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AboutImages & Intersections

Naemat El-Diwany


Ginan Rauf


Zamalek is an affluent residential area located in the northern part of the Gezira district. Still, not everyone who lives in Zamalek is wealthy. Rent control continues to provide affordable housing for the middle class. There’s a trace of economic diversity in the streets. Zamalek has an old world feel. The district has had its heyday but retains a distinctive unmistakable charm. Zamalek comes to life in the evening with its bars, cafes, traditional coffee houses, bookstores, cultural institutions and art galleries. It invites the casual visitor or curious wanderer to check out the local art scene. Then there’s the whole issue of scale. It’s relatively easy to get around on foot and escape the overwhelming bigness of Cairo with its incessant traffic jams.

Zamalek feels like a haven with its leafy streets and easy access to the Nile. The breeze from the river provides much needed relief from the heat, particularly during the long summer months. Full disclosure here: Zamalek has a special place in my heart. In the 1980s, after a bewilderingly long absence from Egypt, my parents casually dropped me off at the girl’s dormitory. Zamalek was my first home. I was an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo. The old campus in Tahrir Square was a short affordable taxi ride from Zamalek. Life was sweet. I knew it at the time. This is not a matter of nostalgia. I am simply looking back at the pleasures of city life.

Cairo, a city that I had always called my own, has changed enormously. The American University built the New Cairo Campus in 2008, in a part of the city with which I am wholly unfamiliar. The sheer scale of the new campus is somewhat overwhelming. The new location designed to accommodate cars is far less friendly to pedestrian traffic. There’s an inbuilt exclusivity in the urban design. It’s not so much that I fear the new or fail to recognize that a densely populated city like Cairo needs to expand outward. I am simply troubled by the myriad ways in which this all-consuming passion for the new often constitutes an insidious assault on things of value associated with the old.

On my frequent trips back to Egypt I find myself gravitating towards the older parts of Cairo, places thick with personal memories and historical associations. Such places provide an anchor, a way of orienting oneself in a city that’s rapidly changing and endangering all that we hold dear. This angst is shared by many Cairenes, including those who left the country to pursue their dreams. My ties to the city grew with every visit. It was in 2019 during the early spring that I found myself strolling around Zamalek. I suddenly noticed a gallery called Picasso that I had never encountered before. It felt good to be alone, to be free of all entanglements for a brief moment in time.I stepped inside the gallery. The place was empty. It was still early in the evening. I heard classical music playing in the background. Perhaps it was serendipity, this opportunity to engage with Neamat El-Diwany’s art with no distractions or previous knowledge of her work. The discovery of a new artist, at least new to me at the time, turned into a delightful experience. There was little to guide me except her words, the description she wrote of her solo exhibition, “Equanimity”:

In this world of extremes, surrounded by clowns, navigating a medley of contradictions, our life is a circus. This body of work is an attempt to observe this world from a distance. They are a search for equanimity, that state of mental calmness, that unshakeable balance of mind that allows us to keep our hearts open and balanced in the midst of chaos.

El-Diwany’s words conjured a world teetering on the edge of madness, a world rife with a medley of clowns. The clown assumes a variety of guises. In one version, the clown is a sycophant denuded of all grace, a buffoon striving to make it in an absurdly corrupt world that is consequently made to resemble a chaotic circus. Other iterations of the clown in El-Diwany’s work remind us of the colorful figures who provided much entertainment during childhood. A hint of sadness can be discerned in their subdued expressions. The exuberance one might expect is alluded to and then suspended in midair.

Her words, with their emphasis on distance, resonated. It’s the distance we sometimes need or crave to engage more fully with a work of art. The words invite the viewer to step outside the chaotic world for a time and into a contemplative space. The questions flowed effortlessly. A conversation was generated inside my head. What, I wondered, keeps us sane in a world that’s gone topsy-turvy? How can we maintain our poise and dignity in a world that all too often rewards buffoonery with success? How does the body move in such a world? El-Diwany’s colorful figures are suspended in a turbulent world that’s held together by a veneer of external calm. The tension is palpable in the contorted bodies as they struggle, often with exquisite skill, to maintain a precarious balance amidst the turmoil. What does it to mean to be grounded while moving in space? What does one hold on to or return in times of need or vulnerability?

A few of the paintings in the gallery depict figures performing acrobatic feats or riding unicycles. These images invite comparison with the iconic bike rider who balances large trays of bread on his head as he navigates his way through Cairo’s congested streets. The man who delivers bread makes a gargantuan effort to eke out a modest living for himself and his family. His precariously balanced goods are the stuff of life, particularly in a city where a considerable proportionate of the population depend on this staple food for survival. Perhaps from the embodied perspective of this iconic figure the world feels like a chaotic place and he is its supremely skilled acrobat. The essential nature of his work or performance is undeniable. Here we have before us a figure who performs what must feel like a miraculous acrobatic feat to keep himself and the city fed. El-Diwany’s attention to the body, that locus of our paradoxical fragility and resilience, enlarged my view of the bike rider’s life and daily struggles.

I was intrigued by the impact of her art. What does it take to “keep our hearts open” in a chaotic world as she put it? The monologue was no longer adequate. I felt myself fumbling for something shareable, a moment when the private musings might erupt into a more fruitful conversation. The paintings hanging on the wall piqued my curiosity. I wanted to encounter the artist as an individual with a distinct vision of the world. In Zamalek that kind of encounter with a creative artist is still possible. I turned to the gallery owner and said, “ I want to meet the artist. I’d really like to interview her. How can I get into contact with her?” Arrangements were made immediately for a meeting the following evening. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Neamat El-Diwany in person. It was emblematic of the generous spirit one often experiences in Egypt.

On my way out of the gallery I noticed that most of the major pieces had been sold. My heart nearly missed a beat at the sight of those red dots for I have a special fondness for the work of women artists from the region. The paintings tugged at my heart as a collector whose purchases are largely driven by a highly subjective sensibility. Yet, those red dots evoking a world of enthusiastic followers and collectors about whom not enough is known told another story. In retrospect I’ve come to realize that the “missed opportunity” proved to be an occasion for deeper engagement in the future. Neamat reminded me gently that my favorite piece was painted on wood. “It wouldn’t have fit into your suitcase. You cannot fold wood,” she continued with a smile.

