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30 Aug 2019 / by Ala Younis

Nefertiti in a Museum: On Memory and its Artefacts

A mint green, old fashioned metal sewing machine stands on a white surface against a white background. The metal is rusted in places. White Arabic text is printed on its arm, and an illustration of the bust of Nefertiti is printed on its side.

Ala Younis. Nefertiti (detail), 2008. Five sewing machines and wood with video. Courtesy of the artist

Artist Ala Younis examines the history of the Nefertiti sewing machine in Egypt—the story of its making and of its social and cultural context.

When I first came across the Nefertiti sewing machine in a Cairo flea market in 2008, my Egyptian peers were able to identify the logo inscribed on the machine, which carried the number 54. I thought this number identified the year that the machine was produced, but it turned out to be the name of the military factory where it was made, which was named after the year the factory was founded. The machine was created in a process of reverse engineering, emulating the design of the Swedish Husqvarna,[1] and was produced some time in the late 1950s and early 1960s.[2] It was/is pistachio green and curvaceous, with its name, Nefertiti, inscribed in off-white Arabic calligraphy on its beam, a colour drawing resembling the head of Nefertiti at the bottom of its column, and the factory logo at its top. On the back of the machine is a metal plaque detailing the place of the machine’s making and the name of the factory—evidencing the story of its making.

Military factories were crucial to the development of the Egyptian Republic after the revolution, or coup d'état, of 23 July 1952, which was led by generals Mohammed Naguib, who became the first Egyptian president between 1952 and 1954, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt from 1954 to 1970.

Modernisation and nationalisation were the twin pillars that shaped Nasser’s vision for Egypt, and 23 July was celebrated each year with inaugurations of various projects, accompanied by the launch of parades and commemorative published editions. The earliest and most popular nationalisation project was the Suez Canal, which had been under French and British control since its construction in 1869. In 1956, Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company during a live broadcasted speech, as his military officers walked into the company’s offices to take it over.

The nationalisation of the Suez Canal led to severe air and land aggressions on Egypt by Israel, Britain, and France that year. Nasser responded to the so-called Tripartite Aggression by nationalising a series of the republic’s banks, companies, and major industrial entities, initiating a slew of industrial, infrastructural and cultural projects, and drafting land reform laws that redistributed land ownership to fall more fairly in the hands of Egypt’s peasantry. A programme of plane and rocket building was soon launched in three factories. Among the factories that were active by 1960 was Factory 333, in which 1000 workers and engineers—backed by the knowledge of 250 German and foreign experts—secretly built rockets, while another factory built fighter planes.

Between 1960 and 1965, the German news magazine Der Spiegel ran extensive articles on the German experts recruited to work in Egypt’s factories during this period. Prevented from developing weapons inside Germany after World War II, they were designing and building sewing machines, cabin scooters, and pumps until they saw an ad in German newspapers seeking ‘professionals of all kinds’ to work in an aircraft plant in North Africa. The anticipated output was the HA300, which was designed by the masterful German aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt, who moved to Egypt to work on the project. The HA300 was put to the test between 1963 and 1964.

Nasser launched three homemade rockets during his time, which were named Al Kahir (the conqueror), Al Raed (the pioneer), and Al Zafir (the victorious). In July 1962, he showed off Al Kahir in a military parade staged in Cairo on the cornice of the Nile. Caught on film, rockets were laid horizontally on carts and driven between thousands of spectators, passing in front of a podium where the president and his guests followed the event. It is said that these rockets were hollow pods, replicas for display, made especially for such a parade, given how risky it would be to expose the real rockets under open skies (or Israeli eyes). Nevertheless, they were presented to the public as the ultimate products of a military programme that aimed to make the Egyptian army the strongest in the region. Rather than a parade of soldiers, this was a march of military products produced by home factories.

Pencil drawing of a missile with Arabic text and the UAR flag printed on it. The missile is set up on low stands on the ground. A man walks next to it.

