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.
Following the earthquake of April 21, 2012, Cairo is in an unusually tumultuous turmoil. 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. In episode two, the president vanished – then reappeared. Here’s what happened.
The Earthquake of 2012: Episode Three
The story must have leaked through a house servant or the president’s driver himself, but the city was ablaze with it. Seems he washed up on the Island of Dahab, which means gold, a speck of land, farmed today as it has been for centuries, an anachronism in the Nile not far from downtown. Back in the 90s, the government built a bridge that sunk its oafish pylons there and left the bulk of the island in shadow. The people rose in protest but were quickly pressured down.
When Mohamed ibn Salem saw someone draped over his fishing boat, he rushed to help. He called his sons and they dragged him to the house. (They were weak, you see, protein-weak, and couldn’t lift him.) The sons were small and Mohammed a frail man of forty though he looked much older in the newspaper. He and his family nursed the president for nearly a week and it never occurred to them or their neighbors who their houseguest might be. Without his toupee, shoulder pads and bullet proof vest (which he’d shed as soon as he realized he’d been taken by the current) and seen full-on, as opposed to the stylized profile he’d presented for so long, he was unrecognizable, even to himself, and it was just as well. Had they realized who it was there’s no telling what they might have done, but ransoming and eating were among the possibilities.
No sooner had the president regained consciousness when he realized his predicament. He thanked his hosts in the county-accented Arabic of his youth, and said he was a water carrier, the poorest of the country’s poor. He begged Mohammed to drop him on the mainland, nothing more.
-I’ll just be going, he said, be out of your way, you don’t need another mouth to feed, a useless old man…..
-But no, uncle, stay with us, we beg you stay! Such was the exchange according to Mohammed, who became a national celebrity.
The president smuggled himself into the Pink House with the help of a loyal kitchen servant, well, somewhat loyal, of a truth the man was a deaf-mute and very old. The president’s wife was ecstatic, especially since their son was about to be freed. His position with the others in the cave had grown precarious, several days without food though they’d managed to insert a thin hose to supply water. The cliff was weakened and had to be supported as the blockage was removed. When local efforts failed, the American president kindly donated demolition experts to blow the lid delicately off the cave. She related this news and they rejoiced, the family would be united again, against all odds! Of course, we didn’t know all this at first, only where the president had been found, and by whom, that he wasn’t dead but had been through an awful lot.
The denouement came less than a week later. I was home, sipping tea, when the doorbell rang. It was the postman bearing the news that Egypt’s longest standing ruler sine Mohammed Ali had finally gone to his heavenly reward. I stood at the door, stunned, and – I confess – weeping. Although people had wished the old man dead, made oaths and bets and dreamt of it, many shed a tear when he actually went. Yet it wasn’t for him we were crying, but for the years we spent in his parentheses, years we felt in our hearts were never really good but did little to make any better. We’d gotten used to him and to cursing him, as part of a comforting daily routine. So long as he was around he could be blamed, hated and feared. We even took comfort in his tenacity for it granted a continuity otherwise absent in modern life. The old man was a constant, a prime number, divisible only by himself, and our fates were bound up with his. And what would better be exactly? Well, no one really knew.
Overnight, downtown was cordoned off for the funeral. By mid-morning, soldiers by the thousands lined every major street. A tent of hand-stitched arabesque covered one end of Liberation Square, hung with hundreds of lamps, ample wattage for the video cameras, and filled with gilt chairs, beaten bronze coffee tables and carpets from Shiraz. There were dozens of bow-tied waiters, steaming samovars and a famous blind sheikh to recite the Quran. The president’s wife and son arrived, she looking drawn, and he no more morose than usual. The tent was full of those on whom the president lavished his favors; distraught friends and colleagues numbered in the thousands. But the people, your average Mohammed and Leila, stayed away in droves. It was an embarrassment, not to mention a challenge for the TV cameramen assigned to film the loving citizenry, mad with grief. Oh there were a few, there always are, men tearing at their shirts and beating their chests, old women wailing, the usual commotion, but it was contained and stagy, nor did it last very long.
The well-heeled who attended the funeral took the customary opportunity to show allegiance, seal deals and be seen, but they were circumspect and shifty-eyed. Men perspired beneath the lamps. The women stayed in a separate tent, their perfume barely masking a note of rancid unease. The ministers, each with a nucleus of private guards, circulated randomly, as if to avoid intersection. But a couple of them had the bad taste and judgment to argue. Fortunately the TV cameras were busy with a contingent of sheikhs and the Coptic pope. They arrived practically at the same time and were warmly welcomed by the president’s son. Meanwhile waiters eavesdropped, made their assessments and passed them on to the street.
Throughout the day rumors flew, of coups and assassinations, foreign and divine interventions. Instead of news, the state TV broadcast the beloved black and white musicals of the forties, in a bid to keep folks home and quiet. But we’d seen those films too many times before. The hero, poor but handsome with a beautiful voice, wins the rich girl’s love then dies of consumption. Or else the heroine, a goodhearted but slandered dancer, is rehabilitated, i.e. married. Or else a trio of buffoons yammer and slap each other for an hour and a half. Slapping, dancing, and dying - people were sick of it, of being bought cheap, like kids with candy, of being talked down to or not at all.
The funeral tent was dismantled by evening, and half the soldiers sent away, which still left many thousands. Nevertheless people filled the streets as they normally would, to window shop or run errands. But that night something started happening - more people went out, many, many more. They didn’t drive, just came down from their houses, spreading through the streets wherever there was room. By midnight, Liberation Square was full, as was every open space in the city, not packed, but milling with humans instead of cars. It felt like a park without trees. People stood around or sat where they could, drinking sodas, eating pumpkin seeds or smoking. And naturally they got to talking, not about what would happen, but about what they’d decided they would not, under any circumstances, continue to withstand.
The next day they kept talking, and no one, or almost anyone, went to work. Half the city was already unemployed, but it made a difference. Government factory workers started it, and an army of civil servants of every stripe followed suit. So did teachers and students and shopkeepers. Everyone just stopped. Cafes overflowed. Muezzins abandoned their zawiyyas; the streets were too full of milling crowds for prayers. The weather was ridiculously beautiful, crystal clear with great fluffy clouds of a kind rarely seen in Cairo. People basked in peaceful uncertainty, reassured by their great concordant numbers. Egyptians had never believed in their power, only their wit. But that was before the earthquake of 2012.
There’s a word, kairos, ancient Greek for ‘right or opportune moment’. It doesn’t have anything to do with this city, which is named for the planet Mars. But it described those days well: ‘a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force…’ And so it was, quietly, not with blood, but inertia and the conviction born of a single shared and inarguable truth: that enough, at some point, is enough, and that this luminous point, this transformative moment - was now.
Pre-order Maria Golia's new book on the history of photography in Egypt:
Photography and Egypt describes the forces behind photography's development in the most photographed place on earth, the social and political realities the practice helped shape and the enduring iconography it gave to the world.Photography and Egypt describes the forces behind photography's development in the most photographed place on earth, the social and political realities the practice helped shape and the enduring iconography it gave to the world.