homepage: Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction (detail), 1836, Oil on canvas
MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO, a poem was written in the same city I now write from, the ancient coastal metropolis of Alexandria. The poem is called “December 1903,” and it begins:
And if I cannot speak about my love—
if I do not talk about your hair, your lips, your eyes,
still your face that I keep within my heart,
the sound of your voice that I keep within my mind,
the days of September that rise in my dreams,
give shape and colour to my words, my sentences,
whatever theme I touch, whatever thought I utter.
— C.P. Cavafy, “December 1903”
In the warren of narrow streets surrounding the last home of the poet Constantine P. Cavafy, faces are disappearing: specifically, the hair, the lips and eyes of mannequins. Stroll past the shop fronts and you will see the dividing lines. Observant shopkeepers display mannequins with no features at all. The faceless heads emerge from the new season’s fashions. There are no ears or noses; no hint of a cheek bone or eyebrow. Some are in pristine, glossy white; others are in liquid silver or black. Shops selling religious goods, Wahabi-style jellabeyas and Korans, solve the issue by using headless dummies. Confusingly, the torso mannequins are also favoured by lingerie sellers, their windows crammed with plastic bosoms only partly covered by sheer negligees and lacy brassieres.
Half a street away, on Sharia el Nabi Daniel, four male mannequins have been placed on the pavement. The upper halves of their faces are concealed. Only their perpetual smiles are visible. The woollen cap on one has been pulled down; on another, a spooky piece of gauze has been taped across the eyes; adhesive strips bearing the bearded faces of religious candidates cover the eyes of the other two. The men inside the shop explain to me that the showing of the face is haram, forbidden. They are friendly, allowing me to take photos of the disfigured dummies. In two afternoons of taking photos of shop mannequins in Alexandria, only one person declined my request, and he was worried that I wanted to steal the designs of his conservative, full-length dresses. But I know better than to extend my hand to shake theirs. The western woman, her infidel head uncovered, is also haram.
Mannequins, representations of the human form, have become a site of contestation between Alexandria’s Salafists, the Islamist hardliners, and moderate Moslems and Christians. Egyptians, borrowing from the French, call both human models and their lifeless counterparts manneken.
There are still stores using mannequins of an earlier era, life-sized Barbie dolls with matted blonde and brunette wigs, with bright blue eye shadow and parted red lips. Sometimes a store will crowd them together, in groups of six or eight, their arms and legs placed in mid-stride, as if at any moment they might come to life and set off on a big adventure.
On a Saturday afternoon in late-December the streets were packed with shoppers. It felt like walking through a strange zoo: behind the glass, a cartoonish stereotype of western beauty and sexual availability, and looking in, Egyptian women hidden beneath the hijab or niqab and wearing loose, ankle-length clothing.