Cairo Street Chairs: a journey by David Puig and Manar Moursi
In one of the many sidewalk coffeehouses which dot the city of Cairo, we met in the winter of 2010. Surrounded by a thin film of rumour and gossip, our first meeting was infused with discussions about the magnetic appeal of the capital of Egypt. A few days later, we met for a walk, and soon, walking in different parts of the city became a regular fixture of our weekend routines.
We first took notice of the street chairs of Cairo in one of our walks on Port Said Avenue, which straddles the city from North to South. “A funny thing about a chair: you hardly ever think it’s there,” the American poet Theodore Roethke once wrote. And yet that day, all of a sudden, those street chairs were there. Not one or two isolated chairs, but one after the other – creating some kind of invisible thread along the sidewalk.
Chairs that arrive to the streets of Cairo are either brand new or used. Sometimes they’ve served in an apartment, an office, or a school, while other times they have been repaired, stitched, and embellished. Despite being constantly on duty outdoors, these chairs age graciously. The curiosity triggered by these ubiquitous sidewalk objects made us realise how essential they were to the everyday life of people who spend a considerable part of their time on the pavement, and to understand the rhythms and the dynamics at play in the sidewalks of the city.
Thus began our “sidewalk botany,” a three-year journey documenting, with a Polaroid camera and a voice recorder, the street chairs of Cairo and the stories of their users.
This was in 2011. Since then, we’ve completed more than fifty walks all over the city, each one lasting between one to five hours. Our walks would start at a point identified on the map and wander wherever the chairs we found on the way led us. Typically, people on the street did not understand what we were doing. Were we sure we wanted to take a picture of an empty chair and not a portrait of them? As friends or neighbours gathered, they would sometimes explain to each other half-jokingly that we were taking a picture of the jinns, the spirits of the chair. “Better looking” chairs were pulled in place of the ones we wanted to photograph. Once we explained that we liked how they fixed and improved their chairs, that we just wanted to document their innovative design solutions, they generally agreed.
Our first pictures were shot with a digital camera. We found the images too glossy and bright, so we tried different options. We concluded that the subtle, slightly washed-out look of the Polaroid images corresponded well to the dusty and unkempt nature of Cairo’s sidewalks. We also liked the idea of having a formal element running through the images, and this was made possible by the Polaroid frame. Finally and more importantly, the Polaroid camera helped to break the ice and dispel people’s suspicion. Once they saw how the camera printed instant images, they asked to keep a portrait of themselves with friends or family. This gift helped to balance our request and facilitated the exchange.
Sidewalk Salon: 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo introduces the reader to a carefully selected assortment of Cairo street chairs curated from our archives. This collection aims to bring to the fore the creative practices of street design and unplanned interventions in public space that give Cairo its distinctive character. A varied set of texts – interviews, fiction, poetry and essays – intend to complement the catalogue of photographs, allowing the reader a more a nuanced view of the sidewalk.
While this project allowed us to pursue some of our personal interests –walking, mapping, collecting – and to grasp the dimensions of the endless city, we also hoped to shed light on the unique point of view held from Cairo’s streets and sidewalks. The perspective of the guards, doormen, street sellers and café goers who spend a significant part of their day in the intermediate layer of the city located between heavily transited roads and buildings acted as a thermometer held – albeit accidentally – against the capital of a country facing a definitive turning point in its history.
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Manar Moursi’s work spans the fields of architecture, urbanism, design and art. In 2011, Manar founded Studio Meem, an interdisciplinary design studio based in Cairo. In 2014, in recognition of Manar’s architectural design work for Studio Meem, she
received the ArcVision Women in Architecture Award. In addition
to architecture, Studio Meem’s practice encompasses product design
work. In 2012 Studio Meem’s inaugural product line Off the Gireed, inspired by everyday street objects in Cairo, was awarded a Red Dot and a Good Design Award.
Manar has also worked on multiple art projects, and her latest
photography exhibition was shown at the Contemporary Image Collective in
Cairo. Manar’s writings on urban issues have appeared in Thresholds, Lunch, Magaz and Al Masry El Yowm.
is a diplomat, translator and publisher from the Dominican Republic. He
has worked in France, India, and Egypt. In 2010, he launched Ediciones De a Poco,
a publishing house focused on contemporary literature and art books
from the Caribbean region. While in Delhi, he collaborated with Vislumbres,
a literary magazine which brings together Latin American and Indian
writers. His published translations to Spanish include the novel Les dollars des sables by Jean-Noel Pancrazi.