Aya Nassar

In the social sciences, we are trained to know through vision and through light. Seeing is the metaphor for theory (Brown 2002). Being grounded in firm, solid, worlds is one for reliability (Bachelard 2018; Nieuwenhuis and Nassar 2020). Dust, therefore, as matter and metaphor, is an inconvenience to these registers of vision and solidity. Dust hides and perhaps clouds vision. Dust is the marker of the destruction of stability. It is what remains after− the aftermath. Is it possible to tell stories from within the dust storm, through the leftovers of orders? Do we encounter something about ourselves in the dust we make, leave to accumulate, or wipe away?

Dust quietly exposes and brings into presence space and its elements: air, earth and water. For some time, I have been pondering the elemental and material geography of the city as an archive that shakes some of the established wisdoms about our cities. Part of the reasons I want to do this is that the question of space is more pervasive, more attractive and, also, vaguer. As Neil Smith and Cindi Katz warn, we often risk missing the material space that grounds the central metaphors of our geographical knowledge (1993). What I try to work with is an approach to working with, and through, the materiality of urban space. Instead of treating the space of the city as fixed and inert, its materiality foregrounds the small —and at times insignificant— constitutive material elements of the city and helps us appreciate the multiplicity of its affective investments and attachments.

To attune myself to dust, I think, is to attend to something that always captivated me: what we might call ‘the ordinary’ (Berlant 2011, Stewart 2007)− the ordinary of cityness.i The ordinary would spring up for me, when as an Egyptian PhD student, who has really only wanted to understand her own city, I was assumed and expected to work on something enigmatic like Tahrir square after the revolution, or when now I give a presentation or a job talk, I get the same two questions about the new capital and informal urban areas. This is not to say that Tahrir, informal urbanism, and new capitals are not important, but rather as an academic from the region you are already imbricated with certain regimes of visibility −you are an academic abstract you come tagged with already, all ready, key words.

Dust is then of the margins. When your city crashes the headlines with a bang, dust it is the leftover of the churn, what stays in its wake. Dust hovers as Pessoa once wrote, at the edge of visibility, where the night ends (Marder 2016:19). In a profession where training relies on extractivism (as in methods), accumulation (as in REFabble outputs) and hoarding (of ideas, insights, material, data, knowledge), dust works against our professional training that pushes us towards the sensational and exceptionalised. It is a geopetic that works against transparency and towards opacity in the sense proposed by Edouard Glissant (1997) and Katherine McKittrick (2006, 2021).

Dust also returns. Always. Usually not suddenly as a haunting ghost but quietly and cumulatively, like a falling snow. It is through dust as a material that is at once generative, destructive and a residue that I navigate some of the ‘ordinary affects’ (Stewart 2007) that tug at my attention as a student of cities of the Middle East, and perhaps some of other cities as well. I try to focus on the question of ruination as a keyword to make sense of the affective and material relationship to cityness. I use ruination in the sense developed by Ann Laura Stoler. In Imperial Debris (2013) and Duress (2016), Stoler differentiates between ruins and ruination. Ruins, she argues, invite a privileged sense of reflection. Ruination, by contrast, emphasises a critical positioning of the present within violent structures. In this sense, ruination is an ongoing process with multiple temporalities. This understanding, I find, divests from a fascination with ruins and questions the political complicity in processes of ruination instead (Stoler 2013, 9-11). Yael Navaro-Yashin uses the concept as a metaphor in studying abject space (2012, 170). Navaro-Yashin’s ethnographic use emphasises the sense of aftermath, ‘material remains or artefacts of destruction and violence’ (2012, 162) as well as ‘subjectivities and residual affects that linger, like a hangover, in the aftermath of violence’ (2012, 162). But I think dust smuggles through ‘the aftermath’ and ‘the ordinary’ too.

