Friend of the blog Maria Golia, a longtime Cairo resident and author of the fantastic Cairo: City of Sand, recently sent me a wonderful short story imagining an earthquake in 2012, 20 years after the devastating one that hit Egypt in 1992. We will be running it in three episodes, with a few links added to provide background for those not familiar with the references to Cairo landmarks, events and personalities. This story and its characters are strictly fictional. Only the city is real.
In the first episode, an earthquake devastated Cairo landmarks (not all of which will be missed) and trapped assorted dignitaries at an interfaith summit, including the president's son, in a cave in the Muqattam cliffs. Suddenly, it was no longer clear who was in charge...
The Earthquake of 2012: Episode Two
Within days of the Sham el Nessim quake Cairo was back to what we call normal. What are a few more mountains of rubble, or collapsing buildings to us? We’re used to it. Cairo is a house of cards, and even force majeure has a hard time keeping up with it. It should be said, however, that the earthquake wasn’t terribly strong. Cairo’s muddy foundations amplified the tremors’ reach, but softened the impact they carried; the movement was languorous, the destruction almost thoughtful. ‘Misr il Mahrousa!’ people declared, meaning ‘Egypt the protected!’, and there was awe in their voices, and pride. They were shaken, yes, but sprightly too, because things were everywhere changing. The earthquake was the great leveler; no one was immune to its whims. It gave us heroes and villains, atoms of good and of evil, and several flavors in between.
A deluge of fresh anecdotes washed away the stale ones, along with the jokes that had come to rest too frequently on the size of the president’s member and its favored destination up some poor Egyptian arse. The crassness was replaced with the old subtlety, stories with twisting tentacles and tasty ends. The people provided both theater and audience with the city as protagonist, and the scenarios beat anything on TV. Indeed, I’ve kept the best for last, how the lord gave the earth inspiration to swallow the Old Man himself.
It happened as he and his wife starred in yet another propagandist spectacle, scheduled for broadcast directly after that of their son. This one took place on the Nile, now as ever exploited by Egypt’s rulers as a fitting backdrop for their august persons. In the river’s old, unfettered days, when there was nothing but palm groves and fields and a few stranded islands, it must have been grand to see a sultan sail by. The fellahin must have lined the banks to watch and their children surely waved. The televised Nile, urban and indifferent, has been so coupled with deceitful political rhetoric no one pays it any mind. At best it’s sentimental, clichéd footage of the water lit by fireworks, with the national anthem as soundtrack, ‘Egypt!! My country! My Blood!’ The irony, as everyone knows, is that most of the riverbank was sold to foreigners to build fancy hotels that the locals only get in if they work there. Yes, they made the Nile look tacky and put it out of bounds, one of their greatest unprosecuted crimes.
And so it seemed fitting, that on that fated evening the president and his wife were being photographed prior to inaugurating a manmade (or rather, crony-made) island in the center of the Nile, another obscene tourist village that further disrupted the once mighty river’s flow. They’d arrived at the presidential yacht and paused to shake a few hands, the old man cunningly-lit so that only his forceful forehead, proboscis and jutting chin were in evidence, not the wrinkles or the right eye, drooping from a clandestine stroke.
Fireworks filled the sky and then the ground began to tremble. How their legs must have quivered, especially his, since they were uncommonly spindly and long. The old man’s hand shot reflexively to his toupee. He clutched his wife, who was meanwhile wrenched away by a body guard. He’d raised a foot and was about to grasp the yacht’s boarding-ramp rail when he found his foot hovering above the abyss, his hand closing on emptiness. The yacht, responding to some alteration in the current, had moved. Thrown off balance he toppled into the water. The prime minister stood behind him, an ancient gentleman, there was nothing he could do.
To their credit, several bodyguards waded in almost at once, that is, after they removed their watches and jackets. Egyptians tend to be poor swimmers, which may explain their hesitation. The president’s wife, that angelic woman, administered first aid to the prime minister who’d had a heart attack, and lay dying. Three dozen mobile phones were pressed to action. An ambulance arrived and then a helicopter, then two more. Alas, the impossible had occurred. The president was missing in action, no where to be found, although the next day an intensive search conducted by his private guard yielded his flak-jacket and a pair of Prada loafers with the price tag, in Euros, still attached.