Neamat El-Diwany turned out to be a soft-spoken highly educated woman with considerable experience in the corporate world. I met a confident woman whose passion for art was balanced by worldly restraint. Her demeanor was subtle and unassuming but powerful in a gentle sort of way. It didn’t take long for her father to enter the conversation. “But like a typical teenager anything papa says Neamat doesn’t want to do, so I didn’t do it then.” It refers to joining The Faculty of Arts and pursuing a career in art. She turns the rebellious teenage narrative on its head as it were. “It would have been my father’s wish,”she tells me with genuine tenderness in her voice. Neamat ends up going to Business School in Rome. That’s her teenage rebellion, although she does a double major in art history.

Neamat’s father had discerned real talent in his daughter at an early age. He stood on solid ground, as artistic talent was a part of his family history. “My aunt was an artist. She never took it up professionally but she was an artist. We have a lot of her paintings at home. Being his sister my father thought I carried her genes.” What about her young niece? I was intrigued by the fact that Neamat the adult insisted that her aunt was an artist even though she never pursued the vocation. Perhaps the perceived lack of professionalism impacted the younger Neamat who. like many women of her generation, was eager to embark upon a successful career.

There the aunt remained, in the background, an artist working invisibly at home. Her history remains largely undocumented and her story unknown to the public. A lot of work remains to be done in order to document, archive and create the receptive space for women artists from the Arab world. I regretted the fact that I didn’t have more time to inquire about the aunt’s life and work. These are infinitely recoverable histories waiting to be told. Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the myriad ways in which the lives voices of the ancestors continue to make their presence felt from one generation to the next.

Neamat’s father made repeated attempts to deepen his daughter’s engagement with the arts and stimulate her interest in this aspect of life. He was directly involved in cultivating the artist’s sensibility as a young girl. “We were living in Jordan at the time. My father commissioned an art teacher for me and a music teacher for my late brother. We conspired quite successfully to get rid of them. They never came back.” These are perhaps the kinds of stories many of us come to regret later in life. For Neamat they provide a way for her to make sense of her life trajectory. “I would say I am a late bloomer,” she tells me with some hesitation in her voice. It soon emerged that although the young woman had little interest in going to business school, circumstance decreed otherwise. “It was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted to study psychology but it wasn’t offered at the American University at the time. My father was the Egyptian ambassador to the Vatican.” There were lively debates about the young woman’s career prospects. Her father had strong opinions on the matter. “Who’s going to see an Egyptian psychologist in Cairo? And a woman too? You’d be destroying your future,” he cautioned.

He tried to keep the young woman’s options open, suggesting that she travel to Switzerland. “You can study simultaneous translation there.” The idea appealed to her. “I loved studying foreign languages and I am good at it.” Teenage rebellion aside, Neamat had a deep attachment to her family. She was in no hurry to leave home. There was a lot of separation anxiety. “Okay I’ll take whatever’s available,” she finally conceded. The art minor was a mild palliative. Art had always interested her. Neamat just wasn’t ready to give it her all and become a full-time professional artist. “I didn’t want to restrict myself to painting. I’d play with everything around me and experiment with different mediums. I did some pottery, made jewelry. Art was something I did as a hobby or a meditative practice.” She dabbled here and there. The time had not arrived yet.

Neamat El-Diwany returned to Cairo and began her career, working in the corporate office at the American University of Cairo. She served as the research director for about fifteen years. “I enjoyed working in the corporate world while I was there. Now that I’ve closed the door I never look back. I have no regrets.” The world had started to change. In 2008 the American University in Cairo left the Greek Campus located in Tahrir Square and officially inaugurated AUC New Cairo. “It felt like the end of an era. My boss went back to New York. I had lost my father and brother within six months of each other. Family plays a very important role in my life. Family still does, until today,” she added gently. It was her way of underscoring the sense of loss and grief that lingered on.

Neamat El-Diwany’s world had been turned topsy-turvy.

It was a time of great vulnerability and much introspection. The center could no longer hold. The world had shifted beneath her feet. How would she regain her composure at this critical juncture? What had once worked so well no longer appeared integral to a fulfilling life. This way of being in the world had run its course. “I didn’t want the corporate life anymore. It made me pause and rethink my priorities. I had to rethink everything and ask myself what’s of value. So I took up photography.” Neamat was experiencing something of an existential crisis. Let us consider for a moment the origin of the word crisis. It comes from the Latinized form of the Greek word krisis. It was originally used to mark a turning point in the progression of a disease. During a crisis, then, we find ourselves at a crossroads, moving either towards a precipitous decline or recovery and renewal. She chose the creative path for its life-enhancing qualities.

Neamat’s decision to become an artist in the aftermath of her father’s death can, on some level, be viewed as a heartrending irony. Yet, her father’s work had not been in vain. The loss became an occasion to gather bits and pieces from the past to create the world anew. These scattered fragments constitute “memories of the future,” to use Ammiel Alcalay term. “Father continued to expose us to art throughout our lives. We visited art galleries in Florence and Rome. I remember the vivid colors in Cuba where I was born.” Neamat reminisced and the expansive work of her father as a parent grew more vivid. It unfolded before my very eyes, the seeds carefully planted in a garden whose fruits and blossoms he may never live to see. I felt his presence, a departed ancestor nurturing his daughter from beyond the grave with the myriad resources he’d left behind.

One can only imagine the intensity of this excruciatingly painful rupture. Neamat’s first solo exhibit “The Dialogue Continues,” was held at the Gezira Center for the Arts in 2017 and dedicated to the memory of her father. The exhibit featured more than thirty oil paintings all of which portrayed a young girl with a flower and a bird. The repetition is quite striking as it signals an attempt to invoke the continued presence of an absent figure. With each iteration the memory comes to life or is kept alive. The father may not literally appear in the paintings, he has no physical attributes, but his presence is intimated. That which seems invisible is not necessarily, or by definition, non-existent. The recurring image of the bird indicates that the boundary between the living and the dead is porous. Dialogue is thereby affirmed as a possibility to the extent that birds have historically transported messages from those who are absent. The associations are suggestive. Now if the ancestors rely on those who practice verbal or visual arts to keep their memory alive, then, of what use are the departed to the living?

