Book Review: What is in a place?

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 5 Jan 2021

Why would some people feel constrained in a place that is otherwise unrestrictive? How would some people find joy in a place that is otherwise constraining?

book cover

Amkenah – Hayaoat Badila (Places – Alternative lives) 395 pp

The layers of a place, the centre of a place, the norms of a place and the impact of a place are some of the questions that Amkenah’s 12th issue addresses in a series of articles and photos by authors and photographers of diverse backgrounds that reflect on the complex and not so often carefully examined meaning of “the place.”

Novelist Alaa Khaled and photographer Salwa Rashad are the co-editors of the volume, which went out of the printing house literally on the eve of 2020 – the year that brought in more questions than ever before about the association that people have/make/assume about a certain place, bet it the one they are in, by choice, coincidence or coercion, or the one they wish to be.

Why would some people feel constrained in a place that is otherwise unrestrictive? How would some people find joy in a place that is otherwise constraining? These are perhaps two of the most pertinent 2020 questions that Amkenah’s latest issue is probing in an almost poetic format.

In his article that looks into the lives of a group of workers in one of the oldest paper factories in Alexandria, Haytham Shater observes finding joy out of a “particular place.”

He tells the story of the decision of the factory workers to remove the seats of an old company bus to make it more spacious for their growing number “so that everyone would end up sitting freely.”

He then follows the trail of their association with the bus as they fit their umbrellas to keep away the winter rain from upsetting their “comfortable” journeys to work and return home, when the ceiling of the bus cracked. And, later when the windows too cracked fully, it was the sound of the joyful laughter and the smoke of leisure time cigarettes that were coming out of the shattered windows of the bus that has been commuting workers since the late 1950s into the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

This paper factory is one of the factories that appear in the articles of Amkenah’s 12th issue. One of the other factories is in Al-Kosseir, by the Red Sea. Alaa Khaled was there with photographer-artist Salwa Rashad to capture the layers of this factory that was built at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century and went into almost total demise by the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century.

It is “these” layers that make “this” place what it is. And being the “centre” – or at least at the centre – of this Red Sea city, this particular factory gives the entire “place” a sense of identity.

In Humeithera off Marsa Aalam, the tomb of El-Sheikh creates a de facto centre for the entire village – and not just a main destination. Then El-Sheikh El-Shazly is also a “comfort zone.” It is “the” place that people cannot be away from for long – or at all – because it is there that they find their inside peace.

Finding the place that gives this “inside peace” is perhaps the biggest question that Amkenah’s articles are trying to answer. For some people the place they are born is where familiarity lies and hence peace is almost naturally embedded. For others, home has to be just so far away from home.

The road that one has to walk to actually find “the place” that one calls home is yet another intriguing question that this close to 400 pages of text and photos leave the reader with.

For some this ‘destination place’, or rather ‘the alternative live’, is really hard – at times impossible – to attain. The way out could be commuting between the ‘factual here’ and the ‘imaginary there’ or at times the ‘virtual there’ or even the ‘temporary there’. This is not always an easy trip, certainly not an easy come and go. At times, it gets depressing.

Following the trails of forced “alternative lives in alternative places,” as in the case of refugees and displaced, among others who are rejected by their “place of origin,” is certainly a story beautifully told in this volume. The stories of the forced displacements of the Nubians of Egypt and that of the eviction of the residents of the Sulukule neighbourhood at the outskirts of Istanbul are particularly interesting reads.

Amkenah also evokes many other place-related questions. These include the question of depression as a possible “self-created place of forced isolation,” the question of escaping misery by “creating a place” for fun – sometimes not for oneself but for others, and the question the “identity of oneself vis-à-vis the identity of the place.”

Published 12 months ago, this volume is perhaps the most “relevant” reading to end 2020 with. It is long and at times intense – but with its beautiful selection of black-and-white photos it “creates a space” for one to reconsider so many givens or to face some hidden wounds.

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