The noisy aesthetics of Cairo’s business-card district
Walking up Mohamed Ali Street from Cairo’s Ataba Square, one can find remnants of the industry that gave the strip its local nickname, Music Street. Hidden within the faded arcades, several tiny shops still sell the ouds, flutes, accordions, horns, and hand drums that animated a century of cabarets and wedding parties. But they also offer—as if admitting defeat—the disco lights and DJ gear that accelerated their decline.
More prominent now along the street are printing and engraving shops, which predate, and have largely outlasted, their musical neighbors. According to locals, the first printing shop on Mohamed Ali was founded over 150 years ago by two Armenian brothers, Turos and Vandian. As in other territories of the Ottoman Empire, in Egypt print technology was often transmitted by the Armenian community. Bayoumy El-Dereni for Printing, still in operation today, was the first shop to take an Arabic name. “My grandfather was the first on this street to design printing templates in Arabic script,” says the current proprietor, Abu El Seed El-Dereni, standing amid the dusty torrent of sidewalk traffic and casting inviting smiles at potential customers.
As with a traditional souk, similar wares cluster closely. There are dozens of shops and kiosks offering bespoke nameplates, plaques, placards, trophies, rubber stamps, wax seals, and brass lapel pins. (Examples of the latter, sitting in the window cases, hint at a distant cosmopolitan age: Maitre d’: Stratos; Concierge: Antonio.) Then there are envelopes, letterhead, invitations, and business cards. Delightfully insane business cards, seemingly the handiwork of amateur Photoshoppers or avant-garde collage artists. Thousands of brilliant, bonkers templates awaiting your contact info. For the butcher: a whirl of meats and cleavers hovering in a hypnotic neon-green psychedelic spiral. For the construction worker: a coven of dump trucks conjuring a mansion from a cleared field.
Since the advent of “trade cards,” illustrations have been a popular technique to inform and enchant customers. By the 1760s, according to a prewar history of the business card in the Bulletin of the Business Historical Society, “there frequently appeared a scene on the card giving a pictorial representation of the trade being carried on”—akin to William Hogarth’s popular engravings. The device was alluring and perhaps helpful for customers in semiliterate societies. In revolutionary America, “Occasionally these old cards employed lettering only, but more frequently a vignette appeared to illustrate the type of goods sold, or the work done.”
So, too, along Mohamed Ali Street. Modest, text-based business cards are available but better sought out elsewhere downtown. At each print shop here, the customer is invited to flip through albums of plastic sleeves stuffed with templates divided by profession: chef, tailor, plumber, lawyer, cobbler, wedding organizer, chauffeur, real-estate agent. Each template is spangled with symbols associated with a profession—a visual response to the question “What first comes to your mind when I say ‘pastry chef’?” Thus the card for “pastry chef” might feature a toque, an apron, a tray of sweets, and a smiling toddler chomping down, superimposed on a mystery patisserie interior. The jumbled images, seemingly pulled at random (and in haste) from the attics of the internet, are of varying sources, vintages, and resolution quality, not arranged in a tableau so much as an impressionistic collage.
The templates are produced at several regional printers off-site and also in-house by one or two designers hunched over aging desktops. Designers attached to local shops work full-time or freelance, and their principal assignment is to work swiftly to tweak designs, invent logos on the spot, and lay out the desired text. Each printing company has its own binder—just as different paint companies have their own paint-chip albums in a hardware store—with signature work that ranges from wild bricolage (El Biari, TBZ International) to more demure 1970s pastels (Farha, Rahwaji Cards).
The business cards printed here—odd, incongruent, loud, crowded, charming—are entwined with the story of the street. Mohamed Ali Street was central to Khedive Ismail’s 19th-century vision of a modern Cairo—a renewed city to rival the great capitals of Europe. Inspired by Baron Haussmann’s ruthless remaking of Paris, which cleared the thicket of medieval neighborhoods to make way for a new urban logic, Ismail dreamed a downtown of broad boulevards radiating from central roundabouts, anchored by nationalist statues. (A recent visitor to Cairo expressed surprise to find that Tahrir Square—the largest roundabout in Ismail’s downtown—is not a square. It was originally named Ismail Square, until President Nasser changed it in his effort to remake the city.)
An incredibly industrious ruler who micromanaged his many projects across Egypt, Ismail bankrupted the nation in pursuit of his grand vision for the Suez Canal and a modern Cairo. For the canal’s lavish inaugural ceremonies, Ismail commissioned an opera by Verdi. (Verdi declined until learning that his loathed rival, Wagner, was to be offered the honor, and then produced his oriental masterpiece, Aida.) To showcase the work, Ismail constructed a grand opera house modeled on La Scala. The opera house—the first in the Middle East—overlooked Cairo’s new extravagant public gardens, replete with pavilions, ponds, paddleboats, and grottoes, designed by the chief gardener of Paris. For those neighborhoods that could not be refurbished in time for the lavish inaugural ceremonies, Ismail erected Potemkin facades to conceal old Cairo from the visiting dignitaries.