Ala Younis. UAR (The Rocket Project), 2014. Carbon transfers and pencil on paper. Courtesy of the artist

As part of his sovereign industrial project, Nasser promised to produce everything locally, from the needle to the rocket.[3] But while Egypt’s industrial military output was put on full public display, a state-issued industrial guide from 1963 compiling the information of 3,280 factories from 132 towns or large villages in Egypt did not mention any military factories—even those engaged in making domestic products. The total number of workers counted in the guide was 457,600, and the capital invested amounted to EGP 545,200,000.[4] Each factory employed ten or more workers, and produced everything from processed foodstuff, tobacco, leather products, plastics, building materials, television sets, and refrigerators.[5]

A 1965 list, however, outlines each military factory’s product specialisation. Television sets and radios were made in Banha (Factory 144), telephones in Maasara (Factory 45), while sewing machines were the first among the products to be manufactured at Maadi Military & Civil Industries Co., a.k.a. Military Factory 54, whose civil division also manufactured meat grinders, surgery tools, hunting rifles, and agricultural products.[6] The logos of these factories and their numbers were inscribed onto the bodies of the products that they produced, which were sold at government outlets and department stores.

The Nefertiti sewing machine was one such item.

It was not easy to find information about Nefertiti sewing machines. They are among the products produced in Egypt whose designs were not documented at the time, nor were their production lines shown in photographs, due to the fact that they were being produced in military facilities. Al Musawar magazine, a state-run publication, ran extensive illustrated reports on the modernisation of the cultural, industrial, political, and traditional customs of Egypt. Its past volumes are stored in the archives of Dar Al Hilal, a publishing house that was nationalised by Nasser in 1960. I looked at magazine issues published during Nasser’s rule between 1954 and 1970, as well as the decade of the third Egyptian president, Muhammad Anwar Sadat, who was in power from 1970 to 1981. Amid reporting on the industrial outcomes of the state-supported revolution in the textile, steel, and rocket industries from the 1960s, I found an ad for the Nefertiti machine. The ad stated that the machine could be operated by hand, a foot pedal or by motor, and it was available at government-affiliated Omar Effendi department stores and Singer shops.

Printed black and white advertisement in Arabic featuring an illustration of a sewing machine on a table. A woman in high heels, a business-like shirt, and a skirt stands next to the table, holding her hand up to her chin with a slight smile on her face.

Advertisement featuring the Nefertiti sewing machine (date unknown), found in Al Musawar Magazine, Dar Al Hilal Archives, Cairo, 2008. Courtesy of the artist

Today, the website of Factory 54 shows an image of Nasser dressed in military garb during the factory’s inauguration in 1954, the year Nasser came to power. But the Nefertiti sewing machine has all but disappeared. In Cairo, I asked people if they had heard of this particular sewing machine, and an old technician in one repair shop told me that it was sold in instalments for a total of 47 EGP. Women had to register on a waiting list that could take up to a few years before they could get their hands on one. At the time, there were around 17 million Egyptian females in 1960, with 85 percent of working age. One can imagine the potential sales and waiting time for such an object, given Nasser’s socialist regime, which severely limited the import of foreign goods. The technician told me all of this with an arm resting on a Singer; Nefertiti’s American rival painted in black and inscribed with golden patterns, which was sold around the world from 1851. The popularity of Singer machines persisted before and after Nefertiti’s manufacture, thanks to Singer’s network of distribution, not to mention the fact that home production of clothing at the time made a sewing machine a valuable household item.[7]

The exact dates of production for the Nefertiti sewing machines are unconfirmed—they most likely start somewhere in 1958, when Nasser struck a union with Syria to form the United Arab Republic (among Nasser’s most popular achievements), and 1971, when Egypt changed its name to the Arab Republic of Egypt after Nasser’s passing. This can be proven through a metal plaque placed at the back of each machine, which reads in Arabic: ‘Made in UAR’. In fact, when I bought my first five Nefertiti machines in Cairo, I took photos of only one machine whose plaque read differently: ‘Made in ARE’ (Arab Republic of Egypt). When I showed these photos to Ziad Dalloul, a Syrian painter whom I met through a workshop he organised in Amman, he said my theory that this machine was being made during Nasser’s time would be incorrect, since I was able to show evidence of a plaque that did not read ‘Made in UAR’. When I returned to the other machines, I found three of the five machines that I bought in 2008 were made in the UAR, and labelled as such.

