El-Faggala: Stories never told

Farah Montasser, Monday 24 Oct 2011

A new exhibition brings to life the memories of residents of the once famous El-Faggala district of Cairo

El Faggala

In a small alley way in the El-Faggala district of Cairo, El- Nahda Culture and Scientific Renaissance Association is holding its “Pictures and Stories Exhibition, by Adel Wasily, as part of its programme El-Faggala Kaman we Kaman (El-Faggala Again and Again). The programme, which began last July and continues until the end of 2011, aims at increasing the awareness of the importance of the local cultural heritage, as well as its diversity. 

According to El-Nahda, this year’s programme is a celebration of El-Faggala’s community life and history.  In his statement, Wasily says that, “the exhibition of past and present photographs of El-Faggala tenants revives Cairo’s long history and aims to enrich its culture.”

This exhibition features a collection of photographs, some old, some more recent, capturing the lives of some of El-Faggala’s locals now and then. Displayed on the walls of the El-Nahda premises, each photo collection is accompanied by an audio recording, to share the memories of a single El-Faggala resident.

Behind Ramses Street, in the heart of Cairo, El-Faggala remains today one of the oldest districts of the cosmopolitan city, and was once one of Egypt’s cultural hubs, with a large book market, cinemas, and theatres. Today, it hosts local stores for ceramics and bathroom utilities. Stories of the good old days of El-Faggala featured in the exhibition came from a local coffee shop owner, a printing house owner, and a priest, in addition to a few more.

An old man, Fathi Ramadan, recalls the beautiful greenery and landscape that characterised the El-Faggala of his youth. “El-Faggala was beautiful. As far as the eye could see were gardens; in between stood a few villas and mansions of the wealthy.” Ramadan is a local café owner who has seen the district change from one of Cairo’s high-end districts to an impoverished quarter. “I remember the mansion built for Queen Nazli… she used to spend a lot of time here,” he recalls.

Some of his photo memorabilia capture the young and fit Ramadan with his old friends. “People at El-Faggala zaman (in the past) were united; there was no religious segregation as there is today. No one could differentiate among Muslims, Christians, and Jews,” he states. “Egyptians here were living and working harmoniously.”

Bookstore and printing house owner Amir El-Sahhar, although younger than Ramadan, nevertheless has vivid memories of what was once Cairo’s main book publishing hub. He recalls the days of Egypt’s number one book publisher during the first half of the twentieth century, Maktabit Masr (Egypt’s Library). “Maktabit Masr was the first to discover a young Egyptian writer who then received a Nobel Prize in literature - that is, Naguib Mahfouz,” his recording proudly states, as images of Mahfouz and the old publishing house slide above.

“El-Faggala was famous for major bookstores, in addition to bars and cafes. From the 1960s onwards, those stores were sold to El-Faggala’s new tenants, who opened the ceramic trade business you find today.”

Words of cultural and political wisdom came from Father William Sidhom, one of the founding Jesuit fathers of El-Nahda NGO. He remembers the El-Faggala neighbourhood adopting and embracing the socialist ideology implemented by Nasser. “The socialist party of Nasser had its headquarters here in El-Faggala, blocks away from El-Nahda,” he recalls.

“I joined the Jesuits after my graduation from the Faculty of Commerce at Cairo University, to serve the church first and the community second.” Remembering El-Faggala, he says, “We enjoyed its endless night spots, including coffee shops, cinemas, and theatres.”

 “Theatre was highly celebrated back then, and it was a ritual to attend plays by Youssef Wahbi,” he says.  

The Stories and Pictures Exhibition displays some personal photographs of some locals of El-Faggala sharing moments with Egypt’s father of theatre, Youssef Wahbi.

"Pictures and Stories" by Adel Wasily runs until 11 November, 2011, and will be followed by another entitled "Neighbourhood and Neighbourhoods", a group exhibition by local and foreign photographers, from 18 November until 9 December. 

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