I was honored to be a guest speaker at VCLA. I had the pleasure of meeting Winchester, VA. Here are some videos and photos from the event…
VCLA’s stated mission is at once focused yet broad: we intend to open a world-class residency that welcomes writers (of all disciplines and genres) year-round, featuring workshops, seminars, and residencies, allowing authors time and space to work. But VCLA will be –and already is– bigger…and better. We envision the bricks and mortar (in historic Winchester, VA) as an eventual and inevitable destination for this programming, but also a satellite (physical, virtual) for creativity and community. Check out our 2019 events calendar, very much a work-in-progress, but one that is rapidly expanding, to get a sense of what we’re doing, what we’re delivering, and who we are hoping to attract (hint: everyone, especially you).
That said, the only criterion for participating in VCLA’s programs is an opened and curious mind. Whenever possible, my goal is to present fresh and under-represented voices, which involves avoiding cliché and predictability. Our ongoing Author Series at Handley Library will continue to feature writers from myriad fields, and has thus far included non-fiction and political biography. For our first foray into the world of fiction, the key word is world. As in global; not local, not American. This weekend it was our considerable honor to invite Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji to discuss his novel Using Life.
Matt Davis reads a translated section from Using Life:
Published first time at Mada: https://madamasr.com/en/2017/10/18/opinion/u/about-alaa-prison-isolates-and-so-does-your-silence/
Editor’s note: 25 days to #FreeAlaa is a campaign led by friends, family and supporters of political prisoner and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, highlighting two outstanding cases against him: One, which was adjourned on October 19 to November 8, concerning the five-year sentence that Abd El Fattah has already served three-and-a-half years of, in relation to a protest outside the Shura Council building in November 2013 against military trials for civilians. The second is a case against him for “insulting the judiciary,” which was adjourned from September 24 until December, in which Abd El Fattah could face a fine and more years in prison.
They woke us early that day. We could hear the sound of dogs barking and some other sounds that were more unusual. A prison guard was yelling, “Inspection! Inspection! Put on your uniforms and get ready.” Alaa [Abd El Fattah] and I got up and started our routine of hiding things. He was trying to hide the radio to stop it from being confiscated, even though he had already acquired permission to keep it. I was trying to hide the coffee pot. I was also trying to hide my journal among a bunch of envelopes and paper. The atmosphere in the prison ward was tense. No one was prepared, as we were given no prior warning.
Generally, on inspection day, a prison services committee arrives, accompanied by hoards of Central Security Agency forces, policemen, dogs and metal detectors. The committee also visits the prison administration and checks the official paperwork. They inspect the wards and check for any violations of prison rules, and for the presence of prohibited items like glass containers, electronic devices, metal cutlery, mobile phones, pills or narcotics of any kind and any suspicious papers. During this particular inspection, they confiscated all the pots and pans we used for cooking and heating our food. They left just two pots and one metal frying pan for the 60 prisoners on our ward.
We put on our prison uniforms and lined up in the sun for around five hours — the amount of time it took them to go through the ward and scatter everything: clothes, food and trash, in heaps on the floor. After two hours of standing, they allowed us to lean against the wall. Then they called for Alaa, who had to go inside for about 20 minutes. He came back out again, laughing. When I asked him what it was about, he said they were going through every piece of paper in our cell. “But, what did they want to ask you?” I said. Alaa kept a small notebook with a photo of Lenin on the cover. In it, he would record figures concerning the economy published by Al-Ahram, like government debt and the state deficit, and other figures pertaining to the financial situation in the country. It was one of the exercises Alaa resorted to in order to try and stimulate his brain and to maintain a connection to the outside world. The task was to record the figures published by Al-Ahram and to track how they changed over time. Based on these official figures from state newspapers we were restricted to in prison, Alaa would come up with his own analyses of the economic crisis.
The figures in Alaa’s notebook unsettled the inspectors, who suspected them to be telephone numbers, or perhaps a code for communicating with the outside world. When they asked him about them, Alaa began to explain in detail the meaning of every figure, which left them paralyzed and unable to decide what to do. After all, these were numbers published in Al-Ahram, the newspaper they allow prisoners to receive and read. Eventually, the head of the inspection committee intervened and permitted Alaa to keep the notebook. They did confiscate the radio, however.
Forgetting what the world is like outside prison is a nightmare Alaa and I thought about a lot. As a computer programmer and technician, this was an even bigger nightmare for him. How would he cope with the technological developments taking place during his time in prison after he is released?
Would he be able to go back to work? The internet world changes in a matter of weeks, let alone a period of wasted years. We thought of that Iranian blogger who, upon his release from prison after five years, found blogging to be a thing of the past. Unable to find his place in the present, he waged an attack on social media, calling for a return to blogging.
After each of his court sessions for “insulting the judiciary,” Alaa would come back with dozens of epic stories from Muslim Brotherhood leaders implicated in the same case as him: Tales of an imminent coup d’état, and the intervention of divine powers to rescue them. They were stories of desperation and defeat that also somehow refused to acknowledge a crushing new reality. I used to wait for him after each session to hear the latest tales. After we laughed a little, the silence would set in. We were afraid the same thing would happen to us one day. What did we really know about the world outside?
A verdict in the “insulting the judiciary” case is due in December, a sentence that could potentially double Alaa’s jail time and increase his isolation from the world. Tomorrow, a court will review Alaa’s appeal against his five-year sentence for breaking the protest law, of which he has already served three-and-a-half years behind bars.
It’s not true that prison doesn’t change one’s ideas. If you come out and that is the case, then you’ve lost your mind. We change both inside and outside prison. Mulling over old disputes and differences was our bread and butter. Reading was like a breath of fresh air. They understood this. In the words of one inspection officer who checked my list of requested books, “Here is your opium.”
Alaa is also waiting for a verdict in a lawsuit he filed against the prison administration to allow him to receive books. On the day of the inspection, we were preoccupied with finding new material to read. Sometimes I would suggest to Alaa that he should apply for a master’s degree to advance his professional experience. He used to say he’d consider it, as he didn’t want to give them something they could use against him. “What if I apply for a degree and they refuse to let me sit my exams or to have access to the necessary books?” he would wonder.
The list of those unjustly detained is getting longer by the day, and many prisoners are suffering from deteriorating health and lack of access to adequate medical attention. Some have been in prison for two years without even knowing what they’ve been accused of. As the list gets longer and longer, so our desperation grows, and we wonder: What is the point of writing? What do we gain by making demands? What’s the use of our hashtags? Do any of these efforts accomplish anything?
There is nothing more important than to think about them, to remember them. Prison isolates people from the world and the world from them. In Alaa’s case, the state is more eager to isolate the world from him than to isolate him and break him. This is why every act of remembering counts. Every tweet or re-tweet, even if you think it has no impact on the prisoner, I am telling you, is appreciated. When family members tell prisoners others are writing about them or talking about them, it lifts their spirits. They are remembered.
