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Mapping the Counter-Histories of Port Said: A Critical Reading Into a Communal Mapping Project

[Audience contributes to communal map. Photo by Youmna El-Khattan. [Audience contributes to communal map. Photo by Youmna El-Khattan.

“Here the tabular space--of the map, the canvas, the textbook--comes to be transformed into a topology that rapidly acquires depth when it is bent and deviated by excluded rhythms and dislocating narratives. Space is never empty or merely geometrical; it is always full of detailed, unfolding configurations. It is not only physical but also temporal; it is not a mute object but product and process…it flees the closure of planned, panoptical, measured, geometric framing."--- Ian Chambers, Mediterranean Crossings



Map of the stories of the people of Port Said
خريطة حكاوي أهالي بورسعيد  

[Communal Map of Port Said. Photo by Nermin El Sherif]

Port Said is a city that became an icon of state endeavors from its foundation during the digging of the Suez Canal, Egypt’s political victory during the tripartite aggression of 1956 (Suez War), the free-trade zone signalling the liberal turn of the 1970s, and former president Hosni Mubarak’s shunning of the city in the 1990s. Yet Port Said as a city holds its own narratives of each of these iconic events, as well as others far less widely recognized by nationalist history and historians.

More importantly, research into popular memory in Port Said[1] reveals a very particular spatial consciousness of the city which manifests itself readily in memories of events. Whether it is the story of a historical event or a family memory, the city as a backdrop is always communicated, plotted into your imagination. As researchers of the city, this spatial element made re-telling Port Said’s popular histories against some cartographic imagination a worthwhile endeavor. For memories of Port Said were communicated with a visual flair, it seemed only fair that they should be written/"retold" as such.

In this article we describe the results of a "social history-mapping" experiment that took place in a larger public history workshop in the city of Port Said. The ten day workshop “Ehky ya tarikh” brought together a group of seventeen young researchers, scholars, activists, journalists, and writers interested in Port Said’s social history.  The workshop was convened by a group of scholars and artists specialized in aspects of its history and conducted with a large stock of personal, governmental, and foreign office archives relating to the city’s history. We looked at the iconic events that mark Port Said’s history--the digging of the Suez canal, the interwar period, the 1956 tripartite aggression, the displacement after the 1967 war, and the experience of the free-trade zone. However, each event was explored through a source that challenged if not openly contradicted official narratives of these events. In each of these instances we explored the experiences of the workers (local and foreign) who dug the canal; the stories of the architecture in the interwar period and the sprawling of the city; the oral histories of the resistance fighters during the tripartite aggression; and the journalistic narratives behind the establishment of the free trade zone set against the narratives of the various traders affected by it. 

This mapping exercise provided us with two opportunities. The first was using it as a pedagogical tool that allowed us to plot the participants’ research against a visual landscape, helping us tie narratives to the spaces they originated from and trace events as they happened. It also allowed us to trace moments of silence (like the period between the 1967 and 1973 wars when the city was evacuated), as well as areas from which few narratives emerged (such as the margins of the city where less formal settlements exist--including those of fishermen who inhabited the city before the canal). These findings both signposted areas for further research while skewing the city’s geographical and historical centers of gravity. For most of the official histories of the city center [2]around a very limited geography of the city--around the canal and the Foreign Quarters--leaving a large, historically unaccounted for geographic mass. It also helped us see how geography and narrative tie together and how stories define the city and its’ communities.

The second opportunity was using the map as a tool for the collective telling of histories. While the map was used by participants during the workshop to lay out their findings based on exploring (personal and official) archives and oral history interviews; it was opened to a larger public on the last day of the workshop. Here people were invited to contribute to the map with their own stories and using their own materials and personal archives and stories. Since it was built in a cultural center in Port Said, it has been used and contributed to in other workshops and initiatives by other groups whose members were part of the experiment, thus, opening up slowly to wider and wider publics of the city.

