Postcard from Cairo: Diana Market uncovers Egypt's modern history with nostalgia for sale

From a manifesto penned by Nasser to vintage vinyl records, sellers' wares offer a glimpse into country's complex past

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In the heart of Cairo's downtown district, a vibrant tapestry of Egypt's modern history unfurls every Saturday at the Diana Market.

Named after the nearby Cinema Diana, this weekly flea market transforms the pavements of the winding streets branching out from Emad El Din Street into a treasure trove of nostalgia and curiosity.

In the early morning, sellers begin to lay out their wares on worn blankets or folding tables, each item a tangible reminder of a bygone era. The air is filled with the murmur of conversations in Arabic, English and sometimes French, as the market attracts a diverse crowd of locals and visitors.

Strolling through the market, the sheer variety of items on display is striking. Colonial-era antiques in the French Bourbon style, such as ornate clocks and bronze statues, sit alongside Orientalist literature written by European visitors to Egypt.

The musty scent of old leather fills the nostrils while perusing the stacks of encyclopedias on sale, their bindings worn and pages yellowed with time. These volumes, once part of complete sets, now stand testament to the ever-evolving nature of knowledge.

Furniture ranging from sleek 1960s modernist pieces to opulent Louis XIV-style chaise longues beckons those with an eye for design. The craftsmanship and attention to detail evident in these pieces speak to Egypt's rich artistic heritage and the influence of global trends on the nation's aesthetic sensibilities.

For music lovers, the Diana Market is a veritable paradise. The crackling sound of vinyl records being flipped through fills the air as collectors search for hidden gems among the stacks. The diverse offerings range from titles like The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven performed by the British Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Umm Kulthum's Enta El Hob.

“I collect vinyls, it’s a hobby but also something I learnt from my father who used to collect and sell records. He loved music and so do I,” says Ahmed Salah, 36, who sets up a small stall at Diana Market every week.

“I would be lying if I said I sell as many as he did, people have largely forgotten about vinyls. But what I like about this market since it started in 2021, is that it attracts people with a taste for vinyls. So while I might get four or five customers each week, they buy five or six albums each, which in the end is profitable enough for me.”

There are cassettes on offer too, featuring popular Arabic music from the '70s, '80s, and '90s that evokes a sense of nostalgia among older shoppers and curiosity among the younger ones. The romantic earlier classics of Amr Diab and the crooning of Ehab Tawfik, played on loudspeakers at these stalls, transport listeners back to the time when these artists dominated the airwaves and captured the hearts of millions.

Delving deeper into the market, the historical significance of the items becomes increasingly apparent.

Coins and notes from various eras of Egypt's history, spanning from the rule of Khedive Ismail (1863-1879) to the reigns of King Fuad I (1922-1936) and Farouk I (1936-1952), offer a tangible connection to the country's more distant past.

A coin minted in 1923 during King Fuad I's rule, for example, can cost as much as 2,000 Egyptian pounds ($43), reflecting not only its rarity but also the weight of the history it represents.

One of the many bookstalls at the market offers, for 40 Egyptian pounds, a browned copy of a manifesto by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser issued in the aftermath of the 1952 coup that ended the monarchy. Written in the style of the Communist manifesto, it outlines the vision of the nation's new military ruling class who have retained influence over state affairs to this day.

Diana Market also mirrors the changes in Egypt's consumer culture. Electrical appliances from the '80s and '90s, rewired and restored, hark back to the time of growing neoliberal measures and increased access to global brands under presidents Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

Items like vintage video game consoles and packaging from iconic international brands such as Coca-Cola underscore the profound impact of economic liberalisation on Egyptian society.

Abou Ali, 49, a seller of vintage labels, advertisements and packaging for famous brands, says his wares offer buyers a connection with the past.

“People who are interested in these items are what I would call increasingly nostalgic. Many of them got attached to these items when they were young and were sad to see them discontinued. Other buyers want labels or posters that remind them of a dead loved one,” he says.

“It's a very niche market, but I have my buyers.”

The market's sellers, many of whom have been collecting these items for decades, also serve as custodians of Egypt's history, eagerly sharing the stories behind each piece with those willing to listen.

As the sun begins to set over Cairo and the crowds at the Diana Market slowly disperse, the realisation sinks in that this is more than just a place to buy and sell vintage items. Through the objects displayed, the nation's journey can be traced from monarchy to a republic, from a state-controlled economy to one increasingly open to the world.

Rather than grand narratives or official archives, Egypt's complex and multifaceted story is told through the remnants of lives lived and eras passed; a reminder that history is not just an abstract concept but all around us, waiting to be discovered and appreciated anew.

Updated: May 26, 2024, 2:58 PM