Because having your name mentioned outside the prison walls means you exist outside the walls, in the hearts and minds of those who love you or share your values.
And one day, upon their release, because most prisoners will one day be released, they will see the words of support that didn’t reach them in their cells, and it will help ease some of the anger and resentment over the time that was lost.
Remember Alaa. Remember all prisoners. If we can’t break their chains ourselves, do not let your silence isolate them. Do not give their jailers another victory by your forgetfulness.
Published first time at: https://partisanhotel.co.uk/Ahmed-Naji
Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and writer. His novel Using Life was published in Arabic in 2014 to widespread critical acclaim. Set in a hellish, fantastic version of Cairo, Using Life explores the city on the brink of destruction, while its young people move from party to party, having sex and taking drugs.
When the Egyptian weekly Akhbar al-Abad published a chapter of Using Life in 2014, Naji was charged with ‘indecency and disturbing public morals’ after the excerpt apparently caused a reader to have heart palpitations due to its explicit content. Naji was sentenced to two years in prison.
After his release from prison, Naji moved from Egypt to the US, where Sam Diamond talked to him about how he’s acclimatising to his new life, Saudi Arabia’s new city of the future, and what’s next for his writing.
I think it would be an understatement to say that the past few years have been very eventful for you. You wrote a novel, Using Life, were imprisoned for its content and then moved from Egypt to the US, where you and your wife have very recently had your first child. Could you give me a quick recap of these events from your own perspective?
Well, when I was writing the novel I didn’t ever expect to have this impact and to cause these problems. I always thought of myself as someone coming from outside mainstream culture, not the kind of writer who cared about fighting against political taboo or censorship. I just cared about the art of fiction. I was hoping to achieve something with novel, to write something that I’d enjoy writing and my friends would enjoy reading.
Suddenly, when the case happened, it was a huge shock. We didn’t expect it at all. When I was in prison I started to rethink my career as a journalist and a writer. Until then, I hadn’t thought of myself as a writer, I didn’t realise that I was totally loyal to writing and to the craft of fiction. But suddenly when I was in prison I thought: fuck it, I’m writing! I have to focus and take it seriously.
What happened had a huge impact on the the Arab cultural and literary scene, and it also had a huge impact on me. It changed my position on society and on Egyptian and Arabic culture entirely. Once when I was in the prison, one of the prison officers came to me and said: ‘Hey, Ahmed, do you have Samira’s number?’ [a character in Using Life]. I asked him what he was talking about and he told me he was joking, that he liked the novel. I froze, I didn’t understand his joke and I thanked him. After three months I saw him again. He said: ‘Wow, you’re still here!?’
I told him that it looked like I was going to stay there for longer. He said, ‘You know man, can you write in English?’ I told him that I couldn’t perfectly but that I could read and write simple things in English. He told me that when I got out I should stop writing in Arabic, that I should start writing English, because Arabic culture and civilisation is fucked up, people outside can’t understand what you’re writing, that I should stop writing in Arabic and start writing English. And this was advice from a prison guard!
This showed me that the situation in the Arabic region was getting worse and worse, particularly with regard to freedom of expression. When I got out I found that the situation had become even more difficult. It was impossible for me to work; I stayed in Egypt for a year and a half but I wasn’t able to write or publish, because most of the newspapers and websites I’d written for were closing and were under pressure from the government. So it looked like getting out of the country and establishing a new space was the only solution.
So are you planning to start writing in English?
My English isn’t yet good enough. And now I’m in the US, my wife has a job, I have a new daughter—who’s an American citizen. I got a scholarship at a university in Las Vegas so I’m moving to Nevada where I’ll stay for three years.
But I’m facing more complicated critical questions; I don’t like the position of writer-in-exile. I don’t want to end up as an Egyptian or Arab writer living in the States who ends up writing only about Arab and Egyptian politics, although this is part of my identity. So I’m just looking to learn more, to get to know more, to be a part of the new society that I’ve chosen, which is, for now, American society.
And this has its own complications: the American cultural scene and American society in general is so built around political identity. Even before doing anything you find yourself labelled. For me, for example, last month I was doing interviews with an American journalist and at one point in the interview he asked me a question which started: ‘As a brown writer…’ I was shocked! I asked him: what is a brown writer? So you start to discover that you have labels that you don’t understand. For me it was the first time I’d heard of this thing, The Brown Writer. And it took me a while to understand it. But of course I refused it, and I told him that I see myself as a beige writer, and we are beige people, and we have been discriminated against for years!
So, I’m looking forward to learning more about this society and culture and to find my own place in it. Am I going to write in English? Maybe. It’s a huge and hard journey to move from language to language, you have to build your own voice and I need more time and work to build my English. So for now I’m writing in Arabic and for now I’m depending on magnificent translators that I’ve worked with in the past, like Benjamin Koerber.
Have you read W.G. Sebald?
The first Arabic translations of Sebald are coming out next year, so I’m waiting for it.
He lived in England and could write in English but consciously decided to write in German and to work with an English translator.
The history of literature is full of these stories. There is Milan Kundera, who moved from the Czech Republic to France and then began to write in French, also Nabokov with Russian and English. I don’t know if I’m going to take this path or not, but I’m open to all options and I’m focused on learning and understanding.
Using Life like a melancholic novel to me. There’s a lot of joy and hedonism there but there’s also an element of conspiracy and the characters losing control against their urban environment. Do you think it prefigured the revolution in some sense?
I finished the first draft of the novel several months before the revolution. I didn’t change it at all even after the revolution, because even after what happened during the revolution it looked to me after the first couple of months as if there wouldn’t be a huge change, because Egypt is a big country that’s connected with the world system, and Egypt was impacted more by regional powers and regional authorities who looked as if they would choose either the military or the Muslim Brotherhood. In the novel, and in my writing in general, I don’t care so much about political change but more about the effect of political change on the people and on the city. The main core of the novel was my city, Cairo. What I predicted in this novel was that Cairo doesn’t have a future. And this is what has happened: they’re building a new capital in the desert.
The government plan is to go to the desert and the build a new capital, Dubai-style, and to leave Cairo. The urban problem related to the city itself will not be changed by any revolution, because it’s so related to how the Egyptian state has been structured—it’s been constructed as a central state, and in a huge country with a population of more than a hundred million people, all connected to Cairo.
And this has made Cairo extremely crowded, extremely polluted. It’s now impossible to rescue, it’s a version of hell, which is how I presented it in Using Life.
As you say, Cairo has a central place in the novel. Do you think Cairo is unique in this way, and what’s your impression of the city now?
I don’t think the problem is unique to Cairo, it’s general to the idea of the modern city. Around the world we are seeing how the Dubai model is becoming the goal for the modern city.
