The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Earthquake of 2012: Episode One

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 starting today, 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.


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:


"Photography and Egypt (Exposures)" (Maria Golia)

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.