Amgad Naguib is a collector of ephemera — the fleeting, fragile and often overlooked objects of everyday life.
The old matchbooks, toothbrushes and ticket stubs — a few of the objects among hundreds of thousands in his collections — normally spill from bags and boxes in his overstuffed Cairo warehouses. But for two months, a small part of his unusual collection was exhibited at a downtown Cairo art gallery, under a title borrowed from the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk: “The Past Is Always an Invented Land.”
And it’s a strange land Naguib inhabits — straddling the line between collection and obsession.
“You know ephemera? I learned the word from eBay,” says Naguib, walking through the chaotic exhibit. He tells me about his collection of paper and plastic bags from the 1970s that show who was selling what then in downtown Cairo.
“It’s a mosaic of our history,” he says.
A rubber rope made of the coiled tubing from World War II gas masks cordons off tables covered with random displays including old telephones, a cardboard Nativity scene, bingo cards and a disposable toothbrush in the shape of a ship.
Nearby is an antique dental drill, along with glass pharmacy bottles and old pharmacy log books. Naguib cherishes the entry by a Jewish pharmacist treating a Muslim sheikh — a glimpse of Egypt’s lost diversity.
“One gets a sense of the chaotic nature of the collection, which is what I wanted — the obsession of the collector,” says William Wells, the Townhouse gallery co-founder. “Amgad will walk into a space and buy up 100 objects, when he really only wanted one. For instance, there is a collection of wheels — hundreds of them, of every different variety, that some man quietly collected. Throughout this collection, there are other collections, other obsessions going on.”
Naguib finds meaning in every battered toy and scrap of paper. He lists his collections as if they were old lovers.
“I collect photography — I love paper and ephemera and books and magazines,” he says, searching for a vintage framed Playboy centerfold that is a particular favorite.
“As you see,” he continues, there are “locks and keys and clothes and lighters and cigarettes and bottles. I like tiles, I like architectural pieces. Everything is wonderful. I am sure I have more dresses and hats and handbags than you and all your friends.”
The only things he’s not passionate about collecting are traditional collectors’ items — like stamps and silver utensils. But he collects these anyway — to sell and pay for more obscure finds.
Naguib’s grandfather was the manager of Egyptian King Fuad’s Muntazah Palace, in Alexandria, until the 1930s. Naguib, now in his 50s, wanted to be a painter like his mother, but says his grades weren’t good enough for art school. Instead, he studied commerce, but later quit his job at a bank to move to the sleepy fishing village of Dahab in the Sinai, now a diving resort.
“I moved there in 1988 and it was better than paradise,” he says. He left when Egypt started receiving U.S. government aid and installed electricity, which he says ruined the town.
He then worked as a park ranger, diving the coral reefs. In the Sinai, he met an American woman, Mandy McClure, lost her address and met her again by chance at a party in Cairo 10 years later. They are now married.
Naguib sometimes buys the entire contents of apartments, including the furniture and the clothes at estate sales. But what he loves most are old photographs and letters. He sifts through them, putting together the pieces of Egyptian lives as far back as a century ago.
“Sometimes I buy a collection of letters,” he says, “three or four hundred letters, and I get to know these people and I get to love these people.”
Even better, he says, sometimes years later, he has stumbled across photographs of the same people.
“You know, when I read these letters, I read Egypt’s history with no lies, ” he says.
One of his finds was a lifetime of letters, journals and documents by a girl from an aristocratic Egyptian Muslim family, educated at a French-language convent school. She met a Sufi sheikh after her husband died in 1958. They had only been married for three years.
“So I see her in the photographs, wearing black in Luxor with her family, and then with this Sufi sheikh, and she followed him until she died,” says Naguib. “I have the receipts to the hotels in Mecca and Medina — they went on pilgrimage. I have reels of his talks I found in her house. ”
Visiting one of his storage rooms is like entering an Aladdin’s cave of weirdness and wonder. Cats jump from piles of paper and vinyl records near the wigs and shoes that belonged to a Greek belly dancer. Antique leather airplane goggles that seem to have been burnt in a fire hang next to a battered mannequin.
Almost everything is a history lesson.
“This is a piaster fez,” Naguib says holding a dark-red, bucket-shaped cap with a black silk tassel from the 1930s — one of the first made in Egypt. A nationalist “piaster plan” encouraged each Egyptian to donate a coin — a piaster — to build factories, rather than rely on imported goods such as the hats.
Naguib’s cluttered apartment in downtown Cairo contains one of his most treasured possessions — a rare, early photo of a young Umm Kulthum, the legendary 20th century Egyptian singer. She is leaning against a pillar. He coveted the photo for years before he could afford to buy it.
As for current history, he says he watched the revolution that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak unfold from his window six years ago.
“In 2011, I wrote 15 pages about the revolution and what happened and I buried it under the parquet floor,” says Naguib, pouring a cup of coffee from a French press carafe. He envisages the journal beneath the wooden floorboards as a surprise gift to an unknown future owner.
“Because for Amgad, this would be the most amazing thing that would happen to him — if he were fixing something and something fell out of the wall,” says his wife, McClure, a translator. She brings out a plate of homemade blueberry muffins and then perches on an art deco chair as she rolls a cigarette.
For Naguib, the thrill of discovery is as much a lure as the long-forgotten objects themselves.
“When I walk into a place — a basement or a villa or an apartment — and I find a thick layer of dust,” he says, “my heart starts beating faster.”