When the story went round people thought it was a joke, and started warning each other about crocodiles in the plumbing. They were understandably skeptical - how could you lose something that Big? He was dead, surely, and his sidekicks were hiding it while they regrouped. When the last president was shot in broad daylight with thousands of witnesses, they still tried to conceal his death. This was the opinion of a pragmatic majority. Nevertheless, his absence, as it lengthened into days, fired the imagination. Where was he? Who was next? Nothing happened.
They’re waiting for the son to come out of the cave, some said, like Lazarus. Others expected a coup to be strategically executed precisely before he emerged. Taxi drivers advanced the theory that the whole drowning story was made up. The president and his wife had probably sped off to Switzerland, where they were thought to keep fat accounts. Members of the intelligentsia disagreed, declaring that it was all true, a purposeful manipulation of the public subconscious, that he would rise like a latter- day Osiris, rescued piece by piece by his diligent wife, a menopausal Isis. Horus, the son, was waiting in the wings, could anything be more perfect, more Egyptian? For once, oddly enough, the marginalized, censorship-crazed crack pots were nearly right.
La ville entière was abuzz with the latest developments in the Pink House as the presidential palace is otherwise known, due to the color of its paint and the perception that, like most Egyptian households, a woman was in charge. Though the president’s wife had fooled a credulous minority with her public persona (the radiant and maternal peoples’ saint) she proved even cooler under pressure than her greatest detractors feared. But the extent to which she steered the crosscurrents of adversity ever ambitiously, unswervingly in the favor of her son was admirable; how she threatened, maneuvered and begged her way out of the tight pink corner the earthquake had painted. She won time, which is everything, though it was only a few days.
Between the warring ministers of interior and defense, both ruthless with armed troops at their disposal, and the appearance of a wildly popular ibn al balad named al-Gabbar, there would have been bloodshed, had it not been for her maneuvering and the imprint of her husband’s boot- heel on the foreheads of the old blackguards. Besides, it would look bad in the foreign media if they went for each other’s throats straight away. There was time for that, they could afford the niceties. What’s more they were all, to a man, certain that the president was feeding the fishes, even now, as they mopped their perspiring heads in the growing heat.
This al-Gabbar had purportedly risked his life on numerous occasions to save people stuck in collapsed buildings, scaling the rubble, carrying the wounded victims on his back. Indefatigable and fearless was al-Gabbar and good looking, by all accounts, a handsome open face and a vigorous physique, a fellah, a farmer, concise and humorous of speech. Although he wasn’t particularly religious, his name, under the circumstances, was seen by some as a prophecy. Al-Gabbar, means ‘the compeller’, he who repairs all broken things. Al-Gabbar may have been a brave hearted human, but he was also vain. Amongst those who paid him tribute ( including several exceedingly attractive upper-crust girls) was a clique of prominent sheikhs. Garbled reports were carried back to the cabinet that a new religious leader had captured the people’s favor.
Of course it wasn’t true, and al-Gabbar’s exploits soon joined the tales of other equally heroic and un-ambitious citizens. But this was the story the religious agitators schemed to convey, a red herring to put the fractious and befuddled ministers off their track. They were better organized than anyone, even the foreign donors. Their relief centers and soup kitchens were shut down daily but they just opened them up, with the people’s help, somewhere else. Now they were waiting for the big boys to make their move, a coup d’etat, or an unlawful succession, it didn’t matter. Whatever happened they’d rouse the people they’d fed, clothed and sheltered to take their rightful place in the nation’s governance under god.
The ministers caught wind of this and didn’t like it. But they didn’t like each other either, or the president, who’d they’d been lying to all their lives. And they couldn’t say why they’d lied like that, almost from the very beginning. Whatever the reason, they blamed him for it more than themselves. They were thrilled to the tips of their manicured toes to think he’d died and they’d survived him. They’d come to the Pink House for tea with the bereaved, soon-to-be -official widow to discuss funerary rearrangements – something spectacular, they’d already taken collections and were prepared to supply thousands of weeping spectators.
Imagine their dismay when he reappeared, bruised and bald, but smiling like a prizefighter in a terry cloth robe and a towel around his neck!