This History Workshop started by bringing together a number of young and established researchers and artists interested in the history of Port Said. Once we had researched the various points in the city’s history and put together a program for the workshop we developed a call for applications. Out of the 70 applicants, we chose seventeen participants, from the canal area (Port Said and Ismailiyya), the Delta (Damietta, Mansura and Alexandria), Upper Egypt (Menya and Qena), and finally greater Cairo. The group included journalists, human rights researchers, writers, artists, architects, and aspiring academics, all with an interest in researching, and excavating counter-narratives to Port Said’s highly meta-narrativized past. 

Port Said: A Geography of Contested Histories

Through this mapping exercise we hoped to create a platform where we could visualize how each resident/ participant sees the city and how these individual visualizations constitute a bigger picture. The aim was to create a visual landscape that depicted space against time (what happened where), as well as indicating what periods of time stood out most significantly in relation to which struggle. Given that so much of Port Said’s history was tied to a history of the world, and the rest of Egypt, the installation included a map of Port Said, Egypt and the world.

The mapping experiment would explore the better known histories of Port Said through the stories of the lesser known agents behind these events (traders in the free-trade zone and members of the civil resistance in the Suez war), and particularly through primary resources. These communities have always been subjects of mapping and censuses conducted by authorities. Accordingly, maps of Port Said had always been products of the ruling power structure; be it the colonial powers planning the city and canal, the early capitalist trade companies, and even the nationalist state. To our knowledge the city had never been "cartographically" mapped by its people. The maps of the people were constantly represented in songs, stories, images and "other" media that all reflected individual narratives. 

The challenge in counter-mapping a city like Port Said was to find a way to collect these multiple narratives together in a flexible medium of a "bigger map:" one that does not only represent the whole geography of the city but also the timeline of its becoming. We produced two maps for this purpose; a digital map[3] and an analogue one. The digital map was an online map on which all the data collected (audio interviews, archival photographs and videos) was geotagged by the researchers on corresponding locations. However, the main limitation of this map was the fact that it could not be edited by the offline city residents. It was only accessible to the workshop researchers, who shared a common password to add and modify information.

The analogue map on the other hand enabled more contributors to add and edit. It was meant to be a space where members of the mapping experiment, and later on inhabitants of the city, could plot their stories by using all the archives they had collected during the span of the workshop (from official archives to personal/popular archives to newspapers) as illustrations of the coordinates on the map. We used the map as an "exercise" to illustrate our findings, as well as a common space that could be shared with passersby to contribute to. We thus worked on the map in an open area of a cultural center that is highly frequented by youth; and also invited members of the community who came to contribute to the map with materials we had left on a table near it (threads, pins, pictures, newspapers, etc).[4]

In labelling this experiment as a "counter map," we adopted Denis Wood's broad definition of the process that attempts to free the map from the "tyranny of the state." This map enables its viewers to draw other conclusions about both geography and historical narrative through visualizing "patterns of events" (Wood, 2010).[5] A counter map is what can turn geography from the art of war, as described by Edward Said, to the art of resistance if a counter strategy is applied in the making of this map.[6]  Although the term is broad and floats between many disciplines from critical geography to political science, the concept itself of mapping counter-arguments, defining relations between them, and challenging the normalized form of the map with its fixed scale and legend, was visible in our Port Said experiment. The "events" mapped in Port Said were cited by other parties, exposing narratives in opposition to hegemonic histories of this city. The process of collaborative mapping itself challenges the normative method of "professional cartographers" visualizing the city. Even the placement of the map in a cultural center, making it possible for the public to add to the map and interact with it, makes it a counter map, one that is not frozen in form or content.

Counter-Mapping the City  

The first seven days of the larger History Workshop focused on researching Port Said’s history through different primary sources (archival sources depicting experiences of workers of the canal; oral histories of the civilian resistance in 1956; newspapers covering the free-trade zone; songs depicting the experience of migration etc). After that participants divided into two groups for the second part of the workshop concerned with reproducing these historical narratives. One group chose theatrical story-telling as a medium for reproducing the narratives they had extracted from their different sources, while the second workshop was concerned with what we called “Social History Mapping” which was the process of plotting the stories against a cartographic space. This was facilitated by Nermin El Sherif, an architect whose work focuses on knowledge production and power dynamics that maps exude.[7]

Nermin prepared the basic structure of the map, by laying out panels that provided a "time-space" dimension, whilst the participants spent three days mapping their stories on the panels. On the third day the map was opened to the public in an event where the stories were performed and the outputs of the mapping experiment presented to a wider public of Port Said’s inhabitants. Towards the end of this event, the audience was invited to contribute to the maps themselves.

