An alternative portrait of the city
Courtesy: Maha Maamoun / Gypsum Gallery

[72:9] And we pried into the secrets of heaven, but we found it filled with stern guards and shooting stars. [72:10] And we used to sit in hidden stations, to steal a hearing; But who listens now, finds a shooting star in ambush for him.

Maha Maamoun’s recent show at Gypsum Gallery had much to do with the city of Cairo, with nature and poetry, with the overlooked and the overheard.

Maamoun presented her most recent video work, “Shooting Stars Remind Me of Eavesdroppers” (2013) together with “Cairoscapes” (2003), her first photographic series, which she exhibited at Townhouse just over 10 years ago.

Both tell an unusual story about Cairo, playing with the shifting transition between background and foreground, almost indistinguishable and yet equally relevant.

The show’s title, “Lingering in Vicinity,” suggests the attitude of the artist and the atmosphere perceived in the artworks, which seem to be roaming around, rather than directly addressing the subject: different manifestations of the act of listening.

Maamoun’s interest in listening and the listener (as opposed to speaking or the speaker) started years ago in the context of a collaboration with Haytham El Wardany for a publication named “The Middle Ear” (Sharjah Biennial 2010), and continued with a book of aural exercises, “How to disappear,” co-curated with Ala Younis and written by El Wardany, presented at Meeting Points 7 at Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective in February.

“Shooting Stars Remind Me of Eavesdroppers” is a four-minute video centered around a dialogue between a man and a woman. The scene is shot in daylight at the Azhar Park, a beautifully designed public garden in old Cairo, very popular for family picnics and young lovers on a date.

We never get to see the two protagonists, but we feel their presence close to our ears as the camera moves around the trees, capturing details of flowers and birds, then drifts toward the urban cityscape from afar, pausing from time to time to observe couples chatting in the distance.

The text of the voiceover was initially conceived as a scattered dialogue, and then unfolded through the different conversations that the couples appearing in the video seem to be having.

As viewers (and listeners) we are invited into an invisible private space like eavesdroppers, while we look elsewhere with the camera’s eyes, a subjective view.

“If you are eavesdropping you are aware of the unfairness of your act and you feel automatically compelled to look around, even though it’s not with the eyes that we hear,” says Maamoun. “Yet we need to keep ourselves busy, like [the Arabic phrase for eavesdropping] ‘polishing door handles’.”

The dialogue begins with a reference from the Quran’s “Surah al-Jinn,” which tells of the fundamental distinction between prophets and poets. A prophet is allowed to listen directly to the word of God, for he is chosen by him to speak the truth. But a poet, whose attempts to represent the beauty of divine creation are attributed to the interference of the djinn — a supernatural creature capable of influencing nature and human behavior — may be guilty of deceiving weak minds by “deviating the plot” from God’s law and religion.

The actors’ voices feel natural and staged at the same time, as the tone and lexicon of the script wavers between the poetic and the casual, sounding at times playfully inquisitive and at times philosophical and solemn. It’s like when two people are acquainted, but not quite enough, so they use pretexts, such as talking about faith, to test their boundaries and carefully choose words according to each others’ reactions.

Religion is one of the standard topics of conversation between conservative couples on a date, often out of embarrassment and discomfort for a limited, artificial intimacy, so as to linger in the vicinity of the real thing they want to talk about: love, themselves, Maamoun explains.

All this tension is a micro-manifestation of the pressure of society on the public selves of young people. Lovers are always under judgment and love is confused and tainted by others’ eyes and ears, she continues. There is a continuous invasion of privacy that prevents spontaneity, to a point that even in a private situation, far from indiscreet presences, it is difficult to feel completely free of speaking instead of performing an act.

It is precisely in one of the most public and exposed places in the city that one can find a little island of privacy, where secret conversations drown in the noise of the surrounding environment.

Maamoun worked on the video after recording the script, and later superimposed samples of onsite environmental recordings and overheard conversations (invading unaware park visitors’ privacy herself), deftly blending all these layers together.

The neutrality of the images and the choice not to show the characters emphasizes the soundscape and the spoken word, allowing space for the content of the dialogue to come to the foreground in a way that would be difficult were we looking at them directly, judging their clothing and demeanor, facial expressions and posture.

But it’s not easy to metabolize all the different layers of meaning when watching the film for the first time, as the elements of nature, both in sound and imagery, function as a distraction from the complexity of the script, which gets drowned in an artificial harmony.

The images of nature in the video subtly reference Arab poetry and the aesthetics of religious television shows from the 1990s, which often portrayed lush gardens and streams of fresh water to convey the marvel of divine creation. It’s an oblique reference to how poetry and religion are made literal in these mainstream visual renditions.

“Shooting Stars Remind Me of Eavesdroppers” is a meditative, contemplative work that doesn’t really elicit strong emotions, but rather takes the viewer for a detour in a place of tranquility, perhaps with an overly romanticized effect. It is as if the author is whispering in our ears, slowing down the pace, delaying the urgency of daily urban life.

In “Cairoscapes,” as well, the artist explores the aesthetics of nature in the urban context, presenting an alternative portrait of the city, looking for a peaceful refuge to give the eye a rest from the harshness of the urban environment.

Rambling around Cairo, it is almost impossible to separate what is artificial and what is natural: It’s a forest of plastic trees, billboards, elevated highways and buildings wrapped around a tangle of creepers made of electric wires that seem to have lives of their own.

“Cairoscapes” renders the experience of seeing the city close up, at eye level, with no hierarchy in the myriad of elements and details.

For the Gypsum show, Maamoun chose four out of an original series of seven large-format prints (3 m wide by 50 cm high) cropped horizontally like exaggerated panoramas, ironically referring to the popular touristic imagery of cityscapes.

“It was an attempt to find some peace in the overwhelming chaos of Cairo,” she says. “The kind of peace that nature gives you. But eventually you don’t find it. It is more like some sort of mental acrobatics you have to do in order to decodify the city.”

The artist plays with the contrast between the artificiality of the built environment and the idealization of uncontaminated nature, introducing the latter through printed floral patterns spotted in women’s clothes. This transient bucolic presence and the delicate lines of the compositions soften the surrounding context, the crudeness of the asphalt, of the cars’ frames, of the concrete walls of the massive Mogamma building.

Maamoun says she saw the connection between the new video and her old photographic series only retrospectively. The two works come from different creative processes and distant periods in the artist’s path. In both, though, a tension emerges between what is intuitive and what is carefully constructed. She plays with fragments, alternatively highlighting competing layers of reality wrestling for attention, exploiting familiar mainstream imagery and fixed systems of representation of the city of Cairo, a recurrent interest and source for the author’s oeuvre in general. It is difficult to tell if an audience unfamiliar with Cairo’s urban and social environment would be able to decodify all these cross references.

The works shown in “Lingering in Vicinity” are significantly different from Maamoun’s other recent projects, such as “Night Visitor: The night of counting the years” (2011) and “Domestic Tourism II” (2009), in which the political and historic angle and the relation to contemporary reality is more direct. Regardless, it is interesting to learn how one project leads to another, and how apparently unrelated works in the path of an artist come together after a long process of transformation and exploring the ramifications of a broad idea.

The exhibition led the audience through a somehow soothing multisensorial experience, proposing a focus on the permanence of overlooked details, as an excuse to temporarily extend a distance from the tiresome urban condition of constant alertness.

* Correction: This article originally stated that Ala Younis was also involved in “The Middle Ear.” It was corrected on May 13.

Laura Cugusi 

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