A weekly road trip, 120 kilometers taken every week between my father’s home in Mehalla Al Kobra and my mother’s home in Cairo from the age of 5 until young adulthood, stretches as a silent witness and visual documentary of the struggle to find myself. My life was paved along that route. As a child exploring and trying to find common ground between the urban and rural residences, I was always wondering where I belonged and where or what, was home. I would have to leave one for the other, each one providing me with a purpose and a shelter. They were both pieces of me. As the road unfolded, my unrecognized longings grew as I chased my grandparents’ stories, trying to locate myself in a past that was not mine in the memories of their memories.
I lost my grandparents over two years. My grandmother passed away on the day of the 2011 revolution; Ever since, the 25th of January has always signified my own personal loss of a family member as well as my generation’s loss. Cairo changed in that time and still changes. After years abroad, I returned to an altered reality. My mind and eyes could not seem to accept it, nor understand the pace of it. Why can’t things stay the same and evolve overtime? Why do we tear down, rewriting our history to build new fortresses of concrete ugliness?
I have lived in the embraces of my family my whole life. Losing both my grandparents while I was outside Egypt, was a crack I am still trying to mend and a crack I only realized after returning to Cairo. My life had always been lived between two homes and nothing beyond it. My reality was one that was built on that of my grandparents’ and my past has been one written by them. After losing them and returning, my own internal compass was shaken. I opened my eyes to a new place, shattering all the ideals and dreams that I had been raised on. My family cocoon was broken.
My grandfather’s camera had been his new friend and a witness to the modern era of Cairo from 1958-1961 during his college years. Egypt was entering its post-colonial period, embracing its own patriotic nationalistic identity, a time of new industrial, social, political and modernizations reforms. Cairo in his photos, appears an empty city waiting to be filled with coming generations. Students were fired up with new ideologies, new political parties, and new visions. As that generation had, we also dreamt on the 25th of January 2011. We dreamt of liberating ourselves from the tyrannical regime of Mubarak and standing up for our basic rights of equality, social justice and basic needs.
His photos are evidence and testimony to how things drastically changed internally and externally. From balcony shots, to Tahrir Square and Opera Square, I feel his excitement in the photographs as he discovers Cairo with a different eye. The eye of a man of the country who came from the nearby city of El Mehalla to explore his country’s capital. El Mehalla Al Kobra was in its glory, one of the most popular cities in Egypt. Known as home of ‘White Gold’ it was the most important center for the harvesting and spinning of white cotton.
Today, I visit the places of my past. I go back to the downtown apartment that was my grandfather’s home during his college years. As I stand on the balcony I recall one of the photos taken from that same spot by my grandfather (1958-1959), of people marching near the supreme court congratulating Nasser on the formation of the United Arab Republic with Syria, carrying a huge banner in Arabic, “Congratulations Gamal”. Gamal Abdel Nasser, our first Egyptian president after the monarchy, had a vision of Pan-Arabism hailed by Arab neighboring countries especially after he nationalized the Suez Canal. A letter from my grandfather’s Kuwaiti friend, who sent him a photo of demonstrations in Kuwait supporting the union, read in Arabic “I dedicate this photo to my dear friend, Farouk Kadous, and it’s an expression of how Kuwaitis feel towards the formation of the United Arab Republic which united our hearts as Arabs. And this is a simple representation of the celebrations, but the actual celebration is indescribable.”
My journey is reflected and echoed through the people of my past. Three generations paving the way to their present. My grandfather traveled the road in 1958 to enroll in Cairo University and then later my father in the 1980’s to enroll in the School of Applied Arts. I also took the same road to Cairo. The more I traveled along it, the more the physical route started to take a different meaning. The home had always had its door open to everyone, once solid and strong with its heroes and main characters. Today, the fate of our family home in El Mehalla remains uncertain. Cracks of time are widening, slowly tearing down the building. My people have left and with them my home…becoming memories of images and sounds fading into the distance.
By Amina Kadous
Amina Kadous is a visual artist currently exploring concepts of memory and born in Cairo, Egypt in 1991.