Dalloul, who was born in 1953, said that many Arab leaders wanted to partner with Nasser during his rule, or to follow his lead by industrialising their own countries. Nasser gained instant popularity throughout the Arab world for his outspoken defiance of imperial powers (namely France, Britain and Israel), leading the establishment of the postcolonial republic and inspiring other former colonies in their approach towards their ex-colonisers. Algeria’s second president, Houari Boumédiène, for instance, in office from 1965 to 1978, built huge steel factories throughout the country, and produced large trucks in order to facilitate the transportation of the material. The second Iraqi president, Abdel-Salam Aref, who ruled from 1963 to 1966 following a military coup in 1958, nationalised the country’s banks and some industries, just as Nasser did.

A small metal plaque fastened to the back of a mint green sewing machine. It features a small abstract logo and Arabic text.

The 'Made in UAR' plaque from Younis's Nefertiti (detail). Courtesy of the artist

Aref actually wanted to join the United Arab Republic, despite the fact that the union ceased to exist two years before he assumed power in 1963. He died in 1966: killed when a helicopter, designed according to Soviet and British designs, crashed in Basra. Apparently Aref’s brother, Abdel-Rahman Aref, was informed that he was to become Iraq’s new president the next day, after he returned to Baghdad from Moscow. Some two years earlier, on 15 May 1964, Abdel-Salam Aref stood on a platform in Aswan with Nikita Khrushchev, Ahmed Ben Bella, the first Algerian president, and Nasser himself. Nasser was preparing to press a button that would blow the barriers holding the Nile’s water as part of the Aswan High Dam project, diverting the river to a new historical path created with the promise of electric power and prosperity for both Egypt’s agricultural and industrial societies. Nasser received a signal to press the button from a timer set by the cameras of director Youssef Chahine, who was filming the event.

For the same occasion, and as a token of the USSR-UAR partnership in building the Aswan High Dam, Nasser released a group of communists who had been imprisoned since 1959 as part of a severe political crackdown on local groups. Among the released were two writers, Adel Rifaat and Bahgat Elnadi, who left and settled in Paris, where they wrote jointly under a penname, Mahmoud Hussein. In 1969, they published La lutte de classes en Égypte de 1945 à 1968 (the English edition would follow, titled Class Conflict in Egypt 1945–1971), a book exploring how Egypt’s cotton industry became the colonial means to exert political control over the population and reduce it to poverty. The publication also tackled Nasser’s project of fighting the feudal system through what Hussein described as a capitalist transition—basically a rigorous industrial project to reposition Egypt (or UAR) as a force in the region.[8] The book was written in the wake of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. As the writers state, ‘In forming a response to the questions this defeat so brutally thrust at us, we were attempting to define the politico-social contradictions of the Nasser experience, beginning with its genesis’.[9]

Among the other communists released from prison was writer Sonallah Ibrahim, who, shortly after his release, travelled to the Aswan Dam site and recorded everything he saw over a three-month period in a notebook. Ibrahim left afterwards to settle in Berlin before travelling to Moscow, where he wrote and acted in Everything is Alright, Officer!—Mohammad Malas’s 1974 film chronicling the lives of incarcerated men during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when false news of victory was aired at the same time that a huge Israeli airstrike was destroying the majority of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. In Malas’s film, prisoners are seen celebrating as Egypt at large was already mourning defeat.

In response to the outcome of the 1967 war, Nasser resigned in a televised speech, which caused people to flood the streets demanding his return to power, and eventually led Nasser to go back on his decision. A few months later, Nasser gave another televised speech. He said that whatever had been invested in industry had brought returns for industry, mentioning some 800 factories that were created, though some were not yet fully operational. ‘They certainly give us products at present, products that allow us to not import from abroad’, he stated.[10] Referring to the Aswan High Dam project, which had not yet generated power or yielded any income, he continued: ‘If it were not for everything we have invested in industry, I do not know what we would be doing right now.’[11]

Following the 1967 defeat, a large campaign of donations overtook the country. Women gave away their gold to support the so-called war effort—Umm Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian singer, urged them to do so through weekly messages aired on radio. In fact, Umm Kulthum sang her lungs out around the Arab world after the 1967 war to raise funds for the Arab ‘war effort’. I was told that Umm Kulthum bought sewing machines from the military factories, which I assume were Nefertiti sewing machines, and gifted them to the families of the 1967 martyrs and those displaced by the conflict. This allowed women to support themselves and earn an income without the need to go out on the street, and enabled them to participate in the productive ‘family exhibitions’ that were staged yearly from 1964, through selling homemade objects.

