“One long walk through Cairo” is how Amira Hanafi describes her project “Alatool: Straight Ahead, Always.”
On Tuesday evening, the artist gave a presentation at Artellewa gallery of the images and text she collected during her walks spanning four months in the city. She hopes to collate the documents and publish them in a book.
Overlooking the slum of Ard El-Lewa, the city has a quirky way of entering into the talk. The lights go off at one point. At another, the call to prayer plays, rising above Hanafi’s voice saying, “the experience is the city.”
Hanafi has undertaken 27 walks since February, starting with her most familiar landmark from previous visits to Cairo, her grandmother’s house in Manial. Where she stopped one day, she would start again another day, and so the walk continued starting with Manial, and returning several times into Islamic Cairo.
While previously unable to locate it, Hanafi now confidently finds the heart of Cairo at the Ibn Tulun Mosque, to which she found herself returning through her walks. “You can’t get away — it’s like a vortex.”
The artist discovered the city through walks with a new companion each time, who would also write about their walk. Roughly half of her companions were people that had spent their entire lives in Egypt, she said.
Questions about Hanafi’s insider/outsider perspective abound the project, and its presentation. “Are you Egyptian, Egyptian?” she is asked by people she encounters on different walks.
On one such walk through Sekkiet El-Mekky, she is taken for a journalist, yelled at and threatened for taking pictures of trash near a canal. Her companion pretends they have deleted the pictures before they can make their way out.
Hanafi contends that her photographs of Cairo were meant as an alternative to touristic depictions. Yet some in the audience took issue with her stance: taking pictures of a “hidden Cairo” appealed to a whole other genre of ‘touristic’ representation.
The artist came back with “What kind of photographs would you not consider touristic?”
While Hanafi presented the project as one of “mapping Cairo,” the personal nature of the journal entries and the photographs were diary-like.
What does already make an impression is how people (re-)experienced their own city through their walks.
By not having a set direction or endpoint, “you open yourself up to the city in a whole different way,” Hanafi said. One of her co-walkers, Mohammed Fattouh, experienced a sense of freedom through his walks.
A few days prior to his walk with Hanafi, Fattouh had with some regret remembered how he could no longer pick berries like he did as a young boy. While he started his walk anxiously, concerned about what Hanafi was documenting — or even why — he slowly warmed up to the aimless wandering, and eventually was happy to come across berries, which he picked and ate with Hanafi.
Shayma Aziz, another walker, did not find her foray as liberating. Her experience of walking through Maadi — which she repeatedly describes as a foreign place within Cairo — is also colored by the presence of young boy with a red t-shirt following them. “I’m too scared of men,” says Aziz, documenting the walk, and her experience of the street.
Hanafi’s experience contrasts with that of Aziz. “Shayma hates Cairo. I love it.” Aziz also refuses to lean on a dirty car. “You like dirt because you don’t live in it,” Hanafi quotes her co-walker, “You like it because it’s exotic.”
While Fattouh revisits a childhood pleasure through his visit, Aziz’s views of the city are reinforced by her walks.
“Cairo is a complex place to be,” said Hanafi, marking her change in perspective since she first began her walks. “I’m never sure whether to love or hate it, and so I do both simultaneously.”
That is a perspective shared, said the artist, by many of the other people she encountered in Cairo, “Love it, or hate it, but never indifferent.”
Among other things she has picked up along the way is a nagging cough. “I don’t know. I’m tired,” said Hanafi, when questioned if she would continue her walks.
For more information on “Alatool,” visit http://www.amirahanafi.com/alatool.html
People (re-)experienced their own city through their walks.