If you look to China, for example, they have been building these huge, empty cities that are full of skyscrapers, tall buildings of glass and metal. Cities designed for companies, not people, where they pay low tax and get the freedom to shape urban space.
When I moved to the US I was originally in Arlington, Virginia. It was very interesting, because it’s a very open city with a lot of space, but they’ve also started to build these skyscrapers. It’s crazy, I can’t understand it: they have all this space, why not use it to build horizontally? But they choose to build in glass-and-metal. When they started doing this in Arlington all of these huge companies moved in, so the Nestlé headquarters are in Arlington, all of these international companies are moving there. Suddenly you walk through the city and you realise it hasn’t been developed to serve the people who live there but to facilitate these companies.
We are living in a world where the idea of developing the world is not linked to developing people. It’s not about improving education or healthcare. All politicians talk about is investment, development, bringing in companies and business, creating populations who only exist to serve these companies. This was part of the novel: it’s about people who are stuck between old cities and heritage and a modern idea of development.
If capital has claimed urban space, do you see art or literature as a way of taking something back or reclaiming space?
I don’t think art and literature can take anything back, but at least they might be able to create a space for people to rethink what’s happening, to discover what’s happening around them and to stay alert. For me, this is enough.
If people read my novel and were shocked at the language, experienced it as tough or rough, then maybe the second step is for them to ask themselves why I used that language: if you’re living in a city like Cairo, there’s no other language you can use to write about it. This should alert them that this language is part of the city, and that violence is being organised by the political Neoliberal agenda and so on…
I guess using rough language is the opposite of these smooth glass buildings and these clean streets that don’t have people on them.What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
I’ve finished the first draft of a new novel, which hopefully should appear next year. It started as a simple love story: a divorced woman trying to rebuild her life. This time the story doesn’t take place in Cairo, but she escapes Cairo and the revolution towards Sinai and towards the future, which is Mohammed bin Salman’s new kingdom, Neom. Do you know about Neom?
If you haven’t been following this, Neom is a new plan by Saudi Arabia to build a new city for robots and technology. So she escapes to Neom, so most of the novel happens in this imaginary future city, which doesn’t yet exist. This will be my second novel.
Also recently received a grant from The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) to work on a non-fiction book, which I’m calling Rotten Evidence. It’s about my time in prison and also covers the case, mostly related to diaries I wrote secretly while in prison.
So I’m writing this book about my experiences, but it’s also connected to another project: I’m planning to start a website, in Arabic but also maybe in English, to collect, document and publish other Egyptian and Arabic prisoners’ writing. I want to use this to raise awareness of their situation.
The decision to publish in both Arabic and English is of course to make it more accessible, but also because most of the prisons have actually been built and supported by European and American money. The Egyptian government doesn’t have enough money to build prisons itself, so they’ve brought in European and American companies and funding. So for example if you enter police station in Egypt, any detention room, the air conditioning is provided by the European Union; when I was in prison, the air conditioning ducts were always emblazoned with the European Union logo. So you can see how globalisation touches on everything, even in prison.
But of course my main project for the moment is being a father.
How do you approach writing non-fiction as opposed to writing fiction?
Well, I worked as a journalist, that was my main source of income for years. For me, I think more about the audience and readers when I’m writing non-fiction. I focus on writing in a simple, easy way that catches the reader’s attention. I see myself as a servant of the reader.
Maybe it’s because of my journalism background, but when I’m writing fiction I don’t really care that much about the reader.
I have a reader in mind, but it’s usually a couple of close friends I grew up with. I don’t care about being clear or informative, I feel more free to play with language, to demolish structure and then rebuild it. Maybe that’s the reason that I received all these messages from readers telling me that they used to read my articles and my journalism, ‘We loved it, but we didn’t like your novel, it didn’t make sense.’ They want the simple story. So when I’m writing fiction I want to stay away from that. I want to create something more complicated, something that challenges the craft of literature. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
If I’m writing non-fiction I want to write something that people can read on the beach or on the toilet. If I was on the beach and I found someone reading my novel I would be offended.
I read your novel on the beach…
Ha! Well I hope it worked for you.
Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and journalist born in Mansoura in 1985. He is the author of three books, Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009) and The Use of Life (2014), as well as numerous blogs and other articles. He was also a journalist for Akhbar al-Adab, a state-funded literary magazine, and frequently contributed to other newspapers and websites including Al-Modon and Al-Masry Al-Youm. He is currently based in Washington DC. Visit his website at https://ahmednaji.net/.
Sam Diamond is a writer, researcher and musician originally from London and now based in Berlin. He is currently finishing a PhD project on the conceptual history of authenticity in 20th Century American fiction and journalism at Queen Mary University of London. He works in technology. You can follow him on Twitter @samueldiamond.
I was honored to be a guest speaker at Pen America New Year New BOOKS party, celebrating with them our love for books and writing. And also remembering other writers who are jailed because of their writing.
we live in the times where a dark ghost hovering over the world, spreading desperate making people losing faith in human rights values and, distributing fear and ruling by Ignorance.
And in times like this, we need to get together, to insist on the power of words, literature, and human rights values.
We are not politicians. We don’t have an army. But we resist by keeping Writing, by keeping our imagination wild. We may win some bottles, we will lose others but at least we will enjoy it.
Thank you, Pen, for what you did to me, for other writers, and for giving me the opportunity to meet and take pictures with one of my favorite writers @jennifer Egan
In his work, Tawq al-Hamam (The Dove’s Collar), the Andalusian writer, Ibn Hazm, tells the tale of a man he describes as wise, reasonable and sensible—until the day he travelled to Baghdad and stayed in one of its inns. ‘There, he saw the innkeeper’s daughter, fell in love with her, and married her. When they were alone together, she saw him undressed and, being a virgin, was alarmed by the size of his penis. She fled to her mother and would not see him. Those around her advised her to go to him, but she refused, and came close to death, and so he left her. Regretting his decision, he attempted to win her back but could not, even with the help of al-Abhari and others, for none could find any solution to his predicament. His mind became disordered and he went to stay in the maristan [infirmary], where he suffered for a long time until he had almost recuperated and found consolation, and yet still whenever he recalled her, he would sigh deeply’.
A few years ago, my mind also became disordered, like that of the wise man, but since these days we don’t go straight to hospital for that sort of thing, I decided, for the first time in my life, to visit a psychiatrist. I complained to him for a whole hour: I frequently burst into floods of tears, I slept for hours and couldn’t get out of bed, I was suffering liver problems that the doctors seemed unable to find a reason for, my hair and beard were thinning, I’d resigned from my job several months previously, I saw no reason to live and was overwhelmed by despair, I consumed a vast quantity and variety of drugs which brought me neither pleasure or relief. He listened, then pronounced that my complaints were the side effects of my recent breakup; the psychosomatic symptoms, too, were simply the pains that accompanied the end of an intimate relationship. In another context, I’d have been angry, refusing to see my emotional experience—my epic of shattered love—compared with or ranked alongside the love affairs of others. We all believe that our romantic journeys are unique. But I was drained and in pain, and willing to accept any diagnosis of what was happening to me. I was ready to try whatever the doctor prescribed, without hesitation or objection.
