"A Confederacy of Chairs," Manar Moursi and David Puig, in Sidewalk Salon: 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo, a book co-authored and edited by M.Moursi and D.Puig, Onomatopee, Eindhoven and Kotob Khan, Cairo, 2015. Below an excerpt:
Located in the middle of the desert, Cairo is a tropical jungle of chairs. Avenues, alleys and markets seem to create the ideal microclimate for their growth. Like moss in the rainforest, they spread from the banks of the Nile to sidewalks, even spilling occasionally onto the streets.
Visiting Egypt in 1949 for a series of theater presentations, Jean Cocteau wrote in his diary, “Cairo is a city of streets. Everything happens on the street…”1 confirming in an authoritative style what European painters had conveyed a century earlier: Cairo was an animated city of lively bazaars lined with shops and coffee houses open to the streets. In the span of a hundred years, though the impression made by the city to its visitors remained constant, noticeable changes were taking place on the streets of Cairo. In Orientalist paintings, people were represented sitting on crates made of palm fiber, on heavy wood and stone benches—dikkas and mastabas—or closer to the floor, on carpets. However, by the 1940s, the four-legged chair had not only penetrated private and public spaces: it had also established itself in its literary imagination. Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley, published in 1947 reveals this relationship to street chairs: "It is Amm Kamil's habit, even his right, to place a chair on the threshold of his shop and drop off to sleep with a fly whisk resting in his lap. He will remain there until customers either call out to him or Abbas, the barber, teasingly wakes him."2
Today, Cairo, 20 million people and counting, can be seen as a universe in expansion that generates chairs as it spreads. Omnipresent in its streets, chairs have become one of the city’s defining fixtures. The growing network of these four-legged dots, usually located between buildings and streets, suggests the image of a parallel cityscape and an alternate monumentality: Cairo, the city of the 1000 minarets is also the city of 1001 chairs.
Many of the chairs found on the streets of Cairo seem as if they have made a journey from another era, as if they were transported from the past to the present like in the famous Yussuf Idris short story, “The Chair Carrier.”3 In this text, a man appears in the Cairo of the 1970s wandering with the pharaonic throne he has been dragging for centuries on his back. Ancient-looking pieces coexist with a myriad of fresher chairs, and interact with dikkas and mastabas, traditional furniture which continues to be used. All the styles and epochs are represented in what is probably the biggest open air chair museum of the world. To wander the streets of Cairo is to embark on a non-linear excursion through the history of furniture, one where you might find a monobloc chair in the vicinity of a rococo seat, or a bentwood thonet chair flirting with a tubular Bauhaus-style steel seat. A museum for a history still in the making, where anonymous designers write new chapters in street corners, mixing times and styles to produce genre-defying chairs in limited or unique editions.
Where to locate then, in the imagination of the city, this wild multitude of chairs? The symbolic connection of chairs with authority travels through the centuries, unaffected by the corrosive effect of time. In Egypt, this enduring association has its roots in the distant past: the oldest known chairs in the world are the magnificent pieces created for the rulers and nobles of Ancient Egypt4. Moreover, the hieroglyph for a dignitary in pharaonic times depicts a man sitting on a chair. Thus, in their historical and political incarnations, chairs stand above the common man and command vertical relations.
But a chair is also a point of view, a perspective informed by a location. The far-from-perfect, beaten, used chairs of Cairo talk of the city from below. From the unassuming position of the street, the idea of a unique seat of power vanishes, replaced by the crowds of chairs that occupy small parcels of public space: the panoptic aerial view of command of the presidential chair disappears, giving way to a myriad of modest horizontal glances which capture the city in a fragmented way. Acting at times as zoom and wide-angle lenses, street chairs appear as appropriate tools to explore and reveal intimate details and collective aspects of the urban environment.
With its ability to digest the objects that land on its streets and make them unique in the process, Cairo can be seen as one huge, customizing factory that transforms mass-produced chairs into individual characters. Chairs are more than pieces of wood, plastic or metal assembled to defy gravity: they carry memories, scars and personal signatures on their bodies. They project the attention they have been granted, becoming indirect portraits of their owners. Sometimes, they also reflect, in a strange mimetic way, the spaces of the city where they have been stationed, blending with their surroundings ¬as if they had been specially designed for particular sections of the sidewalk.
The streets chairs of Cairo bear the particular charm of imperfection. Their appeal lies in the way in which the passage of time and the interventions of their owners to reverse it —fixing and decorating them with the resources at hand—have made each of them unique. They are old and worn out, yet startlingly fresh and appealing.
