Carmine Cartolano, a teacher, artist and writer, hates it when someone calls him “Khawaga” as he sees Egypt as his home. Cartolano landed in Egypt in 1999, when he was 27 years old, with a love for the Arabic language and an eagerness to learn and explore.
With his art, he takes on the role of the recipient who roams around the streets of Cairo and allows the people to inspire him. His writing, on the other hand, comes from within through a more intimate process.
Over the course of 18 years, Cartolano, also known as Qarm Qart, has made Egypt his muse. In this interview, he gives us a glimpse into his life from the start.
Tell us more about your life before moving to Egypt.
I had a very modest upbringing where my mother was a housewife and my father was a humble worker. I remember being happy; it was a simple household with my parents doing their best to meet our needs. School was very important to me and I had always been a hard-worker.
The public library was my safe haven as a kid, because we did not have any books at home. I developed this great friendship with the librarian, which was quite uncommon for a kid at my age, especially because she was very strict.
How did you accomplish so much despite not having many resources?
Playing around was not an option for me, nor was wasting time or money, so that is why I have always done my best. I accomplished a lot at a very young age, travelled abroad at 16 and finished college in exactly four years, which is exceptional when compared to others in my town. That humble beginning drove me to excel.
What do you think impacted you the most during your upbringing?
What impacted me the most was that my parents who, despite their modest lifestyle, allowed me to do whatever I wanted, even when they did not understand it. They always gave me the freedom to make my own decisions, which helped me reach my full potential. I even chose the school I wanted to attend even though it was way over our budget. During that time, my life took a turn, especially when I travelled to London for a summer course.
My teacher back then got in contact with my parents to explain how beneficial it would be for me to travel, especially since I was excellent in English. Once again, even though they could not afford it, my parents came through, taking on a few loans to make sure I could travel. Being 16 at the time and coming from a very small town of around 2,000 people, I was in shock when I landed in London, and was amazed by the people and the streets.
Why did you choose to study Arabic in college, especially knowing how difficult it is?
I found myself very good at picking languages. I had two options in mind, it was either Japanese or Arabic, and since Japan is very far from Italy, I chose Arabic.
I found more competition in college, but still, I was the best in my class. Practicing is very important when learning a new language, and so when I was a freshman, I travelled to Tunisia with a friend of mine to take a summer course at the Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes, one of the most prominent schools for Arabic and languages learning. Even though I loved it there, I discovered that Tunisian Arabic was very difficult to learn and very different from Standard Arabic.
When did you decide to move to Egypt? What do you remember experiencing during your first week here?
It all started when a friend of mine suggested visiting Egypt for six months. I was already done with college, trying to decide what I wanted to do with life, so I jumped right into it. I also saw it as a good opportunity to practice more Arabic.
From day one, I was mesmerized! It was Ramadan, and the streets were magical. As soon as we arrived, my friend and I went out for a walk in Manyal, which was where we were staying, to explore the area. I remember talking only in Standard/Literary Arabic, thinking it was the right thing to do, but obviously it was not.
Even though I loved London, I felt like it was not for me. Cairo, on the other hand, felt like my hometown. I adapted right away.
How did you get into teaching Italian?
I wanted to study Arabic during my six-month stay, but it was pricy, and so I needed to find a job. My friend who owned the apartment was teaching at the Italian Cultural Institute, so she got me an interview there, and I started teaching right away. At the same time, I was also giving classes at the Don Bosco Institute.
What about your Arabic? How did you become so good in Egyptian slang?
At the beginning, I was only hanging out with high-status Egyptians and so we were talking in English most of the time, which was not what I wanted. I came to Egypt to learn Arabic, and so I decided to expand my circle and go out with my students.
I would write down the words they spoke, watch Egyptian movies and record the popular radio program “Kelmetan wa Bas”, later on replaying it and writing down the whole script.
On your students’ Facebook page, there are always posts and pictures showing the special bond you have with them. How do you do it?
Teaching gives me the daily connection with society, and I perceive it as theatre. I believe that when you work with passion, people can see it. I always appreciate the sacrifices my students do to learn and I genuinely care about them and they can feel it. This is why we connect.