The doctor gave me a strip of antidepressants. They relieved the pain and brought some equilibrium to my disturbed body, but it took time to find ‘consolation’, as Ibn Hazm called the convalescence of the wise man in his story.
Although I fell in love like the wise man, my beloved left me, not because of the size of my penis, but because of its fondness for adventure, along with other reasons too numerous to mention. When I was in the darkest depths of pain after our separation, friends pressured me to get over it as fast as possible, so I decided to get away, and left the city to escape their nagging. On my journey, while I wallowed in my pain and sabotaged any potential chances for future relationships, I discovered a whole breakup industry—an economy of strategies for getting over love.
Ibn Hazm devotes a chapter entitled ‘al-Dana’—a word which describes a sort of gruelling and all-consuming grief—to the pain of love lost and the trials of breakups. It is followed by a chapter entitled ‘al-Suluww’, (‘consolation’), in which he writes: ‘Consolation after a long separation is like the disappointment which enters the soul when it achieves what it has long sought; the intensity of its striving abates and its desire fades away’. Then, through the story of his experience with a courtesan with whom he fell in love as an adolescent, and who accompanied his family on their peregrinations to and from Cordoba before finally leaving him, Ibn Hazm arrives at the first cure for the trials of love and separation, the ‘consolation’ of the chapter’s title: A healing process which he divides into the stages of forgetting, indifference and replacement.
But Ibn Hazm seems to contradict himself, often repeating that any love from which one can be ‘consoled’, and any relationship that can be forgotten, is not to be counted on. For Ibn Hazm, it is not true love. Notice that, unlike in today’s psychoanalytical and romantic writings, in Ibn Hazm’s time, passion and love represented a link to the metaphysical world. Every soul was split in two, and each half sent to this life to search for the half, which would complete it; it was the meeting of a half with its lost counterpart which represented true love, as opposed to the kind of passion which cannot be counted on. Ibn Hazm wrote his Dove’s Collar to help lovers distinguish true love from ephemeral lust, and to guide them past critics and naysayers along its thorny path. All this, of course, sounds very different from today’s discourse, in which the ideal of virtuous love has been replaced by notions of healthy and toxic relationships, balance between the two parties, the importance of equality, respect, and non-exploitation, and other concepts which have filtered through from the realm of political correctness to replace terms for love such as gharam and hawa.
The wise man in Ibn Hazm’s story ended up in the maristan because he was suffering and in pain. At the time, the function of the maristan—an infirmary for the mentally ill—was to relieve pain and suffering, rather than to subdue the patient and ready them for a return to the treadmill of production. There, Ibn Hazm’s wise man did not forget his beloved, but sighed whenever her name was mentioned. He learned, with time, to silence his longing, to control his reactions and to maintain his equanimity. Forgetting one’s beloved was only for false and contemptible lovers.
Today’s breakup advice tends to place forgetting at the centre of its recovery plan. On self-help websites, the foremost piece of advice to heartbroken lovers is usually to forget: Stay away from your ex, keep communication to a minimum, get rid of anything that reminds you of them. After that, the advice gets confusing: Don’t sit in your room moping, go out and meet new people, life is full of pleasures and adventures—but don’t rush into new relationships, because you might get hurt. Put your sadness aside and get out of yourself. Cry and express your emotions, they say—but if your sadness lasts too long, they accuse you of weakness, of giving in to pain, of wallowing, or worst of all, of a pathetic attempt to win back the attention of the person who used to care about you.
It’s no wonder the advice is contradictory. There is no clear route map for avoiding or overcoming pain, or for the confusing task of getting over both the pain of a breakup and the memory of love.
One friend of mine who went through a painful divorce decided to go to a psychoanalyst, rather than a psychiatrist. Instead of being prescribed medication like me, my friend has spent hours with her therapist, and is still doing so, a year and a half down the line. Looking like she’s got it together and is proud of it, she spends more than ten hours a day at work, sometimes works six days instead of five, cares for her dog, and steers clear of any potential relationships, on the grounds that she isn’t ready yet, according to her therapist. She wants to maintain the stability she has now because, in her words, ‘I need a bit of time to work on myself’.
Analysing her last relationship, my friend found that she had always been attracted to men who would lie to her and exploit her emotionally. My response to that was to ask: ‘Are there men who don’t’? She shook her head. ‘You don’t understand. The problem isn’t them, it’s me—for being attracted to men like that’.
She pays around $25 for each session with her psychoanalyst, but she no longer has suicidal thoughts now, or borrows our phones to stalk her ex on Facebook, and she’s convinced that she’s forgotten her last relationship—she just needs to focus on her own issues.
Unlike her, I’ve never tried to forget. I remember the mistakes and happy moments of every passing fling. What would be left, if we forgot our emotional connections, the most profound and affecting of the experiences which make us who we are? And anyway, you never really forget. You just put the relationship and all of its associations in a black box, and since there’s nowhere to put the box, you end up carrying it on your back forever, thinking no-one’s noticed. Every time you try to open a door to let love in, the black box eyes you from the corner of the room, shattering your focus and distracting you from the person beside you, who’s waiting eagerly for the moans of the climax which will offer proof that the two of you have truly connected.
Every ‘getting over it’ rests on an illusion of forgetting, on a flight into the future, yet no matter how hard you strain to break away, the memory will cling to you, or lurk in the corner of the room along with the broken pieces of your heart and soul. Maybe the solution is not to forget but to leave the wounds open, to wear them with pride and share them with others—whether you want to entice them to bed, or just to the cinema. Don’t hide your experiences from your new partner, because no matter how hard you try to forget, the monster will still be there, in the box, waiting for the right moment. Perhaps your new partner can help you tame the monster instead, help you transform your anger at yourself and your ex into the energy you need in order to change and build a new life and a new relationship. One day, the monster could be your pet.
In 1989, Egyptian billionaire businessman Nassef Sawiris walked in to a trade fair at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. Various luxury goods were exhibited alongside high-end furniture and expensive antiques. An exhibition of works by important artists of the period occupied one corner. The portraitist and still-life painter Sabry Ragheb was the most prominent member of that group. The exhibition organizers, Shahira Idris and Ghada Shahbandar, were venturing their first steps into the world of collecting, buying, and selling art; Ragheb had loaned them one of his favorite paintings as a gesture of appreciation.
Sawiris fell in love with the work, a still-life of a red rose, and as with any love at first sight, the world was no longer the same. He asked to buy the painting. Shahbandar and Idris responded that the work was not for sale, but Sawiris insisted. At his urging, Shahabandar contacted Ragheb, who was angered by the request and refused. Still, Sawiris persisted. In response, the artist demanded a then unheard of sum for the work, equivalent to three times the standard market price: LE 10,000. Sawris’s response was quick and decisive: “Agreed.”