Video still in which the image of a mint green metal sewing machine is repeated over and over in rows against a black background.

Video still from Younis's Nefertiti, 2008. Courtesy of the artist

This connection between Umm Kulthum and Nasser’s pan-Arab project of industrialisation adds another weight to the form of the Nefertiti sewing machine, with its curvaceous green body inscribed with the name of Egypt’s famous Pharaonic queen. In the second half of 1967, Um Kulthum wore a green dress when she performed in three fundraising concerts in Egypt and France—an article from the period speculates that her choice of colour was related to her upbringing as a peasant.[12] Umm Kulthum embodied Nefertiti, as much as the machine eventually came to symbolise Nasser himself and the project he envisioned: the needle indeed became the rocket, and the domestic became the political.

During the course of my research, it was interesting how the men I spoke with tended to tell the story of the Nefertiti sewing machine by describing themselves as products of the product; sons of households or repair shops that lived off a Nefertiti sewing machine. Some were fascinated to realise the object’s place in their own history, while others had formed clear opinions of what the machine represented. The old technician that I spoke with at the repair shop in Cairo, for instance, likened the Nefertiti sewing machine to the Nasser-made airplanes that crashed into the earth with their pilots inside.

In the 1975 film Al Karnak, directed by Aly Badrakhan, two disenchantments meet at the same time: the national defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the tortured aftermath, broken by lost ideals, morals and vast pieces of land.[13] A medical student walks into her poor parents’ flat excited to see that the Nefertiti sewing machine her mother ordered had finally arrived. Her father considers the machine nothing more than clutter that costs 1 EGP a month, paid to the government; but her mother is sure that this is a good gain.

Soon, government intelligence forces arrest this medical student and her fellow students, who are all to be tortured as part of interrogations seeking confessions, names, and acts deemed harmful to the nation. When the student returns home, she is seen lying on her bed surrounded by her parents and neighbours. She is unresponsive to their condolences, so they start to leave the room one by one, her sad father last, while the Nefertiti machine peeks through the doorway from the living room. The machine does not appear again in the film.

Film still showing a scene inside a house. A woman walks towards a mint green sewing machine on a table on the left with a delighted expression and a hand on her chest. Two other people sit by a table on the right.

Video still from Younis's Nefertiti, in which the protagonist of Al Karnak (dir. Aly Badrakhan, 1975) walks in to salute Nefertiti. Courtesy of the artist

Al Karnak was an adaptation of a novella by Naguib Mahfouz, who did not have the habit of dating his pieces, though he did add ‘December 1971’ and the word ‘Fin’ in Arabic at the end of this particular text. Interestingly, the novella does not mention a sewing machine at all, suggesting that the inclusion of the Nefertiti sewing machine in the above-mentioned scene was a conscious intervention by its makers. Perhaps they recognised the product’s status and wanted to remember the meaning of this object, choosing to incorporate it as a silent actor that could be spoken about but not with. Perhaps the film was an early attempt in reversing the engineering of Nasser’s projects against themselves. President Anwar Sadat, who became Egypt’s president following Nasser’s death, found it difficult to compete with his predecessor’s popularity, and some cultural figures volunteered to help in highlighting the unspoken failures from Nasser’s time.

Sadat’s era would see shifts in economic and political ideas. Neoliberal projects and private investors began to share the market with Egypt’s national factories. More products were imported, and less support was offered to local industrial infrastructure. To make sense of these new shifts, society needed a film, backed by popular cast and crew, on the brutalities that young political activists faced in Egypt during Nasser’s time. Such a film needed two things: an icon—like the Nefertiti sewing machine—that is not overly explicit but is reminiscent of Nasser’s projects, and state permission to criticise this icon in public. Al Karnak was not released until Sadat saw a copy of it and ordered its release. In recognition of Sadat’s help in releasing the film, Al Karnak’s producer donated part of the film’s revenues to the Egyptian military. The film created a trend of Karnaka; something that translates as ‘Karnak-ing’, or ‘following the method of Al Karnak’—more films came out after its release that performed similar critiques of Nasser’s time.

