Salon Modhab – صالون مُدْهَب

اهلا بكم في صالونا المدهب - صالون بيوت الطبقة الوسطى

 Salon Modhab: The Gilded Salons of Contemporary Egyptian Homes 

by Lina El-Shamy

اهلًا بكم في أول دراسة أكاديمية عن اوضة الصالون (المُدْهَب) المصرية — الاوضة المخصصة للضيوف وغالبا مفروشة بحاجات غالية ومزخرفة وقيمة. لو إتربيت في بيت فيه صالون، هي الأوضة اللي كانت غالباً محظورة عليك. ايه سبب وتاريخ انتشار الصالون؟ ايه علاقة المساحة المنزلية دي بالشارع والمساحات العامة؟ ما هو تأثير الأوضة دي على حياتنا اليومية؟

قريبا بالعربي

This is the room where you will most likely be seated on a visit to any Egyptian home today: the salon room. If you grew up in an Egyptian household, this is the room that was probably off-limits to you as a child. The salon room is a distinctive feature of many Egyptian homes regardless of social class—and size. It is the room dedicated to special and unexpected guests where everything is furnished in intricately carved and heavily gilded rococo ornamentation. Whereas they were once exclusive to the palaces of Egyptian kings and wealthy pashas—and now, presidents—el-salon el-modhab (the gilded salon) today is a glimmering feature of Egyptian popular visual and material culture. They do not only ubiquitously occupy a special place in domestic space, but are also aggressively conspicuous in the numerous overly-lit furniture showrooms and overspilling furniture workshops found on many Egyptian streets. 

Television serial ‘Ayza Atgawez (I Want to Get Married), 2010 (based on the 2008 novel by Ghada Abdel-‘al).

Whenever I told any Egyptian about my doctoral research topic, the two most common reactions were either laughter or disgust—which is really more than what any doctoral student could hope for, and definitely much better than a silent nod, generic ‘interesting’, or at worst having no clue as to what I’m referring to. The familiarity with gilded salons, which are so culturally prevalent in Egypt, brings back intimate memories to the minds of Egyptians and makes it a topic that hits home, literally. They laugh because they think it is ridiculous—it is sort of a millennial generational joke by now—or because they did not expect such an answer when asking about my very-important academic research. Domestic salons seem to be the material of satirical comedy sketches, especially if the topic is marriage, not a serious academic study (see, for instance, the comedy television serial ‘Ayza Atgawez, 2010 based on the 2008 novel by Ghada Abdel-‘al).

 

Others (myself included) are fascinated by the topic because it embodies many contradictions. It is seemingly irrelevant and apolitical, yet people’s reactions attest to its relevance and politics. They have grown up with it: it was always there, where they can glimpse it glimmering in a dark room in their own homes or in their relatives’ homes, but it also might as well not be there since it was rarely used. They love it and hate it. They think it is uncomfortable and yet comfortable (only aesthetically, probably). Most intellectuals and artists said they would never think about buying such furniture—and were sometimes critical of those who did—but they are interested in protecting its industry and improving the working conditions of the craftsmen who manufacture and carve it. It looks European, perhaps Ottoman, and yet very local. Popularly handmade by Egyptian craftsmen in the port city of Domyat (Damietta) since the 1920s, the style of Egyptian salon furniture today is a contemporary translation of eighteenth-century French Louis design, thus complicating what may seem to some, at first glance, imported European furniture.

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Gilding craftsman (mdahabati) at work in his workshop, Domyat, Egypt

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Caption: My parents’ engagement party (khutooba) in Alexandria, Egypt, 1988.

People I talked to often revealed how their relationship to spaces within their own home are entangled with issues of belonging (intima’), ownership, and stability (istiqrar). They expressed sentiments towards their own homes that were not so different from feelings of displacement, estrangement, transgression, ‘taboo’, or even exile. For instance, many of my interlocutors expressed feelings of alienation towards their own salon rooms, stating their dislike for how it is a closed room that is open only for strangers (nas aghrab) and yet occupies a significant amount of space that could be repurposed to something more useful (like a larger living-room space or a children’s playroom).

While some explained their attachment to and

appreciation of the salon and its beautiful furnishings,

one middle-aged man went as far as telling me he

 has no feelings towards the salon whatsoever since

this room is not his; “it belongs to guests.”

 My maternal aunt’s salon room, Roshdi, Alexandria, Egypt.

As a bourgeois space, the salon is the room that is always ready to be exposed to the public gaze; its raison-d'être is the reception of the most important guests, only. Many Egyptian parents will agree that the most important guests are a prospective suitor (‘arees) and his family. It is in this room that the suitor and his family visit the bride (‘aroosa) and her family for the first time. Sometimes, it is where the suitor and the bride themselves meet each other for the first time. This prevalent type of semi-arranged marriage is known in Egypt as ‘salons marriage’ (gawaz salonat). If all goes well, the salon room is also where most occasions hosted in the home occur, most commonly engagement parties (khutooba) and marriage ceremonies (katb el-ketab), where bride and groom sit on gilded furniture and exchange rings. Many portraits are taken in the salon, making it the backdrop to photographs that will live for future generations to see in family albums from the era of film photography and now, of course, virtually on screens. While gilded salon furniture has been a standard photographic prop for official portraits from past centuries, the domestic middle-class salon has become a popular location for more mundane but nonetheless special portraits like birthday, holiday, or first-day-of-school portraits of one’s children. In all these cases, the salon becomes a venue that captures milestones and hosts desires for permanence, stability, and projections for the future. Certainly, the material qualities of salon furnishings, like their conformity, bulkiness, fragility, and difficulty to move, seem to reflect exactly those desires. As one twenty-six-year-old woman (who unironically works in an insurance company) put it to me, everyday use of the salon is forbidden “so that it stays the same no matter how much time passes (hatta yabqa kama howa mahma mar al-zaman).”

