A little while back there was a sit-in protest at the Algerian embassy in Cairo, staged by students upset that the government had decided that advanced degrees from the Institute of Arab Studies and Research in Cairo would no longer carry any academic weight in Algeria. Students currently studying at the institute were understandably upset. While the requisite state security trucks were deployed, the students’ sit-in went on largely uninterrupted. Perhaps it was allowed to continue because the Algerian government’s move was essentially a vote of no confidence in Egyptian higher education. Eventually the protest subsided. A flurry of building activity ensued soon after.
The Algerian embassy is situated next door to the Spanish embassy on the corner of Brazil and Ismail Muhammad Streets in Zamalek. It occupies a mansion that was once stately but has since fallen into a state of gentle disrepair or benign neglect or decrepitude. TBE’s sources say the mansion was built in the mid-1930s by Daniel Curiel, the blind son of a Sephardic usurer with Italian citizenship who had made a fortune at the end of the previous century lending money to smallholders and peasants whose shadows never darkened the august interiors of the more established downtown banks. Much to their father’s chagrin, the Curiel children embraced Communism. Following their father’s death, one of them, Henri, who had been expelled from Egypt in 1950 for his uncouth views, donated the vacant villa to Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president, though some accounts name ‘Abdel Nasser as the Algerians’ benefactor. At any rate, Henri Curiel was gunned down in Paris in 1978 by unknown assailants, with guesses ranging from the Abu Nidal group (on behalf of the KGB), a Spanish death squad or South African apartheid supporters.
Although the Curiel family’s history is no doubt worthy of our interest, it is to the Algerian Embassy (nee Villa Curiel) to which TBE now returns its attention. TBE’s architecture critic has been closely following the changes wrought on the embassy. In the main, they include an increase in the height of the fence surrounding the embassy, roughly doubling it. The fence was then sponge-painted, a style that has apparently gained broad support in the Egyptian interior and fence decorating communities over the past several years. TBE does not find the style pleasing to the eye. In googling sponge painting, the term most often used to describe it is “faux finish.” But TBE is unsure of what it is a simulacrum? What “real” finish does it intend to mimic? Furthermore, sponge painting’s supporters, who are legion, often use the words “easy” and “elegant” to describe the effect. Has any TBE reader ever been anywhere that she or he considered “elegant” and witnessed sponge painting? Are not elegant and easy mutually exclusive? Along with the sponge painting, the new fence has been punctuated by poorly reproduced scenes of the Algerian countryside. While TBE has no doubt that Algeria is in fact beautiful, the pictures here do no justice to that beauty. They look like blown up images of much smaller pictures, which were then reproduced at quite low quality on poster paper which was then glued onto the frames that punctuate the fence. This insult to Algeria’s countryside is especially surprising considering that, according to TBE’s photography consultant, printing is quite inexpensive in Egypt, with even high-quality scans costing a pittance.
TBE’s highly speculative reconstruction of events leading up to this ill-advised architectural intervention is as follows: In the face of the by-no-means threatening protests of the students, an opportunistic embassy employee cables back to Algiers with visions of restoring the embassy to its Curiel pere-era splendor dancing in his head. He demands funding to reinforce the embassy’s defenses in the face of a potential onslaught by the angry students, whose encampment looked, to TBE, like those one is prone to find outside of Apple stores when a new product is about to be released, but less nerdy and with tighter clothes. Nonetheless, the cable is written in all caps to stress how serious the situation has become. A foreign ministry employee then calls over to the ministry of higher education and says, “We’ve got a major situation on our hands.” He demands that the ministry of higher education pay for the security upgrades, since it was that ministry that precipitated the crisis in the first place. The ministry of higher education balks, since it’s a foreign ministry building. An intense negotiation follows, in which the sums for the planned upgrade are whittled down to a fraction of the original embassy employee’s request. When the disbursement finally reaches Cairo, it is only a enough for a small amount of paint and a few photocopies. The embassy’s charges d’affaires decoratif decides to utilize the sponge paint method so as to have enough to cover the whole fence. He or she digs up some childhood photos of his or her home region and takes them to the photocopier guy just before the Vodafone shop on 26th July to get enlarged and printed. Henri Curiel, who despite his concern for the common man cut a dashing figure, pirouettes in his grave.
The plot thickens… According to journalistic scuttlebutt, the Algerians plan to tear down the present embassy and build a new one in its place. Egyptian officialdom is none too happy about this development but can do little to stop it, since Algeria owns the property. So perhaps TBE’s initial scenario was wrong, and the embassy’s new fortifications were built to fend off marauding hordes of architectural conservationists.