Following the gains made by the Arab side in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the markets, not to mention the image of Egypt and its president, continued to open up—as did Egypt’s first lady, Jehan Sadat. One day, she paid a visit to Sadat’s home village, Mit Abul-Kum, and met a woman whose gambling husband had sold her sewing machine before abandoning her and her daughters. In response, the first lady asked the city governor for a building—he gave her an old empty police station in the town of Talla—and sewing machines, so that women could support themselves. Via handheld loudspeaker, she announced to the women of the town: ‘Women who want to work! Come to the abandoned police station tomorrow night. Come if you are single, married, widowed or divorced. Come if you have a skill or if you want to be trained in one. Come only if you are ready to work hard and fast to earn money for your families.’[14] The women who showed up were told that their garments would be sold in Cairo, and an(other) initiative that saw the sewing machine as a tool of economic and social progress was born. Later, in 1979, President Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel that required him to downsize the number of military personnel; many released soldiers and officers were transferred from the front to the military factories.

In Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel Zaat (1992), the shift from Nasser’s socialism to Sadat’s neoliberalism is the parallel story in the tale of an Egyptian woman and her aspirations for an easier space of existence. The story takes the reader through Nasser’s state socialism and Sadat’s neoliberalism into Hosni Mubarak’s privatisation, which commenced when Mubarak came to power in 1981 after the assassination of Sadat by Islamic militants during a military parade. The book is divided into chapters that alternate between narrating the life of a woman who works at a newspaper checking spelling mistakes in already published materials and reviewing content found in rival newspapers, and reprints of news clippings that account for the industrial decline shaping the living conditions in Egypt at the time. From these documents, Sonallah was able to draw a portrait of the state industrial project in partial collapse, while also painting a portrait of a woman consumed by her aspiration for products that she could not afford: the embodiment of a society developing a consumerist obsession to buy things—more things, imported things, expensive things—aside from Nasser’s homemade goods. Interrupting chapters in Zaat use news clips to illustrate to the reader, through the voices of officials, how the industrial infrastructure was not holding up against competition.

Five rows of eight film stills showing various scenes from a documentary against a black background.

Constellation of film stills from Al Maarad (The Fair: Four Documentary Scenes), a short documentary made by Hossam Ali in 1985, showing the behaviours of some of the consumers, officials and foreign delegates on the grounds of the 1985 International Industrial and Commercial Fair in Cairo. Courtesy of the artist

In the end, it is not certain if the Nefertiti sewing machine was discontinued by the time the 1980s drew to a close, but Sadat’s neoliberal policies allowed cheap imported products, including sewing machines, to flood Egypt’s markets. The son of the first director of the civil division of Factory 54 believes it was the socialist monopoly over the local market that left its products incapable of competing against new models coming from abroad. With limited spare parts, decaying Nefertitis were relegated to a fate of being re-assembled from rusted pieces found by those loyal to the machine. For Muhammad Abdel Wahab, who was minister of industry under President Mubarak from 1984 to 1993, nationalisation and privatisation were both ‘a fatal mistake’. In one interview, he talks about how ‘new slogans’ in the 1990s ‘hailed privatisation rather than … industrial betterment’, while visiting US ministers and World Bank officials pushed for full-fledged privatisation.[15] ‘The way privatisation was practiced resulted in the liquidation of the public sector without creating new industrial capacity’, Wahab said of the period, and no investments were made into public-sector plants on the premise that they would be sold.[16]

In 1997, the year Mubarak cracked down on militant Islamic groups in Egypt following a major terrorist attack in Luxor, the Egyptian HA-300 aircraft, which brought so many German scientists and engineers to Cairo during Nasser’s military drive, was celebrated in a display at the Deutsches Museum, organised by the Messerschmitt Stiftung. The foundation bought the discarded craft and lifted it to Munich, spending 20,000 hours—or five and a half years—to repair and prepare it for the museum display. Attending the ceremony were a few of the German experts who once worked in Cairo, and the test pilot for the aircraft: an Indian national. The pilot spoke about how he negotiated testing the HA-300 as it was first made, how he requested modifications to be made before he would fly in it, his continuous dismissal by the German experts, and how he taxied the aircraft in front of President Nasser, who asked for his thoughts about its construction.