The flower that appears repeatedly in these paintings may provide us with some interesting clues. It can be read both as an expression of gratitude and a symbol of beauty. Neamat’s tribute to her father is an open acknowledgement that her blossoming talent as an artist is inextricably intertwined with his lively presence. Her paintings feature the flowers he never saw but they contain the seeds that sprout in the most unexpected of ways. That is to say, individual talent flourishes in communion with others. There’s a delicate balance between the artist’s soaring talent and the grounding practices that bring it to full fruition. Human flourishing, then, requires material resources and an intricate network of cultural institutions to promote growth. A vision of human interdependence informs much of Neamat El-Diwany’s work as an artist.

Her exhibit “Equanimity,” for instance, abounds with images of human solidarity. We see acrobats with taut bodies locked in postures of mutual trust. These intertwined bodies depend upon one another to achieve a delicate balance. The human touch is simultaneously gentle and firm: It alludes to the various ways in which fragile bodies coordinate their motion to build resilience. The subject of resilience brings us back full circle to the flower as a symbol of beauty that enhances life. Sandra Lubarsky reflects on how the practice of beauty keeps us going:

But beauty is more than pleasure and its importance in these times deserves attention. Beauty is intimately and evolutionarily connected to the urge to live. It is the value associated most keenly with experiences that affirm our vitality in relation to the vitality of other beings. In the presence of beauty, we feel more intensely alive.

Similarly, Neamat El-Diwany associates the practice of art, the repeated act of bringing beauty into the world, as an essential response to the ugliness of our current historical moment. “In my studio I’m in a world of my own, a world that’s not exactly idealistic but as idealistic as it can get. I need to create a world where I can fit in or belong because the world around me is getting uglier and uglier and I’m not happy with that. I need a happy place and my canvas is where I create that happy place.”

There is a sense of urgency in her tone. This search for “equanimity” is a matter of maintaining sanity in a maddeningly chaotic and morally bankrupt world that’s full of phony people. The phoniness, of course, recalls the trope of the dissembling clown mentioned earlier. Such serenity is likewise crucial for resisting the ethical collapse that’s occurring in the external world. “I need some hush so I can evaluate people and events with an open heart.” Since Neamat cannot find tranquility in anything outside herself, she embarks upon an inward journey. It’s part of her process as a painter.

I don’t work pre-meditatively. I don’t sketch. I work directly on the canvas. I just pour myself on the canvas. I don’t look at my paintings while I am work. I mean, of course, I look at them so I can work but I don’t analyze or try to understand what I am painting. I don’t have a pre-planned palette. This is what I think happened here. I dug deep down. I think these are the colors associated with my childhood memories. They are warm and colorful. They are soothingly bright! That’s where my anchor is. It’s in my childhood memories.

A closer look at these childhood memories reveals a different iteration of the clown, one that needs to be clearly differentiated from the “fake” buffoons preoccupied with their own interest or maslaha.

I used to go to the circus when I was a child. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I have vivid memories of the amiable clown. He’s colorful and funny. You have some vicious ones and you have some nice ones. It’s never just one thing with me. There’s the circus I don’t want to see and then there’s the circus I want to hold on to. I pull from both in my work. The serenity with which it’s painted draws from my childhood. The process is unconscious.

Two competing visions of the world coexist uneasily in El-Diwany’s work. The first is driven by an ethos of hyper-individualism that supersedes the common good. Here feelings of trust break down, leading to rampant insincerity and an assault on human sociability. The recurring image of the mask suggests that deception plays a pernicious role in sowing moral discord and disrupting patterns of behavior based on mutual aid. We are, of course, all prone to losing our bearings in the circus. That’s the danger and the challenge. Juxtaposed to this cynical vision of the world is an altruistic view of human affairs that revolves around an alternative set of values. It is squarely situated in the past and colored by her upbringing. “That world inspires me. During that period my character was shaped by the values our parents cherished and instilled in us. Things like honesty and empathy for the other. We live in communities. Human beings were created to live together and love one another and support each other.”

Neamat only referred to her mother once during our conversation. I was struck by the omission and inquired, perhaps somewhat indelicately, about the rather oblique mention.

My mother had MS since I was about three or four years old. I was more of a mother to my mother. My father is really the one who had a larger role. He was a strong character with a gentleness about him that’s really marvelous. He was a very special human being and not only as a father. I could see that in the eyes of everyone around me. I am very influenced by his life, by his journey and by his teachings. A parent is our first teacher. That’s what a parent should be I think. A parent teaches by example. That’s what I try to do with my children. So far it’s not working. They are in my “no-stage” right now.

She speaks from a distance with the tolerance of a woman who recalls her youthful rebellion.

A mixture of reverence and rebellion still shapes El-Diwany’s nuanced relationship to the past. “It’s never just one thing with me,” she has said. It would be an oversimplification to reduce her attachment to her childhood world as a naive lament for lost innocence. Far from being a childish denial of reality, it’s a defiant appeal to our better selves. We must all strive harder to deepen our connections and attune our sensibilities to the beauty in the world. The incessant return to the past is a stark reminder that there are other ways of being in the world. The resounding ugliness of the current moment is not the only option. To resign ourselves to a cynical worldview is to succumb to a paralyzing fatalism that precludes the possibility of personal or cultural transformation.

In her most current exhibit “Imagined Realities,” El-Diwany draws on folktales to create a magical world full of marvelous creatures and renewed hope. It resembles a dreamy wonderland that’s designed to mimic a child’s intense emotional response to the world. Viewers are invited to recollect a child’s delight in tranquility. The impulse to privilege childhood memories is reminiscent of Wordsworth’s poetry. Such tranquility is conveyed through the artist’s use of soothingly bright colors and an atmosphere of playful stillness. Her defiance is tempered in tone and color. It works softly as an antidote to our seemingly natural tendency to become hard, jaded and unresponsive as we grow older. A sense of renewal permeates the images.