If, strictly speaking, Sidewalk Salon is a photographic documentation of original chairs found on the streets of Cairo, in a larger sense it deals with the material and human dimensions of a layer of the city. Invisible in the frames, owners and users of street chairs are present through the pages of this volume. If empty chairs appear in focus at the center of the pictures, the edges of the images are equally telling. Borrowing an expression from the photographer William Gedney, one can say that the territory of this book is a strip at the “bottom of pyramids”5.
By choice or by necessity, Cairenes work and socialize in large numbers on the sidewalk and the streets of the city. To understand the origin and the persistence of long lasting practices of sitting and gathering in public spaces, socio-economic, cultural and architectural factors have to be taken into consideration. From a modern economic perspective, the incapacity of Cairo to provide enough jobs in the formal sector explain why for so many people work is an outdoor activity. With the demographic explosion and the massive rural-urban exodus, the containing dams of Cairo gave up in the second half of the 20th century, releasing floods of people onto the streets of the city. Year by year, large battalions of young Egyptians join the informal sector or spend long, idle, poorly paid hours on the pavement.
For security guards, work is almost undistinguishable from waiting. More often than not, a workday is a flat lapse of time between two shifts spent looking at the surroundings for any suspicious movement. To endure these journeys of emptiness, a chair is essential. The wait of a doorman is usually similar but less static, since they have the option to retreat to their small rooms, typically located under the stairs on ground floors of the buildings that employ them. The movements of the parking attendants of the city are determined by the rhythms of traffic. Usually surveying the theatre of operations from the shade, they emerge from their protected spots when a driver needs their services and sink back to their chairs once their task has been accomplished.
Informal vendors and market sellers take equally long shifts on the sidewalk but face specific problems in keeping their seats safe at night. In market areas like Ataba, bustling with activity until they are deserted past midnight, it is not uncommon to find chairs lying out on the sidewalk without their owners. Street peddlers place them, for the night, in horizontal positions or upside down on top of their wrapped stands, relieving them from the tension of the day. They attach them with chains to a light post or a column, almost as if to prevent them from wandering too far. In the silence of the night, these chairs will rest while cats in heat rub themselves against their legs.
The segregation of the sexes, enforced for centuries in Cairo, played an important role in shaping the city’s codes of socialization and has had a lasting effect on public behavior. If women circulate today all over the city on their own, by foot, by car or public transport, their absence on the sidewalk reveals the way in which gender and spatial dynamics intersect. Broadly speaking, Cairo can be compared to a Russian doll whose inner and domestic layers are more feminine than its masculine outer and more visible skins.
Despite the increase of mixed gender cafés in the upper middle class and rich enclaves of the city, the vast majority of coffeehouses in Cairo continue to be masculine territories. Considered a heretic drink initially, in the sixteenth century, coffee progressively became accepted as the drink of the “tavern without wine”, where men could entertain away from home6. From tiny hole-in-the-walls in the Islamic city to expansive affairs in the faded splendor of downtown, the contemporary coffeehouses of Cairo come in all shapes and sizes, usually offering indoor and outdoor seating. Their basic kit-of-parts is always the same: a tiled room with a drinks counter and, lining the walls and the pavement, tables and chairs, dozens of chairs constantly arranged and rearranged as the clients come and go, alone, in pairs or in large groups. If the flow of clients requires it, cafés expand and push the boundaries of their territorial waters. Seen from above, these chairs on the sidewalk must look like archipelagos of moving islands where new atolls pop up and disappear throughout the night.
Wide avenues, commercial and industrial districts also remain male dominated. In spaces characterized by a loose social fabric and the constant flow of unrelated people, almost all the professional activities linked to the pavement are reserved to men. Workers from dark, narrow workshops and warehouses are regularly drawn to the sidewalk, where empty chairs lie expecting them, for the pauses that brake (mark) their days (or: for their brakes). Some shopkeepers spend more time by their storefront than behind their counters. Sitting by the door, they appear in an amphibious position at the threshold between “the outside and the inside, action and inaction”7, work and leisure. Navigating in those areas under the constant fire of the male gaze, women are exposed to eyes that mark their bodies with burning lasers of desire. The anonymity of the crowds plays against women: it empowers men with a freedom that encourages them too often to cross the red line of sexual harassment.
In the more intimate regions of the city, particularly in popular neighborhoods with a strong sense of community, women socialize on the sidewalk with less restriction. This is the case on the edges of Cairo, where urban villages are the hybrid results of the expansion of the city into agricultural land. In places like Um Khenan, in the southern border of the city, the textures of the afternoons are clearly feminine. While some women finish or continue their house chores on steps in broad daylight—cleaning utensils or chopping vegetables for the dinner—others gather with their babies for long gossip sessions. Like in the countryside, permanent and collective structures for sitting are, by far, more common than individual chairs. Cement benches run parallel to the front walls of buildings and can host many more people than a regular sofa. The stairways that lead to the slightly elevated entrance of houses are thus miniature amphitheatres, overlooking the unpaved roads where men pass by on donkeys, on their way back from the fields before sunset.
This sense of community is not only a reality in the peri-urban margins of the city: it also persists in the heart of Cairo, in the informal settlement8 and in the older urban quarters. There, poor and middle class Cairenes meet in front of their buildings as if the sidewalks were the natural extensions of apartments— replacing nonexistent balconies and verandas—or wider and more comfortable versions of tiny and congested salons. The model for this fluid and expansive notion of home can be traced back to the harra9 of the medieval city where, over centuries, the homes built up around alleys developed “a notion of a collective home, in which boundaries between individual houses were seen as less significant than the collective territory.”10
The outdoor living rooms of the city are family affairs: men and women sit together while kids run around; friends and relatives are welcomed and entertained; cups of tea flow from the kitchens to the street. Depending on the occasion, singular constellations of chairs are drawn and erased on the pavement. When invited to spend time on a neighbors’ sidewalk, people are expected to carry their own chairs. When guests show up in large numbers from the countryside or from another area of the city, chairs are borrowed to make everyone feel at home. Sidewalks can be better equipped than living rooms. Mobile phones provide the music. Until late, groups of young men watch movies sitting around portable computers. During major sports events like the football World Cup, friends congregate in front of large flat screens facing the street.
Exceptional circumstances also require spaces that cramped apartments don’t provide, and command specific and recognizable displays of chairs in the streets. Private companies called ferasha offer resistant metal-framed chairs for rent to fulfill the demand for seats for special occasions. For weddings and funerals, they deliver the requested amount of chairs and pick them up after the end of the event. One or two rows of austere chairs lining the entrance of a building signal the disappearance of a neighbor; chairs and tables under a colorful tent set in an alley announce the imminent celebration of a union.
Ramadan comes with a particular month long choreography of tables and chairs rehearsed over the years. Everyday, as the afternoon progresses and the time of breaking the fast approaches, tables are spread out on streets and sidewalks, connected like the wagons of long trains. Flanked on either side by two rows of chairs, these tables bring to mind an image of a centipede with 100 legs of chairs. On those tables, free food is offered to break the fast. Anyone can join but it is usually people with limited resources who enjoy the charity. Tables fill until no chair is left empty and the “train” leaves with no passengers, soon after food and drinks have been served. Tables are folded and chairs are packed until the next day. Cars, stalls and passers-by immediately reclaim the space that had been confiscated for a couple of hours.
Some chairs have been in the same spot on the sidewalk for so long that their legs have become like nails hammered into the pavement. From these chairs, fixed like cinema hall seats, one can enjoy the movie of the city: an un-interrupted realist film with bits of action, set religious pauses and occasional sensual moments stirred by young women who pass by in tight clothes. Offering a more intimate view than windows, which place the observer outside the stage, street chairs allow the viewer to be an actor, to monitor the surroundings while being immersed in them.
The streets of Cairo are equally stimulating for the eye and for the ear. The usual soundtrack of the city is a tapestry that weaves together a constant tremor of automobiles, distant passing voices and passionate conversations, occasional strident motorbike honks, shouts from short erupting fights and the regular call for prayer. Cairo can also be likened to a silent movie, with its moments of stillness when birds sing early in the mornings, especially on Fridays, in some narrow alleys of its hinterlands away from the main avenues. Even in the middle of the agitation of everyday life, escaping from the crowds of streets and homes, Cairenes have learned to isolate themselves. They sit on their own on the sidewalk or at a small café table, apart from noisy groups of friends. With a cup of tea. Eventually a waterpipe. Lost in their thoughts or beyond thoughts, indifferent to the surrounding agitation. Immobile and at rest except for the inhalations, as if they were experienced practitioners of Shikantaza, Japanese Buddhism’s "art of just sitting".
