Egypt salvages its modern treasures
With Cairo in transition, collectors scramble to save a fading era.
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A few blocks away from Kamy’s shop, Naguib tells his own story of collecting when the markets were flooded with historical items.Skip to next paragraph
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“After the infitah” – the “open-door” policy of economic liberalization instituted by President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s – “old downtown, which was packed with things and foreigners, just became offices and companies,” Naguib says.
“Businesses bought up old family apartments and emptied them, flooding the markets with antiques.”
Naguib plans to reopen the space as a kind of gallery to Egypt’s past, in particular the pre-1952 Cairo and Alexandria of King Farouk. Naguib’s collection is a jumble of things – racy film posters; placards in Arabic, French, and Hebrew; old magazines; dresses; and jewelry from the 1940s – each object with Naguib’s own story of how it was found.
“You have to get used to the dust,” he says as he unpacks a stack of Iranian photographs from the 1910s that he recently acquired as a throw-in when he bought a file of Iranian magazines printed in Cairo in the early 20th century.
Naguib does not collect with sales in mind, he says, although he has been collecting and trading antiques since the 1980s.
“I realized I could make a living this way. And I didn’t want to be a banker like my brothers.”
He produces a stack of 300 love letters from two students living in adjacent apartments in the 1950s. The letters talk about family life and continue into the 1960s after the couple married. It is like an in-the-works archive of Cairo’s social history, with artistic appeal.
“I want to project the letters in English and Arabic as an installation,” he says. Later he mentions another project made from what many people consider junk: a map of downtown Cairo through old advertisements.
“I want to archive these things – articles, papers, photographs – for Egyptian history,” he explains. He has friends who are more precise in their collecting. “I have a historian friend who only collects 19th-century photographs of Egypt; he has hundreds of thousands.”
Beyond appealing to history buffs and collectors, the work of accumulating objects from the past – whether rare books or old personal letters – underlines an appreciation for Cairo’s urban and social history at a time when the downtown area is changing, somewhere between flight and renovation.
Major cultural institutions like the American University in Cairo (AUC), central landmarks throughout the 20th century, have moved out to new satellite cities in the desert, following the flight of wealthy Egyptians to gated communities removed from the traffic and pollution of the historic city center.
Meanwhile real estate investments are pouring in to revive the area’s grand old buildings. Downtown Cairo, developed in the late 19th and early 20th century to mimic Europe, was once lauded as a cosmopolitan and architectural “Paris on the Nile.”
A new venture of Egyptian and Gulf investors, Al Ismailia for Real Estate Investments, is leading the buy-up with plans to own dozens of buildings. It aims in the long term to gentrify the downtown area and attract wealthier Cairenes back to the center with restored apartments, offices, cinemas, and restaurants.
“The move of the AUC is a big step backward,” Kamy says. “I wouldn’t think of moving ever, even if [downtown Cairo is] not what it was. My shop is a part of that history."