SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
To Cairo now for a story about another collector and collection. Amgad Naguib gathers ephemera - incidents of daily life like ticket stubs or photographs, letters, even disposable toothbrushes. He says these items tell the real history of Egypt. NPR's Jane Arraf visited his overflowing warehouses and sent us this report.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: I walk into one of Amgad Naguib's storage rooms, and an orange and white cat jumps off the glass shelf crowded with old alarm clocks. The clocks all show different times. For Naguib, the point isn't whether they work. He just loves collecting things. He doesn't even know what some of the stuff is. He chooses a bag at random, pulls out a pile of old blueprints.
AMGAD NAGUIB: I love architecture drawings. And some buildings - I have the drawings of the building, which the building has already disappeared, so I have the last trace.
ARRAF: Long ago, his family had beautiful villas filled with beautiful things. They gave him a lot of it.
NAGUIB: But the stuff they gave me didn't really interest me. It was like silver plates - boring things. I used to go sell them.
ARRAF: His collection is so extraordinary, a Cairo art gallery has put part of it on display. Townhouse Gallery founder William Wells.
WILLIAM WELLS: So one does actually get a sense of the chaotic nature of the collection. One can also immediately begin to understand, which is what I wanted, the obsession of the collector, how the collector ends up collecting collections.
ARRAF: Naguib is as eclectic as his collection. He abandoned a career in finance and opened and closed a restaurant in the Sinai. He was working as a park ranger, diving coral reefs when he met the American woman he would marry years later.
To get by, he occasionally reluctantly sells a few things, and he works as a film art director and rents props for movies. It's the ephemeral - the fragile, the fleeting and the unloved that Naguib loves.
NAGUIB: You know, I learned the word ephemera from eBay (laughter). And it's our history - you know, mosaic of our history.
ARRAF: He's passionate about his collection of paper and plastic bags showing the names of items and shops popular in downtown Cairo decades ago. As we walk past a rubber rope made from the coiled tubing of World War II gas masks, it's clear he's passionate about pretty much everything.
NAGUIB: As you see, I like locks and keys and clothes and hats and glasses and lighters and cigarettes and bottles. I like everything. I like tiles. I like architecture pieces. You know, everything is wonderful.
ARRAF: So is there anything you don't collect?
NAGUIB: I don't really care about stamps.
ARRAF: What Naguib loves most is sifting through artifacts to piece together people's lives. He'll sometimes buy the entire contents of an apartment, including the lifetimes of letters and photographs even the clothes and furniture. His collection includes 300 post cards and letters sent to one Egyptian man from 1889 to 1934.
NAGUIB: So I sat - we - me and my wife - you know, reading letters, you know, like, trying to figure out puzzles, you know? Ten years later, someone calls me and said come, I have some of the junk you like.
ARRAF: Naguib went and the first thing he saw in the pile was the business card of the same man whose postcards he and his wife had been poring over. He found photographs of the people they had been reading about in the letters - a woman who eventually became the man's wife and a teacher who had written to him since he was a boy, writing to him for the last time from his deathbed.
At times, he cares more about people's things than their own families do like the formal framed portrait of a German Shepherd. Below it is a chain with 13 tin dog licenses, one for every year of the dog's life. The dog's owner had been moved from her elegant apartment to a senior citizens home when her relatives sold her things to Naguib.
NAGUIB: I never met her, but I fell in love with her through like the stuff I got from her. I told them, please, I want to take this German Shepherd. And I go to her room, and I hang it in her room. And the other people didn't really care. Then a few days later, she told me she died. And I attacked them, you know? I told them you killed her. I told them you sold her stuff when she was alive. Why couldn't you wait?
ARRAF: Naguib is a guardian of people's memories.
NAGUIB: Sometimes I sit with some people's collection - photographs or whatever - and I feel their presence. I feel it, you know? And I feel - I talk to them. I tell them don't worry, you know, stuff is sitting here. I saved it, and it's staying. You know, it's not going anywhere.
ARRAF: This is the real unvarnished history of Egypt and its people, Naguib says. In the fading letters and old photos and even plastic bags if you know how to read them. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Cairo.
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