Maha Maamoun: Domestic Tourism II
In both Domestic Tourism I & II, my interest is not in the issue of tourism per se, but in generic visual representations of Cairo in a broad sense, and where this intersects with, and is negotiated by, personal experiences. In the photographic series Domestic Tourism I, the genres of touristic images of Egypt provided a formal reference, or the point of entry, for actually exploring a more psychological experience of the city. These digitally manipulated images present more complicated, less-sellable and slightly uncomfortable images that comment on the Egypt consumed locally. Tourism in this context refers to a mode of navigating a place and consumption of a locale, whether by a foreigner or a local, and the title, Domestic Tourism, refers to both an intimate and distant relationship to one’s environment.
In Domestic Tourism II, my starting point was the representation of the pyramids in Egyptian cinema. My interest in the pyramids actually started when I realized how weird it is, though we see them all the time without really being conscious of them, to have these huge minimalist structures overlooking a city as labyrinthine and complex as Cairo. And also how strange it is to have these icons so physically close to the city but in touristic representations banished from the present time and place, shown mostly with the endless desert as their background and referring only to ancient Egyptian civilization. I then started getting interested in how different their cinematic representations are. How in the latter they are implicated in the city’s ongoing negotiations and active struggle over its past and present.
In the research phase for Domestic Tourism II, I started looking for films that had a scene with the pyramids as the backdrop. In order to come up with a collection of films, I started asking people if they remembered any such scenes. So the result is a collection of some of the most memorable scenes, which also tend to be some of the most dramatic scenes. Yet I also came across a lot of banal scenes. Looking through this large collection of scenes, I ended up with a sort of line-up of symbolic meanings attached to these icons, or "a continuous flow of references to a single icon," as curator Bassam El Baroni described it in an interview we had recently and from which this text has evolved.
A lot of the scenes by the pyramids, or at least the ones that people remember, are quite politically charged, and are tied to distinct chapters in Egypt’s modern history, as the pyramids are commonly used as a symbol of Egypt, a constant against which the Present is brought into focus, either as contrastingly different from a magnificent Past, and these are mostly nostalgic lamentation scenes, more prevalent from the 70's onwards, comparing the corrupt Present (read government or sometimes society at large) to an imagined glorious Past, or otherwise as a continuum of that glorified Past, mostly in scenes from the 50's and 60's, when the schism between the "nation" and the "state" was briefly suspended and a rhetoric of national unity prevailed.
Working on Domestic Tourism II, I tried not to have a heavy hand with the material, so I kept to what I felt was the least interventionist method and composition, a chronological structure. So the film starts with the most recent scenes I had, descends back to the oldest scene, and then ascends up again to the present, in what can be seen as a pyramidal structure. The timeline is: 2000’s - 90’s - 80’s - 70’s - 60’s - 50’s - 60’s - 70’s - 80’s - 90’s - 2000’s. I wanted to start and end with the present so that the film does not end up as a celebration of a romantic past vs. a rough present. Instead, it visits the past and shows its various formulations by a changing present. Of course I chose what scenes to include or exclude. These choices basically excluded what I considered repetitive scenes.
To give the film such a chronological/pyramidal structure was not only a (dry) conceptual preference. For this historical chronology is at the same time an emotional chronology and brings with it an emotional structure and rhythm for the film, as the drama engulfing the pyramids gradually rises and falls with time. The film starts with recent scenes, from the 2000’s, with their lighter and more superficial engagement in social and political issues, then the tone of the film heightens as we move backwards through the 90’s, 80’s, and 70’s, with cinema’s deeper engagement with the harshness of political and social realities. The tension is then released with the celebratory scenes of political and social glee from the 60’s and 50’s, where the pyramids act mostly as a backdrop to a celebrating and celebrated middle class. Here we reach the oldest scene I have, the turning point, after which the tension gradually builds up as we move up again through the traumatic political and economic upheavals of the late 60’s, phasing out to the present. The gradual rise and fall in the intensity of the scenes structures the film in a way that makes the whole viewable, in the sense that the film feels like it has an introduction, middle and end.
"But it's really interesting," says Bassam el-Baroni, "that you mentioned the minimalistic nature of Egypt's bestknown icon and the schism between the mathematical metaphysical nature of its weight and presence and the seemingly loose and unbinding structure of Cairo's socio-politics. Would you say that there is a strange sort of metaphysics going on when the pyramids are the backdrop in scenes in Egyptian movies?"
My revised answer is: I find it interesting that you see some of the "mathematical and metaphysical" aspects of this icon addressed in Western films, where the pyramids are a subject of a lot of sci-fi films, for example, or films that dabble, however superficially, with the philosophical underpinnings of Ancient Egyptian civilization; whereas in Egyptian cinema, as well as in other forms of mass knowledge production, these aspects are hardly touched, and the only narrative in which the pyramids most prominently appear, and are conveniently fixated, is a nationalist historiography.
However, bringing together the various and numerous cameo appearances of the pyramids in Egyptian cinema, where they are made to speak the language of the day, whether it is social and political celebration or frustration, may end up accenting their constant, "mathematical and metaphysical" presence in the background over their changing socio-political foreground. And maybe the tables are turned then, and the background recasts, or re-interprets, the foreground, not vice versa.
"So Domestic Tourism II somehow exposes this niche where a kind of suppressed or rather latent metaphysics creates friction and plays out against a scheme of nationalism?"
My revised answer is: I feel that to have such abstract minimalist structures looming over and part of the urban fabric of this urban megalopolis is almost surreal, visually at least. And yes, that would be nice.