In addition to teaching, you are an established artist and you also wrote two books in Egyptian slang. Between the three, which is your favorite?
I can’t pick a favorite, as each one is a reflection of me. They all helped me get in touch more with my inner self.
Why did you choose collage as a form of art?
I am a perfectionist and collage helps fulfill that and express my thoughts accurately more than other forms of art. Putting unique and uncommon materials together has been a passion of mine, which originally started with the way I dress, as I would wear weird colors together. I had little money, so I used whatever I could find. This with time translated into collage and enriched my creativity.
When was your very first exhibition?
It all started with Derno Ricci, a known Italian artist who specialized in black and white photography. We were very close friends, and he introduced me to art and artists and so I learned a lot from him. At one point, he was working on an animal portraits project for an exhibition at downtown’s “Mashrabia Gallery”, and he was really upset because the print versions of two of the pictures were really bad, so I offered to work on them and transform them into a collage piece. I went to Khan el Khalili and bought beads, payette and other materials that were needed, then began working on a camel and a pigeon portrait. To my surprise, the camel one was the first piece sold at the exhibition.
The gallery’s owner, Mrs. Stefania Angarano, suggested we do another exhibition together, and this is how “2Kitching” came to life in 2007. It included black and white photographs of various Egyptian food and homeware, and was a huge success, which to me was a sign to take my art further.
Your project “If” created quite the buzz. Tell us more about it.
“If” was the first exhibition I did on my own and it was right after the 2011 revolution. The whole project revolved around the “What if?” question. I remember seeing all of Mubarak’s photos taken down, so I wondered, what if we did something else with his photos? That is when I started transforming them with ornaments and collage. I have also done a couple of pieces featuring soldiers.
Was writing books something you always wanted to do?
My first book “Masriyano” was a complete coincidence. I had a friend named Hashem who read my blog, and found it humorous, so he suggested I try writing in Arabic. When my translated story received positive feedback, I wanted to try writing an Arabic story from scratch. One thing led to another, and “Masriyano”, a love letter to the Egyptians, came to existence.
You painted an image of 2037 Egypt in your second book, “Momo”. What was the inspiration behind it?
There were two main issues I wanted to talk about that were very evident over the past years – harassment and illegal immigration. I found many of my students wanting to immigrate to Italy and thought how Egypt could be that for someone else one day, so I reversed the situation in the book, making the main character an Italian who illegally travels to Egypt. I also discussed the harassment issue as I believe talking about it is a big part of the solution.
You were recently in London for the Pop Art in North Africa exhibition. How was it?
I was contacted last April by the Pop Art in North Africa curator and founder of Noon Arts Projects, Najlaa Al-Ageli, who told me that they wanted to display my artwork in London. I suggested creating a new project just for the exhibition.
The issue of harassment was still on my mind after “Momo”, and one day while shopping at Khan el Khalili, I came across a vendor displaying odd-looking women’s lingerie, and I was taken aback by the contradiction here. Most Egyptians get shy whenever the phrase “sexual harassment” comes up, yet they are not shy to display such lingerie, and that is where my inspiration came from.
I called my project “Oui, Slips”, in which “Oui” stands for “We” and “Slips” stands for “Sleep”. The statement intended is “we sleep about harassment”, but I wanted to use a catchier derivative of the phrase that had a feminine appeal to it as well. I used photographs that I took before along with stitching.
You had a fruitful life in Egypt, but have you ever considered moving back to Italy?
Yes, I considered it before publishing my second book, as everything in my life was turning into a routine. Also, several people were convinced that I was successful because I am a foreigner living in Egypt, and that if I did the same things in Italy I would not have received the same recognition.
The thought of going back became more persistent after my dad passed away as I wanted to be around my family and take care of my mother. If it was not for “Momo”, I think I would have left. With time, I proved those who questioned my capabilities wrong, and while I know that moving back to Italy is inevitable, the idea of leaving Egypt makes my heart drop.
What is next for Carmine Cartolano?
I am currently working on translating a book called “Fe Ghorfat El Ankaboot” (In the Spider’s Room) by Mohammed Abdel Nabi. The book was shortlisted for The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).
I am also preparing for an exhibition here in Egypt that will include elements of fashion, literature and stitching.