Book Signing by Britta Le Va
Reading by Max Blagg
Thursday, November 29th from 6:30-8pm
Reading at 7pm
David Nolan Gallery, 527 W 29 Street, New York, NY 10001
For Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Cairo has always been a place of special resonance. As the place in which he was born and has lived his whole life, it is a city he loves passionately and has visited and revisited in his writing. It is the setting for nearly all his novels and short stories, not merely as a backdrop but as an integral part of his fiction, playing its own role in the dramas. The old streets of his Cairo Trilogy and the microcosmic cul-de-sac of Midaq Alley become fictional characters as fascinating as the human ones for Naguib Mahfouz.
A longtime admirer of the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, photographer Britta Le Va discovered old Cairo through his works. In The Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz, she guides us through his pages, and treads his streets and alleys, to produce a collection of outstanding visual images of the historic city. Each complements a verbal image selected from Mahfouz’s writings. In his introduction, novelist Gamal al-Ghitani describes a walking tour with the great man around the streets of Gamaliya, that historic heart of the old city where both of them—more than thirty years apart—were born and grew up. Along the way, Mahfouz reminisces and remarks on what had changed and what had not in eight decades.
Britta Le Va is a photographer based in New York. She has published two books on Egypt: The Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz and Egyptian Pyramids. She studied at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts with renowned Egyptologist, Professor Bernhard V. Bothmer, and as a photographer worked closely for many years with leading Egyptologists in Egypt. She has exhibited her photography in Egypt, Holland, and the United States.
Max Blagg is an influential performer and highly respected writer on the New York literary scene. His writing has been published in numerous magazines, including Bomb, Shiny, Interview, Village Voice, Night, Verbal Abuse, Bald Ego, Open City, and Aperture.
Discovering Cairo through Naguib Mahfouz
Britta Le Va
When I was a young child, my father read the tales of the Arabian Nights to me. These stories of fantasy, sensuality, melancholy, and terror left a deep impression on my young mind, so much so that I was forever searching for the romantic visions of the Orient. French Romantic writers, Orientalist painters, and the accounts of travelers lengthened the chain of connection.
In 1989, I entered Cairo through the old gate of Bab al-Futuh, unknowingly walking down the processional street of the Fatimids called al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah, which becomes Bayn al-Quasrayn (Palace Walk), the title of the first volume of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. As so many before me, confronted with a history dating back to at least the second century B.C., I surrendered to the irresistible malady of falling under the spell of Cairo, indeed of Egypt as a whole. Walking through the ancient streets, contemplating the mosques and minarets, the hidden lives, the sound of the Arabic language that turned everything into poetry, the overpowering scent of dust and the life of Cairo where magic and mystery beckon from every doorway—all this made me feel that I had come upon a long-forgotten dream. I felt the burning desire to conquer and possess this amazing city.
The first chapter of Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley became the inspiration for my own personal conquest, which has guided me on an amazing journey through the past and present of Cairo. “Many things combine to show that Midaq Alley is one of the gems of times gone by and that it once shone forth like a flashing star in the history of Cairo. Which Cairo do I mean? That of the Fatamids, the Mamlukes, or the Sultans?”
After consulting with Mr. Mahfouz, I set out to visually translate his novels. Each photograph is based solely on his writing. His locale is al-Gamaliya, the center of the original Fatimid city of al-Qahira, built in 973. Only his visual images were of interest to me, and so I dealt with self-imposed and self-explanatory boundaries.
My work is based on a search for beauty and pleasure that has been influenced and inspired by Mahfouz’s writing. My photographs, spiritual and secular, are usually devoid of contemporary imagery in order to emphasize the work of Naguib Mahfouz. His novel, The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, has a passage which exactly mirrors my feelings:
However much the place distances itself from me it will continue to let fall drops of affection, conferring memories that are never forgotten, and etching its mark, in the name of the homeland, in the very core of the heart. So long as I live, I shall passionately love the effusions of the perfume vendors; the minarets and the domes; the radiant face of a pretty girl illuminating the lane; the mules of the privileged and the feet of the barefooted; the songs of the deranged and the melodies of the rebab; the prancing steeds and the lablab trees; the cooing of pigeons and the plaintive call of doves.