A parallel trajectory of renewal propelled Neamat to turn her attention inward. It coincided with large historical events. “What happened to your adventure with photography,” I asked with genuine curiosity. The Egyptian uprising of 2011 had kept her confined at home during this time. “I love to photograph natural landscapes and people. I am a wonderer and a wanderer. The desert fascinates me.” Roaming around and discovering new places stimulated her interest in photography. All that had come to a halt but Neamat El-Diwany was not ready to withdraw from the world and “retire” in obscurity. This was a middle-aged woman preparing to reinvent herself and move in a different direction. The turn towards painting seemed both inevitable and serendipitous. She groped to find a medium to channel the creative energy that was bubbling up inside her. “There came a time when I felt the need to express myself in drawing with lines and colors. It was very intense. I needed to express myself in ways that exceeded my technical skills.” Her lifework was not yet complete.

The urge to hone her technical skills took her in a different direction. Neamat, a partially self-taught artist, had to forge a distinct educational path for herself. She joined the studio of Mustafa El-Razzaz, a prominent Egyptian painter and academic who has an excellent reputation as a dedicated mentor. “He likes to build his students from the ground up. I joined his studio as an intern and student.” El-Razzaz was adamant that she start from the very beginning. That made her feel uncomfortable. There was a bit of give and take, the usual tension between an artist’s independent spirit and reverence for an experienced teacher who’s well-versed in his craft. “In my own mind, I am already a painter. I can paint full canvasses,” she told him. He had a prompt response for his seasoned intern. “You’ve already got the material but we’ll go back to the basics. We’ll start with pencil drawing. Then we’ll go through charcoal. We’ll go through pastels as though we were starting from scratch. If you want to do that, then, stay with me. If you don’t want to do that, it’s your choice. These are my conditions,” he insisted.

Neamat remained in the studio and El-Razzaz walked her slowly through the different schools of art. “I owe him. He has a vast reservoir of knowledge. We’d have a trimester on impressionism in theory and production. And if you did well, then, you’d move on to the next school and so on. Once you got through the different schools, he’d leave you to your own devices. It’s up to the individual artist to develop a distinct style.” There’s a rich history of women artists training in these ateliers or parallel spaces that provide communal support for autonomous artists. It’s a model worth studying and replicating, especially in marginalized communities that lack the material resources and institutional support to build arts from the ground up.

The relationship between Neamat El-Diwany and Mustafa El-Razzaz has endured, indicating that the communitarian values associated with her childhood haven’t disappeared. They cannot be wholly relegated to the past regardless of how grim the present may appear. It’s equally important that we remain attuned to the goodness that surrounds us, lest we all die metaphoric deaths of despair. In fact, her description of El-Razzaz amplifies a different message. “He’s a man of marvelous humanity. He has a very imposing presence but in a humble way.” Through his work and that of many others like him we become fully aware of the human potential in our midst. Who benefits if we buy into the notion that everybody is garbage and the world’s a pile of shit? These places, then, are living examples of the fruitful interplay between cooperative work and individual freedom. One returns to them for replenishment without feeling bound by the tyranny of the group or of ossified traditions.

Although Neamat has her own studio at home, she occasionally returns to El-Razzaz’s atelier. “I like the vibe there. I like his presence too.” By now she had become a fully self-directed artist.

I knew the skills I needed to acquire for the kind of art I wanted to produce. Here in Egypt we don’t have nude models. So, I went back to Florence. Everything looked the same in the city, the streets, the pavement and the buildings but I had changed. It was a surreal experience. I felt like a reincarnation of my former self. The experience blew my mind. My daughter was studying graphic art in Florence. I had been feeding her all these stories. I wasn’t sure where her story began and mine ended. During my time in Florence I focused on anatomy and worked with nude models for three months. It’s not as if I wanted to paint anatomy as it is. I wasn’t aiming for a realistic representation. I wanted, as much as possible, to master the forms and exact ratios of the body so I could break them and deform them. I always want to twist the rules. I don’t want to go by the rules.

Art for Neamat El-Diwany is no longer merely a hobby or meditative practice, though it retains a contemplative dimension that’s combined with intense focus and the strict discipline acquired in the corporate world. “I work eight to eleven hours a day. My colleagues admire my discipline but I cannot take full credit for that. It’s an itch, a passion. I cannot stop creating.” Neamat’s creative passion is largely unimaginable without the “hush” time and a studio of her own. What I am suggesting here is that a talented woman like Neamat El-Diwany who had a demanding career, raised a family and took care of a sick parent may be reclaiming lost time. There’s a certain intensity and sense of urgency driving the work, requiring a woman to be more protective of her precious time and sacrosanct space. Women creatives are utilizing this hush time and sacrosanct space to redefine their priorities in the second half of life. It’s a growing phenomenon amongst middle-aged women of a certain class who are not waiting for permission to make their mark on the world.

A quiet revolution appears to be transforming the lives of these women. There is a de facto affirmation of women’s creative work. What matters in life is shifting. A new balance between social obligations and personal fulfillment is being shaped. Neamat told me that her son didn’t take her art seriously at first. “Oh, it’s just Mom dabbling in this or that. Another one of her hobbies.” It took him a while to appreciate the talent that his grandfather had discerned so long ago in his little girl. One can only guess how the multidimensional life and work of a mother will reverberate in the lives of her offspring. I noticed a post on Neamat’s Instagram account, a handwritten comment on one of her exhibits. It read: “Proud Son As always”. In 2016, the Egyptian government bought some of El-Diwany’s work for the Modern Art Collection of the National Library. Her art can be found in private and corporate collections in Egypt and abroad. Let’s hope that receptive space for her work continues to grow.

 

GINAN RAUF Ginan Raufreceived a joint MA degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Women Studies from Brandeis University and a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. She has taught writing, oral history, Arabic, and comparative literature in institutions of higher learning in the United States and abroad including the American University in Cairo, Al-Quds Bard, the University of Connecticut, Rutgers and Brandeis. In addition to being a passionate educator, she is an avid art collector, community activist, oral historian, photographer and committed mom.