The sale set a new benchmark. According to Shahbandar, Ragheb’s painting represented the most expensive painting sold at the time by a contemporary Egyptian artist. In this period the market was in flux and prices, which previously had settled in the hundreds of Egyptian pounds, reached into the thousands. Urban sprawl led to the establishment of new satellite cities outside of Cairo. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 edged the last remnants of an ideal of Arab unity toward collapse. Maps were changing, and the Arab art market was taking its first shaky steps.
The world before 1989
In the 1950s and 1960s, the state nationalized artistic life in Egypt; the cultural administration was restructured and most significant artistic initiatives and cultural spaces operated under state supervision. In the 1980s, only a handful of private galleries were operating in Cairo. Prior to the sale of Ragheb’s work in 1989, says Shahbandar, the maximum amount paid for a painting was no more than LE 3000. According to her, the Safar Khan Gallery and Tareq al-Marsafi’s Arabesque Gallery represented the most prominent art spaces at the time. The audience for art was limited primarily to a short list of names of collectors who confined their purchases to the works of already prominent, well-established artists. Nevertheless, economic liberalization policies were already having an effect and art’s relationship to the market was beginning to change, witnessing a gradual increase in prices and the emergence of a broader public interest in the arts.
In this period, the state largely withdrew from the cultural sphere. In partnership with her friend Shahira Idris, Shahbandar invested her energies in interior design and dealing antiques and paintings. The two also began visiting art shows and meeting with artists. At the time, many contemporary artists in Cairo had work spaces in Wikalat al-Ghoury, a caravanserai constructed in the early 16th century, or in one of the several other historic buildings the state had restored and lent to artists as studios. Visiting such places helped Shahbandar develop a wide network with artists of all generations.
Despite its many flaws, the state system worked well in many ways, and was comprehensive, providing artists with an overarching framework of support. In addition to offering studio spaces, the state sponsored galleries and ran an acquisitions committee, as well as juries that awarded prizes to artists. In the 1980s, however, Egypt was transitioning to a free market system, efforts were made to “re-organize” the public sector, and state spending was cut from all sides. As international corporations entered the Egyptian market, private exhibitions were held at Cairo’s five-star hotels for the country’s new economic elite. It was at these shows that Shahbandar and Idris displayed works by contemporary artists for the first time. Their exhibitions attracted the attention of a segment of the public, and the two branched out, organizing shows lasting just over a week in private residences, often in the empty apartment of an acquaintance. Their clientele grew as a result, as did the circle of artists they worked with.
Shahbandar and Idris exhibited works by artists who had come to prominence after 1952 including Salah Taher, Hussein Bicar, Gazbia Sirry, Maurice Farid and Nagy Basilios, as well as younger artists active in the period, some of whom went on to pursue high profile careers such as Samir Fouad, while others, such as Huda Khaled and Fatima Rifaat, remained relatively obscure. Other artists, such as Hassan Soliman, refused to work with the duo because he objected to exhibiting in makeshift gallery spaces. He did, however, recommend artist-colleagues with whom he thought Shahbandar and Idris might be interested in collaborating.
Shahbandar was active in the art world from 1986 through the mid-1990s, making a name for herself as one of the scene’s most prominent figures. Nevertheless, the material returns were modest, and she was unable to lease a place permanently and transform it into a fully equipped gallery. She continued to work on her own and began receiving various requests for consultancy services. The influx of international corporations to Egypt introduced new work habits and marketing strategies. These companies recognized art’s ability to serve as a foil for the identity of the company or corporation and as a long-term investment. The international corporations that had recently begun operating in Egypt, approached Shahbandar for assistance in selecting art for their offices. She chose works and arranged them in the local headquarters of several large companies including those of American Express and Carpet City. On occasion, she was asked to work on a smaller scale: for example, acquiring paintings for the office of a company executive or installing works on a single floor.
In 1990, Stefania Angarano arrived on an exploratory visit to found Mashrabia Gallery in downtown Cairo. Previously, she had worked at a number of Italian galleries specializing in contemporary art. Angarano recalls how, when she arrived in Cairo, some galleries were displaying and selling paintings paired with couches and other pieces of furniture. Her primary aim in coming to Cairo was to establish a space that presented art as an integrated whole, rather than as an element of interior design chosen to match the drapes.
Art enters the free market
The factors contributing to the transformation of the art market in the late 1980s were not limited to the entrance of international corporations. In this period, the government expanded construction projects and support for the capital’s new satellite cities, resulting in significant growth in the real-estate market, especially to the west and east of Cairo, with the construction of 6th of October City and areas around Nasr City and the Fifth Settlement. Within the city’s existing bounds, villas were being torn down to make way for apartment buildings, while on the margins, opulent mansions sprang up. An economic elite that had emerged on the back of the open-market, or infitah, policies introduced by President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s took to buying art as a means of generating (and flaunting) class distinctions; hanging original paintings and works of art in the home became a marker of social exclusivity. This was a period of great extravagance.
At the same time, many works by leading artists of the early 20th century, which had previously remained out of sight, became available during this period, including sculptures by Mahmoud Moukhtar and paintings by Mahmoud Said: perhaps the most celebrated of the “pioneer-generation” artists credited with founding a modern Egyptian art movement. In an emerging market lacking sufficient legislation and institutional oversight, counterfeits proliferated. Soon, Shahbandar found that in addition to her role as art dealer she was also compelled to act as an investigator: examining the authenticity of each painting. She tells the story of one incident in which she was asked to appraise a painting by Hussein Bicar. When she brought the painting to the artist for verification, he smiled slowly and told her that it was a good painting, but it wasn’t his; someone had imitated his style.
Nude with the Golden Bracelets and The Reciter
This hothouse climate in the art market tended to foster the sale of certain kinds of works over others. The depiction of nudity represented one of the primary factors informing the kinds of works circulating in the market after 1989. Sultan al-Qassemi, chairman of Barjeel Securities and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, recalls that images of nude paintings by Mahmoud Said published in an auction house catalog of the period were censored. At the same time Karim Francis, director of the Karim Francis Gallery in downtown Cairo, defends this approach, which he frames as a response to laws in Arab countries regulating the display of nudity rather than any rules imposed by the auction houses themselves. Shahbandar, for her part, believes that the moral basis for an assessment of the value of a work of art or the tepid reception of paintings of nudes can be attributed to the predominance of specific social values.
