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Egypt salvages its modern treasures

With Cairo in transition, collectors scramble to save a fading era.

By Frederick DeknatelContributor / January 11, 2010

Artist and collector Amgad Naguib uses his Cairo storage space to showcase historical objects. The practice - for profit or preservation - has increased as the old city undergoes renovation.

Frederick Deknatal

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Amgad Naguib is sitting in his garagelike storage space on a side street in the dusty belle epoque heart of downtown Cairo looking to buy junk. “Bikya!” the junk seller yells from his cart on the street outside, which means reusable rubbish. “I get a lot of treasures from bikya,” Mr. Naguib, an artist and collector, says from his garage, which is stuffed with old furniture, vintage advertisements, and stacks of papers and photographs from the early 20th century.

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Between the vendors who buy and sell junk and the tourist shops that offer overpriced historical keepsakes – Iraqi 
dinars with Saddam Hussein’s face, fake old photographs, faded postcards – there are other Egyptian collectors, artists, and historians collecting pieces of the past, and not always for profit. Accumulating old objects, whether valuable or not, suggests connection with downtown Cairo’s material past as the area 
undergoes major changes, from the flight of historic institutions to news of investment-driven gentrification.

The bookstore L’Orientaliste is a remnant of downtown Cairo before the 1952 revolution that ended Egypt’s monarchy. Opened in the 1930s under Jewish owners, the store stocks a vast collection of rare first-edition books on Egypt and the Middle East, many from the genre of Orientalist travelogues that exploded in Europe in the late 19th century with the advent of steamship travel.

Hanging over the bookshelves or stacked on top of them are original lithographs by David Roberts, a Scottish painter who churned out prints of Egypt and Palestine during his travels in the 1840s.

Today L’Orientaliste is a mostly expatriate-leaning model of the bookstore as museum and so it sells its old books and rare maps for a price. A French map of Egypt from the 19th century might cost 2,000 Egyptian pounds (about $360). A Ptolemaic map of the Mediterranean, which owner Nagwa Kamy says is an original print from 1520, cost 5,000 Egyptian pounds (a little over $900). First-edition travelogues, histories of the Holy Land and Victorian expeditions up the Nile, crowd the shelves.

“The previous owner was a tired old man and he got many offers, but he refused to sell,” Ms. Kamy says from behind her desk, piled with books, in the cramped first floor of her shop. “He thought the books would all be thrown out and the place would be turned into a shoe shop.”

She and her husband finally bought the store in 1987. Most of its inventory is the original collection of its Jewish founder, who left Egypt in 1956 after Israel colluded with Britain and France to try to take back the Suez Canal and topple Egypt’s socialist president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“When the Europeans left [after the Suez Crisis in 1956], they left in catastrophe,” Kamy says after 
answering a call in French on her 
iPhone. “They sold everything they had, flooding markets and shops like this with whole libraries and archives. It happened again in 1967, after [the] war with Israel.”