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Egypt salvages its modern treasures

With Cairo in transition, collectors scramble to save a fading era.

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Artist and collector Amgad Naguib uses his Cairo storage space to showcase historical objects. The practice - for profit or preservation - has increased as the old city undergoes renovation.

Frederick Deknatal

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Amgad Naguib is sitting in his garagelike storage space on a side street in the dusty belle epoque heart of downtown Cairo looking to buy junk. “Bikya!” the junk seller yells from his cart on the street outside, which means reusable rubbish. “I get a lot of treasures from bikya,” Mr. Naguib, an artist and collector, says from his garage, which is stuffed with old furniture, vintage advertisements, and stacks of papers and photographs from the early 20th century.

Between the vendors who buy and sell junk and the tourist shops that offer overpriced historical keepsakes – Iraqi 
dinars with Saddam Hussein’s face, fake old photographs, faded postcards – there are other Egyptian collectors, artists, and historians collecting pieces of the past, and not always for profit. Accumulating old objects, whether valuable or not, suggests connection with downtown Cairo’s material past as the area 
undergoes major changes, from the flight of historic institutions to news of investment-driven gentrification.

The bookstore L’Orientaliste is a remnant of downtown Cairo before the 1952 revolution that ended Egypt’s monarchy. Opened in the 1930s under Jewish owners, the store stocks a vast collection of rare first-edition books on Egypt and the Middle East, many from the genre of Orientalist travelogues that exploded in Europe in the late 19th century with the advent of steamship travel.

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