‘Stop taking photographs of this, go to a museum,’ he mutters as he walks past me.
I’m standing in front of the American University in Cairo’s library wall, photographing a graffiti piece depicting video game characters Ryu and Mr. Bison, the latter wearing a Tantawi face that has been neatly slashed with red paint.
I look at his dark, unwashed face. Six months ago, I would have ignored his comments as the usual banter I get from a street kid trying to hawk tissue papers or spew rough, crude sexual commentary. Yes, I’m quick to judge like that; but so are you. Things have changed, and I understand now that Mohamed Mahmoud Street is his as much as it is mine.
The loud microphones from the packed Tahrir square echo onto the dirty street haunted by a few kids nonchalantly playing football. They laugh a few steps away from thousands of people yelling, screaming, sitting, arguing and demanding their democratic rights. Life moves on in Cairo in such a curious, casual way.
‘What’s wrong with me taking photographs of this?’ I ask him politely.
Suddenly shy, he stammers, ‘It’s nice but you should be taking photographs of the museum,’ he gestures behind him in the general direction of the Egyptian Museum, one of Cairo’s biggest tourist attractions and former headquarters for the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ torture practices and virginity testing of Tahrir protesters.
I understand; museums need tourists, I carry a camera; therefore I must be a tourist. Instead of helping my country’s economy by channeling cash into the tourism industry, I’m out here snapping away giddily at obscure doodles on a once-clean wall.
‘But this is nice too,’ I point at Ryu and Mr. Bison, ‘This is art for all of us to see here on the street, no?’
He shrugs and stares at the graffiti with a frown. He may have never played a video game in his life or watched any of the Street Fighter cartoons, he was probably part of Egypt’s booming child labour force while cushy comfortable middle-class Egyptians like me sat lazily in front of the TV.
This graffiti piece speaks nothing to him. He doesn’t get the message. A lot of street art popping up all over Cairo is in English and uses Western pop culture references that only speak to members of a more privileged societal background, while the average Egyptian earning less than two dollars a day is left in the dark.
The street is his as much as it is mine, and this art should be for him and speak to him, whether as a call to protest, or as a reaction to an idiot going on TV and complaining about her nephew being unable to eat pizza every night. The graffiti I love is pretty, grotesque, heavy in its political messages and easily relatable. It’s on your bus stop, your street corner, obscured under your bridge. It’s out there for the people, but in my humble, unsolicited opinion, it needs to start speaking the right language.
Below is a selection of my favourite graffiti pieces in Cairo, including old stencils in Heliopolis and recent #jul8 stencils in Downtown Cairo.