In the early 1990s, Shahbandar exhibited a painting by Said, which was priced at less than LE 100,000. The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris had turned down the work — titled Nude with Gold Bracelets(1946) — preferring, instead, she reports, to purchase and display Said’s The Reciter (date unconfirmed). Representatives of the Institut claimed that the painting of the pious reciter of the Quran was more representative of Egyptian art than a painting of a nude, dark-skinned woman. According to Shahbandar, “In the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s, a general social climate prevailed that rejected paintings of nudes. This was not just due to the spread of Islamism; it involved all sectors of society.” Sitting in her home, Shahbandar gestures toward a painting by Sabry Ragheb depicting a girl applying makeup in front of a mirror and wearing a short, black nightdress. The painting had been purchased by a woman from a middle class, Coptic family. A few days later, the client returned, asking to exchange the work because her daughter would not tolerate having a painting of a nude in the home. What Shahbandar describes as mutable social mores came to inform the practices of cultural institutions, such as the Institut du Monde Arabe, that played a prominent role on the international stage and sought to influence perceptions of Arab identity abroad. The same values came into play in even the most basic forms of social organization, such as the family. Shahbandar tells of how she would use her own exhibition space to display nude paintings by Georges Sabbagh from private family collections because the children of the owners refused to display the works and approached her for help in selling them.
Others, such as Mohamed Talaat, the director of Misr Gallery in Cairo’s upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, believe that those social values that discouraged the exhibition of nudity have since changed. In 2012, for example, Misr Gallery exhibited various works created by Nadine Hammam over the course of the period following the January 25 revolution of 2011. The exhibition, titled Tank Girl, was composed of acrylic paintings representing the eponymous female nude who confronts the viewer from atop a tank with her legs spread, transforming the barrel of the gun into a larger than life size phallus. An explanatory booklet accompanying the exhibition framed the work in the following terms:
Through her work, which she has titled Tank Girl, the artist sets out to reconfigure stereotypes and established beliefs. Simulating this reformulation a combination of power inversions, a woman controls one of the most vicious war machines, the tank, as a symbol suggesting ‘woman’s’ ability to impose her power and prevail in the battle to assert their existence.
The booklet closes with a paragraph that explains: “Through her treatment of these complex symbols, the artist hopes to locate a more active role for modern women in the political and social scene. Here, Tank Girl represents every Egyptian woman.” According to Talaat, those collectors with an interest in buying art today are attracted to the more contemporary works in various media and don’t have a problem works that contain nudity or even erotic content, such as works in the Eros collection byel-Dessouki Fahmi, a portion of which was also shown at Misr Gallery.
Until the mid-1990s, there were no clear laws on the art market for setting prices and confirming the authenticity of works of art. An ethical code existed, but no supervisory body. Artists set their prices and the galleries exhibited their works, earning a percentage on sale. Some of the artists active in the 1980s harbored misgivings about this system and asked galleries to purchase their works instead of handing them over directly for consignment. At the same time, artists were not immune to questionable behavior, and cutting out the middleman by selling work at a lower price than that advertised in the gallery constituted one of the worst possible violations of the ethical code yet, apart from the latter, Egypt has no laws in place regulating the art market.
The uptick in activity in the Egyptian art market stemmed from the drive among the new upper middle class to acquire artwork. Some of these individuals were encouraged to enter the market based on a business approach that relied on a logic of quick gains. Until the mid-1990s, most owners of private galleries in Egypt were women whose interest in art had prompted their entry into the field; the need to make a profit proved a secondary consideration. Sherwet Shafie represented another prominent art world figure. Shafie had opened the Safar Khan Gallery after leaving her position as a program presenter on Egyptian television in the 1960s. While Safar Khan Gallery still operates today, Shahbandar stopped working in the field in the mid-1990s due, she claims, to the type of clients who were beginning to take an interest in art. She recalls standing with the artist on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition she had organized, when they overheard a client saying she wanted to buy a painting because the colors matched her living room interior. The artist was insulted and pleaded with her not to sell the painting to that client. In 2005, Shahbandar would found Shayfeencom (We are watching you), a movement that aimed to uncover the corruption and electoral fraud of the Mubarak regime. She would later become one of the most prominent names in political activism, especially after the 2011 revolution.
Shahbandar withdrew from the field just as the new adventurers were entering. At the time, Karim Francis was embarking on a journey of self-discovery which took him from working in the import/export business to tourism, and, finally, to art. Francis devoted three years to reading about art and familiarizing himself with artists and various artistic practices before opening his own gallery. He held his first show in 1995 in an apartment he owns on Sherifein Street in downtown Cairo. The group exhibition, titled Identity, included works by artists such as Mohamed Abla, as well as literary works, displaying manuscripts belonging to the celebrated novelist Sonallah Ibrahim.
Sitting in his gallery, surrounded by sculptures by Sobhy Guirguis, Francis recalls his beginnings:
When I started working in the art world, most buyers were receptive to works by the older, well-established names. Quite simply, each buyer felt in touch with the artists of their generation. However, motivated by my own passion, I wanted to put new names and new ideas in art out there that had not yet been seen in the market. I held a series of group shows titled New Talents to introduce artists whose work was being shown for the first time, as well as to show artistic modes and experimentation that went beyond paintings hanging on a wall, including installation artworks and video art.
This spirit of innovation and embrace of the unfamiliar would come to define the direction of the art scene in the late-1990s and early 2000s. Francis, alongside other gallerists active in the period and espousing similar ambitions, helped provide a platform for the emergence of a number of artists who are often referred to collectively as “the 90s generation.”
The joy of the sale
In the 1990s, state financial policies continued to liberalize so as to integrate Egypt into the new world market, and Egypt signed many partnership agreements with the European Union. These agreements included articles explicitly referencing cultural cooperation; a number of foreign cultural institutions became active in Egypt. Initially, these institutions were viewed with a great deal of suspicion, and were boycotted by art critics: most prominently Osama Afifi, who understood the activities of foreign cultural and arts organizations to represent a form of interference with Egypt’s natural course and part of a larger plan to destabilize Egyptian national identity. From the Ford Foundation to the Townhouse gallery (to borrow Afifi’s examples), the arts organizations that played an important role in supporting contemporary artistic practices were subjected to attacks of treason and suspicion, to the extent that art critic Sobhi el-Sharoni described the role of these organizations as malicious in his book Encyclopedia of Egyptian Fine Arts in the Twentieth Century.
This model of arts organization does not rely on selling art but, rather, approaches art within a developmental framework, operating according to different economic rules. Despite various drawbacks, this approach proved to be an effective stimulus for contemporary art practices and provided young artists with the space to branch out and experiment with installation and video art. These media are difficult to sell, and works in this vein have not been well-received historically by government arts institutions; the 1990s generation of artists was marginalized and alienated from official institutions that continued to show and display art that was considered more representative of “Egyptian identity.”
