The most dangerous picture I have ever taken: Reflections on heritage and politics in Egypt

By Katrine Mandrup Bach

Labash! I don’t know the word in English – I don’t think there is one. But the situation is very labash” Rawya said. I looked at her in confusion and asked her to explain – we had just been talking about my housing situation, and as such the conversation naturally fell on hers. We were sitting on a rooftop overlooking Downtown Cairo with the cold January wind finding its way through the several layers of our clothes. The only light came from the street beneath us and from a green LED light that marked the edge of the roof.

“You know the police? They have been knocking on doors here in Downtown and even came to our apartment. Just came right in and started asking questions.” She shrugged, releasing her curly hair from her bun to shield her neck from the wind. “It’s almost the anniversary of the revolution, so they are worried.” She looked out over the busy city which seemed to have only become more alive as the sun set. “They were so many questions – they wanted to have something to make a case out of, if they decided they didn’t like us. Can you believe that? I am the farthest away from politics than anyone!”

Anniversary celebrations

When I returned to Cairo in January this year for my final fieldwork period, I was surprised to find the neighborhood of Downtown Cairo so different from what I had been used to from walking these boulevards uncountable numbers of times over the past four years. Nothing grand seemed to have changed, but the last week of January brought with it an eerie silence. Granted, all Friday mornings are silent compared to every other day in Cairo, but in January I couldn’t enjoy my weekend-strolls around Downtown in the same manner I had done before.

The wide streets seemed emptier, with no people wading into traffic to cross the streets. There was very little traffic to speak of in the first place as the only vehicles passing through Downtown were the huge dark-green trucks with “EGYPTIAN POLICE” written in big white block letters on their sides. I had been supposed to join a walking tour of the neighborhood, but just walking from a nearby coffee shop to the meeting spot, made my skin crawl. The only people passing me on the street were policemen walking in pairs on the road by the sidewalk, only to be interrupted by the occasional street cleaner every now and then. In the side street behind a bank I saw a concrete blockade and a grey army tank sitting behind it. At the same time, the sky was a clear blue and the sun lit up the beautiful façades of the neighborhood.

However, I was relieved when the tour was cancelled “due to security measures taking place in Downtown this weekend”. However, all the scheduled tours after that were cancelled too, even reaching into February and even after the revolution’s anniversary.

On the rooftop, Rawya, an interlocutor in my research and a most dear friend in life, explained how the situation had turned labash. A concept I came to grasp throughout January and February as referring to the heightened police presence in the days of the anniversary, but also as a general everyday concern. In the days of the anniversary, my friends told me how their friends in Downtown would always bring their dogs with them when they went out; “So they look like dogwalkers, not residents.” They were also reluctant to meet me near the Egyptian Museum and the Tahrir Square, telling me how they had themselves been stopped and questioned by police if they had simply walked past or been standing there. They would have their phones searched and one was even taken into custody because he had recently lamented on Facebook that “it’s becoming too much with all the random stops in Downtown.” Luckily, he didn’t disappear, his friend had casually added.

Renovating the revolution

But Downtown was also physically changing. The center of the 2011 revolution was undergoing a huge make-over. And as an anthropologist working on a PhD project on heritage and historical buildings, this large-scale renovation instantly piqued my interest. 

The Tahrir Square is often referred to as the heart of Downtown and seems to be the witness of much of Egypt’s modern history. Standing at the square one can see the Omar Makram mosque built at the end of the 18th century, the rosy Egyptian Museum built in 1901 seems to sit at the edge of the square. Behind it the towering symbol of bureaucracy – the Mugamma3 from 1946 casts its shadow on the road, and across the Nile the Cairo Tower from 1961 is told to be a testament to Egypt’s economic independence – and on the walls of the streets leading into the square sit some of the most recent additions – wall murals depicting scenes from the revolution. 

The square has thus had a long life in the minds and lives of people. The 2011 revolution was not even the first revolution to take place in the square. The square used to be called “Ismailia Square” after the Khedive who founded much of Downtown Cairo. However, after the 1919 revolution, the square became known as “Liberation Square” – Tahrir Square, but it wasn’t until the revolution in 1952 that its name was officially changed.

When I arrived in January 2020, the square was undergoing a huge renovation. All the surrounding buildings were having their facades repainted, the sidewalks were being upended and the old stones were swapped with new ones and the middle of the Meret Basha street leading from the 6th of October Bridge to the square was broken up to make room for a lane of palm trees. New seating areas were constructed in front of the Nile Ritz-Carlton and even the Egyptian Museum was getting its soft pink façade refreshed. The Mugamma3 too was getting repainted, though all activities within had been moved elsewhere and rumors were circulating that the building was either to be torn down or turned into a hotel.

As for the square itself, the flagpole that had long been sitting at its very center was removed to make way for an obelisk and four pedestals that were readied around its base to make room for four sphinxes, originally belonging to the avenue of sphinxes at the Luxor temple.

And this is the very reason I risked taking the above picture. 

Political photography and heritage

Now on the surface, nothing seems particularly dangerous about taking a picture of a historic site. Especially seeing as I come off as a tourist, or at best an exchange student trying to wrap their head around the Egyptian dialect.

However, the heightened security in Downtown meant that around the square, police officers in civil dress would be posted to keep a look out for people meddling with the reconstruction. A professor from Bangladesh, whom I had met in early February for a conference, was actually stopped by such an officer for doing exactly what I had done just a few days prior. A friend related to me the incident, and told me how the professor had called him and how he had thankfully been able to convince the officer that nothing sinister was being planned and as long as the pictures were deleted everything turned out fine.

When I took the picture above, I was aware that the square is not something casually photographed, and I have had my phone searched before (because I had shielded my eyes with my phone trying to get a good look of the bell tower of a church), so I practically sprinted back to the apartment I was staying at, to get the picture, which felt like it was burning a hole in my pocket, off my phone and onto an external hard drive.

It seemed, however, an important picture to risk taking. The renovation of Downtown became a big talking point for my fieldwork, and my friends and colleagues all had differing minds about the changes. Some thought that the seating areas would make it more accessible for people and provide some much-needed public space. While others stressed how it shouldn’t have been legal for them to remove the sphinxes (that are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site) to place them at Tahrir. 

For me, the whole renovation seemed an attempt at neutralizing the space – removing its revolutionary identity and using ancient heritage as an excuse to keep security measures up. Heritage in this sense became extremely caught up with politics of urban space and the freedom of movement.

Rawya, whom you met in the beginning, works with heritage, and in our conversation above she had reiterated a point many of my interlocutors had repeated to me over the course of my fieldwork; that heritage was quite the opposite of political.

A couple of days after our meeting on the roof, I met her at a café and asked her “What did you mean by ‘I’m the farthest away from politics than anyone? Aren’t you working with heritage?” Rawya had scoffed and taken a long sip of coffee before answering: “Look how hard it has been to even organise a walking tour around Downtown Cairo! We need permission to exist! They make it political! Heritage itself is not political but they made the practice of heritage very political.” 

She rolled her eyes theatrically and held her hand up to her chest in an apologetic gesture – “Like, the country is in a bad situation – malish. I don’t want to do anything about it. I want people to realise that buildings mean something that they affect us – I want to change people’s thinking about heritage. We should renovate the less important buildings and appreciate the little things. And stand up for them.”

Leave a Reply