Memories of emptiness

Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 28 Feb 2023

Rania Khallaf sought out photographer Adel Wassily

Al Azhar Street
Al Azhar Street


Exhibiting some colour prints from his project “The smell of emptiness” for three days at the Cairo Atelier last December, photographer Adel Wassily also published the entire 100 photographs in a book, at his own expense. Born in 1963, Wassily is a graduate of the Faculty of Engineering, Ain Shams University. Practicing photography alongside architecture, he has given many solo exhibitions in Egypt, France, the USA and Germany. With a thoughtful introduction by the writer and columnist Nabil Abdelfattah, the 119-page book documents the city during the Covid lockdown, a time when Cairo was unusually emptied of its people and vehicles.

“It was an adventure,” Wassily told me. “I was so anxious. The heavy silence was terrifying.” The pictures covering numerous locations – Ibrahim Pasha Square, Al Attaba, Faggala, Zamalek, Heliopolis, Muqattam – are a strong reminder of that disturbing period in our collective memory.

The emptiness of the streets is disturbing. In some pictures the asphalt takes up a huge proportion of the frame. In the book Wassily writes, “I had never imagined silence being so disturbing or emptiness having that much scent. This is one lesson the Coronavirus taught us.” In the overcrowded neighbourhood of Attaba, where street vendors normally take up every centimetre of the street, the emptiness is even more striking. Queues of wooden carts with goods wrapped on top of them look like makeshift coffins in the midst of war.

“It is usually hard to see the colour of asphalt in Attaba because of street vendors and their carts. So, when I could hear the sound of my shoes striking the ground, it was terrifying. The collection is an embodiment of this thin line between reality and imagination. The notion of fear of the unknown had dominated the scene not only in downtown Cairo but everywhere, even on a global level.”

Though a street photographer, Wassily normally photographs people, and human absence was new to his work.

“For me, some pictures are unforgettable. I took a photo of Al Azhar Street on the day praying was officially banned. More than once I was stopped by the police, who confiscated some pictures. Spending a few hours at the police station was itself terrifying, in such awful circumstances. As an architect, having access to the buildings’ different beautiful architectural styles in vacant downtown Cairo in the day and at night was amazing. It was easier to take shots without the casual interference of intrusive pedestrians. I consider this project a unique record of humanity. It proves that it is people, not buildings, who are the spirit of life.”

The strangest thing, Wassily says, was the increasing number of stray dogs and cats, desperate for food, in places like Al Sagha, near Al Hussein. One powerful shot features a group of stray cats roaming in front of closed stores as if wondering where everyone has gone. An equally striking shot features a small wedding procession beside the huge tree at the entrance of Cairo Tower in Zamalek. “I admired the married couple who defied all fear and depression and decided to start their life in such dreadful pandemic days.”

Due to the cost, it took the photographer a long time to make the decision to finance a 700-copy edition of the photo book, his third after Stories from the Maidan (2011), which covered revolutionaries’ night life stories during the 25 January Revolution, published in cooperation with the Cultural Development Fund, then headed then by Emad Abu Ghazi, and Bird Route (2012), which features text the Palestinian writer Maliha Al-Muslimany and was published by Rawafed.

Wassily complains that space for photography exhibitions is already very limited: only a hanful of opportunities, mostly at foreign cultural centres. Wassily’s next project reflects his position as a leftist artist who takes the side of the poor, and it documents the plight of street vendors and others impacted by the ongoing economic crunch.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: