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A Subject of Time: A Review of "Dust: Egypt’s Lost Architecture"

A Subject of Time: A Review of "Dust: Egypt’s Lost Architecture"

[Sarageldine Palace, Cairo, 2006. Photo by Xenia Nikolskaya.] [Sarageldine Palace, Cairo, 2006. Photo by Xenia Nikolskaya.]

Dust: Egypt’s Lost Architecture (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012) is a book of photographs by Xenia Nikolskaya about Egypt’s decaying colonial architecture. (A limited mock-up can be viewed here.) These are buildings in a pre-mortem state, or verging onto it; that is to say, buildings in a state of limbo. Nobody knows how long they will be around before being demolished and resold for more profitable use. Some of them are great works of architecture, yet they stand in purgatory collecting dust. They date back to what is regarded as Egypt’s belle époque. While the denomination itself could be contested as being an historiographic import from other geographic contexts, these buildings, being the progeny of colonial times, are indeed importations. It is hard to demarcate a precise chronological timeline for what is colonial and what is pre-colonial, but roughly speaking, the starting point is marked by the reign of the Europhile Khediv Ismail Pasha in 1863. It reached its apogee with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, lasted until the onset of the 1952 military coup, and eventually ended with President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s socialist reforms of the early 1960s.

To understand what this book is attempting to do and why these buildings are in this state, one needs to understand their place in Egyptian history and the role of this period in the collective imaginary of the nation. The belle époque might be thought of as two periods; the first belle époque proper was characterized by Khediv Ismail’s ambitious modernization projects. Ismail, very impressed by Haussman’s urbanization of Paris, set out to turn Cairo into the "Paris of the Nile" and, indeed, Europeanize the whole country. Projects ranged from reformation of the army and agricultural system to the construction of the Opera House and many palaces for the expatriate experts and advisers who were invited from as far as the United States, The project would last for a little more than one decade before burying Ismail’s government in a paralyzing debt. Soon Khediv Ismail fell out of favor with his French and British creditors and was forced to abdicate. Eventually the country came under direct British control.

Most of the architecture featured in this book belongs to the second belle époque, which started around 1919 and ended with the military revolution of 1952. It should be seen as a continuum with the Khedive Ismail era, yet with less lavishness and with less momentum than its earlier phase. It is the period characterized by the rise of Egyptian nationalism. It was also this later era that left an imprint on the popular imagination more than any other period in recent history. It became the historical ground for many literary works, films, and soap operas. This period was characterized by a growing Egyptian middle class and a sense of Egyptian-ness (probably for the first time in recordable history). There was a growing sense of nationalism that was bounded on one side by the end of the ancien régime of the Ottoman Empire and on the other end by the birth of Nasserite pan-Arabism. It was also an era of relative liberalism, freedom of the press, a constitutional parliamentary system, and a cosmopolitanism that contrasted with the Ottoman dependency and the belligerent nationalism of Nasser.

To map time, to sketch it, to sanction it as beautiful times or otherwise is the battlefield for ideologies and contending narratives. The belle époque depends on where you stand, for if it is glamorized nowadays, it was also demonized during the Nasser period as an era of extreme social inequality, colonialism, and national defeatism. Khedive Ismail himself was turned into an anathema by the new republic’s ideological machine. The urbanism of the belle époque was left to decay, but not only materially. More important was the severing of the human genealogy that linked these spaces in tandem with personal history. After the socialist reforms of 1962, some of these buildings were nationalized while the rest were left subject to real estate legislation that reduced proprietorship to nominal status. These spaces were de facto orphaned. They were left to rot, slowly, in dust. The defilement of such spatial objects, intentional or not, was part of the purging of the social order of colonial times and part of launching into the postcolonial era.

But out of ruination springs the myth of a golden age. Nasser’s effort to disparage that period would not succeed in erasing it but conversely had the effect of stimulating an historical reimagining of the old times. Now most Egyptians look positively on the era of the monarchy.

For some reason architectural artifacts fared less well in public reverence than the artistic representations of the era. It seems as if a conspicuous material reminder of the epoch, in the form of architectural products in the urban landscape, would work against the evolution of the epoch’s myths. Continuity between present and past has to be severed; buildings have to turn into monuments, or ruins, if they are to work on the collective imaginary.

Those buildings did not stand posturing at any monumentality, on the contrary, they drifted down a decaying path melting away within an unregulated urban and population sprawl. Some would drift along with whole neighborhoods down the real estate market as the formerly affluent neighborhoods ceased to be so when its upper middle classes shifted to new zones on the outskirts of the city. Sometimes whole cities, like Port Said or Minya, would go down-market, losing out to the economics and population of the capital. In all, these buildings were leveled with their environs. If not physically leveled, they were reduced to a state of banality in an everyday present that rendered them invisible even to the city’s inhabitants, like aging tombstones enshrouded by a growing forest of urbanism. You could not distinguish them even from close up—now, I think, how many times did I pass by one of those buildings before recognizing its presence, its temporal alterity?

Even if they do not exist in their full visibility they regularly resurface in public culture all the more refreshed. What better epitome than that of Alaa’ El-Aswany’s bestselling novel (and later a blockbuster movie) The Yacobian Building, where the whole narrative is set around one building—one of those buildings—where space is an allegory for the whole country, and ruination is the predicament of both. Who would have taken notice of the edifice standing timidly amongst the overgrowth of cement and signs and human commotion of downtown Cairo, anyway? There is, after all, nothing particularly distinctive about it with its dilapidated façades and rusty vestibule. But it made perfect sense, anchoring history into one contained spatial object. Architecture is a repository of time.