I write this while many face the realisation that Cairo has been changing beyond recognition in the past decade, that is post- the 2011 revolution, and that it is changing in ways in which many of us cannot intervene or have a say in.ii The sense of loss looms, especially because this decade also saw an increasing use of city spaces as loci of memory and narratives that cannot find their ways to official stories about the revolution, or the past in general (Madbouly and Nassar 2021).

If the city is an archive for how we script ourselves in it, then how can we read it? If we follow Anne Laura Stoler (2009) in reading the archive along its grain —quite literally— then reading Cairo, and its sister cities, necessitates following its dust as matter that connects the human and non-human make-up of the city with its spectral traces in archives. As Achille Mbembe (2002) reminds us, an archive in a postcolonial context constitutes a spectral promise even by its mere absence.  This is of course already in question in many cities that are always entangled in remaking themselves.  Recently, people have turned to their city to trace what the archive occludes, perhaps to uncover global connections of solidarities, or minor histories that escape the national historiography of resistance and revolution (see for example Mossallam 2017). Yet, under the aggressive reshaping of the city, this uptake also seems to be one way of disappearing to leave us with only a trace. Dust, as Michael Marder (2016) states, is a gathering place, a random community of what has been and what is yet to be, a catalogue of traces, an inventory of threats, and a set of promises.



Let us also note, in passing, the paradoxical idea that dust, the final result of all destruction, is easily posited as indestructible.
- Gaston Bacherlard

When I attune to dust, it is usually when I am in a position of witnessing a change in my city, in front of which I feel helpless.

Demolitions, implosions and disintegrations might seem as quick, sudden and eventful affairs. While demolitions are not intentionally focused on in architecture, they don’t fail to capture a visual aesthetic. The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe public Housing complex in St Lewis, caught live on TV, and subsequent pictures of the clouds of dust it generated, still dominate the rhetoric of death of architectural modernism, what is typically called the Pruitt-Igeo myth (Cairns and Jacobs 2014: 207). But what textures the background of this enigma of destruction? What if we slow the footage of unmaking the forms of cities? What if we linger in the gaps between fragments and shards? Is there anything there? Not in the wreckage and debris but in the spacing of making dust?

In staying with this question, I am turning to Baghdad rather than Cairo, specifically to Sinan Antoon’s Novel فهرس, which translates to index. The novel has been regarded as one that is primarily about exile and nation (see Elimelekh 2021).  The protagonist Namir—an Iraqi living in the United States—returns to post-2003 Baghdad and while on Al-Mutannabi street meets a bookseller, Wadouod. Wadoud is writing the index, an attempt to document the 2003 war. He eventually gives a draft to Namir. We follow Namir as he returns to the US with the manuscript, and his futile desire to write everything about the Iraq war himself.

Let’s follow this novel through its other protagonists; others who drive the novel but actively contribute to unmake and fragment its plot. These are the protagonists of Wadoud’s index. In a series of vignettes, the index is structured around the stories of non-human fragments of Baghdad, or perhaps even al-Mutannabi street itself. We read testimonies of a tree, a wall, a bird; all finding the licence to tell their own story. Towards the end of the novel, we get the speech of a child, a waste scavenger. It is in this vignette that we realise that all the fragments in the index narrate their story up to a single moment of a bomb explosion.

The frozen moment of explosion can be read as the one in which the index dwells. The one that retrospectively gathers all these fragments that scatter across the novel, and that weaves the multiple temporalities that each fragment gathers and folds. In one of the vignettes, the index itself speaks:

In the beginning there was the explosion. Isn’t this what the accepted theory says? Perhaps this explosion was the universe’s cry as it left the womb of nothingness to the agony of being…The universe is a wilderness of fragments released in the darkness…I am trying to collect the fragments of only a small explosion...a weaver stringing these shards into a necklace to hang. But where/where to put it? Around the neck of the void  (Antoon 2016: 246,my translation). 

