Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Two artists tell the story of the Egyptian capital and its residents through photos of rickety old sidewalk chairs.
For the last four years, artists Manar Moursi and David Puig have been walking around Egypt's capital, taking photos of discarded chairs on the sidewalks. Now they want to turn their project into a book, Sidewalk Salon: 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo, which will feature a selection of these photos to help piece together a unique portrait of the city.
"These far-from-perfect, used chairs, which populate Cairo’s sidewalks, speak of the city from below," Moursi writes via email. She says the street chairs enabled her and Puig to tell the stories of the people who sit on them, as well as explore the urban and social dynamics in one of the world's biggest cities.
The chairs, discarded by schools, offices, and apartment buildings, are a pretty common site on Cairo's streets, but they are often overlooked in the frenzy of the city. If you do manage to take a closer look, you'll notice that the rickety old things have a lot of character—they bear the "charm of imperfection," Moursi says. The chairs have lived many lives, she says. Here's how she describes their multiple life cycles in her email:
In the streets of Cairo, chairs can have many incarnations, passing from one set of buttocks to another, supporting generations. In between assignments, some can be temporarily relieved from their mission; packed in balconies, thrown on rooftops, hanging legs up on fences or telephone booths. Demobilized, they wait to be called again to the front lines of the city. A couple of nails, a pirate leg, a few carton boards can bring to an end a season in the purgatory of chairs. At the hands of a new owner, an old chair can come back to life.
In the book mock-up, the portraits of these old chairs are accompanied by interviews with some of their new owners. These are regular Cairo residents—guards, doormen, street sellers, and cafe-goers—who spend a lot of their day outside. For some of them, the chair they sit on is a big part of their daily lives, allowing them moments of stillness in an otherwise chaotic day.
Here's an excerpt of an interview with a man named Mohammad Dar El Salam who has been sitting on the same chair for 10 years:
But sitting isn't the only purpose of the sidewalk chairs. Small business owners use them to customize the public space surrounding their shops or cafes, propping up water coolers, mannequins, or table tops, for example:
Whatever their purpose, the chairs reflect the resilience and adaptability of the their users. El Salam, the man whose interview is excerpted above, likens the makeshift urban fixtures to pharaohs:
The pharaohs put up with a lot, things happened to them, and tragedies befell them. They lived through that all and dealt with it, and they still had hope for tomorrow. Us Egyptians, we’re true pharaohs. I swear, I’m serious here, we’re like the pharaohs, we can put up with anything. And this chair, as long as it’s with us, it can put up with things too.
Here are some other portraits from the Sidewalk Salon project:
All images courtesy of Manar Moursi and David Puig.
H/t: Pop-Up City