The Yacobian Building is not a singular case, but being an international bestseller it is quite suggestive of something beyond the singularity of its narrative. Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said are some of those postcolonial cities of iconographic nostalgia where it is always possible to excavate a lost time. The bookstore at the American University in Cairo is full of English books about Egypt’s lost “something.” Melancholic nostalgia seems to be congenial with Egypt, for some reason. Dust will find its place on the bookshelf. But that is probably on account of the subtitle, Egypt’s Forgotten Architecture, rather than by any virtue of the title, Dust. I am more in favor of the title myself than forgotten architecture.

Dust, in its banality, is the material correlate of the concealed monumentality of these spaces. Dust moves beyond the forgotten into the abjectness of a wasteland where these ruins are out on display. It is also perhaps that Dust is the only book that presents the belle époque in such a state of present abjectness. The idea of ‘dust’ also underscores the materiality of history in a way that parallels the book’s emphasis on the material, for Dust does not say much about history except for short captions at the end of the book.

In this regard Dust belongs to the category of coffee-table books that deal with ruins, such as Robert Polidori’s After the Flood (2008), which is an extensive photo essay on the ruins of the Katrina-tossed New Orleans. Urban decay is a common photographic topic that is sometimes labeled “ruin porn."[1] The term connotes a fascination with dilapidated architecture, to the point of fetishization, as the figuration of history on the one hand and the futurity of impending apocalypse on the other. It hints at a mediated, spurious relation to history that parallels pornography’s mediation of sex as sex without sex. To ‘pornalize’ history photographically is to turn it into an ahistorical decontextualized myth. The designation is rather crass. It does not do justice to Polidori’s photographs. It does not do justice to Dust, either. But it has a kernel of truth, for there is something erotic about the way a human’s proximity to ruins is as physical as one can get with time. Ruin porn has less to say about representation and the aesthetics of the image than with the performativity of the photographic act and the pragmatics of it. The corporeal presence of the photographer in the ruin is not an innocuous fact of the person being there; it involves a whole process of negotiations, sometimes verbal and always bodily, if one is to get access to those places. This is something that photography cannot fully convey, as the medium transposes its a-temporality on the ruins. The buildup of excitement, disappointments, giddiness of getting there and being there in an assemblage with the ruins, all are lost in the mediated experience of the printed photograph.

It must not have been easy for Nikolskaya to get into these places. It took her six years to compile the work, years of walking by, musing on what lies beyond the grey walls while contemplating Trojan stratagems. These are not easy to approach spaces being usually located in over-populated neighborhoods with residents who must have immediately spied a Russian woman with a camera in the locale. It would not have been easy when people, more than buildings, are in a state of constant visibility. She would have been stopped, interrogated, by a neighbor or more.

But who would be intimidated by a ruin photographer anyway? The thing is, although they live in the shadows, hide from passersby and onlookers, photographers and urban adventurers, these places are lived-in spaces. They are not dead. Some were turned into governmental bureaus, some managed to find an afterlife for themselves as sleazy hotels and movie theatres, some, like Serageldin Palace, would make regular cameo appearances in movies about the belle époque. They exist in their desolation and forgotten-ness in close contiguity with the present.

To navigate this book, you find yourself embodying the position of the camera’s consciousness, negotiating entry, opening one space after the other. Do not read the photographs as slices of spaces but as a nexus of cavernous spaces that keep overflowing with more. (It is curious how Egypt’s interior spaces seem to be more spacious than the public spaces). Think of it as one continuous long-shot, a plan-séquence, a spatio-temporal hybrid where every image modulates the next: the dusty washroom up the stairway opens to the bedrooms, a seemingly functional tap bestows its presentness on stuffed wild cats. In Dust the past always modulates the present (and vice versa), and without much aid of humans. Dust does not include photographs of exteriors. It does not include people, either. Instead, there are only objects that exist in relation to each other. Nikolskaya must have gone a long way to dodge human presence in order to convey an experience of the ruins. And it is not out of fascination with abjectness, nor for a notable interest in history either. This book is not about history, it is about time, and if buildings are the objective correlative of history then dust is the correlative of brute time. Let us take note that Cairo is one of the most dust-polluted cities in the world. It is impossible to beat the Cairene dust in its incessant accumulation that seems to go faster than anything else in town. Nothing can go faster than the speed of dust.

Like dust, time crystallizes in these spatial objects in defiance of our attempt to divide it into past and present, undulating like a terrestrial snail between historical imagination on the one end and detritus on the other. In these spaces we see the longue durée of history bookended by a belle époque on one end and the present on the other. For some viewing this book, it is a time of beautiful times, for others it is the time and dust of the now.

[A version of this article first appeared in Afterimage (Vol. 40, Number 3).]


[1]  One point of reference would be Roloff Beny’s Pleasure of Ruins, Thames & Hudson 1964. (See review at John Coulthart’s blog See also ICON Magazine March 2012 issue on ruins: Also Brian Dillon, “Ruin Lust” in The Guardian, 17, February, 2012:

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