R&K: The old buildings there are in much less danger than in Cairo, yes?
XN: Less so, but still in danger.
R&K: I am not sure I’ve seen a shot of Cairo with no people in it. And now you have a whole book of them.
XN: Absence in Cairo is a luxury you never face. I wanted to do something that looks totally not Egyptian. Something about absence like Vermeer paintings. I got this idea in New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 2009 when I saw Vermeer’s Milkmaid. In this case ‘dust’ is a metaphor of it. And of course on the other side it is a portrait of Mubarak’s Egypt and the stagnation.
Some got burned and looted, some destroyed.
R&K: The project finished at the end of 2011. What has changed with these buildings since then after the revolution?
XN: Some got burned and looted, some destroyed. I am trying to follow up and record video interviews about them.
R&K: How sad. Which ones?
XN: Casgaldy villa, the Geographical Society. Some got “renovated”.
R&K: What does that mean?
XN: It means stupidly cheap fast painting all over, or something else that destroys the atmosphere.
R&K: Are there forces or organizations trying to preserve them now?
XN: Well, my book got a lot of attention and it created discussions about heritage. There are some organizations, but Egyptians are too busy with other stuff. And architectural heritage is a luxury problem.
R&K: Why do you think it should be something that post-revolution Egyptians should care about? Why is it important?
XN: It is a history. They should learn by their own experience. History is a knowledge. Knowledge is a result of education. [But] in Egypt about 50% of population—57% of women, for example—can’t read or write. Education is a key for everything.
R&K: You said that your book started conversations about heritage. Where? On blogs? At universities?
XN: Blogs of course. There is a great blog, the Cairo Observer, written by my friend Mohamed Elshahed, [that talks about how] architecture reflects economical and political decisions.
R&K: Has the Morsi government made any move, positive or negative, on the topics of these old buildings?
XN: Morsi’s government did nothing about nothing. It is a joke. People from outside don’t really know he was elected. By 10% of Egyptians. The rest did not vote at all.
R&K: Not that the situations are the same, but the Islamists from Timbuktu to Bamayan are very concerned with erasing history. Does the Muslim brotherhood, in your mind, have the same goals?
XN: Of course religious fanatics are not interested in educated, smart people. How can they manipulate them?
For more from Xenia Nikolskaya, visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @XNikolskaya