Egypt is known for its ancient culture, archaeological sites and natural beauty. Even in the most mundane of places, such as the unusual wall art that is ubiquitous in Egyptian homes and businesses, there are still many things to be fascinated by.
The posters are not photographs but photoshopped images of various natural environments and architectural styles juxtaposed in an improbable way. The “natural landscapes”, or made-in Egypt mandhartabiei – which are framed photos as small as 50 by 35 cm to wallpaper scaled – show a particular Egyptian exoticism.
All posters used to illustrate this article were purchased in Cairo during my fieldwork there in 2009. They cost only a few Egyptian pounds ($US1) and are from the 2009 Cairo. The idealized images can be found in many places, including private spaces, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, and rural and urban areas. They are also common in the desert landscape of the Sinai, the Libyan desert, and the west Mediterranean coast.
A lighthouse from Scandinavia enhances this 2009 poster. Maktaba Al-Mahaba/Vincent Battesti Author provided
Posters depict an “exotic” version that is not centered on date palms, plain fields, or mundane dunes. These are all clichés used to lure tourists to Egypt. They express a local aesthetic far from Western standards.
Nature’s Photoshop artists
Initially, I thought that these posters were Chinese products at a low price, filling a niche in the Egyptian marketplace. They are actually designed and manufactured in Shubra, a neighborhood in Cairo or its nearby suburbs. Maktaba al-Mahaba is a major Coptic Christian bookshop (mktb@lmHb@lqbTy@) that distributes its catalogs throughout Egypt (and, apparently, the entire North Africa region as I’ve since seen some posters in Tunisia’s Jerid oasis, and the Moroccan Rif).
Photoshop or a similar program is the main tool used to create these Egyptian cut-and-paste compositions. These craftsmen are masters of pasting, blurring, and scaling techniques. They also use fusion and blurring.
Although humans are rarely seen in these posters, we can see here the Copt Saint Tamav Irene (36-2006) as well as the Pope Cyril VI. (1902-1971). Maktaba al Mahaba/Vincent Battesti. Author provided
The Coptic iconographic knowledge behind the shop’s production of endless pious images of triumphant saints as well as benevolent monks and popes and martyrs in suffering is undoubtedly what the artisans of Maktaba al-Mahaba have inherited.
Snow, rain forests, Christ, and Chinese pagodas
These posters are filled with water as if consumers demand it. These posters may depict a sea or lake, a river, sometimes with an elaborate route, or those elaborate fountains.
Greenery and a palette of flowers are also essential, regardless of any botanical, agronomic, or ecological contradictions and impossibilities. The posters are dominated by garden themes, with very little space left for people or animals.
Architectural elements include not only Islamic motifs but also styles that are foreign to Egypt. Examples of these include Californian villas and Scandinavian lighthouses. The exotic landscapes also include photos of snowy Swiss mountain ranges punctuated with waterfalls from equatorial rain forests and a palace of Versailles or another Renaissance-styled building. There may even be a yacht or an ice floe in the background.
There are sometimes photographic enlargements of an English garden in all its glory. In general, the natural world isn’t enough, and exoticism takes over.
What is exoticism exactly? What is natural?
In gas stations and restaurants, these posters are displayed prominently. In Siwa in Egypt’s Libyan desert, a remote oasis, I found them in the Marbuea of homes.
This is the living room of a newly constructed home in Egypt’s Libyan Desert, Siwa Oasis. Vincent Battesti is the author.
Siwa residents do not consider their landscape to be particularly original or interesting. Tourists who visit Siwa are not interested in the true agroecosystem of the region, but rather focus on a familiar scene: the “already-known” oasis from their Western imagery. They also look at an Eden landscape that is consistent with the perception of exoticism.