Don’t miss the final episode of ‘The Earthquake of 2012’.
Pre-order Maria Golia's new book on the history of photography in Egypt:FROM THE PUBLISHER: Egypt tends to conjure up images in our mind of the Pyramids and the temples, the Nile and the desert. Early photographs of Egypt took the ancient monuments as their primary subjects, and these have been hugely influential in constructing our view of the country. But while Egypt and its monuments have been regularly photographed over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by foreigners, little is known about Egyptian photographers themselves. This book examines both, considering images from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, taking in studio portraits, landscapes, photo-journalism, and the work of contemporary Egyptian photo artists. Two forces drove photography's early development in Egypt: its links to archeology, and the accelerating effects of archaeological photographs on the nascent tourism industry. Maria Golia examines these twin drives, as well as looking closely at the work of early Egyptian photographers such as Colonel Mohammad Sadiq, Mohammad Badr and Atiyya Gaddis, many previously unknown to a Western audience. She discusses court photography and shows how aside from commissioning portraits, the elite photographed their palaces and gardens, which were considered feats of aesthetics and engineering. She also examines how photography was employed for propaganda purposes, such as in images of celebrated soldiers, workers and farmers; as well as how studio-based photography was used to depict the growing Egyptian middle class. In 1983 the author was arrested for taking pictures in Egypt, and spent the night in a Suez jail; attempts to take pictures there are still often met with resistance. Today's young photographic artists use the medium both to celebrate 'ordinary lives' and to indict the political and social conditions that contribute to their hardship. Photography bears witness to this history as much as it helps to create it. Illustrated with a rich, surprising variety of images, many previously unknown in the West, "Photography and Egypt" is the first book to relate the story of Egypt's rapport with photography into one concise and highly readable account.
The Earthquake of 2012: Episode One
The date was April 21st, 2012, one that every Cairene will remember, and coincidentally the springtime holiday of Sham el Nessim. Looking back, I realize I heard what was happening while I turned the key to my flat. It started as a subterranean rustling, like a tempest wind in underground palms. I was inside when it hit full force.
Cairo is built on mud, many millennia’s worth of alluvial sludge. When the earthquake began, the city posed only so much resistance, then it just rolled with the punch. The ground came alive, lifted us and set us down, we rode it over and over like a wave. I clung to a wall, trying to stay upright until a crack began to appear beneath my hands, a hairline seam in the paint. My eye traveled to the window where I saw chunk of balustrade dislodge from my balcony. I rushed forward as if to rescue it but a buckled plank of parquet tripped me and I went down. My ear to the trembling floor I heard a quintessential tumult, felt it course through my body like liquid rock. Then it fell away, the howl of a feral earth replaced by the pandemonium of the fleas in its fur.
There’s a Sura in the Quran which if you didn’t know before, you’d be hearing a lot of in the coming weeks. It’s entitled zilzal, which means earthquake, an Arabic onomatopoeia, and well worth quoting in full:
When the Earth is
Shaken to her utmost convulsion,
And the Earth throws up
Her burdens from within,
And man cries distressed:
What is the matter with her?
On that day will she
Declare her tidings:
For that thy lord will
Have given her inspiration.
On that day will men
Proceed in companies sorted out,
To be shown the deeds
That they had done.
Then shall anyone who
Has done an atoms weight
Of good, see it!
And anyone who
Has done an atoms weight
Of evil, shall see it.
My building, god bless it, withstood the quake, as did most of the old ones downtown where damage was particularly light. The chandeliers of the Groppi Café’ were wrenched from the ceiling, whereas the mosaic façade was entirely spared. The Cinema Radio was less fortunate, the lobby collapsed along with the lower portion of the marquis, so that now it reads only ‘R A D’. The statue of Talaat Harb lay on his back in the midan, with a slightly dented fez. No one will miss the mogamma, the monolithic government complex in Liberation Square. It was gutted by fire: a half-century’s accumulation of pointless paper chits consumed in a few hours. Fortunately it was closed, the twenty thousand souls who worked there were spared. There was only one death, a man who had taken up residence in an inner courtyard, unnoticed, nesting in the empty file boxes tossed from the windows by disdainful employees. It seems he’d been one of them, in passport control, and following his retirement had never left the building. He must have really loved his job.
