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How Downtown Cairo Is Reclaiming Authentic Typography

In a quest for a digital renaissance of Cairene heritage, Khotout West El Balad drew inspiration from Downtown Cairo street signs to craft six new typography styles, each one based on a shop sign. The brain behind the initiative, Al Ismaelia, unveils the typefaces reviving the Arabic language.

Inspired by the playful calligraphy that swirls through the signs that marked the different époques of Downtown Cairo’s architectural style, a design team led by Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment has crafted a series of typography styles that revive the artistic spirit of Egyptian streets through modern design.

The result of this effort, Khotout West El Balad, is crystalised in a series of vintage-style posters exhibited at the iconic Radio Cinema, where six newly-developed typographies, each one based on a street sign, bring Arabic letters back to life. Developed by a team led by typography experts Ghalia Elsrakbi and Haytham Nawar, the fonts will be available online, turning what was once a handmade craft into a digital one.

“Fonts, like buildings, like theatre and songs, are a reflection of the societies that created them. It might be a subtle art, but calligraphy is an essential component of our visual environment and our public spaces,” says Karim Shafei, Chairman of Al Ismaelia, the mastermind behind the initiative.

For the past year, the company has embarked on a journey of rediscovery and revitalisation, setting in motion a series of initiatives that delve into the characters, the urban legends, and the history and iconography of an area that has been central to the cultural development of Egypt and the Arab world, doing so by revamping the architectural structures, re-painting their intricate facades, launching a shuttle bus service, and setting up the walking D-tour of Cairo

The new typefaces are displayed in a series of posters at Downtown's Radio Cinema. 

“Downtown has always been home to the artists, the drivers of change, the beginnings of the movie industry, the golden days of Egyptian music, and our theatre legacy – the independent art scene that grew in the 60s, as well as the contemporary art movements that started in the 90s and still move us today,” Shafei says.

Beyond the performances, the area’s buildings have long embodied the talents of some of Egypt and Europe’s most prominent architects. “On the ground, the neighborhood residents, businesses, and stores have also captured the art that reflected the various eras that Downtown Cairo has gone through,” he adds. “Even the tiniest details, such as their choices of fonts, tell a story of where Cairo was at the time.”

“In the digital fast-paced age we live in today, art forms that require handcrafting – like typography – can easily fade away, along with the stories they carry with them,” says Project Leader Ibrahim Islam, who recruited typography experts and design students for their design. “The old signage of Downtown are canvases that have preserved old writings when everything was still hand wrought. As these signs start to decay, so does the art they carried with them. To preserve this art form, we had to make it relevant by adapting it to today’s usage, which led us to the idea behind this project,” he adds.

But what these design masters are trying to do goes far beyond the quest for a digital renaissance of Downtown heritage; it is the claim for a more authentic take on our modern visual landscape. As Cairo’s urban backdrop has gradually given way to gaudy, shiny, and often grotesque commercial storefronts, the genuine forms of art embedded in ancient store designs were tossed aside by decades of neglect. 

“We think of Downtown Cairo as a trip through time, one that starts 150 years ago and continues into the future. This glorious neighborhood will continue to reflect its history and to carry it forward, capturing the present and remaining at the heart of the future of Cairo. This is what has always made Downtown this fascinating place, made up of layers upon layers of people, changes, and events,” Shafei explains.

Even the tiniest details, such as their choices of street sign fonts, tell a story of where Cairo was at the time,” says Karim Shafei.

The fonts, all available for free, are directly inspired by iconic neighborhood shop signs and painstakingly crafted to keep the integrity of the original. Their names replicate an element of Downtown Cairo culture, such as Seliman – a font with the folkloric flare of Egyptian vernacular, inspired by the pop culture writings of a shop of the same name – or Safwat, inspired by a particular shop sign for a place that sells shoes in downtown Cairo.

Other fonts come to fill the existent gaps in the digital arena, such as Madinet Al-Bat, a typeface that takes ruqa'a script – profoundly used in the city’s public spaces but notoriously absent in digital platforms – and incorporates its bold structure and sharp inclined edges, all of which combine to imitate the cynical perspective on the city – a sort of social commentary on the randomness and irregular life of Cairo’s periodic dwellers.

“The project captures the fonts from different eras, their various uses, and how they integrated into the daily lives of the societies they addressed. This initiative recreates those fonts in a modern setting and makes them available to be used by today’s artists, businesses, and retailers,” Shafei says.

Setting out to become a brand in itself, Khotout West El Balad sets off to celebrate the real West El Balad and the “timelessness lost everywhere else in the city that the neighbourhood represents, both tangibly and intangibly,” with fonts reminiscent of Egyptian cultural icons of both past and present symbolism, such as Nefertari – a typeface inspired by the signage of a tourism company of the same name -  and Kebab, initially generated from the experimental process of brush lettering and later on digitalised. Led by Elsrakbi and Nawar, the design team consisted of GUC students Yasser Nazmy, Ahmad Hammoud, Mirna Noaman, Nada Hesham, and Yosra Gamal.

From Talaat Harb to the symbolic Tahrir Square, Downtown Cairo has been witness and protagonist of Egypt’s history as it was written and rewritten many times. As Khotout West El Balad’s initiative brings the Downtown spirit to the digital sphere, Egyptian typographies set out to embody the writing of another history, kicking off from the same starting point: West El Balad.

You can find out more on Downtown Cairo's Facebook page here or follow them on Instagram @downtowncairo. 

Photography by @Mo4network's #Mo4productions.