P E R I P H E R Y
There is a long history in the arts of depicting mankind’s relation and perspective to urban development. From Victor Hugo who wrote that “to observe the periphery is to observe...the beginning of paving stones, the end of the murmur of things divine,” to the photographer Robert Adams who has painstakingly chronicled suburban growth in the American West for decades. The rendering of this relationship between the land and development is as much about time as it is about place. Over the years I have made at least 100 images in this body of work. Oddly – for it is not usual – I remember walking to the vantage point and setting up my tripod for almost every one. I can recall the intensity of the light, the undulation of the land, and what the air felt like. I am convinced that the reason I remember these atmospheric details is because the environment I recorded at the time has changed beyond recognition. What is seen in these images can no longer be seen in the physical world.
I have been photographing at the edge of Cairo for the past ten years. I began when small structures started popping up in what was then the desert. At the time I was interested in exploring changes in the natural environment and the markings of speculative real estate on the landscape, but over the years it has become an obsession of mine to try to secure a visual record of the line between the city and the desert.
The topography at the periphery of Cairo is being altered constantly, leaving little trace of what existed before. For centuries the city was built along the Nile and growth progressed outwards from its’ banks. Recently, however, due to several new highways that reach deep into the desert, development has aggressively moved away from the river. It is arguable whether the city has ever seen a more dramatic transformation in its’ history. When I began this work I could drive out Al Munib highway ten kilometers from the Nile and be in the open desert. Today one can drive almost 40 kilometers from downtown before seeing the uninterrupted skyline.
Over the years there has been a departure of all classes away from the city center. Middle and upper class Egyptians have moved - and are still moving - to new desert suburbs for cleaner air and a quieter more modern lifestyle. The urban poor continue to move into the illegal settlements called ashwa’iyyat due to a severe lack of affordable housing. Translated from Arabic ashwa’iyyat means haphazard things but it is more commonly used to describe the informal developments around the city that have been built without planning permission and which lack many public services.This twin migration has altered the city: traffic patterns, air quality and public services. But the move of people into separate spheres based purely on class has also changed something more fundamental, something that can only be measured in time. The city’s sprawling architecture has drastically changed how people interact. As the classes no longer mingle and the economic and cultural hub of Cairo no longer exists in one place that is accessible to all, there is a danger that the rich diversity of the city will be lost as well as what it means to be a metropolitan.
After the revolution the Egyptian press acquired unprecedented independence and freedoms. Local journalists have revealed scores of sweetheart land deals that have implicated numerous figures that were either members of Mubarak’s government or closely associated to it. Most of these developers were dealing in real estate at the edge of the city where profits were extremely high. Countless profit margins have been sighted, some as much as 1000 per cent. Legal challenges faced by developers over the past year have halted growth in many of the peripheral construction projects, creating what look like large ghost towns at the edge of the city. Scattered over miles of roads, currently lie thousands of half-constructed, empty buildings. A year-and-a-half after the revolution these vacant structures stand exposed to the desert, to the sun, the wind, and time.