An ongoing series on the social history of the Operative Masons – from ancient Egypt to the Modern Day (published in The Square magazine)
‘It’s not safe in Egypt’.
That phrase is becoming a bit worn now, I hear it every time I book another trip. I’ve been going since 2001, a month after the Twin Towers were brought down and the idea of going to Egypt appalled everyone I knew. I survived that and subsequent visits, including one that turned out to be timed just right for a revolution.
‘It’s fine!’ I always reply wearily. And it is, because to be honest, where is ‘safe’ these days?’
My choice, as usual, is to stay on the West Bank of Luxor – ‘the dark side’, as it is locally known. This time, due to my now somewhat limited mobility, I decide to spend the majority of my days with friends than indulge in the usual frantic temple-hopping. I stay at Villa Kaslan owned by my Swiss/Egyptian friends; tucked away in a village halfway to the Valley of the Kings.
After a few days’ rest, I catch up with a Swedish artist friend, we sip warm Coke and smoke at a local coffee shop overlooking the Nile. She mentions in passing that there is an art gallery. ‘Really?’ I ask. ‘In Luxor?’ She laughs and gives me directions. I head off alone, she has to go; the builders have arrived to work on her studio.
Luxor Art Gallery is inconspicuous down a back street. I ineptly dodge barefoot kids playing football – ‘Salah!’ they shout at me gleefully. Everyone in Egypt loves Mo. Inside the unassuming entrance I am greeted warmly and shown into the gallery, the only visitor. But the art is sublime; contemporary pieces rivalling anything in the Tate – explosions of colour fusing ancient symbolism with modern perceptions. I’m transfixed by a piece by Alaa Abu Al-Ahmed – his art is described as ‘like déjà vu, [they] feel familiar, yet are rare to encounter and mystifying to experience’. Yes, reader, I bought one.
I had no idea of the sheer scope of the talent to be found in Upper Egypt. Perhaps in Cairo’s deliciously trendy – and expensive – suburb of Zamalek but in Luxor? Who knew that hiding in the backstreets would be a hidden gem; a testament to the ancients’ formidable artistry but with modern vigour and passion?
Since I’ve returned, the gallery has moved. Its new home is opposite the famous Colossi of Memnon, and it has a new board of trustees, all artists. Next door is Rabab Luxor, run by friend of a friend Shady Rabab, a self-taught musician who teaches young people to transform waste into musical instruments; his Garbage Music Project won UN acclaim. This is the stuff tourists miss out on; their air-con buses whisking them from temple to tomb. I love the temples and tombs, but this is progress; this is an art revolution! I can’t wait to go back in a few months, not only to add to my art collection but to see how sleepy Luxor is waking up.