On Martyr’s Road in Downtown Cairo, the ghosts of Egypt’s uprising haunt every single step.
After the terrible clashes which erupted here in November last year, the long thoroughfare leading east off Tahrir Square became an unofficial shrine for Egypt’s revolutionaries; its walls transformed by street art into a mesmerising point of pilgrimage.
The murals, which included Banksy-style stencils depicting victims of the regime, clearly unsettled the Egyptian Government – one evening in September, municipal workers arrived under the cover of darkness to whitewash some of the artwork.
But memories die hard on Martyr’s Road, the unofficial name given by some activists to Mohamed Mahmoud St and the long wall of the American University in Cairo which has now become a giant outdoor canvas.
Within hours, Egypt’s industrious graffiti artists were back.
“There is a feeling that Downtown Cairo and Tahrir Square is our land,” said Ammar Abo Bakr, a well-known artist who was one of the first people back in Mohamed Mahmoud St to try and undo the government’s handy-work. “We need to say that this is our place, and we can write whatever we want.”
The result is spectacular – an open air “gallery of the people”, which is fast becoming something of an unofficial tourist attraction.
In the manner of the Berlin Wall before it, a place of death and despair has been transformed into a promenade of iconoclastic beauty.
One of the first murals to take shape after last month’s clean-up job featured a placid-looking painter being menaced by a devilish, club-wielding police chief, – a tongue-in-cheek sideswipe at the government’s attitude to street art.
Further along, away from Tahrir Square, is an enormous mural dedicated to the 79 football fans killed during the Port Said stadium disaster earlier this year.
Numerous other victims of state-orchestrated violence have been commemorated along the street. Alaa Abd el-Hady, a medical student killed during a military crackdown on protesters in December, looms in a dreamy 3.5m-high mural near the AUC entrance; Mina Daniel, an activist shot through the heart when soldiers attacked a Coptic demonstration in October last year, in a series of stark stencils; and then there’s Khaled Saeed, the Alexandrian man beaten to death by police in 2010 who became a posthumous figurehead of the uprising.
“People have been visiting Mohamed Mahmoud like it is a shrine,” said Ganzeer, an artist who hit the headlines last year when he was arrested for putting up posters advertising an anti-government demonstration. “It has become more important than the actual graves of the victims.”
The consecration of Martyr’s St as a temple of revolutionary memory came alongside an explosion in street art which followed the downfall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Graffiti has not always been the preserve of Egypt’s liberals. Spray-painted reminders close to mosques often encourage women to wear the veil, said Soraya Morayef, or ask worshippers to perform the wudu – washing their hands before prayer.
But when it comes to much of the post-revolutionary artwork, it has often assumed a decidedly liberal overtone.
“The artists were themselves the fighters and revolutionaries,” explained Sherif Boraie. “Generally, there were few Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis and they are not known for open progressive artistic minds.”