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One week in Cairo: An alternative take on Egypt’s revolution

  • One of Samaha’s series of photographs of Egypt’s uprising taken from a YouTube video.

  • Samaha’s shot of a deserted garage in Cairo during last year’s demonstrations. Photos by Roy Samaha

BEIRUT: In June 1768 Scottish traveler James Bruce landed in Alexandria on a mission to discover the source of the Nile. After an incredible journey which took him through modern day Saudi Arabia and Eritrea to Ethiopia – where he spent two years – Bruce succeeded in his quest, reaching the source of the Blue Nile in November 1770.

In 2010 – 240 years later – Lebanese photographer and filmmaker Roy Samaha received a grant from Leica to make a photo documentary following in the footsteps of the explorer. Samaha and a friend planned an ambitious trip from Beirut to Cairo, via Damascus, Amman and several historic sites in Egypt, places Bruce had visited earlier in his travels.

The photographer planned to set off on Feb. 1, 2011, but just six days before his departure the wave of protests dubbed the Arab Spring, which swept across the Middle East after the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi in December 2010, reached Egypt – and Cairo erupted into chaos.

“On Jan. 25 we saw that something was happening,” Samaha recalls. “I didn’t take it very seriously, to be honest, I thought it was just a little demonstration and it would stop, like usually happens in Egypt. But [the next day] it became bigger.”

On Feb. 27 Samaha abandoned his carefully laid plans and bought two tickets direct to Cairo, departing the next day. “I thought maybe I could do the trip, but without the Middle Eastern part,” he explains. “But once I got there I realized that [there was] no mobile ... no Internet. When we went into the city we realized that railroads were [closed]. We got stuck in Cairo.”

An exhibition of Samaha’s photographs taken during the course of the week, titled “Une Semaine au Caire,” or “One Week in Cairo,” is currently on show at the French Cultural Institute in Badaro, along with a video containing footage from each day. Arranged chronologically, the photographs show Egypt’s uprising from an unusual perspective.

Samaha spent a week shooting in the capital, taking a very different approach from the photojournalists, who focused their lenses squarely on the Tahrir demonstrations.

For the first three days of the uprising, while still in Beirut, Samaha shot footage of the demonstrations from the grainy videos parading across news channels and the Internet, most of them recorded by protesters on their mobile phones.

“The first three days I felt that basically the Internet and YouTube were the event,” the photographer explains. “So I loaded an analogue film and I started shooting parts of videos ... as if I was in the streets, focusing on a small detail, capturing it from a larger scene.”

The result is a series of blurry black and white shots of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square at third remove – a photo of a video of an event. The images will be familiar to those who spent the two and a half weeks before Mubarak’s resignation glued to the television – some even show the scrolling news banners at the top or bottom of the screen.

The rest of the photographs on display are selected shots from Samaha’s time in Cairo. In total contrast to the first selection, not only are these images in color, they are also completely empty of people.

Instead of photographing the protests, Samaha chose to focus on the rest of Cairo, suddenly transformed into a ghost town. “This [work] is also part of the revolution, even though it doesn’t show any demonstrations,” Samaha says. “It’s part of the event because when everybody is either focusing on the center, or hiding, or has left the country ... You encounter the city in a different way.

“The energy of urban life is sucked out from the streets in this kind of period,” he continues. “Suddenly you have this kind of vacuum. [The] feeling that this is just space – buildings, streets – nothing else. It’s not being used for its usual function.”

Among the photos from the first few days is one of an empty glass Coca-Cola bottle, sticky black residue at the bottom, standing isolated in a chipped wooden cubby-hole in the entrance to a building. Samaha explains that the protesters all carried a can or bottle of Coke as part of their “protest arsenal,” to protect their eyes from tear gas.

A shot of the Pyramids of Giza, completely free from the usual crowd of tourists and hawkers, is placed close to a photograph of a garage in central Cairo at night, lights in the forecourt blazing but no sign of business except one solitary parked car.

“I decided to go to the pyramids, though the guy in the hotel told me that they would be empty,” the photographer recalls. “Pyramids are about desolation. They are not about being occupied by people ... I felt like the whole of Cairo resembled the pyramids – it was in this kind of hibernation.”

Samaha left a week after arriving in Cairo when the situation began to deteriorate and he was no longer able to take photos, except for snatched snapshots taken on his mobile phone.

“There was a split in the community and some people, for economic reasons, decided to go against the revolution,” Samaha explains. “It became very chaotic ... The first week we knew that the vigilantes in the street were pro-revolution and they were always friendly and nice, but after Feb. 2 there was this atmosphere of animosity and everybody was against anybody.”

Samaha’s photographs provide an insight into Egypt’s revolution on a wider level than just the protests themselves, well documented in the media. The abandoned streets of Cairo remind the viewer that though Tahrir Square may have been the epicenter of events, the demonstrations’ effect was felt over a much wider area, like the tremors of an earthquake.

Roy Samaha’s “Une Semaine au Caire” is on display at the French Cultural Institute in Badaro until Oct. 5. For more information please call 01-420-243.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 29, 2012, on page 12.
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