Naemat El-Diwany


Ginan Rauf


Zamalek is an affluent residential area located in the northern part of the Gezira district. Still, not everyone who lives in Zamalek is wealthy. Rent control continues to provide affordable housing for the middle class. There’s a trace of economic diversity in the streets. Zamalek has an old world feel. The district has had its heyday but retains a distinctive unmistakable charm. Zamalek comes to life in the evening with its bars, cafes, traditional coffee houses, bookstores, cultural institutions and art galleries. It invites the casual visitor or curious wanderer to check out the local art scene. Then there’s the whole issue of scale. It’s relatively easy to get around on foot and escape the overwhelming bigness of Cairo with its incessant traffic jams.

Zamalek feels like a haven with its leafy streets and easy access to the Nile. The breeze from the river provides much needed relief from the heat, particularly during the long summer months. Full disclosure here: Zamalek has a special place in my heart. In the 1980s, after a bewilderingly long absence from Egypt, my parents casually dropped me off at the girl’s dormitory. Zamalek was my first home. I was an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo. The old campus in Tahrir Square was a short affordable taxi ride from Zamalek. Life was sweet. I knew it at the time. This is not a matter of nostalgia. I am simply looking back at the pleasures of city life.

Cairo, a city that I had always called my own, has changed enormously. The American University built the New Cairo Campus in 2008, in a part of the city with which I am wholly unfamiliar. The sheer scale of the new campus is somewhat overwhelming. The new location designed to accommodate cars is far less friendly to pedestrian traffic. There’s an inbuilt exclusivity in the urban design. It’s not so much that I fear the new or fail to recognize that a densely populated city like Cairo needs to expand outward. I am simply troubled by the myriad ways in which this all-consuming passion for the new often constitutes an insidious assault on things of value associated with the old.

On my frequent trips back to Egypt I find myself gravitating towards the older parts of Cairo, places thick with personal memories and historical associations. Such places provide an anchor, a way of orienting oneself in a city that’s rapidly changing and endangering all that we hold dear. This angst is shared by many Cairenes, including those who left the country to pursue their dreams. My ties to the city grew with every visit. It was in 2019 during the early spring that I found myself strolling around Zamalek. I suddenly noticed a gallery called Picasso that I had never encountered before. It felt good to be alone, to be free of all entanglements for a brief moment in time.I stepped inside the gallery. The place was empty. It was still early in the evening. I heard classical music playing in the background. Perhaps it was serendipity, this opportunity to engage with Neamat El-Diwany’s art with no distractions or previous knowledge of her work. The discovery of a new artist, at least new to me at the time, turned into a delightful experience. There was little to guide me except her words, the description she wrote of her solo exhibition, “Equanimity”:

In this world of extremes, surrounded by clowns, navigating a medley of contradictions, our life is a circus. This body of work is an attempt to observe this world from a distance. They are a search for equanimity, that state of mental calmness, that unshakeable balance of mind that allows us to keep our hearts open and balanced in the midst of chaos.

El-Diwany’s words conjured a world teetering on the edge of madness, a world rife with a medley of clowns. The clown assumes a variety of guises. In one version, the clown is a sycophant denuded of all grace, a buffoon striving to make it in an absurdly corrupt world that is consequently made to resemble a chaotic circus. Other iterations of the clown in El-Diwany’s work remind us of the colorful figures who provided much entertainment during childhood. A hint of sadness can be discerned in their subdued expressions. The exuberance one might expect is alluded to and then suspended in midair.

Her words, with their emphasis on distance, resonated. It’s the distance we sometimes need or crave to engage more fully with a work of art. The words invite the viewer to step outside the chaotic world for a time and into a contemplative space. The questions flowed effortlessly. A conversation was generated inside my head. What, I wondered, keeps us sane in a world that’s gone topsy-turvy? How can we maintain our poise and dignity in a world that all too often rewards buffoonery with success? How does the body move in such a world? El-Diwany’s colorful figures are suspended in a turbulent world that’s held together by a veneer of external calm. The tension is palpable in the contorted bodies as they struggle, often with exquisite skill, to maintain a precarious balance amidst the turmoil. What does it to mean to be grounded while moving in space? What does one hold on to or return in times of need or vulnerability?

A few of the paintings in the gallery depict figures performing acrobatic feats or riding unicycles. These images invite comparison with the iconic bike rider who balances large trays of bread on his head as he navigates his way through Cairo’s congested streets. The man who delivers bread makes a gargantuan effort to eke out a modest living for himself and his family. His precariously balanced goods are the stuff of life, particularly in a city where a considerable proportionate of the population depend on this staple food for survival. Perhaps from the embodied perspective of this iconic figure the world feels like a chaotic place and he is its supremely skilled acrobat. The essential nature of his work or performance is undeniable. Here we have before us a figure who performs what must feel like a miraculous acrobatic feat to keep himself and the city fed. El-Diwany’s attention to the body, that locus of our paradoxical fragility and resilience, enlarged my view of the bike rider’s life and daily struggles.

I was intrigued by the impact of her art. What does it take to “keep our hearts open” in a chaotic world as she put it? The monologue was no longer adequate. I felt myself fumbling for something shareable, a moment when the private musings might erupt into a more fruitful conversation. The paintings hanging on the wall piqued my curiosity. I wanted to encounter the artist as an individual with a distinct vision of the world. In Zamalek that kind of encounter with a creative artist is still possible. I turned to the gallery owner and said, “ I want to meet the artist. I’d really like to interview her. How can I get into contact with her?” Arrangements were made immediately for a meeting the following evening. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Neamat El-Diwany in person. It was emblematic of the generous spirit one often experiences in Egypt.

On my way out of the gallery I noticed that most of the major pieces had been sold. My heart nearly missed a beat at the sight of those red dots for I have a special fondness for the work of women artists from the region. The paintings tugged at my heart as a collector whose purchases are largely driven by a highly subjective sensibility. Yet, those red dots evoking a world of enthusiastic followers and collectors about whom not enough is known told another story. In retrospect I’ve come to realize that the “missed opportunity” proved to be an occasion for deeper engagement in the future. Neamat reminded me gently that my favorite piece was painted on wood. “It wouldn’t have fit into your suitcase. You cannot fold wood,” she continued with a smile.