Another unlamented loss was the Cairo Tower, a concrete needle with an observation deck from which a despondent German once leapt to his death. Religious types condemned it for its shape, the shrubs around its base being particularly suggestive and apt to turn a good woman bad. They’ll be happy, as will the people of Zamalek where a brutish apartment house built by a government crony had stood empty for decades, a blight on the skyline, blocking the Nile view of dozens of formerly fine bourgeois flats. It tumbled into an adjacent park where it ruined some lovely trees.
A dozen brick ghettos collapsed into slouching piles, causing the greatest loss of life. But thanks to the holiday many families were outdoors so that casualties remained miraculously low. Some monuments in the old city suffered, yet the minarets of the Mosque of Al-Azhar held on, and many took this as a sign. The minaret atop Bab Zuwayla, one of the city’s medieval gates, fell down, though restored just last year by the Americans amidst much pomp and ribbon cutting. Some people took that as a sign too. The Ibn Tulun Mosque stood firm, as it had it during the last big ones in the fourteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact, it looked better than before, since the loathsome plaster applied to its walls during a state-funded renovation had simply peeled away. Last but not least, the monolith of Ramses II out by the Pyramids, toppled into one of several surrounding traffic flyovers, and lost its head. That was a sign everyone could agreed on.
A pretentious five star hotel on the Nile bank collapsed, probably because everything in it, down to the toilets and bed stands, was made of weighty garish marble. Fortunately, because it was so overpriced and had stopped serving alcohol, it was nearly empty, and the Saudi owners will hardly notice it’s gone. The only problem was that the debris dammed the river and water backed up. The old Egyptian Museum flooded, undermining a fractured foundation. Statuary and many objects were lost, some of them mysteriously, but can you see it? Granite pharaohs tumbling like dominoes, crashing into each other and crushing display cases, ruins within ruins within ruins.
The Dutch sent a team of dredgers and the blockage was cleared with haste, while the French joined the Egyptians to rescue antiquities from the water. Indeed money poured in from every corner to provide assistance to the poor, repair monuments, build low-income housing, you name it; everyone was on their best and most conscientious behavior. Some of the funds even got to the people they were meant for. The reason for this temporary disruption of the usual criminal routine, was that the powers that be had been zilled and zalled themselves. Tales of their mishaps swept the city; people could talk of little else.
Take the son of the president, who along with the Coptic patriarch and the Grand Mufti, chose Sham al-Nessim for a showy interfaith summit. It was held in the Muqattam cliffs conference hall, a cave carved in the living rock. To accommodate the meeting (chosen for its fortress- like security) the entire garbage collector’s quarter was disposed of, mountains of carefully sorted trash piled indiscriminately onto trucks and dumped in the desert.
Each dignitary brought his delegation, flocks of cowled monks, turbaned elders, and brawny guards with plastic tubes in their ears. There were beards, suits and bellies; they filled the semi-circular auditorium with their hems and haws. Each had a go at the mic, with the proceedings broadcast on TV. The president’s son spoke first, about strong leadership, an undisguised shill for his dad, followed by the pope’s and the Mufti’s shills for theirs. It was all very predictable until the earth threw up her burden and a large boulder broke the lip of the cave, blocking the exit. The monks fell to praying in the dark, or rather chanting their chants that sound like Hindi pop. They were in no real danger, except that of having to endure each other’s company. They were in there for days, so we’ll return to them in a moment.
An ill-advised minister drove his bullet-proofed Mercedes convoy into the zaballeen quarter to supervise the rescue effort and assure everyone things were all right. He was pelted with muddy shib-shib and had to beat a retreat. I heard that the mob almost overturned his car. Serves him right. He had the effrontery to toss Egyptian pound coins from the windows of his car, which are practically worthless and he was lucky to escape with his life. From then on government officials chose the same strategy of retrenchment and inaction that had served them so well these many decades. They stood aside, plotting their puny plots and fingering their gold, while the people fended for themselves……
In the next episode of ‘The Earthquake of 2012’, the Nile takes charge as aftershocks rock Um al Dunya!Pre-order Maria Golia's new book on the history of photography in Egypt: