It is almost impossible to isolate oneself from the infinite sonorous manifestations of urban life in Cairo and find refuge in a place that is empty of noise. Even in the intimate space of a private apartment the outside world mysteriously finds a way to reach your ear and hit your senses, disturbing, entertaining and confronting you with unexpected appearances and uncomfortable questions 24/7. We can choose what not to listen to, but we have less control over what we want to hear.
Writer Haytham El Wardany’s latest work ironically attempts to provide an original strategy to deal with this often overwhelming excess of aural stimulation.
Through a series of mental exercises capable of inducing a subtle, temporary alteration of consciousness, “Kayfa takhtafy” (How to disappear) extracts the reader from the daily urban cacophony, forcing her to sharpen the senses and identify, pull apart (disassemble), and gradually re-assemble the elements that compose the surrounding soundscape, in which the “self” is lost between the awareness of the present and the presence of the elsewhere.
The manual leads the reader through a perceptive journey across the borders between the here and now, personal memories, history, and imagination, challenging her to an internal dialogue with the fragmented voices of consciousness.
The Kayfa ta series was conceived as an alternative way to respond to society’s perceived needs, explored through periodic conversations with diverse groups of people around collective issues and current events concerning (but not limited to) the present time in Egypt and in the region.
In the particular case of Cairo’s troubled past, an intensity of experience has inevitably had a numbing effect on many. “Disappearing” and focusing on the act of listening means, in a way, to slow down and temporarily escape the permanent state of visual distraction and the urgency of contemporary urban life to gain distance from the automatic mechanisms through which we individually and collectively experience public space.
For the past couple of years El Wardany and Maamoun have shared a common interest in the overlooked act of listening and the human ear, specifically the threshold between the intentionality or inevitability of accepting and rejecting.
“Like a balcony,” El Wardany says, “the ear is simultaneously inside and outside, and listening can turn into a special mode of interaction with our surroundings, so different from seeing and being seen.”
They also share an interest in experimenting with different genres in writing without sticking to a particular form.
As media and entertainment industries struggle to catch the public’s attention, drowned in a constant flood of news, there has been an exponential diffusion of the “how to,” self help and tutorial format. This format works, as people increasingly demand easy answers and half-digested information in order to face the most diverse life challenges, from cooking to building a 3D printer, to forgetting the person who broke your heart.
Kayfa ta’s ironic reinterpretation of the mainstream genre is an interesting tactic to introduce an unusual art object in an ordinary context.
“That is why we used a Trojan horse as logo for the series,” said Maamoun. “We wanted people to access artworks out of their usual context of exhibitions and galleries. Disguise it, subvert the expectation, and create surprise.”
The logo is designed by artist Doa Aly.
The book was introduced at CIC’s current show, Meeting Points 7, but was also made available (and initially conceived) to be sold in libraries and newsstands. One hundred and fifteen copies were sold in only a few days at the Maadi bookshop Kotob Khan, and there will be a second edition soon.
The book’s simple, accessible language (both in its English and Arabic editions, even though it was conceived in Arabic, like the rest of the projected series) and minimal yet intriguing design make it appealing to diverse audiences.
“I enjoyed the opportunity to work in an art context without the editorial restrictions of book publishers that need authors to stick to a genre, in order to frame the content into a set of expectations to attract the general public,” says El Wardany, whose writing practice lies mostly in journalism and literature.
The tone of the manual fluctuates between the mundane and practical to the philosophical and poetic.
The book is asymmetrically divided into two sections. The link between the two would appear weak if it weren’t for the common thread of aural experience, one internal, pragmatic and active, and the other external, passive and reflective. But it can be seen as a strength if the author and curators’ intention was to destabilize and unsettle expectations about form and content.
The aural exercises are followed by an Annex consisting of a list of keywords broadly referring to what the author calls “the miseries of the middle class.” This glossary turns out to be a collection of stories that many long-term residents of central Cairo will immediately find familiar and inevitably visualize as short film scripts.
Somewhere we hear a woman getting out of control, screaming violently at her children who are not ready for school. An angry man turns the house upside down as he complains that he cannot find something important that belongs to him. A boy’s name is being called incessantly from a window until the calling stops and we know he must have finally appeared. A motorcycle engine sputters, moving away to the next errand. Kids are imprisoned in apartments full of bulky furniture; their only freedom is to make noise, until something topples — a sound limit is crossed and an unwritten contract breaks.
The tensions, social struggles and class inequalities that can be masked and hidden from sight are made evident through noises and voices that are hard to ignore. We start to wonder about the many reasons why that man must be so frustrated, or how many hours the delivery guy spent in traffic.
The Annex’s short stories are critical to a certain idea of the “middle class,” or those reactionaries who usually benefit from the staticity of the political situation and lack of change. A social class that is particularly concerned with establishing, maintaining and defending borders.
For many, Cairo’s overwhelming soundscape is simply unbearable to deal with on a daily basis, so that — those who can afford it — do everything they can to keep the excess of stimulation (and information) under control by “abolishing the outside (…) the ultimate source of danger,” carving out an artificial, protected space indoors, shielded by the safe and steady hum of air conditioning units.
In the chapter titled “Panic,” we are reminded of how precarious this apparent stability is, like in the days “when the city was left to look after itself” and the disrupting sound of revolt burst into the comfort of middle-class homes, leaving so many (still) wondering: “Are those real voices or has madness turned the backing track of news reports into an echo chamber of chanting in our heads?”
“How to Disappear” is available free of charge as part of CIC’s show Meeting Points, on until March 8.