admire from the couch; I doubt very much that a family in Beni Suef will have a framed drawing of a Cairene family standing in front of their car or still, a typical Swedish family posing behind a collection of Dalarna horses.

Whether we’re deliberating about the anonymous watercolor painting in my parents’ living room, David Robert’s drawings or Hassan Fathy’s architecture our work is inpired by an imaginary Egypt. This deliberate framing with its long-lasting appeal, dictates a particular way of looking, creating a collective gaze, allowing the spectators to fill up their cache of imagining Egypt. As it is about the spectator’s gaze, it is about you as it is about me. It is about where we stand in looking at these images. My position betrays me; I do not stand in these frames, it is not where I come from, and doesn’t tell about who I am, it is sensation driven by difference, of trying to understand that which is beyond what I see. It is a question of language at times, not just by writing in a non-mother tongue, but that of a visual language. In a way I am part of the spectacle that Debord speaks about, the social relation between us that is mediated by images.

The image of the fellahin balancing their kullas 3 on their heads is very similar to the architecture of New Gurna in the 40’s. It’s the same imagination instilled in the minds of the anonymous painter and of Fathy; a fantasy that captures – or ruptures – Egypt’s rural peripheries, it’s our distorted romantic understanding of what we see of New Gurna today. The same romantic vision Fathy had when he was commissioned to gentrify the city of Old Gurna, to realize a New Gurna, which would be appealing and familiar to Gurna’s dwellers. Although he included the future residents of the new city in the project, the people of Gurna (who lived amongst the tombs of Ancient Egypt) refused to relocate to the new town, as they claimed it resembled a burial site, a graveyard- they found it macabre. The project eventually found its use in the 1970’s, when the owner of the project, the General Department for Antiquities handed it over to the local municipality of Luxor, who sold it as low-end real estate to interested buyers. Fathy’s modernist dream, New Gurna, has been deteriorating gradually, the architecture is being decomposed for more ‘practical’ modes of building; today the town is growing very organically, in similar fashion to other informal settlements that make up most of Egypt’s urbanscape.

What was unappealing to the people of Gurna, seemed to gain appeal in the architecture of El Gouna, a high-end holiday resort for Egypt’s elite, by the Red Sea. The resemblance in the architecture of the two projects is startling, and the similarity of the names is just an uncanny coincidence. El Gouna was envisioned by Fathy’s student disciples, well-established architects at the zenith of their careers, creating designs that are classy, sustainable and have a wide commercial appeal to an exclusive affluent market. I was in Gouna with my family once, and my dad and I stood on the roof of one of the houses appreciating the spread of the architecture laid out in front of us and he said “well, it does sort of resemble a graveyard slightly”, I couldn’t agree more.

It is not the intrinsic power of the architecture, the image or their semblance, it is how we look at these things, that creates this gap, this difference, this otherness which is so fulfilling. In the same way the World Exhibitions in the 19th century seemed to be a ‘fulfilling’ experience for the spectators, yet seemed so shockingly false and inaccurate to the Egyptian delegation. It is through this interwoven history of cultural medley of going back and forth, between education, politics and ways of seeing, that have made it impossible for Hassan Fathy to truly see through the same eyes of Old Gurna’s people, though he really aspired to return to the country side; in the same way I aspire to return to a way of seeing that I am unable to return to. Fathy’s endeavors were chivalric, he sought to do something for the less-privileged, the less affluent, the less capable of change from within, knowing full well that his position set him apart from theirs; born into a prominent well-connected family, growing up to be a well-exposed cosmopolitan tri-lingual architect and cultural producer.

In the images of New Gurna I see a certain aesthetic appeal I know I am guilty of appreciating, the same way I appreciate my multilingualism, I am implicated in the same politics that have created New Gurna, the drive of modern-exoticism and traces of neo-Orientalism, together with good intentions. The spectacle remains well articulated with a pre-determined audience, the visual image remains etched in our perception unable to escape the two-dimensional silent frame, we continue to look out for the peripheries in hope of bestowing them with kind acts of inclusion, even if these acts stem from our own semblances. I continue to negotiate my position in representing matters the way they are rather than how they appear to be. 


  1. An Egyptian peasant. Lit. trans. ‘tiller of the soil’.
  2. Originally a small village, today an agricultural city, hosting a population of over 150,000, located 115km south of Cairo. 
  3. Pottery vessels that are used to carry water.