Though his bloodline would take you back to the historic Egyptian city of Alexandria, Mohamed Elshahed has lived an international life since the moment he was born. From Kuwait to New Jersey to his current base in Berlin, however, the travelling architect, urbanist and researcher has always managed to bring himself back to Egypt.
Elshahed is the editor-in-chief of Cairobserver – a bilingual Arabic-English online and print journal discussing Cairo’s architecture, urban fabric and city life through a modernist lens. ‘Cairo was always a fascinating place, full of details. I had that impression from a young age, and I think it stuck with me,’ Elshahed says of his long-held fascination with the Egyptian capital.
Elshahed launched Cairobserver as an online space to address various modernist and historical issues specific to Cairo. Recent online features include a profile of the late architect Antoine Selim Nahas, an essay entitled ‘Small but Significant Observations from our Everyday’, a recount of Frank Lloyd Wright’s visit to Cairo in 1957 and a visit to the Ouzounian Building – a hidden modernist landmark on Cairo’s Talaat Harb Street, built around 1950 and designed by architect Sayed Karim.
In its early days, Cairobserver had a blog-like air to it – Elshahed was the sole contributor and would often write in first-person. After studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University, he relocated to Cairo in late 2010. Living in a beautifully old and large apartment on a narrow street near Tahrir Square, he quickly began to notice the day-to-day aspects of Cairo life, from those that charmed him to those that struck him as unnecessarily difficult.
‘I’m really interested in print culture in the region – much of my research uses magazines, mostly from Egypt. I look at them to understand how architects communicated with and sold their proposals to the public. I’m finding that this sort of condition doesn’t exist in Egypt anymore,’ Elshahed explains. ‘So part of what I’m doing now, with Cairobserver manifesting itself into a print version, is also trying to connect with the history of print culture while I reflect on the present situation of the city.’
Elshahed’s love of print culture is evident in the careful design of the print issues of Cairobserver. Formatted as a newspaper and featuring vintage typeface and images, the current issue is dedicated to exploring Downtown Cairo. ‘Another frustrating thing that I felt when I moved to Cairo was that there was a very clear segmentation of society up until 2010. If you wanted to hang out with a certain kind of crowd, there was little space for people of different interests and classes to mingle – except for maybe parts of Downtown,’ says Elshahed of the issue’s theme.
While Cairobserver has gained a lot of momentum in recent years (a fifth issue is currently in the works), Elshahed retains a relaxed attitude about its output, whether online or in print. His approach is reflective of the city it discusses, riding its waves rather than making them.
‘Cairobserver is a side project that somehow grew into something I never expected. In the beginning, I never anticipated that it would ever attract a following or have four print issues. It’s nice to see a following that’s not interested in it just because it’s about Cairo – there’s a following in Beirut and in the Gulf as well,’ he says. ‘I think there’s a desire to read something about cities in the region that’s reflective and critical and that sometimes isn’t ashamed to state the obvious. It’s very informal, which is how Cairo is itself.’
At the moment, Elshahed is living in Berlin’s popular Kreuzberg neighbourhood. As an Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices post-doctoral fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien, he is turning his NYU PhD dissertation on urban and architectural development in Egypt between 1936 and 1967 into a book.
‘Moving to Berlin wasn’t smooth at the beginning. I find that the city generally feels rather empty – I miss Cairo’s buzzing street life,’ he says. As Elshahed camps out in his apartment in snowy Berlin finalising his postdoctoral degree, Cairobserver continues to provide unrelenting essays on Cairo’s current urban issues, such as a newly proposed Capital City.
A new development planned by the private real estate investment fund of Mohamed Alabbar (the man behind Dubai’s Burj Khalifa), which proposes to build a new capital city for Egypt on the outskirts of Cairo, the project has caused a stir online.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Brownbook. Photo credit: Sylvie Weber.