We officially start our walk outside Bab El-Nasr, one of the doors to Islamic Cairo. Amira Hanafi begins by taking a picture of my feet. This is how she always begins her series of walks which are an exploration of Cairo entitled “‘Alatool: Straight Ahead, Always.
Hanafi’s walking exploration of Cairo started at the foot of her grandparent’s former apartment on 5 Ghamrawi St. in Manial sometime in late January.
“When I asked people what the heart of Cairo was, everyone gave me a different answer, said Hanafi, “so I decided to start with my heart of Cairo.
Hanafi, who is half-American and half-Egyptian, designed her project partly in order to fulfill her desire to stay in Egypt for longer than her previous brief trips.
The city, Hanafi said, is usually experienced in a closed matrix determined by one’s regular habits. She breaks this routine through walks whose direction and duration is determined by the whim of another person. Each new walk begins where the last walk stopped.
Cairo offers itself up to the walkers, people shouting “Welcome! to those carrying a copy of Cairo Maps, and saying “sawarini (Take a picture of me) to those wielding a camera, both of which comprise Hanafi’s gear.
Like her walks, her pictures break the recurrent images of Egypt. The artist told Daily News Egypt that most people returning to other countries carried conventional pictures of Egypt: those by the Pyramids, along the Nile, on a camel, and so on. Hanafi sends her off-the-beaten-track images to friends in Chicago, almost all of whom have never been to Cairo before, and asks them to comment. In so doing, she takes them on an imaginary walk outside of their regular ken.
Once pushed out of their regular orbit, the city has surprises even for veteran Cairenes. Her walking cohorts are also asked to write about their experience; Hanafi does the same.
Each of her walks – six so far – has been colored by the nature of the companion, says Hanafi. One companion who found Cairo a warm, welcoming place interacted with almost everyone and everything crossing her path, while another who found the city’s inhabitants intrusive interacted differently with the city.
With various impressions from walkers here and in Chicago, Hanafi will thus create an amalgam of a city that is rich and multifaceted. While unsure as to the exact end result, she hopes to publish the pictures and writings documenting her walks.
Having no set endpoint leaves every turn to the walker’s fancy. A quaint shop, an ornate wall-hanging, a faraway bridge, the presence of sun or shade, these become determinants of the path rather than deviations from a set route.
We walk past a Coptic Christian quarter; the carved image of Jesus’ head appears on a balcony wall, and a little further down, we come across a shop with child-mannequins wearing communion dresses, one dressed as a young pope. We speak of whether Jesus or Mary is more predominant in Coptic religious imagery. Hanafi notes the prevalence of Mary in Latin America, and the almost proverbial Americanism of “What would Jesus do?
In another locale, we walk past the signs of “Bism’Illah ar-Rahman ir-Rahim which Hanafi reads out loud, and equally out loud wonders what religion I am. She admits she wouldn’t ordinarily ask the question, but as with the walk, we both agree conversations veer naturally in some specific directions in Cairo.
As continuing learners of Arabic, both Hanafi and I end up reading out other street signs, trying to decipher words we don’t understand. Other times we wonder about inanities such as the disparity of the spelling of “Sheikh Quwesni Street that simply a few meters down is “Sheikh Kuwesni Street, and about the origins of the name Quwesni.
Sometimes inane thoughts turn to more philosophical reflections. We come across a shop selling a red-heart Valentine’s gift bag which dramatically proclaims: “Love is strong as death. I remember something once written perhaps by Albert Camus, and muse to Hanafi if we perhaps do not wish for love to be as final and irreversible.
Some conversations, like some crossings, are less conscious than others. As I quiz Hanafi about her artistic project, in other subtle turns I also discover her beginnings as a poet, and glimpse into her mind where she complains she remains all too often.
“That is partly why I decided on this project, she said, referring to her first walking project in her hometown Chicago, “I wanted to get out of my own head. She wanted to overrun her mind, overwrought with the same ideas and thoughts, with new stimuli and sensations. Yet, she said, she finds she somehow still returns to similar themes in her work, but she adds, with a stroke of difference.
Hanafi says she perhaps has not been very articulate. “No, that is very articulate, I answer without fully being able to convey that the moment she expressed her isolation was when I felt most connected to her.
We decide to stop on what we are informed is Muashasha Street, near Qadra Church (which Hanafi later finds dubiously translated as “Marginalized Church ). While it is close to the Ghamra metro station we crossed along the way, we come to an impasse that was bound to occur in Cairo: being unable to find oneself on Cairo Maps.
Hanafi says she will figure out how to get here the next day somehow. To find your way around Cairo, you sometimes just need to follow your heart.
More information on the artist at http://www.amirahanafi.com. Further information on this project can be found at http://transhumancity.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/3latool-straight-ahead-always/.