The map was structured to include seven vertical panels--two that are cartographic and five that were temporal. The first panel involved a map of the world, as well as a map of the rest of Egypt; the second panel a detailed map of Port Said[8], and five temporal panels included the five most significant "eras" relating to the stories we had collected. The temporal panels were 1859-1869 (the period of the digging of the Suez Canal); the interwar period (significant mainly to Port Said’s architectural gems); 1956-7, a single year were most memories we gathered related to (mainly revolving around experiences of the 1956 tripartite aggression); the period during which the city was evicted 1967-1973 between the 6 day war and the October war; and finally the period beginning with Port Said’s free-trade zone in 1976 until 2001 when it was to be undone.

[The Legend. Photo by Nermin El Sherif.]

Contributors to the map would then plot a story by placing a pin on the significant point on the map where an event took place, and then pulling a thread to the corresponding temporal panel. On the temporal panel the event would be depicted through a song, an image, a photograph, a personal archival document, a newspaper headline, or simply a quote from an interview. The medium that best reflected the story was used. The result was a web of threads that stretched across the maps and the temporal panels that could be traced in different directions to read into various stories.

After determining the basic threads that would pull through the map (personal stories, official narratives, architectural landmarks, transborder movement of people and goods and cultural histories) participants developed a legend based on a color-coding of topics, and time periods. Thus events relating to personal stories were traced using blue threads; stories of migration (of people or goods) were in green threads; stories relating to the city’s architecture were in white threads and cultural histories were in red threads. "Official" narratives on the other hand that came from newspapers or state archives were in black threads. The pin-heads that plotted the threads on a geographic location on one end and a temporal panel on another were also color-coded depending on the era they depicted.

“Kharitat hakawi ahali Port Said:” A Map of the Stories of the People of Port Said

Struggles over the geography of Port Said are evident in both memories and narratives of the city. Contentious issues include official and unofficial narratives of where battles took place during the tripartite aggression in 1956; the nostalgia with which the so-called Hayy Afrangi (Foreign Quarter) has been associated despite the exclusive location and design of the neighborhood; and most evidently the chosen references for street names.

[Workshop participants plotting stories on the map. Photo by Youmna El-Khattam]

The struggle over the city’s street names is one theme we tried to depict in the map. Most of Port Said’s streets were planned and named after characters and events significant to the Suez Canal--such as Khedive Tawfiq street or Empress Eugénie street. After the 1952 coup, these names were changed to suggest another kind of belonging, such as the 23rd of July Street, Abdelnasser Street and Safiyya Zaghloul Street. The new names referred to "other" nationalisms, iconic heroes and figures of almost mythical popularity. After the 2011 revolution a
"Committee to Rename the Streets of Port Said" was developed by the local municipality--where some streets were again renamed. Interestingly however, some streets retain some of their older names in the popular nomenclature amongst the city’s inhabitants despite the official naming. We tried to highlight the different (communally chosen) names of the streets on the map whilst alluding to the stories behind the names that may have led to their popularity. One of these is “Eugenie Street”--that despite its colonial overtones, stayed as a reminder of the empress of mythical beauty that came to the city to attend the inauguration of the canal, and the many stories that surrounded her visit.

Examples of stories that were plotted on the map included that of the origins of the Simsimiyya--the string instrument most popular in Port Said’s music scene. Ahmed Ragab and Magda Magdy, who were interested in the history of the instrument, connected Upper Egypt to Port Said, indicating the arrival of the simsimiyya with the influx of Upper Egyptian workers during the digging of the canal. The red thread thus started from Upper Egypt on the Egypt map, and made its way to the canal area on the Port Said map. From there (the canal), another red thread was pulled to different temporal panels. The thread that landed on the 1859-1869 panel included workers’ songs on digging the canal; the 1956 panel housed popular resistance songs and the 1967 panel included songs relating to migration and displacement after the 1967 war.

