Street Smart: Cairo's Downtown Memory project keeps the history alive

Nabil Shawkat , Wednesday 6 Jul 2011

Half of Cairo's charm is in it's past, which the Downtown Memory project manages to preserve

This installation of an imaginary room of mid-twentieth century Cairo was shown recently in an art s

Half of the charm of Cairo’s downtown is in its past. There are so many memories lingering at every street corner: the display cabinets with the gilded French phrases in pharmacies that haven’t renovated since WWII, the forgotten advertising of an old cigarette brand staring at you from the side of a building, the Greek names on mechanic shops and liquor stores, all signs of the a world that came crashing right after the monarchy was ended.

Now, this world hasn’t totally disappeared. Memories of it persist; some on Cairo and some abroad. Letters written decades ago keep turning up, stories by immigrant families have been written (check out Lucette Lagnado’s best seller, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit about growing up Jewish in Ghamra), and local writers, such as Alaa Al Aswani, have shown keen interest in the historical layers of modern Cairo.

Scholars, too, have come to take an interest in the matter. Four years ago or so, two scholars met in Harvard. Both were passionate about Cairo and its history. Hossein Omar was studying Saad Zaghloul and Lucie Ryzova was writing a doctorate about the history of the effendis (white collar government clerks) in Egypt.

The two had already acquired a considerable stash of documents. Ryzova had a big collection of magazines from the early twentieth century, and Omar had just dug into his family’s boxes of documents, stored in their home in Sharqiya.

When the two started talking, they discovered that most of the efforts made so far in documentation have been too narrow in their scope. Some experts would collect photos while others would collect letters. The result was a “separation” of reality which led to a loss of context. “We wanted the images, the memoirs and the letters to remain together, offering an inclusive perspective on the period,” Omar, who divides his time between Egypt and England, recently told me.

Two years ago, Omar contacted the Ismailiya Company with a request. He knew that the company was buying buildings downtown. Would it allow them access to the historic material found in the apartments?

Ismailia Company did more than that. It offered the two an office space and a limited budget for an initial period of three years, and the “Downtown Memory” project was born in September 2009. Other donors, including the Ford Foundation and Oxford University offered training and further funding for a full-fledged documentation project for digging up Cairo’s memories.

This is how it worked: Whenever the developers acquired a new property Omar and Lucie were allowed access to any documents found in the place. Sometimes the catch was worthy. When the company acquired the Viennoise building, six boxes of photographs were collected from one apartment. Some of these photos, says Omar, were quite interesting as they predated the 1920s, when the easy-to-carry Kodak cameras became popular and photography became a hobby of many households.

Sometimes, the quest was disappointing. Once, Omar went into a law firm that also looked intact, with shelves of dossiers in mint condition. The dossiers, to his disappointment, were full of blank stationary. The firm had moved, taking all the documents that mattered to its new location, but leaving loads of good stationary behind.

The Downtown Memory project was an ambitious one. Its aim was to train and engage dozens of researchers to document the history of the buildings and take oral testimonies from eyewitnesses.

Although it had great momentum at one point, it has slowed down of late due to the busy schedule of the two key researchers. Omar is currently trying to find a new manager for the second phase of the project - preferably an enthusiastic urban historian with a knack for keeping memories alive.

Hossein Omar, co-founder of Downtown Memory
Short link: