Talk of the Townhouse

William Wells

A conversation with William Wells, director of The Townhouse Gallery in downtown Cairo, where Bidoun was in residency for two months. Artist Doa Aly was present as well.

William Wells: Oh. That’s brilliant.

Bidoun: [Holding a copy of the magazine] Please, take a look. We produced it really quickly.

WW: But why isn’t it upstairs in the fridge?

B: Oh — the wine. I thought you meant the Bidoun!

WW: Oh, please!

B: Let’s turn on the recorder.

WW: [Becomes serious] I think you guys have really set yourself a difficult task at this particular moment.

B: What’s different now?

WW: I took a taxi — I’ve taken a lot of taxis in the last couple of weeks — and honestly, I think that the taxi drivers’ conversations are so indicative of all the changes. Now everybody talks about bringing all information out into the open. In Syria, when newspapers want to print anonymous pieces of information, they sign it as “The Shoeshine Boy.” In Egypt, people have always used taxi drivers as some kind of clear indication of what the news in the country is. Taxi drivers always tell stories, they always complain. But they used to do it in a way that — particularly if they’re talking to a foreigner — still kind of apologizes for the mess. I was so shocked by the language that they are using now. I was in a taxi two nights ago and the driver, this young guy, went into this tirade and he just kept saying, “The dog and his wife — the bitch — are still in the hospital.” Unheard-of language in reference to the president! The freedom that they use with language, it threw me completely. And then it leads you into these conversations that you could never have had before. Because all of a sudden, people just feel this enormous sense of openness. Still, I was so shocked by the kelba [bitch]. Can you imagine?

B: Not “Mama Suzanne.”

WW: Exactly. It was kelba. It just set a whole new standard of what has changed. It’s these young taxi drivers. Being more honest and aggressive gives them a sense of pride. Even yesterday when I was in a taxi, I told the driver that if I was his father I would take his license away from him completely. Not just his language, his whole manner, his attitude.

B: You get this feeling from so many people now. They are owning the street! They’re owning the town! [Laughs]

Doa Aly: But I love that! I love that. Especially with the women, because it used to be just the baladi woman that owned the streets. And now it’s everybody. It’s all kinds of women! And if you’re going to harass me, now I can choose whether I’m going to reply, say something or not, and there is this kind of consensus between us in this way. It’s not the same, the dynamics of the streets. And that’s the other extreme thing as well: it’s going from extreme repression to extreme freedom of expression right now. [Laughs] I think, just give it some time and it’ll head somewhere—

WW: Yes, somewhere—

DA: Somewhere good. It will happen. But there is also this romantic atmosphere on the streets. It’s the flow that everyone’s talking about.

WW: Yes, like when all those do-gooders came onto the streets with their kitchen brooms and their brushes and swept away the revolution in twenty-four hours. You know what it reminded me of? Ashura — when you’re walking through the streets during Ashura, and the men are all beating themselves and the women are all watching them from behind the bars. It’s the most sexually charged ten days, because it’s all about meeting and picking people up, through eye contact. Same in Tahrir, with all those young people bending over their brooms. It was such a pickup scene! Nothing wrong about it, but you could just see everybody like, [seductively] “I like your broom.”

B: The media loved to write about the cleaning.

WW: Loved it! And the fact that people were traveling from Heliopolis to sweep the streets of Maadi! What was that all about?

B: You were saying everyone’s nicer on the street.

WW: Everyone’s what?

B: There’s this acknowledgement of this thing that we were in together, and happy in, together. You smile and people smile back…

WW: Say you leave here at seven o’clock and you walk to Talaat Harb. Since now there are no police to remove the guys who sell things on the street, you’ll see fifty or sixty more people selling their t-shirts than you would have two months ago. The beauty of it is how the competition to get your attention manifests itself. I walk out to get a taxi, I’m standing in front of a stall, and the guy starts screaming, “Look at that! We’re attracting the foreigners! The foreigner is standing in front of our stall! Get ‘em!” He uses me as a ploy. And then he uses a woman across the street, who is wearing a particularly ugly color. “You can tell where she got her clothes — they’re not from our stall!” They’re very spontaneously grabbing members from the public and creating these performances, which is brilliant. And they’re not being documented. There’s no acknowledgment. And people’s faces! They’re like, “What’s going on here?”

B: What was it like at the Townhouse during the revolution? Were people using the space?

WW: There were so many people producing art. A group came to us calling themselves “The Artists of the Revolution” and asked us for a space to work. They were young people who had met each other in the square, living in the square, sleeping in the square, who were all creating artwork on a daily basis. They varied in number, from fifty to a hundred. And they had all become so close, they were like brothers and sisters of the revolution. All these people from completely different backgrounds — nothing to do with the arts — discovered their artistic talent, and the relation that they had to each other, in the square.

