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September/October 2011

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

“The day after Hosni Mubarak fell, the entire city came out on the streets to celebrate. The tanks on street corners were seen not as symbols of oppression, but as assistants to the people’s struggle against a corrupt and oppressive system. Because of conscription, the army is seen as a friend of the ordinary citizen”

Mubarak’s fall brought an explosion of street art in Cairo, nearly all of it expressing the feeling of liberation after 30 years of dictatorship and repression. “Facebook and Twitter, both instrumental in grassroots organisation of the protests, have become buzzwords and totems for the youth of Egypt”

“Cairo’s a city of 15m people and sometimes it feels as if every single one of them has come out in their car at the same time,” Double says. “The concept of space is radically different from that in the West”

After the revolution: burnt-out cars from the barricades were taken to scrapyards on the outskirts of Cairo

Cairo wears its history on its sleeve. At the end of the 18th century Egypt was invaded by Napoleon and briefly occupied by France. “Some of the architecture”, Double says, “reminds me of a crumbling and faded neighbourhood in Paris”

These Koranic verses are the foundation inscription of the 1,100-year-old Ibn Tulun mosque in the heart of medieval Cairo 

Big, bland contemporary hotels and shopping centres are surrounded by areas where life is just a matter of survival

Street furniture that has long since disappeared in Europe can still be found in Cairo. “I don’t remember seeing a pink weighing machine before though,” Double says. The combination of traditional Arab dress with a knock-off Nike sports bag is “a look favoured by many an Egyptian man”

Before the revolution: a shoeshine with a twist. “This guy was a member of the secret police. As soon as he realised I was photographing him, he became agitated. I guess he was just too undercover”

You can buy roasted sweet potatoes on every street corner, along with a wide array of street food and drinks

There are rules about weight limits and high-sided loads here, but they are eminently flexible

Cairo is called “The City of a Thousand Minarets” and mosques are to be found everywhere, even at the side of the ring road

On New Year’s Eve a bomb went off in a church in Alexandria, killing at least 21 people. Mubarak blamed “foreign hands”; some suspected the secret police of trying to stir up sectarian unrest. In fact the upshot was a groundswell of unity between Christians and Muslims, captured by this intertwined cross and crescent in the Egyptian colours

During his 30-year rule, Mubarak nurtured a paternalistic image and a cult of personality. This poster stood on the way to the airport, carrying no text because none was necessary. Everybody would get the message: “I am Hosni, your benevolent protector, global statesman and son of the soil”

The same spot after he was toppled. Nearly all traces of Mubarak’s name and image have been expunged from public life

Art students all over Cairo have found new public canvases to express their feelings. This graffito is at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Helwan University, Zamalek

In a country where tourism accounts for much of the GDP, protection of areas where tourists gather is considered paramount. The cafés in the distance were the scene of a bombing in 2009. Metal detectors, bag searches and so-called tourist police are used to give a sense of security to foreign visitors with their bulging wallets

“In a city that must be one of the most polluted in the world,” Steve Double says, “a clear sky is a rare thing and a clear sky with clouds even rarer. So, on the odd occasion that you can see the sunset in more than an orange haze of exhaust fumes, it’s a wonderful moment.” The image of the sun’s rays fanning out across the heavens has a particular relevance here: “It is thought to have inspired the architects of the pyramids”