In the midst of this struggle and the changes taking place in the art world, Karim Francis was attempting to create a third model, closer to that espoused by Stefania Angarano, the director of Mashrabia Gallery, who refused to work with artists teaching in arts academies or exhibit the paintings of deceased artists, preferring to focus instead on contemporary Egyptian art. Francis declined the opportunity to convert the gallery into an establishment that relied on outside funding and preferred to pursue his own path. He made this choice not because he believed that accepting funding would make him a “traitor,” as per the widespread accusations against institutions that relied on these sources, but for other reasons, which Francis enumerates as follows:
First, I’m not convinced by the idea of organizations that fund the arts. Personally, if I was given money, I wouldn’t work and struggle so hard to show and sell art. Also, the issue of “selling” in itself is the job of a gallery owner, not only for the sake of material gain but also because it lends the work an added sense of value. I feel a real joy when I sell a work of art. Second, the work model of funding organizations turns the artist and the gallery owner into employees who receive monthly funds. Selling art grants you a greater freedom. Third, working with these organizations is demanding, there is a lot of paperwork, routine procedures, and funding applications to fill out that contain questions that are, in my opinion, meaningless, yet you’re forced to answer them and say what the funders want to hear, or to clothe what you’re doing in their concepts and development terms. In a private gallery all you need is a license and commercial registration.
At the same time, Francis does accept funding from these organizations for the work of certain artists, especially for costly video art which cannot be sold afterwards.
The Karim Francis Gallery was one of the first places that opened its doors to the 1990s generation, many members of whom have now become internationally celebrated artists and whose works can sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds. Francis mentions that, in the 1990s, he showed a work of Ghada Amer priced at LE5,000, and no one was interested in buying it. Now the same work sells for US$165,000. He laughs, remembering the surprise on the faces of gallery visitors when they encountered works of installation art: “There were very few sales. So I thought, why don’t we open things up to new experiments and practices? The visitors did not understand what was going on and I was showing these experiments and works in an attempt to understand and absorb and to create a dialog around these new ideas.”
In this period, Karim Francis Gallery, Mashrabia Gallery and Townhouse played a vital role in posing alternatives and new paths for art practice. In 2000, the three locations collaborated to put on the Nitaq Festival; a second festival was held the following year and was designed to correspond with the launch of the Cairo Biennale. Negar Azimi (a former employee of the Townhouse) describes this event in an article as: “the most palpable sign that the Egyptian art scene as we knew it had been shaken up.” According to Azimi, the festival was significant for:
the view it provided as to the tendencies of a new generation of artists working within idioms that defied prevailing notions of contemporaneity. Engineered to start on the very day of the 2001 Cairo Biennale’s opening, the second Nitaq in particular served as an ‘off’ version in every sense of the term. While the Biennale was characterized by a reliance on tradition both in concept and curation, Nitaq would prove most unconventional, shaking up stagnant conceptions surrounding the use of space, medium and the potential for dematerialization of the art object. Like true post-modernists, the preferred avenue of expression for the artists at Nitaq was multi-media installation executed with conceptualist tendencies. A number of the Nitaq artists, Lara Baladi, Amina Mansour, Hassan Khan, Wael Shawky and Mona Marzouk among them, have since gone on to exhibit widely internationally.
The event would come to represent a landmark in the history of contemporary art in Egypt: signaling the entrance of a new coterie of artists and institutions, and, with them, new practices and understandings of art. At the same time, the market horizons for this work were expanding.
Auctioneers in the cities of the desert and bourgeois gold
In a recent interview, Sultan al-Qassemi noted the absence of a healthy demand for Egyptian art in the 1990s: “There was art, even in the 90s, but there wasn’t a market for art in Egypt, and there was a near total absence of Egyptian art outside of Egypt. Collectors of Egyptian art could be counted on one hand, most prominently Mohammed Said Al-Farsi, the mayor of Jeddah, and the emir of Qatar, Hassan bin Mohamed Al Thani.” Nevertheless, with the beginning of a new century, cities in the Gulf were rapidly acquiring international status, and the skyscrapers rising in Doha competed with those of Dubai. The entrance of auction houses at this particular moment would have a significant effect on the market for works from Egypt and the region.
Francis relates that at the start of the new millennium, he began to receive invitations and friendly advice to go to Dubai, where the art market was already strong and expanding as a result of the rapid growth of the real estate market. After ten years of involvement in the art world, he had made a name for himself both locally and internationally. During this period, Francis met a European interior designer working in Dubai and she began working with him in selecting art for her projects. In 2005, he was visited by members of a delegation from Christie’s auction house who sought to familiarize themselves with Egyptian and Arab art and art markets. Francis accompanied them to a number of studios, including those of the prominent artists Adel el-Siwi, Mohamed Abla, and Adam Henein. The auctioneers were undertaking their first exploratory visits of the Arab art market by visiting a number of Arab cities in preparation for the inauguration of branches in Dubai and the wider Gulf region.
In a 2012 study of the Middle Eastern art market, The Rise of the Middle Eastern Art Market Since 2006, author Taymour Grahne quotes Philipp Hoffmann, executive director of the Fine Art Fund Group, as setting the total value of the Middle Eastern art market at US$10 billion; this value was expected to triple in coming years. By the end of 2005, Christie’s had opened its first branch in the Middle East. Sotheby’s and Bonhams followed suite. The establishment of these auction houses had a transformative effect on the status of Arab art. Qassemi describes some of these changes:
These houses employed art scholars and experts to study and appraise Egyptian art and did reports to verify the proposed numbers. Sometimes, we’d hear about works selling for outrageous amounts but we had no way to verify these numbers; the houses worked to verify them. The auction houses reduced the number of fakes threatening the Arab art market, due to the passing off and sale of art forgeries without verifying their authenticity or history. The houses produced authenticated catalogs of Egyptian artists. There is a catalogue raisonné documenting all of the works of Mahmoud Said, Ramses Younan, and other greats, which became essential references for their work.”
When I asked Syrian artist Youssef Abdelke recently why people in Dubai, the Gulf and Cairo buy art at these prices, he replied, “everything the bourgeoisie touches turns to gold” — attributing the statement to Karl Marx. If auction houses aim primarily to generate more and more “gold,” a law governing the art market must first be established for pricing works of art. In a market where opinions and critical judgments are up for debate, the auction is one of the few institutions that leaves the task of determining the price of a work of art to the free market. On this basis, the work of a particular artist is assigned a monetary value that becomes, as Mohamed Talaat says, a reference point for future sales.
At the same time, Talaat explains that the art market and its main site of exchange in the Gulf-based auction houses possess blind spots which leave them open to manipulation. He tells of how some galleries might offer the works of young artists they represent to auction houses, only to turn around and purchase the same works for a high price at auction through an agent. As a result, the value of an artist’s work increases and art collectors are encouraged to seek them out. After prices have multiplied, the gallery re-exhibits and resells the artist’s work. However, Qassemi takes a different view regarding the manipulation of auction bidding to increase the price of an artist’s work: “This might have occurred at the beginning, but now it would be difficult for such a thing to happen because the market is very narrow, and if a gallery did such a thing it would be discovered immediately, because the market is small and we all know what’s out there.”