We plotted the stories of Zainab Kafrawi, a member of the popular resistance in the 1956 war, using the blue thread (to denote personal narrative) in different areas in Port Said. These included the port where she received the weapons smuggled by fishermen; the addresses of the clandestine printing houses where she received the fliers for distribution; and the storage containers near the harbor that they broke into for food during the war. A thread was pulled from each of these locations to the 1956-1957 panel where fliers printed by the print-houses were posted; or short quotations telling the stories were written.

Mohammed Mosaad, a member of the Port Said ala Adimuh [‘Port Said As It Was’] initiative plotted Port Said’s most significant architectural monuments (based on our researchers’ and inhabitants sense of the city). These threads were pulled mostly to the interwar period, where pictures of the buildings were posted and their stories told. Personal/non-canonical stories were also told using the personal artefacts we had collected from people who lived in Port Said at different moments in time. Stories relating to the free-trade zone from the newspapers--why the zone was established in Port Said; what housing units resulted from the influx of cash into the city etc--were also directed to certain areas in the city.

The map thus became a very dynamic tool for a collective visualisation of the experience of the city’s past, as well as an indicator for silences and absences. For example, the visual plotting of stories helped us see what areas of the city were untouched--such as the peripheries. A visit to these areas revealed the informal settlements of fishermen and nomadic communities whose stories are not documented and did not readily appear in popular memory or representations of the city. This revealed one of many areas in Port Said’s history that begged probing.

Temporal Dimensions, Mapping Time

The temporal era signifying the period when the city was evacuated between 1967 and 1973 was full of text rather than images--stories of where people travelled with threads reaching out to areas of the world and the rest of the country. The lack of visual

materials in this temporal panel is in stark contrast to panels that preceded and followed it, giving a sense of the emptiness of the city at the time. This also raises curiosity as to what the experience of the canal cities was like between these wars: another largely understudied area. Some stories of these experiences were collected and performed during the story-telling workshops.

Vincent Brown, who plots the experience of slave uprisings in Jamaica on a map; claims that for:

“[T]teachers and researchers the cartographic visualisation of the revolt offers a carefully curated archive of key documentary evidence. To all viewers the map suggests an argument about the…tactics of counterinsurgency and… the importance of the landscape to the course of uprising…”[9]

Similarly the maps of Port Said highlight the tactics of the civilian resistance put up by the city’s residents against the tripartite (French, British and Israeli) military aggression in 1956 despite the claims of members of the resistance that there were none worth remembering.[10] These are obvious through the relations between where the communication fliers between various resistance groups are printed, where they are distributed, and where the resistance operations took place.

Adding a temporal dimension to the maps contributed to the map’s subjectivity, in that even the sense of the past was nurtured with personal experiences. Involving multiple actors in creating the map, places it in contrast to cartographic practices that involve the geometric planning of space by a single ‘expert’ or technocrat. The city on the map is no longer a geometric representation of space, rather it becomes a representation of how the city is ‘sensed’ or how it is experienced or constructed as a space by those we interviewed. Similarly the parameters of time were skewed based on which periods were most significant to people’s sense of the city.

It seemed thus that these geographic and temporal notions were important, not only for an understanding of the experience of a city, but also an understanding of how the city’s inhabitants defined themselves as a community. Their sense of time, their chronology of historical events, and their charting of the city’s spaces differed from the standardized histories, geography and chronology of events. Here these notions of space and time were flexible, shifting and changing to define a community’s past and present. Thus, just as geographical parameters of the city are swollen or diminished in size based on their significance in people’s past experiences, the temporal panels or chronological markers also express experiences of time, and were thus unequal. As a consequence, the temporal panel depicting 1859-1869 was just as populated by stories and materials as the 1956-1957 panel--as though ten years worth of experiences were felt in one year. A fitting depiction of the experience of war. 