Neamat El-Diwany turned out to be a soft-spoken highly educated woman with considerable experience in the corporate world. I met a confident woman whose passion for art was balanced by worldly restraint. Her demeanor was subtle and unassuming but powerful in a gentle sort of way. It didn’t take long for her father to enter the conversation. “But like a typical teenager anything papa says Neamat doesn’t want to do, so I didn’t do it then.” It refers to joining The Faculty of Arts and pursuing a career in art. She turns the rebellious teenage narrative on its head as it were. “It would have been my father’s wish,”she tells me with genuine tenderness in her voice. Neamat ends up going to Business School in Rome. That’s her teenage rebellion, although she does a double major in art history.

Neamat’s father had discerned real talent in his daughter at an early age. He stood on solid ground, as artistic talent was a part of his family history. “My aunt was an artist. She never took it up professionally but she was an artist. We have a lot of her paintings at home. Being his sister my father thought I carried her genes.” What about her young niece? I was intrigued by the fact that Neamat the adult insisted that her aunt was an artist even though she never pursued the vocation. Perhaps the perceived lack of professionalism impacted the younger Neamat who. like many women of her generation, was eager to embark upon a successful career.

There the aunt remained, in the background, an artist working invisibly at home. Her history remains largely undocumented and her story unknown to the public. A lot of work remains to be done in order to document, archive and create the receptive space for women artists from the Arab world. I regretted the fact that I didn’t have more time to inquire about the aunt’s life and work. These are infinitely recoverable histories waiting to be told. Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the myriad ways in which the lives voices of the ancestors continue to make their presence felt from one generation to the next.

Neamat’s father made repeated attempts to deepen his daughter’s engagement with the arts and stimulate her interest in this aspect of life. He was directly involved in cultivating the artist’s sensibility as a young girl. “We were living in Jordan at the time. My father commissioned an art teacher for me and a music teacher for my late brother. We conspired quite successfully to get rid of them. They never came back.” These are perhaps the kinds of stories many of us come to regret later in life. For Neamat they provide a way for her to make sense of her life trajectory. “I would say I am a late bloomer,” she tells me with some hesitation in her voice. It soon emerged that although the young woman had little interest in going to business school, circumstance decreed otherwise. “It was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted to study psychology but it wasn’t offered at the American University at the time. My father was the Egyptian ambassador to the Vatican.” There were lively debates about the young woman’s career prospects. Her father had strong opinions on the matter. “Who’s going to see an Egyptian psychologist in Cairo? And a woman too? You’d be destroying your future,” he cautioned.

He tried to keep the young woman’s options open, suggesting that she travel to Switzerland. “You can study simultaneous translation there.” The idea appealed to her. “I loved studying foreign languages and I am good at it.” Teenage rebellion aside, Neamat had a deep attachment to her family. She was in no hurry to leave home. There was a lot of separation anxiety. “Okay I’ll take whatever’s available,” she finally conceded. The art minor was a mild palliative. Art had always interested her. Neamat just wasn’t ready to give it her all and become a full-time professional artist. “I didn’t want to restrict myself to painting. I’d play with everything around me and experiment with different mediums. I did some pottery, made jewelry. Art was something I did as a hobby or a meditative practice.” She dabbled here and there. The time had not arrived yet.

Neamat El-Diwany returned to Cairo and began her career, working in the corporate office at the American University of Cairo. She served as the research director for about fifteen years. “I enjoyed working in the corporate world while I was there. Now that I’ve closed the door I never look back. I have no regrets.” The world had started to change. In 2008 the American University in Cairo left the Greek Campus located in Tahrir Square and officially inaugurated AUC New Cairo. “It felt like the end of an era. My boss went back to New York. I had lost my father and brother within six months of each other. Family plays a very important role in my life. Family still does, until today,” she added gently. It was her way of underscoring the sense of loss and grief that lingered on.

Neamat El-Diwany’s world had been turned topsy-turvy.

It was a time of great vulnerability and much introspection. The center could no longer hold. The world had shifted beneath her feet. How would she regain her composure at this critical juncture? What had once worked so well no longer appeared integral to a fulfilling life. This way of being in the world had run its course. “I didn’t want the corporate life anymore. It made me pause and rethink my priorities. I had to rethink everything and ask myself what’s of value. So I took up photography.” Neamat was experiencing something of an existential crisis. Let us consider for a moment the origin of the word crisis. It comes from the Latinized form of the Greek word krisis. It was originally used to mark a turning point in the progression of a disease. During a crisis, then, we find ourselves at a crossroads, moving either towards a precipitous decline or recovery and renewal. She chose the creative path for its life-enhancing qualities.

Neamat’s decision to become an artist in the aftermath of her father’s death can, on some level, be viewed as a heartrending irony. Yet, her father’s work had not been in vain. The loss became an occasion to gather bits and pieces from the past to create the world anew. These scattered fragments constitute “memories of the future,” to use Ammiel Alcalay term. “Father continued to expose us to art throughout our lives. We visited art galleries in Florence and Rome. I remember the vivid colors in Cuba where I was born.” Neamat reminisced and the expansive work of her father as a parent grew more vivid. It unfolded before my very eyes, the seeds carefully planted in a garden whose fruits and blossoms he may never live to see. I felt his presence, a departed ancestor nurturing his daughter from beyond the grave with the myriad resources he’d left behind.

One can only imagine the intensity of this excruciatingly painful rupture. Neamat’s first solo exhibit “The Dialogue Continues,” was held at the Gezira Center for the Arts in 2017 and dedicated to the memory of her father. The exhibit featured more than thirty oil paintings all of which portrayed a young girl with a flower and a bird. The repetition is quite striking as it signals an attempt to invoke the continued presence of an absent figure. With each iteration the memory comes to life or is kept alive. The father may not literally appear in the paintings, he has no physical attributes, but his presence is intimated. That which seems invisible is not necessarily, or by definition, non-existent. The recurring image of the bird indicates that the boundary between the living and the dead is porous. Dialogue is thereby affirmed as a possibility to the extent that birds have historically transported messages from those who are absent. The associations are suggestive. Now if the ancestors rely on those who practice verbal or visual arts to keep their memory alive, then, of what use are the departed to the living?

