This Friday I was in a family occasion. One of my distant relatives is married to a ex-student of mine. For the lack of any common interest between me and my relatives, these family occasions are usually silent moments for me where I get to catch up on my e-mails and respond politely to satisfy any familial curiosities about my life. Sometimes also -like last friday- I drop into a few moments of reminiscence with my ex-student about the university. This time though I had difficulty locating her cohort in my memory. But that is not true.
I remember this particular class because it was when I was working on my masters thesis and was discovering Cairo as something old and new. I remember I was assisting in teaching that class the modules of political theory and that in the class I first showed the documentary Cairo: A Divided City. I also remember suggesting for the students to go visit the townhouse gallery. They had at the time a very interesting exhibition –model citizens and it was an invitation for the community to interact with envisioning the future of the neighborhood, especially the deserted palace that is directly next to the townhouse gallery.
I remember that it was in some few events in the townhouse gallery that I found some key clues to what I like to be interested in now. I used to go alone, and as always feel out of place (I always feel out of place any where), and commenting that the majority of audiences in events on Cairo are foreigners. I distinctly remember the model citizens event though, I mentioned it in one seminar, and went and didn’t see any of my students (but anyways I didn’t expect to). Later in the facebook group of the class one student will report her visit. I must have not seen her. That was quite a happy moment. Later I will know that her elder sister is Shimaa Ashour, the most helpful architect I will come to know.
The townhouse gallery has been shut down towards the end of December. In a quite dubious raid on the few spaces left to breathe. It has been years since I have been there really, I have stopped hopping around the city and have retreated into home where it feels exhausting to do a downtown commute or any other sort of commute. I know it must be annoying to whoever is reading, but please remember that every 30 years old egyptian has aged considerably these five years, and some of age differently than others.
Anyways, so for old and usually immobile me, the closure of townhouse gallery is a closure of a space of memory really. Of pre-2011, when I used to be an outsider and feel an immense sense of achievement that one of my students has visited the place based on my suggestion. Please note that I will stop giving suggestions afterwards because also my students have also come of age in a way very different than I have, and I quite realize my futility as a bearer of the new and will be satisfied if I can be a reliable guide to my past.
Yes there goes a space that was part of self pride, in its exploring the city into which one is born a stranger, in my happy experiences of teaching (teaching as in sending younger people around to know what they want to know), and of enjoying some graffiti before it came on the face of the city. (you might be too young to remember but in the late 2000s, one day people in downtown and zamalik woke up to some graffitis in the street and thought it was a sign of a cultural cult, this was quite a funny scare..now they pass by without looking – even though all the revolutionary graffiti academic fans insist that they do).
Meanwhile, the buildings of downtown are being white washed. I know that many swear by their lives that downtown has become beautiful but I can not spot it. Meanwhile also the Nile Hilton has re-opened as Nile Ritz Carlton, the building of the former NDP has been fully demolished into rubble and thus my familiar postcard image of my commutes is missing a piece, and the 60s science building of the AUC is currently being demolished as well. In the center of Tahrir square is a huge flagpole, too tall to see it from your car if you are driving through. The buildings that are not whitewashed are covered by dust.
I hate dust, not because it is dirty (we live-as my friend reminds me in a country that is mostly a desert). I hate dust because it is the materiality of noise. It interrupts the presences and the voids of the city. It either covers the past or takes its place in its entirety. It settles on the surface of the buildings that are shut down. It is what remains of buildings that are torn down. Downtown is currently the opposite of the Gordillo’s celebration of the square as a site of resonance. And this my dear friend has nothing to to do with nostalgia. It is quite an angry sentiment against nostalgia. Nostalgia is a response to dust. And dust is the condition that the city -as an archive- is forced into becoming.
update: after 2 months Townhouse should be opening again.