Townhouse Salons

Townhouse Salons

Since October 2014, our library has been hosting and running the Townhouse Salons program, a monthly series of informal conversations open to the public, and held in either Arabic or English. For each salon we invite an artist, writer or critic to curate a topic of their choice, including sharing and discussing relevant texts and/or audiovisual material.

The Townhouse salons have brought together a mixed audience with guest speakers from different ages and backgrounds.  Previous guest speakers include Nael El Toukhy, Mohamed El Masry, Mona El Namoury, Jehan Bseiso, Haytham El Wardany, Ania Szremski, Ismail Fayed, Iman Mersal, Heba Khalifa and Youssef Rakha.

We are happy to present you with a work-in-progress archive of our past Townhouse Salons, including the relevant reading material. Audio recordings of recent and upcoming talks will be also made available on our soundcloud channel.

Townhouse Salon #1 with Nael El Toukhy (October 2014)

October’s Salon, held in Arabic, took language and the writing process as its theme. Writer Nael Eltoukhy (author of the acclaimed novel Women of Karantina) discussed Arabic as a Semitic language, and reflected on the boundaries and treatment of Ammiyah and Modern Standard Arabic in literature and his own writing.
The texts up for discussion were selections from Writings in Egyptian Colloquial, 1401-2009, written by Humphrey Davies and Madiha Doss. They are downloadable here: and

Townhouse Salon #2 with Mohamed El Masry (November 2014)

Do we know? Can we express what we know or what we imagine we know?

As Cairo primes itself for three film festivals in November, Townhouse invited film writer Mohamed Elmasry to lead the November Salon on the filmmaker’s relationship to story and place in cinema. Iranian and Egyptian neo-realist films acted as points of departure for the discussion, as three shorts were screened: Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Bread and the Alley” (1970), Mohamed Khan’s “The Watermelon” (1972), and Victor Erice’s “Lifeline” (2002)

With Salon attendees, Elmasry investigated and compared the social and the political in the post-revolutionary Iranian cinematic tradition to contemporary currents in Egyptian cinema. We probed the notion of the film as a tale of place and as a reflection of "the eye” in the head of a poet.
The texts read for this Salon were an interview with Abbas Kiarostami in Nada Al-Azhari’s Contemporary Iranian Cinema ( and Mohamed Elmasry’s “Seven Commandments to Follow in the Footsteps of Iranian Cinema" (

Townhouse Salon #3 with Mona El Namoury (December 2014)

“I want to write because reality fills me with a sense of alienation. Silence only increases my alienation, while confession opens up so that I may head out towards the others or they may come to me themselves.” - Radwa Ashour.

This month, Townhouse commemorated the late Egyptian novelist and academic Radwa Ashour, whose literary and critical oeuvre at once embodied fiercely personal sentiments and greater reflections of her generation's voice in Egyptian history.

Short story writer and English literature lecturer at Tanta and MSA universities, Mona Elnamoury, led the December Salon on Ashour's novella Siraaj: An Arab Tale (1992). Told in poignant, undecorated prose, Siraaj is at its core a narrative of revolt, loss, and waiting. With Elnamoury, Salon attendees engaged with excerpts from the text to further lay bare Ashour’s process of imagining and telling a history of subalterns that travels beyond Siraaj's imaginary island

The set of excerpts for the Salon and Elnamoury’s essay on Siraaj are available here ( and here (

Townhouse Salon #4 with Jehan Bseiso (January 2015)

How to tame a wild tongue? A conversation with Palestinian Poet Jehan Bseiso, after Gloria Anzaldua.

The January Salon was led by Palestinian poet Jehan Bseiso, whose poetry engages with themes of memory, identity, and resistance. Bseiso performed a selection of her work, then devoting the conversation to the role of the artist as witness and the use of memory and language in poetry. The Salon was foregrounded by cultural theorist and writer Gloria Anzaldua's powerful writing on the concept of borderlands, and how our identities are necessarily complex, beyond the black and white formulations of power.

In preparation for the Salon, we read a collection of Bseiso's poems (, Anzaldua's "How to Tame a Wild Tongue" from her book, Borderlands/La Frontera ( and her poem "To Live in the Borderlands Means You" (

Townhouse Salon #5 with Haytham El Wardany (April 2015)

—Sleep is the position of being disconnected from the production cycle
— Sleep is the acceptance of a certain defeat
— Sleep is the act which brings the day after

In the first of our two Salons this month, writer Haytham El-Wardany (author of How to Disappear) considered sleep in the context of disaster. Sleep as a gesture, as act and non-act.  Disaster as a failure of politics.  Awakening as a classic metaphor for revolution and political change.

