My thumb hovered mid-scroll, as the ethereal shape of a dancer floated upwards on the screen. It wasn’t the woman’s form that disturbed this haptic ritual—it was the soft-focus scene around her. My vision always slows for images of Cairo—a city so familiar to me. And that’s where she was, this ballerina, yet I was losing some sense of the place. It was Cairo, but another Cairo.
The photo was one of dozens I would glance at that evening on Instagram—a phantasmagoric metropolis that welcomes casual wanderers to revel in the sheer temporariness of it all. But travel is also inherent to the platform. Insta- is not only about when but where.
The account @BallerinasofCairo features photos of ballet dancers in public places, most captured by Cairene photographer Mohamed Taher. The series, he says, is a critique of the culture of sexual harassment in the city; that as the women whose images he captures dance in public spaces, they reclaim the streets.
The Cairo on Instagram has an oneiric quality, and Taher’s photos have an imagination—women do not typically dance in the streets, skin and spirit exposed, and Cairo is rarely serene enough to set the stage for a pirouette. The ballerina balances on a street in the affluent island neighborhood of Zamalek; in others they pose on a highway in Heliopolis; in a metro station; on the 6th October Bridge. The city is blurry, out of focus, often deserted but even this little distortion has a calming effect. There is little evidence of the traffic jams, pollution, barbed-wire barricades, garbage or dust that often choke this megacity at high noon. It is an imagined Cairo—one I too would like to imagine, and so I go to Instagram, I hold my thumb suspended mid-scroll over this image, and I try to make out what is real.
In one photo, a dancer in a striking orange dress performs an attitude derrière on the edge of Qasr El Nil bridge. Normally thronged with vehicles and horrendously congested, the bridge transports motorists and brave pedestrians from Gezira, across the Nile, into Tahrir Square. The bridge is a prolific photographic subject, thrust even more prominently into the popular imagination during the Egyptian revolution of 2011. As one of the main arteries into Tahrir Square, the physical heart of the revolution, Qasr El Nil was a battleground during the swelling protests that ultimately toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president of three decades. Harrowing YouTube videos depict violent confrontations between security forces and protesters on the bridge. Its lions became symbolic guardians of the revolution. It is the augmented reality behind the tangerine ballerina.
The 2011 Egyptian revolution was a turning point for Cairo in the relationship between photography and urban space. The area around Tahrir Square became a visual fetish for virtual tourists as the volume of digital photographs and videos grew and protests dragged on for years after the moment of revolution itself.
The spatial and temporal chasm between known and unknown has been nearly annihilated by perhaps the greatest advance in transportation in human history—the search engine. The erotic delight of discovery, once heightened by the temporal tedium of travel and the thrilling fantasies of an uninformed mind, can now be fulfilled in a second with an unimaginative click.
But if we take our present experience of virtual travel to be unique, we’ll easily succumb to one of the insidious dangers of technological determinism—the annihilation of history. As Susan Sontag writes in “Plato’s Cave,” her remarkable essay on photographic truth, “Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.”
This was more or less the subject of Edward Said’s searing critique of Orientalism. The “othering” of the Middle East (which became both a justification for and product of colonization) was carried out through the inversion, or perhaps conflation, of representations of the place and the real thing.
During the Egyptian revolution, protesters used cameras as another set of eyes—to bear witness and testify to the veracity of their experiences in the face of aggressive misinformation campaigns and counter-revolutionary narratives. This was an effective and compelling strategy that paradoxically depended on the conflation of image and reality, the body and the recording device, which arguably had an unintended consequence of welding truth to representation and politicizing them both.
So, like the images of the past that Edward Said deconstructed, we now have to ask of our digital exhibitions: what is represented? What is excluded? What fantasies are we invited to occupy? In producing and consuming images of places, how are those places reconfigured and reformed?
I can only see Cairo on Instagram by moving in very circumscribed ways through the platform. I can search for a geotag, hashtag or user account. So where do I go from the ballerina on the bridge? In this case, I know more about the physical place than the photograph can tell me. I know this as Qasr El Nil, but a click would not take me there from here. If I stick to this virtual geography, I’m suspended, like this little dancer. I can wander “Cairo,” but I’ll be leaving the bridge and its geographic, historical, political and aesthetic connections behind.
In the decades leading up to the 2011 revolution, Tahrir Square and Downtown Cairo were mostly abandoned by Egypt’s upper classes and left to evolve into a vibrant biladi area of street kiosks and ahwas (coffee shops). Instead, those with means moved to outer neighborhoods—Mohandisseen, Zamalek, Maadi, Heliopolis—which are frequent backdrops in the ballerina photos.
Although statistics are sparse, roughly 27% of Egyptians own smartphones, and due to the high cost of data, Cairo’s Instagram users are likely to come from middle- to upper-class backgrounds. Magazine-style accounts that provide travel and entertainment tips, such as @Cairo360 and @CairoScene, are managed by young, tech-savvy social elites and feature everything from restaurant and music reviews to journalistic reporting on issues of interest. When these aggregating accounts reference specific places, those places are overwhelmingly located in the affluent suburbs mentioned above or in the new, manufactured desert cities on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital.
Until the revolution, Downtown, as a physical space, was so often traversed but never inhabited or claimed by Cairo’s digital elites. The 2011 protests created a renewed interest in Downtown, especially among young, affluent Cairenes, who took their grievances and their smartphones into the streets. And the fantasies that take hold here, between virtual and physical geographies, have political implications and agendas. A photo of a ballerina, twirling on a Downtown street, is a visual indictment of the reality it denies: that public spaces are often hostile to the free movement of women.
@DowntownCairo is in fact the Instagram account for Cairo D-Tours, a tour service that takes (offline) visitors through many of the physical sites of Downtown Cairo. D-Tours launched after the revolution. The Downtown of @DowntownCairo is elegant and tidy, and like the just-out-of-focus backdrops of @BallerinasofCairo, it draws together the familiar and unfamiliar.
Are we the Orientalists, constructing a reality out of a representation? Instagram Cairo is an exclusionary virtual city, a network of privileged spaces that at best negligently overlooks and at worst violently erases the parts of a physical Cairo that are inconsistent with the dream. But to the virtual traveler, Instagram Cairo is still a geography worth wandering. But in Cairo, affluent Egyptians (and expats) move between and through the physical spaces that correspond to these virtual accounts. Mobility in one dimension mirrors, augments, and influences mobility in the other. Instagram Cairo is not a mis-representation of Cairo; they are one and the same.
Kira Allmann is a designer, podcaster and academic whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Journal of African Media Studies, and the Oxford Human Rights Hub blog. She has given talks and led workshops on podcasting for academics and public engagement around the world. She is producer and co-creator of the podcast “RightsUp,” producer of “BOSS,” and host of “The Conversationalist.” Her research focuses on digital inclusion and exclusion, cyberpolitics in the Middle East and the reconciliation of online and offline identities. She is currently Communications Director and a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Oxford Human Rights Hub.