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1,001 Street Chairs in Cairo

The humble chair is often ignored beyond its purpose, but two artistic photographers have managed to stitch together a tale of Cairo - modern and historic - by snapping photos of abandoned seats across the city. Farah Hosny finds out more...

It's easy to overlook something as innocuous as a chair. Who even gives a second thought to a chair unless it's directly relevant to its functionality in relation to your ass' sitting needs? Or, if you're a bride-to-be, and suddenly chairs and forks and knives and all those other objects which used to be largely irrelevant become all-important in your life. But we digress. In their upcoming book, Lessons from the Sidewalk: 1,001 Street Chairs in Cairo, Manar Moursi and David Puig forgo the obvious and dedicate an entire book to showcasing the street chairs of the city; a photographic compilation of both their own shots, and contributions by other photographers. The project not only highlights a humble object that is so oft overlooked, it's bordering on invisible but is very telling of Cairo itself and its people. Says Moursi of the project: "One of our main ambitions was that we wanted to talk about Cairo in a different way. Chairs allow for very different perspectives of the city to emerge, [perspectives] of the fabric and rhythms of the street." 

Kursi #524, 28 Dec. 2013

It all started when Moursi attended a workshop in Beirut dedicated to public spaces and "began looking at street chairs as a device to create public space…they are a banal but very present element of Cairo, almost invisible because they are so common in our lives." But once she and David started the project, and started paying attention to the chairs, it was difficult to stop noticing them. "I had never paid much attention to chairs before," says Puig, but once he started to, "all of a sudden the chairs were there. Captivating. Not one or two, isolated, but one after the other, creating some kind of invisible continuous thread in the sidewalk."

Once the project took form, it took them three years to compile all the photos, and they launched into a series of city "walks," more than 50 of them, wherein they wandered the city's streets for hours at a time, capturing images of the innumerable chairs littering the sidewalks. They decided to go old school in terms of the pictures, ditching a digital camera in favour of a Polaroid one. "We thought those images [from a digital camera] were too glossy and bright," says Moursi. After experimenting with several different options, they settled on Polaroid shots because "the slightly washed out and subtle atmosphere of the Polaroid images corresponded well to the dusty and unkempt aspect of the sidewalks of Cairo." Also, Cairenes being the suspicious people that they are, the Polaroids helped break the ice when two absolute strangers walked up to people in the street and asked to photograph their chairs. Once they saw how the camera worked, they'd ask for a photo to keep. "Their request somehow balanced our relation as we entered into a sort of exchange with them." And how did our suspicious Cairene population react when Mouris and Puig tried to get shots of their chairs? "The first reaction is that people usually don’t get what we’re doing: Why do you want to photograph my old, broken chair? Wait. Let me get a new one. I have a better one. Are you going to show this to the world?" Sounds about right; Egyptians tend to take things as a presentation. You want to photograph a broken down chair and show it to the world? La2 3eib – bring out the new chair with the shiny gold edge. But once they got the gist of the project, they were happy to cooperate in that typical Egyptian manner where there's an innate sense of eagerness to help out.

The duo's city walks took them to places as far (from our little Cairo bubble of a comfort zone that is) as Belbeis and Mattareya, areas we only hear about in relation to charitable projects, and at times, got them into hot water with our country's genius authorities. "We were detained in a police station in Mashtool el Souk for taking chairs pictures in the north of Cairo." Clearly, a major risk for national security. They were taken into custody and accused of spying while they tried to explain that nope, they were just taking some harmless photos of chairs. Not exactly the stuff of insurgency. "Imagine the scene: the fat officer sitting behind his desk checking one by one the Polaroids of chairs he had taken from us, surrounded by his sidekicks."

Surprisingly enough, out of the 1,001 chairs, they didn’t actually keep any of them (we know that had it been us, we'd definitely have wanted to keep some of those crazy Cairo creations but we're just greedy like that). Being the artists that they are, Moursi and Puig kept nothing but the photos and the experience, learning just as much (if not more) about Egypt as they did about chairs. They were fascinated by the diversity of the city; from cemetery inhabitations to old neighbourhoods in Islamic quarters of the city, "each place we've visited has had its own atmosphere. The fact that those parallel universes are somehow stitched together and not so far from your doorstep is amazing to us." 

Kursi #535, a contribution by Steven Brooke

Their favourite chair of the bunch? Naturally, that question's a toughie; it's like asking someone to choose their favourite child. But we prodded and they narrowed it down to a chair they found near the Islamic museum (pictured below), "made of pieces of wood and its overall shape conjures up the image of a throne…between the legs it has a safe." They took a photo of it way back in 2011 and a few months ago, they returned to the alley, not entirely sure they were even going in the right direction, but "there it was on the sidewalk," safe and all, unmoved from its spot three years prior. 

The kursi with the safe in it

Given their propensity for picking out objects that others tend to ignore, we asked the two what other items they would hypothetically focus on, and it turns out, it's not hypothetical at all. Moursi's first product line, Off the Gireed, "was inspired by the ubiquitous gireed crate seen all over Cairo." Who thinks of that? And while doing her city walks for the chairs, she was struck by the "wedged amusement parks, which exist in many leftover spaces… With their dusty pastel colors, their ferris wheels, visible from a distance, became another object that stood-out to me against the monotony of the city." The latter are currently being exhibited at the Contemporary Image Collective, downtown. Instead of objects in the city, Puig's tastes skew more to "particular areas with an atmosphere or with the potential to raise questions about Cairo," such as Port Said Street, a long avenue buzzing with energy and people that until the 19th century, was a canal that was the demarcation point for the western boundary of the old city.

For now, Moursi and Puig have pressed pause on collecting more images in order to focus on presenting all the material they've amassed. The forthcoming book will not only feature the photos, but will also include maps from their walks, essays, and interviews from the people who owned the chairs, and they're also planning on launching a web page, where all 1001 chairs will be available with their exact location in the map of Cairo. The duo credit the grants received from British Council, the Embassy of the Netherlands in Cairo and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture for enabling them to create the entire project.  

You can check out their Facebook page here, or their Tumblr account here
Main image is Kursi #533, a contribution by Nour Kamel.