During the salon, El-Wardany read excerpts from his project on Sleep, in addition to his “Notes on Disaster” published in ArteEast’s Winter 2015 issue, found here:

Townhouse Salon #6 Ania Szremski and Ismail Fayed (May 2015)

What we talk about when we talk about art? What is it, exactly, that we talk about when we talk about art, and why aren’t we talking about it more?

Debates regarding the so-called “crisis in art criticism” have been waged internationally since at least 2003, when James Elkins published Whatever Happened to Art Criticism?, a slim volume in which he argued for a more robustly polemic form of arts writing. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, theorists like Bruno LaTour have advocated for an anti-skeptical criticism, a criticism that would strive to engage with and heighten the experience of an artwork instead of arguing, judging, or demystifying. In Cairo, however, these critiques of critique have tended to be subsumed by one overarching complaint that there simply is no critical writing culture, full stop — a lack that is often pointed to as a major weakness in the art scene, one that has significantly hindered its development. By surveying examples of art criticism dating back to the late 1800s, the problem of writing about art in Arabic becomes clear to us, as we historically trace the colonial, post-colonial, and neoliberal dimensions that manifested themselves in these criticisms and critical stances.

We invited curator Ania Szremski and writer/researcher Ismail Fayed to weigh in on the relative validity of that critique while situating local arts writing within this larger “crisis.” Using Elkins’ text as a starting point, the conversation touched on examples of art criticism in English and Arabic as we try to pin down what basic building blocks and terms of judgment we use in critical arts writing today. What kind of art historical baggage do those words carry? And most importantly, once we understand what exactly it is that we’re saying, would it be possible to find a different way to say it — and is that even necessary?

The text read for the Salon is Jim Elkin’s “On the Absence of Judgment in Art Criticism” (2004). Other recommended readings are: Bruno Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” (2003):…/fil…/89-CRITICAL-INQUIRY-GB.pdf and Hal Foster’s “Post Critical” (2012):

Townhouse Salon #7 with Mohamed Rabie (June 2015)

During the process of writing the novel "Otared", Mohamed Rabie has gone through a number of books. Some of them acted as reference to historical events and others opened up ideas and plot-lines for the novel. But few paragraphs were moving and have inspired significant parts of "Otared". During the salon, Mohamed Rabie read out excerpts from those books that have strongly affected his novel. The readings included passages from Al Nogoum Al Zahera, Bada’ee El Zohour, as well as poems by Fouad Haddad, Charles Bukowski, and parts of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.
As a backdrop, we heard music by Henryk Gorecki and Pärt, composers whose music accompanied Rabie during his journey of finishing his novel.

Townhouse Salon #8 with Iman Mersal (July 2015)

Iman Mersal’s poetry collection “A Dark Alley Suitable for Learning to Dance” (1995) was one of the very few anthologies that marked a major shift in the status of contemporary Arabic poetry.

Her work, along with others, revealed a different perception of poetry and the poet, of the nature of the first and the role of the latter, of what poetry is capable of and what could be expected of the poet. The conversation, moderated by writer and translator Ahmed Shafie, tried to answer how did this transition begin, and hat drove an entire generation of poets to step out of their safe haven of comfort zones to venture risking out in an unexplored unknown territory.

Townhouse Salon #9 with Heba Khalifa (October 2016)

“When one woman puts her experiences into words, another woman who has kept silent, afraid of what others will think, can find validation. And when the second woman says aloud, ‘yes, that was my experience too,’ the first woman loses some of her fear.”
- Carol P. Christ / Diving Deep & Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest

We were very pleased to invite the artist and photojournalist, Heba Khalifa, in an intimate conversation about her latest projects «Homemade» . Heba Khalifa is a multimedia artist, photojournalist and painter. After graduating from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo with a bachelor’s degree in set design, she studied at the High Institute of Art Critics. She started using photography as an essential part of her artistic projects and interest in documenting and representing women and gender issues. Heba Khalifa is also a founding member of “Shouf”: A collective of 8 photojournalists who use photography as means of expressing ideas and principles of life.

Townhouse Salon #10 with Youssef Rakha (March 2017)

The new season of the Townhouse salon series kicked off with a conversation with writer and poet, Youssef Rakha. In preparation for the Salon, Rakha read a selection of his poems in conjunction with the poems that inspired them, including Sargon Boulus’s 'An Angel Appears' and Ezra Pound's 'Exile's Letter'. The readings were accompanied by a discussion about themes, background, style, and history-of-literature context.