Index, rather than its English title The book of collateral damage, allows the reader to arrive slowly to the moment of explosion every time, over and over again, with every story and over the 283 pages. What is important here is the stories that fragments tell to texture the ruination of Baghdad, rather than investing in the catastrophe of destruction itself, even though the damage is precisely the fabric of storytelling. It is only in freezing the explosion, that the index, the novel, and therefore the story of Baghdad can be narrated, even—or precisely—in a moment of its undoing.

To help me make sense of this, I have been fascinated by artwork that freezes moments of material dispersal, explosions, collapses, and demolitions. I had been captivated by Heide Fasnacht’s sculptural work, which catches the destruction in a liminal point when space in its familiar materiality and composition is both there and not there (Nieuwnhuis and Nassar 2020). Such work attempts to suspend materiality of space “in a specific moment of time, but it is far from settled or from being an aftermath” or that freezes fragmented matter in a moment of release (Stoppani 2015: 22-23). Perhaps, this work, like the novel, captures the enigma of dust-making.

Cornelia Parker’s (b. 1956) work comes most readily to mind. Parker’s Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson) 1999, adorns the cover of Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake (Sharpe 2016). Parke’s most recognisable installation is her 1991 Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View. For this piece, Parker enlisted the help of the Army School of Ammunition, blew up a garden shed, and collected the found debris to let it hand from the ceiling. Using light, the fragments cast shadow on the walls surrounding them.

Commenting on her ‘Cold Dark Matter-Still Explosion’, Parker says that she attends to “these ‘frozen moments’ where there’s been lots of action but this is a sort of a quiet corner of that. So it is not the explosion, but the contemplation of these things in the air. And because these things are in the air, they haven’t got the pathos they would have had on the ground [as a debris of an explosion]” (Tate, nd). Elements of this piece will be revisited in her Mass (Colder Dark Matter) and Anti-Mass. Both showing the remains of churches, one struck by lightenting and the second by an attack (Blythe 2020).

The contemplation of these things in the air. This is a poetic hovering and suspension. One that attends to ambivalence, before seeing the dust and the debris settle somewhere to stick to a meaning of the aftermath. Where the making of dust and the unmaking of forms are both there and not there. 



When I attune to dust, it is usually when I am in a position of witnessing a change in my city, in front of which I feel helpless.

I arrived to this realisation only recently, when asked what it is about ruination that keeps drawing me as a mode of researching the city. If all cities are destroyed and rebuilt, why fixate on the contemporary wave of demolitions in Cairo? The question stopped me in tracks, as it was essentially a question of why it is that ‘my’ city at ‘my time’ matters, and it is only later that I realised that perhaps it is the burden of witnessing the unfolding of the present (see Lauren Berlant 2011). Even though dust is what happens during the unmaking of space, it is also what settles after. What kind of stories are told from within the geopoetics of settling an accumulation?

Cities are self-devouring, built on their past selves, and rising on their own rubble. Architect Seth Denizen writes that “[t]he image of the city, in particular, as a thing that is made of geology or on geology, increasingly has to contend with the idea of the city as a thing that makes geology  (Denizen 2013, np, emphasis in the original). Denizen asks what kinds of soil does the city create? What is the ground a cemetery makes with its mix of organic and non-organic material, and with their multiple durations of decomposition? What kind of soil do construction and demolition debris create, with its concrete, steel, brick…etc. (Denizen 2013)?  As what is decomposed, demolished and unmade gets to make the soil and ground of the city, then “the soil and the city are mirror images of each other” (Denizen 2013, np). Shehab Ismail, a historian of Cairo’s underground sewage and sanitary systems, writes a resonant history of Cairo as one that is “made up of layers upon layers of rubble and trash, ….[one that is] sedimented in geology” (Ismail 2020, np.). It is the clutter and waste that builds up the infamous trash mounds of Cairo, which is, then, the site from which he rewrites the city’s history. Not only that, the trash mounds, he discovers, are classic sites for archaeological investigation. These mounds, therefore, not only become, but have always been, the material archive of the city (Ismail 2021). What do we throw in this kind of archive? Perhaps what we let go of to the waste mounds, is that we have given up on repairing.