So we gave them the factory space and they went in and started producing. But of course having been removed from the square, they didn’t have the vitality, the energy, the purpose they’d found in the square. All of sudden everything changed. Their work became really banal, really obvious, embarrassing. But they carried on their discussions and they were the nicest people, I mean, honest to God, I let them use the space just because they were so nice. But then the time came when we needed the space back. We called up the guy who had organized it and said, “Can you please come in today to take the work away? Tomorrow is the last day you can have the space.” So the guy came with his friends and they took everything out. So polite. The next day, another group of people shows up and says, “We’ve come to collect all the work.” And we said, “But your friends already took the work.” “Friends!” they say. “They’re not our friends. They’re traitors, they’re traitors to the revolution.” And all of a sudden the other guys walked in, and the two sides just confronted each other! It was like splintering Trotskyite organizations. It turns out they had discovered they had nothing in common — totally different values. They had created two separate movements. The artists who thought they were the true artists of the revolution were having an exhibition at the Atelier, and they were collecting all of the work. They blamed this other group for stealing the work.

B: Could you distinguish what their differences were?

WW: Not really but… the tension. The people who claimed the revolution and were having the exhibition at the Atelier were maybe from more of a middle-class background. They had an arrogance toward the arts, an arrogance that the other group didn’t have. So it could have collapsed in the end because of social class.

B: All these exhibitions about the revolution start to feel like a way of flaunting your cultural credentials or your revolutionary cred. I mean, if you’re an Egyptian, everyone’s constantly saying, congratulations. How was it? Are you okay? Tell us about it. And you know the vast majority of the population stayed home.

WW: The first week after the revolution, a friend went to the very first meeting of the syndicate and as soon as everyone sat down, someone said, “I don’t want to hear from anybody who didn’t sleep in the square for two weeks. You don’t have a right to speak.” There was this hierarchy: the true people were those who actually slept in the square. There might’ve been people that came out during the day, or who brought food to people in the evenings, and then it trickled down to the tourists, the people just getting a coffee at Cilantro. Then you had the people standing on Pierre’s balcony overlooking the square, with the revolution below them. I think there is a big difference between experiencing the revolution from the balcony and being in the square. You know? It’s better just to say it — it was a couch revolution for the majority of people. They stayed home and watched it on TV.

Walking from my house to the square on the morning of January 29, I went down this side street that was filled with burnt-out vehicles. Every kind of vehicle you could have imagined, including police cars, seemed to have been deposited there for some reason. And the street was totally empty, so whenever I’d go back and forth from my house during the revolution, I’d use that street. Then Mubarak leaves on February 11, it’s three o’clock in the afternoon, and as I’m walking back to my house, the street is packed. Every Egyptian was experiencing the revolution for the first time in that tiny little street. Every child, family, group of teenagers, was sitting on a burnt car. All of a sudden. It was clear that, during the revolution, none of them had been downtown.

B: People love to party.

WW: Yeah! Oh my God, it was incredible.

B: It was like a reconciliation for everybody who was holding out to see what would happen…

WW: Exactly. There was an article in one of the papers that came out a week after Mubarak fell: an entire page of confessions from people who didn’t go out into the streets. It’s like, all these young people crying, “I’ll never be able to tell my children what I did!” It’s a whole page of teens who sat at home watching TV and admitting it. I just read it and thought, “Oh, this is absolutely awful.”

B: What was your relationship to the Square? Did you go?

WW: Yeah, I went. But I didn’t sleep in the square. I couldn’t stay in the square for all sorts of reasons. Particularly, I didn’t feel comfortable at all. I would go, but I never felt that sense of jubilation because you’re a foreigner. No matter what you say or what you do, you’re a foreigner. It’s not your revolution. You can’t say anything. You have absolutely no right to even get into a discussion with somebody. Everyone’s so welcoming to you, like it’s your first day in Egypt. You are a complete stranger embraced by people who are apologizing for searching you before you enter the square. You are a stranger and a spectator in a revolution that you actually felt you had a right to be part of. And I thought, I’m really uncomfortable about that. Every single day, being welcomed to Egypt! I felt like saying, “I’ve been here longer than you’ve been alive!” to some of those kids. I was here under Sadat, for God’s sake.

B: People were accusing others of taking foreign money and being spies…

WW: One Friday afternoon, we were standing on the balcony of the Townhouse and there was a battle going on in the street. They were dragging this foreigner — it was terrible. This kid kept screaming out, “I’m not a journalist! I’m not Israeli! I’m not!” Who knows who he was? There was this anti-foreign feeling. And you felt it. You didn’t belong. No matter what you said or did, you did not belong.