The flower that appears repeatedly in these paintings may provide us with some interesting clues. It can be read both as an expression of gratitude and a symbol of beauty. Neamat’s tribute to her father is an open acknowledgement that her blossoming talent as an artist is inextricably intertwined with his lively presence. Her paintings feature the flowers he never saw but they contain the seeds that sprout in the most unexpected of ways. That is to say, individual talent flourishes in communion with others. There’s a delicate balance between the artist’s soaring talent and the grounding practices that bring it to full fruition. Human flourishing, then, requires material resources and an intricate network of cultural institutions to promote growth. A vision of human interdependence informs much of Neamat El-Diwany’s work as an artist.

Her exhibit “Equanimity,” for instance, abounds with images of human solidarity. We see acrobats with taut bodies locked in postures of mutual trust. These intertwined bodies depend upon one another to achieve a delicate balance. The human touch is simultaneously gentle and firm: It alludes to the various ways in which fragile bodies coordinate their motion to build resilience. The subject of resilience brings us back full circle to the flower as a symbol of beauty that enhances life. Sandra Lubarsky reflects on how the practice of beauty keeps us going:

But beauty is more than pleasure and its importance in these times deserves attention. Beauty is intimately and evolutionarily connected to the urge to live. It is the value associated most keenly with experiences that affirm our vitality in relation to the vitality of other beings. In the presence of beauty, we feel more intensely alive.

Similarly, Neamat El-Diwany associates the practice of art, the repeated act of bringing beauty into the world, as an essential response to the ugliness of our current historical moment. “In my studio I’m in a world of my own, a world that’s not exactly idealistic but as idealistic as it can get. I need to create a world where I can fit in or belong because the world around me is getting uglier and uglier and I’m not happy with that. I need a happy place and my canvas is where I create that happy place.”

There is a sense of urgency in her tone. This search for “equanimity” is a matter of maintaining sanity in a maddeningly chaotic and morally bankrupt world that’s full of phony people. The phoniness, of course, recalls the trope of the dissembling clown mentioned earlier. Such serenity is likewise crucial for resisting the ethical collapse that’s occurring in the external world. “I need some hush so I can evaluate people and events with an open heart.” Since Neamat cannot find tranquility in anything outside herself, she embarks upon an inward journey. It’s part of her process as a painter.

I don’t work pre-meditatively. I don’t sketch. I work directly on the canvas. I just pour myself on the canvas. I don’t look at my paintings while I am work. I mean, of course, I look at them so I can work but I don’t analyze or try to understand what I am painting. I don’t have a pre-planned palette. This is what I think happened here. I dug deep down. I think these are the colors associated with my childhood memories. They are warm and colorful. They are soothingly bright! That’s where my anchor is. It’s in my childhood memories.

A closer look at these childhood memories reveals a different iteration of the clown, one that needs to be clearly differentiated from the “fake” buffoons preoccupied with their own interest or maslaha.

I used to go to the circus when I was a child. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I have vivid memories of the amiable clown. He’s colorful and funny. You have some vicious ones and you have some nice ones. It’s never just one thing with me. There’s the circus I don’t want to see and then there’s the circus I want to hold on to. I pull from both in my work. The serenity with which it’s painted draws from my childhood. The process is unconscious.

Two competing visions of the world coexist uneasily in El-Diwany’s work. The first is driven by an ethos of hyper-individualism that supersedes the common good. Here feelings of trust break down, leading to rampant insincerity and an assault on human sociability. The recurring image of the mask suggests that deception plays a pernicious role in sowing moral discord and disrupting patterns of behavior based on mutual aid. We are, of course, all prone to losing our bearings in the circus. That’s the danger and the challenge. Juxtaposed to this cynical vision of the world is an altruistic view of human affairs that revolves around an alternative set of values. It is squarely situated in the past and colored by her upbringing. “That world inspires me. During that period my character was shaped by the values our parents cherished and instilled in us. Things like honesty and empathy for the other. We live in communities. Human beings were created to live together and love one another and support each other.”

Neamat only referred to her mother once during our conversation. I was struck by the omission and inquired, perhaps somewhat indelicately, about the rather oblique mention.

My mother had MS since I was about three or four years old. I was more of a mother to my mother. My father is really the one who had a larger role. He was a strong character with a gentleness about him that’s really marvelous. He was a very special human being and not only as a father. I could see that in the eyes of everyone around me. I am very influenced by his life, by his journey and by his teachings. A parent is our first teacher. That’s what a parent should be I think. A parent teaches by example. That’s what I try to do with my children. So far it’s not working. They are in my “no-stage” right now.

She speaks from a distance with the tolerance of a woman who recalls her youthful rebellion.

A mixture of reverence and rebellion still shapes El-Diwany’s nuanced relationship to the past. “It’s never just one thing with me,” she has said. It would be an oversimplification to reduce her attachment to her childhood world as a naive lament for lost innocence. Far from being a childish denial of reality, it’s a defiant appeal to our better selves. We must all strive harder to deepen our connections and attune our sensibilities to the beauty in the world. The incessant return to the past is a stark reminder that there are other ways of being in the world. The resounding ugliness of the current moment is not the only option. To resign ourselves to a cynical worldview is to succumb to a paralyzing fatalism that precludes the possibility of personal or cultural transformation.

In her most current exhibit “Imagined Realities,” El-Diwany draws on folktales to create a magical world full of marvelous creatures and renewed hope. It resembles a dreamy wonderland that’s designed to mimic a child’s intense emotional response to the world. Viewers are invited to recollect a child’s delight in tranquility. The impulse to privilege childhood memories is reminiscent of Wordsworth’s poetry. Such tranquility is conveyed through the artist’s use of soothingly bright colors and an atmosphere of playful stillness. Her defiance is tempered in tone and color. It works softly as an antidote to our seemingly natural tendency to become hard, jaded and unresponsive as we grow older. A sense of renewal permeates the images.