In April 2022, a Facebook page called Memorabilia Museum was launched as a personal blog run by Hossam Elwan. Elwan is a film producer who also collects second hand and discarded material, primarily letters and photographs from second-hand shops, and sellers of Robabikya. Robabikya is the Egyptianized term of the Italian Roba vecchia ‘old stuff’, old belongings or paraphernalia. Within ten days of its launch, it had more than 10,000 followers. Elwan had for some years before that used his personal Facebook page to showcase his second-hand finds, usually with some commentary and occasional invitations for those who might have clues about the long-lost love letter, or a dated or undated photograph, to fill in some gaps. Followers and fans range from those who are commenting on the style of letter writing to those who think up clues to locate who might these long-discarded names and faces belong to now. The fascination with Elwan’s posts is an affect that is more than nostalgia (Facebook groups and nostalgia have been written about extensively by Nermin El Sherif 2022). Elwan performs a role of Benjamin’s rag picker as a materialist and performative historian (Le Roy 2018). In so doing, Elwan for us viewers is a salvager of the leftovers, once material seen as clutter, sold by the kilograms to the Robabikya buyers and sellers, becoming a speculative museum. Speculation is key to thinking with fragments. The storytelling genre here is one we could term ‘speculative pasts’ where the past is as equally foreclosed as the future.  


Following the Fancy of Dust

We know dust as something that hides, veils, covers, and settles. Accumulation of dust is a nuisance that masks things from our eyes. Its greyness soaks up shimmer and glitter.  Dust obscures the neat and sharp line that separates self from world, house from universe, old from new.  Dust blunts the edges and eats up lustre and allure. Dust also does the opposite. As dust particles hover in a ray of light, we become more attuned to that ray of light, and see it not as transparent as we would have assumed. In a chapter entitled The Metaphysics of Dust, Gaston Bachelard writes that

fine, light dust stirring and shimmering in a ray of sunlight...is a spectacle we often contemplate in our reveries. It is capable of liberating our thoughts from the everyday laws that regulate active and utilitarian experience. Reflections born of this spectacle immediately have a speculative tone. The speck of dust, in particular, departs from the general law of gravity… it follows its fancy (Bachelar 2018: 22).

Dust is mundane, yes, but remember the hours spent watching it hover in a ray of sunlight one afternoon, letting it tug at your attention to follow its fancy or remember the awe of being admits a dust storm.

Dust holds the promise of intimacy, as we wipe dust off surfaces we become attuned to the shape of a surface or the other, it takes shape through our touch. Dust is part of intimate and everyday encounters. We produce dust. We shed as many as 70 million microorganisms per hour making our home dust as diverse as a jungle, as our leftovers attach to other life and non-life forms (BBC 2017). Dust knows us, contains our registers, falls from us and comes back to haunt us after we have swept it away.

Dust holds the promise of return, matter is not destroyed, I shed my skin somewhere it attaches to a microfibre, a sand particle and a pollen and joins a dust storm that travels from Africa to feed the Amazon Plants. A state locks up an archive, but the documents of history scatter in story, fiction, myth, secondhand bookstores and traces of clutter in a dark corner you forgot. With the increasing fixation on fast and slow destruction of cities, we have moved to a forensic turn to making architecture testify. What is harnessed here as Seth Denizen argues is “the epistemological power to make matter speak” (Denizen 2013, np).

The promise of dust, I think, is that it disinvests from the neat division between the spectacular and the boring, the violent and the not, the eventful and the everyday. I have tended to love Kathleen Stewart’s description of Berlant’s work “a labor of attending to pockets—not just pockets of possible trouble but pockets per se. A space opens up in the ordinary. There is a pause, a temporal suspension animated by the sense that something is coming into existence. Berlant teaches us that things hanging in the air are rhythms and refrains worth describing… Describing them requires a digressive detour and a slowing and de-dramatization” (Stewart 2012). Dust smuggles our academic selves, into modes of storytelling that, I think, are more attuned to the fact the solidity of territory is a mere fantasy.