A view of Mohamed Ali Street
Shopping for business cards at a stand downtown
A man places an order at El-Dereni print shop.
In his quest to “turn Egypt away from Africa and toward Europe,” Ismail borrowed heavily from British banks. When they came calling, Ismail had his finance minister strangled to hide the debts. Ultimately, Ismail’s plans led to Egypt’s seizure by colonial powers—ironically accomplishing his dream of making Egypt European.
The extravagant dream of Mohamed Ali Street was one of Ismail’s final (and unfinished) projects. The bulk of construction for Ismail’s modernist downtown Cairo had taken place outside the old-city walls, but Mohamed Ali was firmly in the heart of old Cairo. It was designed to be a grand, gas-lit, tram-lined, arcaded boulevard connecting the glitzy district of Azbikaya to the doorstep of the Citadel—a fortress of Ismail’s grandfather, Mohamed Ali, and a symbol of the Ottoman past.
In making way for Mohamed Ali Street, Ismail, like Haussmann, showed contempt for the labyrinthine medieval city. He instructed his civil engineers to clear obstacles with cannon blasts, demolishing 700 dwellings and numerous other significant buildings, including the 14th-century Qusun Mosque.
Ismail’s vision has long since receded. Along Mohamed Ali, several arcaded buildings still stand, but the tramlines are gone, as are the streetlights. (Stands of Madagascar flame trees, which ignite red in late spring, are the only reminders of the great gardens.) The remnants of Ismail’s city are layered against remnants of other Cairos: Fatimid tombs, Mamluk minarets, Nasser’s elevated highways, Mubarak-era improvised housing. If not conspicuously postmodern, Mohamed Ali is definitely after-modern: the improvised jumble that persists after the bombastic narratives of urban modernism have faded.
The business cards of Mohamed Ali could be advertisements for contemporary Cairo itself, a city where tiny shops squatting in abandoned department stores sell SpongeBob backpacks with upside down Nike swooshes, and hawkers with megaphones mounted on donkey carts peddle purple T-shirts of Axel Foley (“BEVRLY Cop HILLS”) accompanied by nonsense English text: “Speaking at a recent town-hall style near Philadelp | hia on energy policy, Mr. Obama same dang | ers to the country’s economy why peop TRANSFOR BLAGET.” The sidewalks of Ataba are lined with kitschy fantasy posters (waterfalls flowing from mansions into rose gardens filled with wild horses). All of these have been on offer for years, but postrevolution, the disappearance of traffic police downtown has led to an explosion of street peddlers and an environment where the loudest objects vie for attention.
The visual style of wacky hypercollage peddled downtown is mirrored in the collages of Egyptian galleries and slick oriental-arts publications based here and across the Middle East. Contemporary Egyptian artists often cannibalize the street for their own purposes. Perfumes & Bazaar, the Garden of Allah, for example, a well-known work by the mixed-media artist Lara Baladi, is a vision of paradise in collage: images of Baladi’s mother, treasured keepsakes, mementos. The work is built on top of a mass-produced poster of paradise—with stock images of gardens, mansions, and fountains—that the artist purchased in the neighborhood around Mohamed Ali.
It is interesting to think that the business-card printers of Mohamed Ali were the unwitting vanguard of this style. In the early 1990s, after decades of hulking mimeograph machines, computer programs that enabled graphic layout became available here, and a standardized digital Arabic script followed shortly after. The print industry was an early adopter of this technology, but it hasn’t kept pace: A recent visit to Mohamed Ali found designers chugging away on translucent blue-bubble iMacs of the late ’90s.
And clearly, the design is a function of the technologies in use: rudimentary cut-and-paste capability plus clip art or readily accessible online images. Combine this with a general dearth of resources (especially time) and it helps to explain haphazard and mismatched images such as a ’70s-era businesswoman superimposed into a Matrix-like office building. (And why is she wearing her raincoat indoors?) But this doesn’t fully explain how you get the particularly psychedelic style or how it sticks around.
No, SpongeBob has nothing to do with Nike, but if you like both and you’re not limited by copyright law, then why not throw both on your backpack? From a certain point of view, a Sylvester Stallone T-shirt featuring a Jet Ski under the words “bunk bed” creates some visual confusion. But if you don’t know who he is, that he’s not particularly known as a water-sports enthusiast, or the meaning of “bunk bed,” the shirt is not problematic. He’s a movie guy, Jet Skis are cool, and the text is decoration. It’s fun. Noisy and fun. Like downtown Cairo.
For their part, the designers on Mohamed Ali Street don’t view their work as being either crazy or in the vanguard of any particular style at all. As a young man who converted a cigarette kiosk into a print shop four years ago told me: “I think it represents the taste. It looks strange, but clients are convinced enough.”
Photographs by Shawn Baldwin