When is a kiosk not just a kiosk? When it's a microcosm of the city we live in, says Jasmine Soliman, the curator of The Koshk Project - a brilliant initiative planned to map out koshks and expose their histories through an art exhibition...
There are many things we, as citizens of our ever-so-tumultuous city, take for granted. We never take the time to think about them; how they started, how they're run, why they exist. You'll find a myriad of examples: fruits and vegetable carts, the Robabikya guy…and koshks. Have you ever stopped and wondered, what is a koshk? Have you ever asked the koshk guy you've been going to ever since you could remember: How did you start out? Do you even know his name? Do you know his story? Not many people do. In fact, no one probably asks them for much more than a lighter and a bag of Chipsy. Koshks are just there, whether you want them to be or not.
Enter The Koshk Project. No, it's not a project that helps people open koshks (although that was our initial thought). The Koshk Project is an art project, initiated by Jasmine Soliman, which slowly but surely morphed into an urban study of the culture of kiosks in the country. Soliman is an abstract painter who is "completely obsessed with koshks, unhealthily so," and decided to start The Koshk Project out of a pure obsession with them. You're probably wondering, why would anyone be passionate about kiosks? According to Soliman, “Koshks embody everything about Egyptian cities, they are little microcosms of life. They're chaotic but perfectly organised. They span every class, which very few things in this city do. Everybody needs a koshk for something."
Armed with a translator, Soliman is going around interviewing kiosk owners as part of the study phase for her project, concentrating on "how they see themselves as part of the neighbourhood, their history and how they came to be such an integral part of our cities." Surprisingly, there are hubs and gossip scenes for kiosks: they know everything about everyone. The Koshk Project, while originally focused on Cairo, has now expanded to include other cities in the country, such as Aswan. Her research has exposed Soliman to a lot of interesting people and a lot of interesting histories, having found one that’s been in operation since the 1930s. “One of my favourite stories came from a koshk in Aswan. It’s currently run by a girl, whose father and grandfather both ran it before her and she told me a wonderful tale. When her father ran the koshk it was the only one in the area that had imported cigarettes and Anwar Sadat, before he was president, would visit him and get his favourite brand. Sometimes he didn’t have money so her grandfather wouldn’t charge him. When Sadat became president, he made an official visit back to the koshk to thank him.”
One of the interesting aspects about kiosks that inspired Soliman's project is that "they feed the necessaries of the city. We have no place to park or time to stop at a proper little convenience store." Looking at it from that perspective, kiosks are seen as a support system for the city's overworked inhabitants. When asked about competition between kiosks, she answered: "Sometimes they'll say we sell this product or that product which nobody else does and they're super proud of it, which is awesome. Other times, they're like meh, we're all the same."
Soliman was also called upon to disperse all the rumors surrounding kiosks. We've been wondering if kiosk owners are secret billionaires for a while now and Soliman concurs, mentioning a time when a kiosk owner's son passed by to pick up “a huge wad of cash.” Also, contrary to popular belief, kiosks are NOT portals to other dimensions. Shocking, right? For someone who’s a self-confessed koshk addict, we also had to offer Soliman 5 LE to see what she’d buy. “Probably Borios and this citrus flavoured gum I’m addicted to.” Good choices in our books.
But what do kiosk owners do in their free time? Do they sit around aimlessly or do they entertain themselves by judging people? "They try to know everything that’s happening around them in their little microcosm of a world, so they really do know who just got married, who got divorced, who's sneaking around late at night," Soliman laughs. She also clears up how kiosks come about: "They mainly say, ‘well, it's something to do with your life. It's better than sitting at home.’ I think probably most people didn't have any alternative job prospects.”
Other than the exhibition that's going to be the fruit of the project's efforts, Soliman intends on creating "a mapping system, a website where you can find out which koshks sells what. For example, this is the only koshk in Maadi that sells this brand of cigarettes". Think Foursquare, but for kiosks. Soliman also tries to delve into the sub-culture of koshk hangouts, or elspotaya, an infamous pastime for the majority of teen boys in this country. "I'm probably going to spend a few evenings hanging out with 16 year old boys at koshks!" she exclaims.
The Koshk Project is honestly one of the most exciting art projects we've stumbled on in a while. Even though it's still in its preliminary phases, it's shaping up to be quite an interesting mission and we look forward to seeing how it turns out. Also, The Koshk Project is currently on the lookout for an intern so contact them on their Facebook page here or on their Twitter account @KoshkProject for more details and information.