Greg Maka Interview
Cairo, Egyptian archeology, City of the Dead, Napoleon’s Description de l’Égypte, pigeon markets, mass burials, habibis and soccer from photographer, Greg Maka. (Maka has been documenting archeology work in Abydos, Egypt since 2009. He has also photographed rooftop pigeon fanciers in Cairo and Tahrir Square during the height of the revolution. His photo essay “Cairene Flight” will appear later this month in Nowhere 7.)
Where are you right now?
At the moment I’m sitting in my brick-domed room looking out into the desert, the exterior just recently re-plastered and whitewashed. It’s part of a compound built right in a wadi… In the morning, I’ll head back out into the surrounding site, continuing the documentation of the Penn, Yale, IFA excavations in Abydos, Egypt.
Where is the most isolated place you have ever been?
Can’t say I’ve been to too many places that are really isolated in the typical sense. A couple of years ago, before the security situation in Egypt was an issue, I would go for these long runs up in the high desert. Its a landscape riddled with stones worked by hand tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, and so barren that to be able to breath the air seemed like a gift. Sometimes I would run for hours trying to get lost until eventually I would be able to find my way back to the Nile Valley by running from the setting sun. However, the closest thing I’ve felt to true isolation was in a desert of a different kind, one void of humanity. It was when I was in a town that was once home to some 30,000 people. The road leading to it was lined with cars and tanks tinted to the same shade regardless of their original hue. White pick-up trucks were as badly charred and blackened as the tanks that now lay torn apart as if they were toys that fell victim to a kid with too many firecrackers. The tree trunks not brought down to stumps, stood pocked and frayed, and for miles the foliage was thinned like the days before winter. In the city itself, every street light was knocked over, the water towers destroyed, and the contents of seemingly every room in every building had been either emptied or destroyed.
Tawergha, Libya was a city that at one point was home to a predominantly Sub-Saharan population that historically provided slave labor in the palm groves on the edge of town. It was in those palm groves where I felt completely isolated from humanity, where a backhoe tore through the earth searching for a mass burial, and standing at the edge of these pits, these chasms to the netherworld, were the men brought there by a former resident, now prisoners of war. Everyone standing there was, in a sense, a prisoner of war, a prisoner of the recent past that they were digging through, buried deep and still unknown.
Describe for me your interaction with your subjects.
When it came to “Cairene Flight” it varied from day to day. Some days were planned and arranged through meetings we had at the pigeon market. The market itself is a sight to be seen. Thousands of people from all over Cairo, and sometimes beyond, come to the market at Sayeda Aesha on the edge of the city of the dead, filling the alleyways between graves and mausoleums. There it was easy to interact with people, and they were very welcoming and willing to arrange meetings at their towers. Other days I would go out with a friend and just look for interesting towers. It was a bit harder working that way, people were less welcoming, and suspicious of foreigners with cameras. Once the ice was broken, however, people were very hospitable, giving tea, meals and occasionally offering hash. Once we spent some time with someone they would usually connect us with other pigeon lovers, as they called themselves, and the network grew and more connections emerged.
What is it like to be a westerner living in Cairo/Egypt?
To be honest, once the exoticism wore off and I spent a bit of time here, there was a disconnect for me. A disconnect that is not only founded in cultural differences but also in the fact that Cairo is the most densely populated city I’ve ever lived in and the method of operation its’ inhabitants possess as a result of this overcrowding and those inherent cultural differences, inhibit me from ever feeling at home. That being said I’ve grown comfortable here, and it always draws me back. I recently had a conversation about this with some other foreigners who have spent a bit of time here, where someone said coming back here was like being a mother who had forgotten the pains of childbirth to add a couple more to the litter. It’s painful and difficult at times, but also incredibly beautiful. I felt the analogy fitting especially since Egypt is sometimes referred to as the mother of the world.
Describe to me the biggest sensation in Egyptian pop culture.
Hard for me to pinpoint the biggest sensation in Egyptian pop culture, but I could tell you that on the TVs in public places, its usually one of two things when the current events don’t overshadow all else, and that’s soccer or music videos. The live games tend to cause crowds at the coffee shops that frequently pour out into the streets. The rest of the time it’s a music video where nine times out of ten someone is singing about their habibi.
What would be your ideal assignment to cover about Egypt?
I’m not a big fan of photo essays like “This Far Off Country” or “That Distant Land.” That being said, however, I would love to be a part of an attempt at a contemporary recreation of Description de l’Égypte, minus the invasion aspect of it. It’s a massive volume of work that was created during Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. Hundreds of artists, scholars, and scientists were brought along to create a thorough work covering everything from Egypt’s antiquities and natural wonders to contemporary culture.