I recently stumbled across a website dedicated to something I spend countless hours thinking about while stuck in traffic, and that is vehicle decoration.
Samaklaban focuses on Cairo's design and visual art culture; its name aptly captures Egypt's visual language.
In Arabic, the phrase "samak, laban, tamr hindi", which translates into 'fish, milk, tamarind', is used to imply a complete lack of coherence.
A walk down any Cairo street or a visit to any popular shop is enough to see the visual melting pot that is Egyptian design aesthetics.
The most interesting visual trend, I find, is the decoration found on vehicles, such as motorcycles, cars, buses, vans, trucks, and lorries.
Purchasing one of these vehicles is no easy feat. Quite often, they constitute a source, if not the only source, of income for many. In that respect, it's easy to see why owners take great pride in them.
Despite this being a widespread cultural phenomenon, there has virtually been no research on the topic. The website, Samaklaban, had been attempting to draw attention to this trend, but has not been active for the past year.
Popular (read: sha3by) cultures are often overlooked and regarded as a corrupt version to an original - something to be looked down on. Perhaps this is why there isn't much reading material on the matter.
But it's cultural nonetheless
The way Egyptian working class men choose to decorate their vehicles can be very telling. Considering the time, effort, thought, and money that are invested in the process, we can be certain that it means more to the owner than mere decoration.
From what I have been able to gather, this kind of decoration serves several purposes: to embellish and to celebrate (tedala3) one's space - an important theme in Egyptian culture.
Vehicle decorations are a reflection of the driver's personality. The wide variety of stickers available makes it easy to customize and tailor the look of one's vehicle according to taste.
For outsiders, the decoration may seem trivial, but to the people who invest in them, they are everything.
It's not new
Egyptians have been decorating their cars, trucks and lorries for a very long time. Even camels, horses and carts are not immune.
Bright, patterned tassels and bells are still used today, but stickers are all the rave when it comes to modern land-based transportation systems.
There are multiple themes one can choose from when it comes to vehicle decoration. They include:
- Religious passages and sayings
- Popular advice and colloquial proverbs
- Disney characters
- Children's names and photographs
- Popular musicians
- Owner or vehicle nickname
- Nationalistic slogans
- Western brands
Sometimes it's a mix of all of the above. Other times it's the odd human sized Mickey Mouse on the back of the truck that grabs your attention...
Popular sayings or advice can reflect the driver's personality. What saying they choose to put on their vehicle tells you what sort of mindset they have and their outlook on life. They can be optimistic, patient, romantic, cynical, scarred, or loyal.
Interestingly, some people opt to put the names of their children on their vehicle, typically accompanied by the title of amir, amira, brince or brinsesa (Arabic and eye dialect for prince and princess).
Some will go as far as to have the image of their child plastered on the vehicle.