interviewed by Samar Martha, January 2007

How did you start your career as an artist?

I started working at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo in 2000 as a security guard and became friendly with the Scottish artist Martin McInally and the Egyptian artist Huda Lutfi who both had studios in the building. Both of them used to talk to me about their work and what it meant to them. They encouraged me to look at the work of other artists around the gallery and the different ways that they were expressing themselves. At the time my life was so different from theirs, making art was like learning another language. I think it was these two artists and the support of the Director of the Gallery that made such a change in my life.

How did your family and friends perceive your decision? Were they supportive?

My family live in a village out of Cairo and life was not easy for them. The fact that I had a job and was getting a salary was the most important thing, they didn't understand the art I was making or why anyone would be interested in it. I think my family was just pleased that I seemed to have settled into the gallery, was being paid and had some stability. Almost everyone I know my age was/is unemployed or working for so little money that they could just survive. Basically my family never had dreams of me becoming a doctor or professional, like most of my friends families, they dream of their kids having a job that provides enough to live.

In your artwork 'Iftar' you touch on sensitive issues: religion, social class, traditions... topics that are rarely dealt with in conservative societies? Why did you choose these subjects?

All my life I have been tied to the street and the people that work in the street. Whether in the village or Cairo, life is hard for the normal person. No one is interested in them, their lives or their problems. In Egypt it is considered offensive or a bad thing to take pictures of the ordinary people and the lives they are forced to live, as they feel it gives bad impression of the country. I never understood this. If the government is ashamed of the way people are forced to live, then change it, not hide it.

During Ramadan in almost every street in the country people stop working and break their fast together at tables like the one in the video. Most of the tables are charity tables and like the one in 'Iftar', provide not just a meal but also a sense of belonging. Anyone can join the table and is welcome and equal to the others. It is the true spirit of Islam. When I saw a copy of the Da Vinci's Last Supper, I thought it was a Muslim Iftar and when the Christian significance was explained to me, I was sure the meaning was the same. Why was the rest of the world celebrating a simple supper shared by a group of simple men and in Egypt, that meal was taking place everyday and was a source of shame. By trying to film this Iftar in a way that drew from Da Vinci's painting I thought that people would understand it and recognize the dignity that is involved.

Did you have any problems showing this work in Egypt?

When the work was shown in Cairo, the press condemned it as defamation of the country and wanted the gallery closed. For me it was interesting that they were never aware of the religious connection but concentrated on the fact that my work was depicting poor people eating with their hands.

Last autumn I completed an installation work using Koshary - the staple diet of Egyptians everywhere in the country - a cheap and filling but not particularly healthy food. Using photographs and photo shop I inserted Koshary pots (with my image on them) in the hands of world leaders who have taken part in the various peace processes over the last century. The Exhibition was called Koshary min Zamaan (Koshary from the past or in Egyptian slang Koshary from the Man) creating a fictitious family business that catered for these summits ensuring the leaders were satisfied and content but the results were generally unhealthy. The installation consisted of a reconstructed Koshary shop found in every street in the country with the pictures placed in a traditional manner around images of the shop owners.

What are you working on now?

I would like to continue working with the people and places that make up life in Egypt today, highlighting our true lives, not the Red Sea or the Pyramids.