In the spring of 2014, our dear friend Nini Ayach, whom we had known for many years in Paris, became the residency coordinator at the Artellewa Art Space in the informal district of Ard-el-Lewa on the outskirts of Cairo. She had been a resident herself at Artellewa and had raved about the experience sheíd had there. She suggested to Leslie and me that we submit project proposals for a residency of our own. On a lark, Leslie and I dreamed up a couple of projects that we thought it might be fun to do in Egypt and we sent them in to Artellewa for consideration. A month or so later, Nini joyfully informed us that our proposals had been accepted by the staff and that we had been invited for a three-month residency to begin in September.
The next few weeks went by in a flash as we scrambled to organize an online fundraising campaign and get ourselves a pair of plane tickets in time to make it to Cairo for the start of the residency period. We were lucky to be supported in this endeavor by a generous group of friends and family around the world who were kind enough to donate on short notice and make sure that our plans came to fruition. Before we knew it, we were blinking and opening our eyes in a whole new world. This has been our first trip to Africa, as well as our first exposure to the Middle East. Before we came here, we had had no real experience of the Arab or Islamic worlds, and the three months that we have spent here have opened our minds and hearts in ways that shall affect our perceptions forever.
One of the projects that I proposed for our residency was the book that you now hold in your hands. For the first two months that I was here, I recorded my thoughts and impressions as they occurred to me, in an effort to document my initial reactions to all the new cultural information and sensory input that I was experiencing. I didnít always find myself writing or thinking about the things that I expected to be most curious about before I arrived, and Iím sure that some of you will notice the absence of direct discussion on a number of religious and political issues and topical current events. I also didnít get around to talking about the pyramids or the mask of King Tut. But this book is not intended as a sociological study or a travel guide. It is merely a collection of the thoughts that struck me and most held my attention while I was here.
Another part of this project that was important to me was the collaborative element of working with a local illustrator. I wanted to see what some of these visions would look like when reflected back to me through the eyes of someone who grew up here and saw me as the foreign influence. When I arrived, Nini helped me comb through the illustration styles of several local artists, but in the end it was her own husband, Hany Hommos, who showed me some sketches inspired by our conversations about Cairo and made it immediately clear to me that we were on the same page. I feel so fortunate to have met Hany and to have the honor of seeing my words appear alongside his illustrations. Together, I hope that we have managed to present both a view of Cairo through the mind of a visitor, and a view of the visitorís mind through the eyes of a Cairene.