Visualizing Layered Histories

Stepping back from the map we are thus struck by two things. The first is the collective perceptions of the past. We are able to detect periods that are deemed most significant to how these communities define themselves, and those that are less important. These include 1956--a history of a community of fighters; and the digging of the canal--a history of a City central to world History. These are more important than say the 1990s when Port Said was shunned and marginalized by Mubarak. We also see periods populated with architecture others populated with visuals, and others devoid of any visual reference. These constructed narratives of a city also become the features and contours of a community and the stories of how they define themselves.

The second issue we are struck by is a different kind of cartography. For “cartography presumes the natural existence of points on a grid, mutes history (and) naturalizes the time-line”.[11] In both cases, the landscapes--history or time--are folded and unfolded presenting us with a landscape of stories that create a new sense of geography, space and time, as expressed through these stories, giving us a “counter-history of space, power and social life”.[12] The coordinates are lines rather than points, and journeys rather than locations. The city could be re-plotted so that areas where events are most prominent are enlarged to encompass the stories they hosted, and others shrunk. The city’s geography is more fluid--as fluid as its stories. The empty areas on the map, or in the temporal panels are landscapes of silence. These are places and peoples whose stories are not told because industrial areas and poor fishermen’s shacks make for less glorious histories. A more inclusive, reflective history of the city could then be pursued by observing who has been involved in the narrative collection process and who was not. Or, more simply, a visit to these areas such as the visits we conducted in this workshop reveals who may be absent and what has been silenced.

[Wider audience contributing to map. A photo by Youmna El-Khattam]


[1] See Mossallam, Alia 2013. Hikāyāt Sha’b’. Nasserism, Popular Politics and Songs in Egypt 1956-1974. PhD diss., London School of Economics and Political Science.

[2] Most historical works featuring the city are embedded in the context of International Relations, or are military histories of the 1956 (Suez) war and archival histories of the digging of the Suez Canal. This includes the following works: Salem, Latifa. Azmit al suways, Judhur, Ahdath, Nata’ig 1954-158, Maktabit al Usra, Al Qahira 2006; Shennawi, Abdelaziz. Al Sukhra fi hafr qanat al suways. Manshi’et al ma’arif al haditha 1958 etc.  Exceptions include a few Social History accounts such as Belli, Mariam. The Incurable Past. Nasser’s Egypt, then and now. University of Florida 2013; Chalcraft, John. “The Coal Heavers of Port Sa’id: State-Making and Worker Protest, 1869-1914.” International Labor and Working-Class History 60 (October 2001): 110–24.; ‛Abdel Shakur, Mohammed, Sohair Mehanna, and Nicholas S. Hopkins. 2005. “War and Forced Migration in Egypt: The Experience of Evacuation from the Suez Canal Cities (1967-1976).” Arab Studies Quarterly 27(3):21-39 and Lucia Carminati’s very exciting upcoming work on the national and international migrants who worked on the Canal and continued to live in the city.

[3] The map was made using scribblemaps, an online free service that allows the geotagging of links, text and imagery to maps given a certain password and URL. The digital map of Port Said can be found here.

[4] The idea of this analogue map was inspired by a community map in the Fietas Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa . This map was one of many initiatives to collectively document and visualize the histories of communities evicted during the apartheid. The communal process was important for the multi-vocality (but also multiple materials used) of the community’s histories, and the visual element was important given the fact that there were no physical reminders or remains of most of these communities.

[5] Wood, Denis. (2010). Rethinking the Power of Maps. New York: The Guilford Press.

[6] Said, Edward. (1995). The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994. New York: Vintage books.

[7] More on Nermin’s work on creating “Other Maps” , here -

[8] In compliance with the collective mapping approach adopted from the beginning of the workshop, the base map of Port Said in both the analogue and digital maps was downloaded from (OSM) OpenStreetMap - an openly licensed map created by volunteers. The map was then added to by Nermin to elaborate on areas of the city that seemed to be missing or eliminated from the map. 

[11] Brown, 2015: 137.

[12] Brown, 2015: 139.


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