Beirut

Fouad Elkoury, Oum Koulthoum Café in Luxor, 1990, ink-jet print, 23 3/4 × 35 1/2".

Fouad Elkoury, Oum Koulthoum Café in Luxor, 1990, ink-jet print, 23 3/4 × 35 1/2".

Fouad Elkoury

Galerie Tanit | Beirut

Fouad Elkoury, Oum Koulthoum Café in Luxor, 1990, ink-jet print, 23 3/4 × 35 1/2".

In 1849, Gustave Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp set off on an adventure to the East. For two young Frenchmen of the mid-nineteenth-century haute bourgeoisie, the East meant Egypt, so they made their way from Paris to Marseille, where they boarded a ship for Alexandria. From there they traveled south to Cairo and on to the city of Esna. They continued to Karnak, Beirut, and Jerusalem before heading home. Du Camp took more than two hundred pictures, many of which were bound into the book Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie (1852), a landmark in the history of photography. Flaubert, of course, found the will to write, as well as the name of a character who had been banging around in his brain: “Emma Bovary” clicked as he reached the top of a hill overlooking the Nile on one side, endless desert on the other.

One hundred and forty years later, the Lebanese photographer Fouad Elkoury set out to re-create their journey. In doing so, Elkoury, who was born in Paris and has lived in Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul, among other cities, embodied the roles of photographer and novelist at once. He opened a conversation with Orientalist figures dating back to Chateaubriand and Alphonse Lamartine in order to query that tradition from within, working in the wake of Edward Said, who, in Orientalism (1978), cited Flaubert as an example of European arrogance speaking for, and over, a subjugated image of the Arab world. Of perhaps greater consequence, Elkoury produced a magisterial sequence of photographs, which tell the story of an artist intending to follow a preexisting script, only to abandon it for a lover’s discourse starring his first wife as a fictional character.

Elkoury published those photographs as a book, Suite Egyptienne (1999). Following Liban-Provisoire (Provisional Lebanon) in 1998 and Palestine l’envers du miroir (Palestine Behind the Mirror) in 1996, it was the last installment in a rueful, modern-day trilogy of the Middle East. But as a series of prints, Suite Egyptienne had never been shown in the region where the work was made—until now. In the first chapter, eight large-scale, high-contrast photographs—shot with a medium-format camera, with each image printed huge, in two halves, nailed directly to the wall—convey the timeless, immovable monumentality of Egypt through landscapes of the Sinai deserts: rough rolling dunes, incredible rock formations, not a single figure to be seen. In the second chapter, seventy-three smaller, muddier, more nocturnal prints—nestled inside a single frame that wrapped around three walls in the gallery—followed more closely in the footsteps of Flaubert and Du Camp. In one photograph, two ships slide into view from behind a mound of sand and a palm tree. In an empty train station, a man sleeps while splayed out spectacularly on his back. Billboards advertise the kitsch of Egyptian cinema above a busy intersection, while posters in a coffeehouse pay earnest tribute to the singer Oum Koulthoum.

Slowly, a character emerges and recurs. A woman’s face juts out like a gargoyle from a building. She jumps among pyramids as the wind lifts the hem of her dress. Then, in the third and last chapter, she reclines on a divan, legs up, with a white fan over her face. This is Elkoury’s playful (and rather chaste) take on Kuchuk Hanem, the infamous courtesan who astounded Flaubert at Esna—who exhausted his body and broke his heart. For this installation, Elkoury added a quiet coda to the original sequence, three shots of a blue police truck on the streets of downtown Cairo in the days after popular protests toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Elkoury paired these images with a short text on power, rebellion, and class in pharaonic times. “Here we are then, in Egypt,” Flaubert wrote to a friend, “the land of the Pharaohs, the land of the Ptolemies, the kingdom of Cleopatra (as they say in the grand style).” Elkoury captures something of that grand style, but he does so, refreshingly, through the mysteries and intimacies of the everyday.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie