Cairo is a difficult place. The biggest Arab or African city and one of the biggest mostly Muslim metropolises, it is furiously crowded, grubby and noisy. It is venerable as the home to the sole survivor among the seven wonders of the ancient world. But the pyramids of Giza are often smog-bound today. Their stark triangles no longer perch romantically at the edge of undulating Saharan wastes, but sit instead in a sandpit, rimmed by the highways and apartment blocks of Cairo’s ever-expanding western suburbs. As the nightly Sound and Light show at their feet proclaims, the Sphinx bears witness to 48 centuries of time. But history’s latest efflorescence happens to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet whose own impassive sentinel, Colonel Sanders, gazes back at the Sphinx from a hundred yards away.
Location scouts from Hollywood regularly go into Cairo seeking the allure of a different era, imagining warrens of cobbled bazaars stuffed with exotica, haggled over by slippered merchants and veiled houris. Reality tends to send them scuttling off to Tunisia or Morocco. The medieval quarters here do contain elegant old mosques and teeming markets, but insistent reminders of the inglorious present crowd out much of the picturesque. Cairo’s motorised street mayhem, its pyramid stacks of electric appliances, its flashing neon signs, its haphazard mingling of flyovers and tower blocks with domes and minarets, and its boisterous throngs dressed largely in T-shirts and jeans all conspire to confound romantics.
Yet Cairo’s stubborn refusal to be cast as a “Thousand and One Nights” backdrop is admirable in a way. Its resistance to becoming a theme park makes it far more intriguing than places that come nicely packaged. Its contents defy the neat categorisation of guidebooks. Cairo reveals itself instead in layers, grudgingly and at its own pace. Those layers are many, multiplied not just by a long history but by a subtle range of alternative presents. Small shifts in perspective expose sharply contrasting facets: shocking poverty next to stunningly conspicuous wealth, worldly sophistication clashing with earthy naivety, clutter and ugliness lit up by flashes of the sublime.
All this, magnified by eternally bright skies, adds up to a feast for photographers. And especially so when they happen, as Steve Double has, to wander in on a moment of high drama. Double moved to Cairo in June 2010 after marrying Neena, an Egyptian woman. He had time to take a few hundred pictures of Cairo in the Mubarak era before bearing witness to Egypt’s dramatic revolution, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary people clashed with Mubarak’s daunting security forces, overcame them, and celebrated for days on end in a vast, joyful throng that flooded into Tahrir Square and made it as famous as Tiananmen or Trafalgar.
This great spectacle caught the eye of the world’s press, but Double, who has snapped everything from rock stars to the fall of the Berlin Wall, was interested in capturing less obvious, more fleeting impressions of Cairo—the kinds of things that flit past and give a sense of the texture of a place rather than its structure, its moods rather than its self-image. “I wanted to shoot from the hip,” he says. “To take in stuff you don’t usually notice, like the surface of pavements.”
For this he had a useful accessory. As one of many photographers who mourn the passing of Polaroid, he was thrilled to come across an iPhone app that mimics its quirks—square shape, thick off-white borders, grainy texture, saturated colour and fuzzy-at-the-edges feel. “It’s called ShakeItPhoto,” Double says. He takes a picture, shakes his phone and makes the image fade into life on the screen, like a chemical reaction. “I love the simplicity, the fact that you just casually take a picture anywhere and no one realises what you’re doing.”
This has proved especially useful in Cairo, where he finds the people unusually sensitive to photography. “They either jump in front of the camera, all smiles and dying to get in the picture, or else the opposite—they get really bothered.” It is not just that some citizens are officious about their own image, or of Egypt’s image in the eyes of foreigners. Before the revolution, secret policemen lurked in crowds and, as Double discovered when he unwittingly snapped a man having his shoes shined, they could get angry if they thought they were being exposed. Such prickliness just seems silly now. The roadside poster of Hosni Mubarak that Double captured, first slightly torn and then ripped out of the present, shows that even a pharaoh’s image doesn’t last. ~ MAX RODENBECK