A parallel trajectory of renewal propelled Neamat to turn her attention inward. It coincided with large historical events. “What happened to your adventure with photography,” I asked with genuine curiosity. The Egyptian uprising of 2011 had kept her confined at home during this time. “I love to photograph natural landscapes and people. I am a wonderer and a wanderer. The desert fascinates me.” Roaming around and discovering new places stimulated her interest in photography. All that had come to a halt but Neamat El-Diwany was not ready to withdraw from the world and “retire” in obscurity. This was a middle-aged woman preparing to reinvent herself and move in a different direction. The turn towards painting seemed both inevitable and serendipitous. She groped to find a medium to channel the creative energy that was bubbling up inside her. “There came a time when I felt the need to express myself in drawing with lines and colors. It was very intense. I needed to express myself in ways that exceeded my technical skills.” Her lifework was not yet complete.

The urge to hone her technical skills took her in a different direction. Neamat, a partially self-taught artist, had to forge a distinct educational path for herself. She joined the studio of Mustafa El-Razzaz, a prominent Egyptian painter and academic who has an excellent reputation as a dedicated mentor. “He likes to build his students from the ground up. I joined his studio as an intern and student.” El-Razzaz was adamant that she start from the very beginning. That made her feel uncomfortable. There was a bit of give and take, the usual tension between an artist’s independent spirit and reverence for an experienced teacher who’s well-versed in his craft. “In my own mind, I am already a painter. I can paint full canvasses,” she told him. He had a prompt response for his seasoned intern. “You’ve already got the material but we’ll go back to the basics. We’ll start with pencil drawing. Then we’ll go through charcoal. We’ll go through pastels as though we were starting from scratch. If you want to do that, then, stay with me. If you don’t want to do that, it’s your choice. These are my conditions,” he insisted.

Neamat remained in the studio and El-Razzaz walked her slowly through the different schools of art. “I owe him. He has a vast reservoir of knowledge. We’d have a trimester on impressionism in theory and production. And if you did well, then, you’d move on to the next school and so on. Once you got through the different schools, he’d leave you to your own devices. It’s up to the individual artist to develop a distinct style.” There’s a rich history of women artists training in these ateliers or parallel spaces that provide communal support for autonomous artists. It’s a model worth studying and replicating, especially in marginalized communities that lack the material resources and institutional support to build arts from the ground up.

The relationship between Neamat El-Diwany and Mustafa El-Razzaz has endured, indicating that the communitarian values associated with her childhood haven’t disappeared. They cannot be wholly relegated to the past regardless of how grim the present may appear. It’s equally important that we remain attuned to the goodness that surrounds us, lest we all die metaphoric deaths of despair. In fact, her description of El-Razzaz amplifies a different message. “He’s a man of marvelous humanity. He has a very imposing presence but in a humble way.” Through his work and that of many others like him we become fully aware of the human potential in our midst. Who benefits if we buy into the notion that everybody is garbage and the world’s a pile of shit? These places, then, are living examples of the fruitful interplay between cooperative work and individual freedom. One returns to them for replenishment without feeling bound by the tyranny of the group or of ossified traditions.

Although Neamat has her own studio at home, she occasionally returns to El-Razzaz’s atelier. “I like the vibe there. I like his presence too.” By now she had become a fully self-directed artist.

I knew the skills I needed to acquire for the kind of art I wanted to produce. Here in Egypt we don’t have nude models. So, I went back to Florence. Everything looked the same in the city, the streets, the pavement and the buildings but I had changed. It was a surreal experience. I felt like a reincarnation of my former self. The experience blew my mind. My daughter was studying graphic art in Florence. I had been feeding her all these stories. I wasn’t sure where her story began and mine ended. During my time in Florence I focused on anatomy and worked with nude models for three months. It’s not as if I wanted to paint anatomy as it is. I wasn’t aiming for a realistic representation. I wanted, as much as possible, to master the forms and exact ratios of the body so I could break them and deform them. I always want to twist the rules. I don’t want to go by the rules.

Art for Neamat El-Diwany is no longer merely a hobby or meditative practice, though it retains a contemplative dimension that’s combined with intense focus and the strict discipline acquired in the corporate world. “I work eight to eleven hours a day. My colleagues admire my discipline but I cannot take full credit for that. It’s an itch, a passion. I cannot stop creating.” Neamat’s creative passion is largely unimaginable without the “hush” time and a studio of her own. What I am suggesting here is that a talented woman like Neamat El-Diwany who had a demanding career, raised a family and took care of a sick parent may be reclaiming lost time. There’s a certain intensity and sense of urgency driving the work, requiring a woman to be more protective of her precious time and sacrosanct space. Women creatives are utilizing this hush time and sacrosanct space to redefine their priorities in the second half of life. It’s a growing phenomenon amongst middle-aged women of a certain class who are not waiting for permission to make their mark on the world.

A quiet revolution appears to be transforming the lives of these women. There is a de facto affirmation of women’s creative work. What matters in life is shifting. A new balance between social obligations and personal fulfillment is being shaped. Neamat told me that her son didn’t take her art seriously at first. “Oh, it’s just Mom dabbling in this or that. Another one of her hobbies.” It took him a while to appreciate the talent that his grandfather had discerned so long ago in his little girl. One can only guess how the multidimensional life and work of a mother will reverberate in the lives of her offspring. I noticed a post on Neamat’s Instagram account, a handwritten comment on one of her exhibits. It read: “Proud Son As always”. In 2016, the Egyptian government bought some of El-Diwany’s work for the Modern Art Collection of the National Library. Her art can be found in private and corporate collections in Egypt and abroad. Let’s hope that receptive space for her work continues to grow.

 

GINAN RAUF Ginan Raufreceived a joint MA degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Women Studies from Brandeis University and a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. She has taught writing, oral history, Arabic, and comparative literature in institutions of higher learning in the United States and abroad including the American University in Cairo, Al-Quds Bard, the University of Connecticut, Rutgers and Brandeis. In addition to being a passionate educator, she is an avid art collector, community activist, oral historian, photographer and committed mom.

Naemat El-Diwany

Naemat El-Diwany