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My parents’ engagement party (khutooba) in Alexandria, Egypt, 1988.

People I talked to often revealed how their relationship to spaces within their own home are entangled with issues of belonging (intima’), ownership, and stability (istiqrar). They expressed sentiments towards their own homes that were not so different from feelings of displacement, estrangement, transgression, ‘taboo’, or even exile. For instance, many of my interlocutors expressed feelings of alienation towards their own salon rooms, stating their dislike for how it is a closed room that is open only for strangers (nas aghrab) and yet occupies a significant amount of space that could be repurposed to something more useful (like a larger living-room space or a children’s playroom).

While some explained their attachment to and appreciation of the salon and its beautiful furnishings, one middle-aged man went as far as telling me he has no feelings towards the salon whatsoever since this room is not his;

“it belongs to guests.”

الاستخدام اليومي للصالون ممنوع حتى يبقى كما هو مهما مر الزمان

Domestic salon furniture should not be seen as ‘inside’ or invisible, though it may do the work of protecting privacy through concealing other spaces of the home. In fact, many people saw the salon room as the outer façade of a home, the space that ‘represents’ the family’s ideal version of itself. It is perhaps a room whose importance surpasses that of the actual façade of a building. Sometimes, it seemed that there was an inverse correlation between the condition of building façades and the extravagance of the salons housed in these buildings! Since this space largely shapes the first impression that strangers will have of the family, it has to be ‘legitimizing’ and ‘dignifying’, striking a balance between conforming to salon-space aesthetic expectations and showing off some effort at individualized taste, all the while concealing the family’s private life and its everyday clutter—an individual taste within hegemonic sensible orders. Perhaps like the over-maintained streets trodden by important officials, the guest entering the home must feel important and honoured—and that everything is alright in the world. Presidents sit on gilded chairs because anything else will not express the same statehood legitimacy. In domestic settings, gilded salon furniture can likewise be seen as performing the same legitimizing act.

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Domyat, Egypt

My then one-year-old son joined me on all my fieldwork trips. The salon, as all Egyptians know, is not a place for toddlers keen on touching and exploring everything around them. They must be distant observers, and appreciate beauty with a ‘disinterestedness’ that disregards our vulgar personal needs, as dictated by the proper decorum of Kantian aesthetic theory. By all measures, my toddler and I broke many rules. Perhaps the most scandalous and ironic of them happened when I noticed that I was breastfeeding my son on a gilded sofa upholstered with Aubusson tapestry that depicted the popular rococo image of a breastfeeding mother (known to Egyptians as the image of al-morde‘a, the breastfeeder). In my conversations, this image was a “peaceful” image for some and utterly unacceptable for others. This image, along with ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and flower bouquets, are the most popular images for Aubusson tapestries used in salon upholstery in Egypt.

 My son in a salon room, Roshdy, Alexandria

Wood carving (oyma) workshop, Abdin, Cairo

Upholsterer (menaggéd) workshop, Attarin, Alexandria, Egypt

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Souq al-Tork, al-Mansheyyah district, Alexandria, Egypt

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 al-Manasrah district, Cairo

غرفة الصالون دي مش بتاعتي أساسا بتاعة الضيوف

ماما كانت دايما تحط الحاجات القيمة او تخبيها فيها علشان مش بندخلها كتير. فا كانت فرصه حلوه للاستكشاف 

By focusing on a contradictory room that is both loved and hated, intimate and formal, rarely used and overly maintained, relevant and irrelevant, I invite you to ponder on the following questions: What are Egyptians’ relationship to ‘public’ space in relation to their everyday lives at home? Do Egyptians’ feelings of alienation from and ambivalence towards ‘public’ space result in their increased introverted dedication to domestic space—a dedication that culminates in the extravagant salon? Why are they (still) popular today and how does this popularity relate to contemporary Egyptian sentiments on private/public space? Can this voluntary cordoning-off of the salon room from the inhabitants of the home and for guests be read as a parallel to what is happening to Egyptian public space? If the popularity of the salon room is decreasing among newer generations, and indeed strong opinions against it are on the rise, does this reflect new intellectual (or dare I say, revolutionary) stances on the politics of the street and citizens’ rights to it? 

العادى فى مصر ان الضيوف يأتوا فجأه فلازم يكون فى مكان جاهز ونضيف على طول لهذه الكبسه المفاجئة

Smouha, Alexandria

About Lina El Shamy

Lina El-Shamy is a graphic artist, material culture
& design historian, visual anthropologist, and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. Her research concerns the paradoxes of everyday life in contemporary Egypt. Lina was born in Alexandria, Egypt, grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and immigrated to Canada at age 15, making her life a postmodern jumble of everything her heart desires. You can follow her recent research on everything salon modhab here.

 

Instagram: @linaelshamy

Twitter: @linaelshamy

E-mail: linaelshamy@gmail.com

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BE PART OF SALON MODHAB! Yalaaa
 

This project is my dissertation-in-progress. I would love to hear your opinions on and stories about everything salon modhab! Please fill this survey or reach out to me via email (linaelshamy@gmail.com) or whatsapp

(+44 7432 400 114 – text or voice note).

Survey link: https://forms.gle/igfMRRqEdUckHNMV7