On the day of the referendum vote, everyone was sitting downstairs at the coffee shop at eight o’clock in the morning, when the polls opened up. I’m sitting with everybody and it’s really clear that I am not supposed to be there. It was the first time in my life where I actually thought, “Okay, time to go.” Time to actually leave this space. Townhouse had created this momentum of various things but clearly, in the end… People I knew really well would come over and stand and talk to me, but then say, “Okay, we’re going to go sit over there.”

B: It just gives you a sense of how quickly things can shift here.

WW: Yes, people were so quick to turn. That was a shock to me. This past Sunday night there was a fight at an exhibition opening here. It’s interesting because it was so symptomatic of ten years ago. That fight was a common thing you would have experienced a decade ago on this street. We had this blind faith that it couldn’t happen again here. So for it to erupt, I realized that maybe everything was just under the surface the whole time. It was there all along: all these people and their relationships with each other got clouded over by this feeling that things had changed over the last decade. But in reality, the violence was still there. The neighbors still wanted to kill each other. That was a surprise to me.

B: Was factionalism apparent in the street during the days of the revolution?

WW: The street was completely divided between the pro-Mubarak and the protestors. It was split right down the middle. Also, the circumstances of the revolution meant that there was no money coming into this district. So people were starting to think, Wait a minute, things were stable before. We had a community. We were poor, but at least we had money coming in, and all of a sudden, now there is nothing. And the reason there is nothing coming in is because of the people who work in this building, people who attend things in this building, who are going down to the square.

B: This building?

WW: This building, the Townhouse. People that I knew really well, and I had worked with for years. When the violence on the street started escalating and I needed a way to leave the building safely, they didn’t want to help me get out. They just stood there. Four days ago, I ran into someone I wanted to thank for walking me through the street during the worst of the fighting, but he just looked at me with so much hatred. Just like, he’s not ready to talk to me. The people at the garage were still not ready to talk to me.

Because the street was divided. Mina was getting calls from these people from the street saying, “Where are you? We’re sick of protecting the gallery.” There were huge, huge fights in the street. I mean, Mina was getting calls at two in the morning saying, “There are people here and they’re after the Townhouse. It’s got to be the Brotherhood.” And “We’re not protecting you anymore, we’re not doing all this. You’ve got to come back.” Of course, it had to be fictitious — the last thing the Muslim Brotherhood would do is attack the Townhouse.

B: Is the street back to normal these days?

WW: Not after the fight last Sunday, from what I can gather. I think people are just extremely worried about the whole Christian-Muslim thing, and there are a lot of Christians downstairs. Have you noticed how, when the police moved off the street, you get a real sense of the vacuum that is left? At every level. Even though people talk about organizing themselves, like with the neighborhood watches, people participated in them for very different reasons. In a lot of places where there were street watches there was still a lot of violence. People have been taking on the role of the police, in every district. But then I walked into a supermarket — and everybody in the supermarket was smoking a joint. [Laughs]

B: What supermarket?

WW: Just near where I live. Then I walked across the street to get a bottle of wine and they wouldn’t serve me because they were too busy rolling joints and passing them around. And then you realize, well, I don’t have a problem with this, but I am getting stoned waiting in this store! I mentioned it to someone on my street and he goes, “Walk to the next street over: they’ve got a table set up where they’re selling hash, publicly.” So all of this just surfaced. Because, you know, the Minister of the Interior put a ban on all drugs six months ago, last May, and he said, “If anybody smokes a joint, it’s under my control.” People are even saying had he not done that, there probably wouldn’t have been a revolution because these kids would have kept quiet — they would’ve been stoned. But so many social behaviors are taking on different aspects in local middle-class communities. Things were just turned upside down. A supermarket where everybody is smoking hash! It could’ve been in Amsterdam.

B: Has this made you think about how the Townhouse will function moving forward?

WW: I don’t think so… [Laughs]

B: What about in resolving the tensions on the street?

WW: Maybe in terms of my own decisions, personally. [Laughs] But in terms of the Townhouse, I think that as soon as we opened our doors this became a place for political discussion, almost immediately.

And there’s this really… How shall I say, there’s this fact that the young people are so demanding. One group of activists marched in, saying, “We need to take the library for two hours. We’re a human rights group monitoring the referendum.” And five hours later they’re still in there, with no thought to ask if it is okay. There were political parties forming in the Townhouse within the first week. Or Bidoun showing up. [Laughs]. There’s this assumption that the space is theirs.