Cairo in black and white: A city of the grandiose and the inconspicuous

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 3 Sep 2022

Illustrator Nora Zeid talks about her well-received illustrations of Cairo on the covers of the Diwan edition of Mahfouz’s trilogy and elsewhere, and her endless attempt to hold onto the beautiful moments of the city.

Cairo in black and white


It was probably no coincidence that the re-prints of the Diwan edition of the Naguib Mahfouz trilogy, following a recent contract that gave Diwan the rights to print the full volumes of Mahfouz, took place in August. This month marks the 16th anniversary of the passing of the prominent Egyptian novelist whose literary work has been closely identified with Cairo, the city he was born in, lived in and died in. However, it is probably a coincidence that the covers of these three volumes appealed to an audience who were not attracted to the covers volumes that had been printed earlier by Diwan.

Unlike the covers of the first few titles of Mahfouz’s in the Diwan edition that are rich in colour and high on experimentalism, the covers of the trilogy are eye-catching drawings in black and white that capture specific images of Mahfouz’s Old Cairo as depicted in the trilogy that was first published in 1956 and 1957. These sketches are very compatible with the overall art style of illustrator Nora Zeid, one of several young artists that Diwan worked with to do the covers of the Mahfouz titles launched earlier in the summer.

A 25-year-old illustrator, Zeid has always done her work of the city where she was born in the late 1990s in black and white. This, she said, is not at all about her perception of the city as being stripped off colours, but rather as a city with an intense beauty that is best magnified by black and white sketches.

“I think this style helps me maintain all the richness of the scene; I think it is about freezing a moment in time; this is the purpose, I think, behind the choice of black and white,” she said.

Zeid sounds so at ease with the fact that “Cairo can get overwhelming with things always being busy and bustling as if the city does not have a single moment of quiet,” she said. She is also aware of the fact that Cairo is not just a city of layers upon layers but also of layers next to layers “with possibly a building 100-years-old next to another that is just two or five-years-old.”

However, she added that amidst and with this noise and sometimes chaos, there is endless beauty that deserves to be captured if one just pauses and tries to get a full grab of what one is seeing. “I was there in 2019 taking pictures of the city as if trying to freeze certain moments in time to be able to grasp everything that is there,” she said.

This exercise, she said, is essential to learn to appreciate the beauty of this city “that is literally always on the go.” It is also very purposeful, she added, “to appreciate things beyond what we are told to appreciate”.

“We are told to appreciate the things that carry the history of the city and to admire buildings that have been there for hundreds of years and the architectural masterpieces that are there, but the heritage of this city is not just about the masterpieces, it is also about the neighbourhoods and their vibes,” Zeid explains.

“The beauty of this city is not just about the grandiose,” she added.

For sure, some of Zeid’s most celebrated sketches of the city happen to be rich on simple details like a zoom on the illustrations of a Heliopolis newspapers stand or a Maadi street-vendor. Unlike the grand architectural landmarks of the city, she said, these scenes could just dissipate and be forgotten. “So, I just keep them there,” she added.

Zeid also argued that these images capture something very specific about the city “where my heart is – always.” Some of these images find their way as postcards produced by Cairopolitan, a concept design and art production business that is located at the very heart of the city.

She added that photographing and drawing Cairo, with both the grandiose and the inconspicuous, is ultimately an act of preservation – unintentional as it might be. “I know so much has gone over the years but I think that had we been there for these buildings, places or neighbourhoods maybe we could have helped saving them, or at least partially; if we have films shot there or if we do pictures of certain places, we gave them a certain longevity and a certain sense of defiance,” she said.

According to Zeid even if buildings are gone, they can still live on in the films, pictures or sketches. This, she insisted, is about the memory of the city that is currently undergoing so many changes.

The power of filming and drawing the city could go further, she added, as they serve as a constant reminder of the true identity of the city. “We have to pay attention to the context as we build new things,” she said, adding “Cairo has its own climate and its own heritage… it is very different, for example, from some Gulf cities, modern as the latter might be.”

Having lived more of her years overseas than in Heliopolis, where she was born, Zeid has always kept coming “back to Cairo” to “reconnect with my homeland,” to visit with family and friends and to stay in touch with a city that she said is always changing but never fails to be attractive and almost captivating one way or the other. “For example, when I did the covers to the trilogy, I had to refer to a mix of some photos that I personally took of Old Cairo and also of archival photos, given that the city today is very different not just from the way it was when Mahfouz passed away but certainly from the time when the volumes were written,” she said.

To date, Zeid has about 40 – “a little under or a little more” – illustrations of the city that are mostly in black and white – not withstanding a few in colour. Before finding their way to the covers of the Mahfouz trilogy, Zeid’s sketches of Cairo were there on her social media accounts, in an exhibition titled “Cairo Illustrated.”

Some also found their way to the products of Cairopolitan, a concept art business that produces stationary among other things. Beyond the Mahfouz trilogy covers, she hopes her illustrations of Cairo will find their way onto other book covers or maybe, even if later rather than sooner, as a book illustrating the city.

So far, Zeid’s drawings have revolved around certain neighbourhoods that she is either familiar with, due to connections of family and friends, or because she has worked on being familiar with them, like Mahfouz’s Cairo. She knows that there is still so much about Cairo, the old and the new, that she needs to learn and to appreciate before she can reproduce in her digital illustrations. Getting to know Cairo inside out is really a long term project that requires a lot of work and time, one which the up-and-coming artist is determined to pursue.

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