While warning against the misuse of the auction system, Talaat also complains of national biases perpetuated by gallerists in the region, claiming:
Iranian businessmen and millionaires mostly reside in Dubai, therefore, they buy works by Iranian artists, who have come to represent a large portion of the art market shared by Arab art. And the Iranians aren’t satisfied with just acquiring art; they also support projects promoting Iranian art in Dubai and the Arab countries. Galleries in Syria and Lebanon also have a clear bias against Egyptian art, to the degree that the director of a Syrian gallery announced a while ago in an interview that the only artists on the market are Syrian artists. On the other hand, there are galleries in Egypt that do not coordinate with each other at all.
Francis holds a different opinion, stating that he has held shows for Egyptian artists in Lebanon and Syria. He adds, “galleries might collaborate on a given project, but we can’t work together or coordinate with each other because, frankly, we’re competitors in the same market.” Whether at the auction house or in the gallery, the value assigned to works of art is often determined by a system that rewards the self-interest of those with a profit to make from the sale of work.
Ultimately, the market is supported by art collectors who invest heavily in particular names, acquiring the works of these artists with the goal of building savings and investing in property, as a painting that is worth “ten” today might reach a hundred in a few years. Such individuals seek to protect the market and enforce the rules governing it, so as to guard the value of their investments. The collapse of the market or any fundamental change in the laws of appraisal and pricing that regulating it, translates into a loss in the assets of art collectors and a collapse of their investments.
Modern art in the museum
Outside interest in acquiring modern Egyptian art originated in the 1960s, as students from Gulf states moved to Egypt to pursue advanced education or for various other reasons, and were exposed to the works of modern and contemporary artists. As Qassemi recounts, there were four major art collectors in the Arab Gulf as early as the 1980s. The most significant of these belonged to Mohammed Said al-Farsi, the mayor of Jeddah, and owner of the largest collection of works by modern Egyptian artists. The private art collection of Qatar’s Sheikh Hassan Al Thani would serve as the seed of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. Currently, he claims, the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art still possesses the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in the region comprised of some 12,000 pieces. At the same time, the museum operates within an extremely limited annual budget of LE 2 million. While the National Public Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Algiers (MAMA) stands in second place with a collection of some 8,000 works, Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art is quickly closing in from behind.
Talaat graduated from Cairo’s College of Fine Arts in 1999. In addition to his work as an artist, he took an interest in organizing exhibitions. In 2005, he was appointed director of the Arts Palace at the Cairo Opera House, where he worked with the artist Mohsen Shaalan who was serving at the time as the head of the Fine Arts Sector in the Ministry of Culture. Talaat relates that in the period in which he served as director of the Arts Palace there was something of a boom in the art market in that a new breed of collector interested in young artists appeared on the scene and new Arab markets opened up, while state institutions continued to lag behind.
The state’s newfound interest in these artists stemmed, in part, from the esteem their works enjoyed abroad, and was fueled by an attempt to recover its original position of influence in the arts sphere. Galleries such as the Townhouse served as international authorities on contemporary Egyptian art and were called upon regularly to nominate artists to participate in initiatives outside of Egypt: a role historically monopolized by the Ministry of Culture. However, despite breakthroughs and attempts at change initiated by Shaalan, the Fine Arts Sector’s performance in this regard was limited by its restricted budget, and continued to weaken after 2010, Talaat claims. Eventually, Talaat grew discouraged with the rejection of many of his project proposals. His experience in the state arts’ administration qualified him to pursue work as an art consultant: developing collections for a number of real estate and tourism companies. He also launched plans to open his own space.
While the Egyptian government sector was scaling down its involvement in the arts, Gulf-state governments, and, in particular, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar, were becoming increasingly active players in the field and initiating construction on various museum projects. Yet, in doing so, they have pursued distinct aims and cultivated varying approaches. Thus, each state in the region pursues a different policy in acquiring art. According to Qassemi:
In the UAE, the government purchases and acquires works of art through a museums authority, which has a board of specialists who study paintings and determine what to purchase. There are regulations governing acquisitions, and certain museums don’t buy art from auction houses. In Qatar, the decision to purchase a work is instantaneous and is made quickly depending upon the market and what is on offer. Qatar also buys from auction houses. The most significant purchase it made at an auction was the painting Les Chadoufs by Mahmoudd Said, which sold for more than US$2.4 million.
Likewise, in a study titled Re-Inventing the Museum in Abu Dhabi and Qatar?, Laura Damême explains how these particular governments have used museums to achieve various objectives. In both Abu Dhabi and Qatar, the number of foreign workers and residents in 2010-2011 stood at over 80 percent of the total population. In Abu Dhabi, Damême claims, the government uses museums to present itself as a global capital offering international-brand museums such as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, in choosing to build the Museum of Islamic Art and Mathaf, Qatar approaches museums as a means of asserting the cultural specificity and Muslim-Arab identity of its citizens, which account for no more than 15 percent of the total population.
Qassemi adds another possible explanation for the considerable investments made by Gulf countries in the art market: Building museums carries a clear political message. The erection of important new centers of cultural and artistic preservation and display projects an image of these governments as capable of meeting the needs of their citizens, in addition to bolstering the terms of national and cultural identity.
The art market in the Arab world: At the intersection of real estate and oil money
Wealth in the Middle East is concentrated primarily within two markets: real estate and oil. Those familiar with the contemporary history of the arts and the art market in the region can see clearly how the money pouring in from these sources has played a key role in shaping and altering the market. The relationship of art to real estate originated in an understanding of art as an element of interior design. The separation of art from interior design required gallery owners to take significant risks on less conventional works of art. Art’s autonomy from the realm of décor also relied on the subsequent development of a greater appreciation amongst many buyers for the immaterial, as well as the material value of art. With the expansion of the real estate market and urban sprawl in the satellite cities popping up outside of Cairo, the interest of the Egyptian economic elite in acquiring works of art steadily increased. Art, and the acquisition of art, became important markers of social status amongst the upper and upper middle classes.
The relationship of art to real estate became salient again when art was taken up as a vehicle for re-branding the city of Dubai. In the past decade, art has played a central role in the formulation of the image of Gulf countries, which compete to acquire art collections in a race to establish museums that reflect a progressive image of these states, while also converting art into material assets, or a form of investment and savings.
However, despite the surge occasioned by this outside interest in the Egyptian art market, exhibition halls in Cairo have tended to privilege modern art over work by contemporary artists. Moreover, local cultural and social mores inform the processes of selling and appraising art. Works with sexual, religious or politically sensitive content are particularly likely to be excluded from the market. Nevertheless, the market’s relative upswing is related to the appearance of young art collectors who no longer possess the same inhibitions as their predecessors and who are more receptive to purchasing contemporary works of art that reflect some of the spirit of the present moment.