Rahaab Allana on Laura El-Tantawy In the Shadow of the Pyramids
A photobook is most immersive when it arouses an awakening in the reader—and In the Shadow of the Pyramids, Laura El-Tantawy’s instinctive, four-year journey through the crowd at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, is a riveting, intimate, and spatially engaging testimony. A compact yet densely designed book that alternates between full-bleed images and smaller photos centered on the page, it features family snapshots from El-Tantawy’s past alongside her own photographs—constantly suggesting departure, rupture, and the return to her hometown, Cairo. Skillfully unmasking the fragments of the city, the book’s Japanese-bound pages conceal the photos’ dates inside their folds; the images see El-Tantawy living and breathing the humanity that gathered in Tahrir Square, capturing the protests that have happened there since 2011 as she positions the personal in the historical moment.
In the Shadow of the Pyramids documents Egyptians’ resistance to state control, surveillance, unchecked corruption, and, in some respects, the global economic crisis, all of which create an outer context for the mesh of people seeking liberation. “How do you tell a story when the plot keeps changing?” El-Tantawy asks. But there are also other protests insinuated here, such as the 2008 workers’ strike, initiated in the city of Mahalla el-Kubra; this predated and inspired the sentiment at Tahrir in January 2011, when protestors demanded the overthrow of then-president Hosni Mubarak. El-Tantawy’s photographs of the square are strung together as though taken over the course of a single, erratic night; the narrative shuffles time and reorders incidents, generating a streaming, episodic account that could almost seem fictionalized. But these images don’t keep reality at bay.
Distinct sections within the book are punctuated by black pages of text trimmed shorter than the rest, and they can be cross-referenced: Pieces of Me (2007), from when the author decided to move back to her city after several decades away, can be read in conjunction with Innocence Lost (2013), in which the darkest hour of the revolution seems to unravel. A similar sense of contrast finds its way into Faces of the Revolution (2011–13), in which extreme close-ups are hauntingly juxtaposed with family photographs from El-Tantawy’s youth, and Lingering Sadness (2014), which begins with an image of blood-streaked pavement and ends with photos that evoke memories from her upbringing.
The section Letting Go foregrounds the euphoric haze of the 2011 Arab Spring. But it also recalls a similar sense of rising under one banner that was felt in the square in 2003, with the onset of the American invasion of Iraq—not to mention earlier revolts, such as those after the loss of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when the Muslim Brotherhood began a series of incursions into city centers, only to be punished for rising against King Farouk. Tahrir Square also hosted student protests in the 1950s, against Israeli action in Palestine. It is no ordinary space, but one that triggers hope and aspiration.
For me, the aesthetic aspect of photography also draws attention to the power of images circulating in the public sphere. The protests that began in 2011 have been largely documented by the people rather than by news agencies, and have led to the establishment of activist-driven, citizen journalism organizations such as Mosireen and Thawramedia, which further substantiate the power of social media. They realign the contributions of other photographers who have documented the protests, such as Thomas Hartwell, Tarek Hefny, and Randa Shaath, as well as Heba Farid, coordinator of the Photographic Memory of Egypt archival program. This publication highlights the need to revisit such sites of contemporary history by reliving or re-viewing this space—not only with circumspection, but with emotion. A space that for El-Tantawy is always elusive, as she writes: “In the far distance, I catch sight of my dreams.”
Rahaab Allana is curator of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in New Delhi, India, and a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society in London. He is the editor of the Indian photography quarterly and exhibitions platform PIX. In 2014, he copublished a book from his own private collection of cinema stills and ephemera, titled Filmi Jagat, A Scrapbook: Shared Universe of Early Hindi Cinema (in association with Art Heritage by Niyogi Books). pixquarterly.in
Image: Laura El-Tantawy
In the Shadow of the Pyramids
Self-published • Amsterdam, 2015
Designed by SYB • 440 pages
125 black-and-white and color images
6 7/8 x 9 in. (17.6 x 22.7 cm) • Hardcover