Some sixteen years later, in 2013, a TV adaptation of Zaat was produced with a detail added to the series that was not present in the original novel: the protagonist buys a sewing machine to work with at home. In one scene from the series, she removes the machine cover to reveal her purchase and her husband cries, ‘Singer! Made in Germany!’[17] He could not imagine the audacity of paying for a western product in a time of declining wages and limited income (he was a government employee). Perhaps the absence of the local product in this scene—the Nefertiti sewing machine—simply reflects the fact that the machine was discontinued by the time Zaat was originally written; or perhaps the TV series was made too long after Nefertiti’s memory could still be effective. Maybe the screenwriter and set designers were simply not conscious of Nefertiti’s existence; or perhaps the inclusion of a Singer sewing machine was a knowing gesture made in the act of a perceivable erasure.

It was a very hot day in August 2008 when I bought five Nefertiti sewing machines from a flea market in Cairo. My friend helped me carry them to a taxi. We grabbed each from its horizontal arm where the name is inscribed. Their metal bodies were boiling hot, our hands were bare, and the unpaved alleys of the market were dusty and distracting. Each machine weighed over 12 kilos, and was mapped by layers of dust and grease.

As part of a 2008 exhibition staged in downtown Cairo in the context of PhotoCairo 4, organised by Contemporary Image Collective at the Hungarian Cultural Center, I cleaned the machines and showed each of them on a white pedestal forming a (production) line, alongside an 11-minute video projection that brought the stories of the machine back into memory from those who remember it. I also printed two images of the machine on metal pins and gave them away.

Visitors to the show started to tell me stories related to their own Nefertitis, or to other state-produced household objects that they lived with in the same era. In these discussions, questions emerged about the place of consumer products in the lives of people and society at large. It became clear how industrial systems—and, by extension, their products—could hold critical economic, social and political significance to people, and how objects can become iconic, even acquiring personas. In response, I worked with Egyptian writer Motaz Attalla to collect the oral histories related to twenty domestic products produced in Egypt during Nasser’s time, including the Nefertiti sewing machine, such as ovens, soap, packets of cigarettes, television sets, typewriters, cars, and chocolates named Rocket, and published them in a booklet titled Needles to Rockets.

Five mint green metal sewing machines are set up in a row on white displays in a white-walled room. The photo focuses on the machine furthest to the right, with the others receding in the background.

Installation view of Younis's Nefertit at The Hungarian Cultural Centre, Cairo, as part of PhotoCairo 4, The Long Shortcut, organised by Contemporary Image Collective, Cairo (17 December 2008—12 January 2009). Photo: Tarek Hefny; Courtesy of Contemporary Image Collective and the artist

After showing Nefertiti in Cairo, the project travelled to Odense and Amman before it was staged in London at Delfina Foundation in 2010. There, a group of curators from the British Museum came to my talk on the work, which outlined my research into the history of the Nefertiti sewing machine. The curators said if I had anything on paper from this project they'd be happy to consider acquiring it. I didn't, and the project continued to tour.

Two years later, I visited the Neues Museum in Berlin to visit the bust of Nefertiti. When someone in my group went to take a photo after finding no sign prohibiting the act, a security guard intervened. Apparently, the ‘No Photo’ sign was outside the entrance, a warning that the knowledge of the object’s status must be known before even encountering the object itself. In this instance, if the object’s aura would inspire a visitor to take a photograph, then its aura must remain fainter than the warning that came before this encounter. The suggestion being that any relation—geographical, cultural or historical—with this historical artefact is not enough grounds to allow for an image to be taken of it inside the museum, which effectively defined the object’s historical and contemporary narrative.

I thought about this in 2016, when a British Museum newsletter included information about a project on collecting objects from modern Egypt. ‘The project will not seek to collect objects made for galleries and museums’,[18] read the text, ‘but rather ones that embody the materiality of modern Egypt: street signs, cinema posters, striking modernist sewing machines of the Nasser era’.[19] The Nefertiti sewing machine was to be collected among ‘photographs, objects made from recycled materials, and the changing forms of Ramadan lamps’—it was paired with empty bottles, typewriters, and magazine covers featuring ‘modern’ women wearing pharaonic costumes.[20] The display was intended ‘to avoid representing Egypt as a primarily rural, traditional, or craft-orientated society’, but seemed to constitute, perhaps, yet another ‘“ethnographic” collecting [of] Egypt’.[21]

Five mint green metal sewing machines are set up on podiums underneath a spotlight in a darkened room. A video screen in the background shows an image of the same sewing machine, repeated over and over in rows against a black background.