Themes: Presencing the Erotic, Interrogated Materialities

Methods: Fragments, Experimental


Antoon, S. (2016). Fihris. Manshurat al-Jamal.

Bachelard, G. (2018). Atomistic intuitions: An essay on classification. SUNY Press.

BBC (2017), What's hiding in my dust? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/science-environment-42370015

Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel optimism. In Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press.

Brown, W. (2002). At the edge. Political Theory, 30(4), 556-576.

Blyth, F. (2020) Cornelia Parker: material memories, exploded objects and sleeping Tilda Swinton, Hero. https://hero-magazine.com/article/172328/cornelia-parker

Cairns, S. Jacobs, J.(2014). Buildings must die: A perverse view of architecture. MIT Press.

Denizen, S. (2012). Three Holes. Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, 29-46.

Elimelekh, G. (2019). Sinan Antoon’s Fihris: an index of two minds seeking one nation. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies.

Elsherif, N. (2021). The City of al-Zaman al-Gamîl:(A) political Nostalgia and the Imaginaries of an Ideal Nation. Égypte/Monde arabe, (23), 61-79.

Glissant, É. (1997). Poetics of relation. University of Michigan Press.

Ismail, S. (2020) Panorama. AlMadaq https://www.almadaq.net/en/articles/panorama-en

Ismail, S. (2021). The Historical Junkyards of Cairo. TRAFO: A blog for transregional research https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26297#_ftnref5

Smith, N., & Katz, C. (1993). Towards a spatialized politics. Place and the Politics of Identity, 66, 76-83.

Le Roy, F. (2017). Ragpickers and Leftover Performances: Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of the historical leftover. Performance Research, 22(8), 127-134.

Navaro, Y. (2012). The make-believe space: affective geography in a postwar polity. Duke University Press.

Nieuwenhuis, M., Nassar, A., & Rawlings, M. K. (2020). Losing ground: A collection of HⓄ les. Emotion, Space and Society, 36, 100677.

Marder, M. (2016). Dust. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Madbouly, M., & Nassar, A. (2021). Fragment (s) of Memor (ies): The Enduring Question of Space and Storytelling. Égypte/Monde arabe, (23), 13-26.

Mbembe, A. (2002). The Power of the Archive and its Limits. In Refiguring the archive (pp. 19-27). Springer, Dordrecht.

McKittrick, K. (2006). Demonic grounds: Black women and the cartographies of struggle. U of Minnesota Press.

McKittrick, K. (2021). Dear science and other stories. In Dear Science and Other Stories. Duke University Press.

Mossallam, A. (2017, April). History workshops in Egypt: An experiment in history telling. In History Workshop Journal (Vol. 83, No. 1, pp. 241-251). Oxford University Press.

Stewart, K. (2007). Ordinary affects. In Ordinary affects. Duke University Press.

Stewart, K. (2012). Pockets. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 9(4), 365-368.

Stoler, A. L. (Ed.). (2013). Imperial debris: On ruins and ruination. Duke University Press.

Stoler, A. L. (2016). Duress: Imperial durabilities in our times. Duke University Press.

Stoppani, T. (2007). Dust revolutions. Dust, informe, architecture (notes for a reading of Dust in Bataille). The journal of Architecture, 12(4), 437-447.

Tate (n.d.) Cold Dark Matter: an exploded view. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/parker-cold-dark-matter-an-exploded-view-t06949

[i] For another piece on ordinary cityness, see: NIGHTWALKERS, INSURGENT NOCTURNAL ECOLOGIES by Chrystel Oloukoï

[ii] For another piece on Cairo's changing landscape, see: SENSING CAIRO by Azza Ezzat 

Aya Nassar is a researcher learning about Cairo. She is interested in storytelling, materiality, elemental geography and postcolonial cityness. She is an assistant professor of human geography in Durham University where she teaches political and urban geography as well as geographies of development.

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