The first thing George Bahgory said to me when I met him was, “Helen, I am too much human.” I smiled and nodded; I believed it. The second thing he said was “Hand me my internet.” I glanced around and handed him his laptop.

Bahgory is a well-known Egyptian painter, cartoonist, and sculptor. He is 80 years old and most famous for his work as a cartoonist. Perhaps my interest in him is just a testament to the fact that I don’t meet older people very often, but I do think that George is special. He seems burdened with an exaggerated sense of his own grandeur, which feeds an enduring regret at never becoming the legendary painter he feels he should be. I was visiting his studio in downtown Cairo to have a little chat before writing a review of his new collection of paintings, themed around Cairo’s revolutionary battles of the past year. His first words to me were endearing, but it was easy to be endeared. Bahgory is often referred to as the “Granddaddy of Egyptian caricature,” but with his mustache and pointy goatee, woolen stocking cap and scarf, and long, gray, curly hair, he actually looks like a caricature of a painter.

Bahgory’s persona swims back and forth between so many separate, but equally idealized eras. As I spoke to him, the romantic literary and artistic associations started to pile up on top of each other.

As a painter, he’s a cubist. His idol is Picasso, a fact that someone with even the most cursory knowledge of art history could probably guess from seeing a few of his paintings. He graduated from college in 1955, one year before Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt, and three years after the Free Officers Revolution booted the monarchy and the British for good. He once held an exhibition in which almost all the paintings were of Om Kalthoum, the great mother of Arab classical music. (Her importance to Arab culture and status as an icon has been described to me as “Elvis, and the Beatles, and Bob Dylan all at the same time.”)

For me, Om Kalthoum is a phantom, wafting through the contemporary city where I live. I know her voice; it drifts from taxi radios, through shabby bars and coffee shops. And I know her face, emerging from countless paintings, posters, t-shirts, and monuments. But Bahgory knew her — he was my age in her heyday — and she clearly lives on in his imagination. Even his latest collection of paintings includes two of Om Kalthoum.

Flipping through a book of painted sketches, I stopped at one of a bespectacled man sitting at a café table, awash in pink light. “My friend Naguib Mahfouz,” Bahgory said. While no one casts quite the cultural shadow of Om Kalthoum, Mahfouz comes close. He is a giant of Arabic literature, and a winner of the Nobel Prize.

Bahgory’s world seems haunted by these looming specters of past Cairene grandeur. I tried to imagine what downtown Cairo was like back then… Mahfouz’s Cairo, Kalthoum’s Cairo, Bahgory’s Cairo. But as much as I felt vaguely awed by the transformations Bahgory had witnessed, and the legends who had been his acquaintance, he still didn’t even seem like quite a product of those days. Maybe 19th-century Paris was more Bahgory’s home.

I was reminded of two things: 1) That movie, Midnight in Paris — in particular the part where Owen Wilson and the girl he likes go even further back into time, and sit at a table with Gauguin and Renoir. 2) The term “flâneur” which I had just heard defined for the first time the day before — the urban walker and leisurely observer, a character popularized and defined by Baudelaire.

I mentioned to Bahgory that I was coming from the Townhouse Gallery around the corner, a center of the Cairo contemporary art scene. “Are you friends with them?” he asked, “I hate them. They tell all the young artists not to paint, and to do things that are new.”

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