Meditations set on an unchanged frame extend sometimes for a lifetime. In the same position for hours, staring blankly at the street, falling asleep more and more often, a bawab11 ages with time. His veiled eyes reject the drops he applies every morning. They run down his cheeks like tears. He doesn’t recognize the tenants of his building anymore, his second family, the people he has been living with for ages. “The Bawab dies in his chair”12, writes Gilbert Sinoué—but his chairs lives on, as an inheritance, as a blind man’s gift to his city.
Setting their chairs everyday on the pavement, street dwellers animate the stage of the sidewalk with their presence. They also leave their signature in a city built by others, while modifying the structure of the existing sidewalks or constructing, on their own, missing public amenities. In the informal settlements that constitute the major part of the city13, sidewalks have a fragmented presence. They appear as isolated self-built islands in front of buildings and shops, as rectangular platforms raised above the level of unpaved and dusty roads. Even in the few areas of Cairo where they exist in a continuous form, sidewalks are not flat, uniform and uninterrupted grey ribbons but irregular patches of different pavings. In the span of a hundred meters, footpaths can change in color, texture and pattern as if the sidewalks of Cairo were carpets (carpets with sections) made by singular artisans.
Fragmented sidewalks and street chairs expose a converging process of appropriation of public spaces. People who spend time on the sidewalk occupy the pavement with their seats, while owners of shops and buildings transform their surroundings by customizing the surface on which street chairs are displayed. Individual initiatives to keep the sidewalk clean mirror this privatization of common spaces. Not relying on state services, shop owners, café servers and doormen attend to their parcel of the city on a daily basis. Despite their efforts to remove the garbage and to sprinkle water on the floor to appease the dust, sidewalks remain as sandy rugs that constantly receive empty bottles, cigarette butts, plastics and pieces of carton, or greasy papers that wrapped sandwiches. And when the season comes, acacias bless the human-made layer of trash with an organic touch, releasing their yellow, confetti-like leaves and their dry red flowers that bring to mind the fried onions that crown koshari14 plates.
In their diversity, the walls and fences against which street chairs occasionally recline also talk of a city that refuses to wear a uniform. The iron curtains of shops are reminiscent of old-fashioned striped shirts of various faded tones. While peeling and scratched walls tell us that Cairo dresses very often in vintage clothes, with worn-out collars and patched holes, the recent explosion of political messages and graffiti reveal fresh urban trends in the skin of the city. The dominant colors of the facades vary depending on the area and can be read as class markers. If the very common uncoated red brick structures are identified with poverty, green is the color of privilege, reserved to the rich areas of the city: Maadi, designed in the early 20th century as a “garden city” with planted villas and wide leafy avenues, or the New Cairo compounds built in the desert where growing trees and grass at the entrance of houses is part of the suburban residential dream.
Chairs punctuate every few meters the baroque text of the sidewalks of Cairo. In the grammar of the city they operate in ambiguous ways, acting on occasions like words that can convey more than one meaning at the same time. At first sight, empty chairs seem always inviting. They bring to mind a person with open arms, a temporary shelter: a comma to breathe in the middle of an extenuating sentence. This is particularly true of chairs next to kiosks where clients sit and chat while they sip a soda before continuing their journeys.
But other chairs are closer to full stops than to commas. By the side of the entrance of a building, a lonely chair can be a warning: an urban scarecrow occupying the position of an imaginary surveillance camera. Personifying the bawab, it will remind any eventual intruders that someone might be watching them. An even clearer example of territorial delineation through chairs is given by those used to mark and reserve parking spaces. Stripped of their original function and usually completely dilapidated, they become improvised barriers, easy to move around when cars reclaim or leave their spots by the curb.
Chairs invite, warn and block, communicating at times, in a subtle double language. They are also versatile structures employed in a wide range of situations. For small, street-side boutiques, they are ideal, flexible exhibition stands. The latest fashion in downtown Cairo can often be found on the roadside in displays set-up by informal vendors. Upper body mannequins are adorned in bright, colored fabrics and raised above the ground level by chair platforms. Fruit vendors complete the spread of their colorful stalls, with bunches of bananas reclining on the backrest of classical Cairene café chairs. Non-commercial uses include the support of the water containers that serve as Cairo’s public drinking fountains in Cairo; traditional clay pots or modern colored plastic thermoses—usually blue or orange—are lifted from the floor by four legs and kept at a safe distance from the dust. There are also the more intimate and domestic uses of street seats: a decapitated chair can be transformed into a table and host a lunch bought nearby; once cleared, the same chair will make an excellent side table to hold warm cups of tea.