Installation view of Younis's Nefertiti at Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Seville (16 February—10 June 2018). Photo: Pablo Ballesteros; Courtesy of Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo

The Nefertiti sewing machine is now displayed in a museum of historical artefacts mostly sourced during colonial times—like the cotton that continued to be cultivated, cropped, and woven in Egyptian factories (nationalised in 1960), sold or given away as subsidised fabric (broadcloth), or sewn on subsidised machines to bring income to women whose men were absent fighting, or widows whose husbands had been killed at war. While photography of this display in the museum is allowed, the Nefertiti sewing machine is presented within a general context that restricts the way a public might engage with the object’s connection to a wider, complex history. In its display, for example, Nefertiti’s distinctive plaque was put against the wall so it is not clear if this particular piece was made in UAR, though the standard of its making certainly suggest that it was.

This absence feels like a glaring neutralisation that cannot be ignored or normalised. The Nefertiti sewing machine was an attempt to empower households in a time of obsessive decolonisation: a functional symbol of an anticolonial project that produced its own measures (of promise, expansion, and oppression), and contextual frames of reference. What importance does the machine have when it is shown devoid of its own paradoxical history, like a hollow vessel?

This article was first published on Podium, M+ Stories.

Ala Younis is an artist. Research forms a big part of her practice, as does curating, collaboration, film, and book projects. Her work has been featured in solo shows in London, Seville, Sharjah, Dubai, and New York, and in various group shows, including the Venice Biennale, Istanbul Biennial, Gwangju Biennale, and the New Museum Triennial. She curated the first Kuwaiti Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013, is on the Advisory Board of Berlinale’s Forum Expanded, and is a member of the Academy of the Arts of the World (Cologne).

  1. 1.

    AbdelAziz EzzelArab, ‘And as You Listen: The Oral Narrative of Muhammad Abdel Wahab, Minister of Industry of Egypt, 1984-93’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 41, no. 1 (2009): 1-3,

  2. 2.


  3. 3.

    Neal Spencer, ‘Modern Egypt project’, Newsletter Egypt and Sudan, British Museum Newsletter, Issue 3 (2016), 32.

  4. 4.


  5. 5.


  6. 6.


  7. 7.

    K. M. Barbour, ‘The Distribution of Industry in Egypt: A New Source Considered’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, no. 50 (1970): 159.

  8. 8.

    Ibid., 169.

  9. 9.

    A Girl Named Zat (2013) was a TV series directed by Kamlah Abu-Zikri and Khairy Bishara, produced by MISR International Films, Cairo.

  10. 10.

    The Husqvarna sewing machines from the 1950s were green and had a curvaceous body, buttons, gear, and name inscription on the body, all very similar to the Nefertiti design.

  11. 11.

    AbdelAziz EzzelArab, ‘And as You Listen: The Oral Narrative of Muhammad Abdel Wahab, Minister of Industry of Egypt, 1984-93’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 41, no. 1 (2009): 3.

  12. 12.

    The first bullet produced in an Egyptian military factory was in Military Factory 27, on 23 October 1954. The day was named a feast day.

  13. 13.

    Ibid., 159.

  14. 14.

    Harper W. Boyd, Abdel Aziz El Sherbini, and Ahmed Fouad Sherif, ‘Channels of Distribution for Consumer Goods in Egypt’, Journal of Marketing 25, no. 6 (1961): 32.

  15. 15.

    Fuad Faris, review of Class Conflict in Egypt: 1945-1970, MERIP Reports, no. 29 (1974): 24-26, DOI:10.2307/3011683

  16. 16.

    Mahmoud Hussein, Class Conflict in Egypt: 1945–1970 (New York: Monthly Review Press Books, 1977), ix.

  17. 17.

    Quoted from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s speech presented at the Egyptian Parliament on 23 November 1967. Translated by author.

  18. 18.


  19. 19.

    Yasser Abdallah, ‘Homeland’s Voice and Defeat, Umm Kulthum and her War Effort’, Ma3azef, 4 June 2017,أم-كلثوم-مجهودها-الحربي/

  20. 20.

    Aly Badrakhan was Yousef Chahine’s assistant director in one of the films made on the High Dam.

  21. 21.

    Jehan Sadat, A Woman of Egypt (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 201–202. Translated from Arabic by author.

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