The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Thirty years ago today

Maria Golia, right, enjoying a goza.

Friend of the site Maria Golia — the author of Cairo: City of Sand and Photography and Egypt — sent in the piece below, an extract from Nile Eyes, her unpublished novel about Cairo in the 1980s. It is about how she spent 6 October 1981 — the day that 30 years ago Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated, ushering in the Hosni Mubarak era.

On October 6, 1981 while President Anwar Sadat was being assassinated at his Victory Day parade, I was close by, shooting a TV ad for Egyptian laundry soap. As a fair-skinned, dark-haired foreigner I’d been cast as the ideal Egyptian housewife, never mind the other four million girls who’d been born for the role. The borrowed child I held in my arms was indeed unconvinced. His howls nearly drowned out the ominous noise of helicopters, sirens and sonic booms. I didn’t realize it then, but my presence before the camera was symptomatic of the policies that had provoked Sadat’s demise, and would paradoxically gain greater momentum after his death. I was a tiny ripple in the gathering wave of commercialism, the vanguard of Egypt’s 'open market' era.

The shoot was scheduled for the morning in Heliopolis, a suburban quarter of Cairo. I grabbed a cab and on the way remarked that the streets were lined with flags. The main street heading towards the airport was closed, diverting traffic for the parade that would march before the president, ensconced in a small tribunal designed for his reviews of the troops. Arriving at my destination I heard a series of sonic booms and looked up at a group of fighter planes flying in formation.

To save money the producer used a friend's flat for the shoot. It was an elaborate affair; a series of salons decorated in an ostentatious interpretation of old world elegance. I was given a dress and directed to a bedroom to change. I tried it on. It was made of swishing synthetic red sateen, loose over the hips with puffed shoulders and a scoop neck. I could hear a baby wailing and was confused. The dress could in no way be interpreted as maternal.

Next I was made-up and coifed simultaneously by balding twins, borrowed for the day from one of the five-star hotels. They had a perfectly synchronous way of passing pins, hair-dryers and hot-irons that they heated on small portable butane-gas tanks. They redesigned my eyebrows. They brushed eye shadow in shades of pink and brown onto my lids in a swooping almond shape. They applied rouge to my cheeks and once my hair had been sprayed into a casual bouffant, one of the twins leaned towards me and painted my lips in two scarlet hues, one dark the other darker. I didn't recognize myself in the mirror; I looked frightened and frightening.

No wonder that the baby who had been awarded the unwanted honor of being my video son began to howl as soon as he laid eyes on me. When I approached he tightened his tiny fists, crinkled his eyes and began to scream. When his real mother handed him to me like a parcel he started to hyperventilate. She nodded at me encouragingly. Dismayed I took the baby in my arms awkwardly and it started to produce those intermittent sobs of an overwrought child that leave so much time in between each one that it’s scary.

I mistook one of these long intervals for acquiescence and raised the child to my shoulder. That is when he vomited a sob and his orange-colored breakfast on to my neck. Meanwhile the lights were being set and Mohammed was bustling around giving stage directions. One of the twins came with a dishcloth and swabbed the dress. "You look terrific," he whispered into my ear, spending a tad too much time in the vicinity of my left nipple with his wet rag. Mohammed told me to sit in a large throne-like chair and instructed me to simply hold the child, smile for the camera and then direct my gaze lovingly to a nearby box of detergent. The child was exhausted from his recent efforts and his mother had managed to calm him down to a hiccup. But once again when he saw me he was terrified and started kicking and thrusting his arms convulsively. "Maybe it's the dress." I offered.

In the near distance we could hear a brass band blaring, the clatter of helicopters and what sounded like canon salutes and guns. The parade was in full swing. The child finally collapsed and we were able to get a take. As soon as we finished I grabbed my pay, stripped off that disgusting garment and the make-up and head straight to Batneyya. Traffic was thick. By the time I made it to Batneyya, word was on the streets, something bad had happened at the parade. Sadat was wounded, was dead, and was being flown to London for an operation, no one was really sure.

Uncertainty clouded the anticipatory eve of the feast that follows the end of the month of pilgrimage, celebrated by the dawn slaughter of sheep and the distribution of surplus meat to the poor. There had been a shooting, of that there was no doubt; the rest was silence. This put a serious damper on the holiday spirit that had been building these last few days. The sheep tied to every little shop along the narrow streets baa’ed plaintively. Instinctively they perceived that their fate was nigh and now their future-eaters shared their discomfiture.

The 6th of October represented a shining hour, the day the Israelis were humbled with Sadat at the helm. There was an historic symmetry in today’s events since the attempt on Sadat coincided that lunar year with the great Islamic feast of sacrifice; what’s more, the war itself had been launched by the Egyptian’s surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the Hebrew's holiest day. But Egypt had somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jars of Victory. Around the city, fireworks were canceled. I spent the day smoking in a variety of cafés. The men were pensive and anxious.

I smoked into the long warm evening and deep into the night. I tried to stay awake for the dawn slaughter, but couldn’t manage. I went upstairs to sleep with Suad and Fatma, daughters of a local café owner who hosted me when I’d stayed too late and the annoying street blockades were in place. In the morning I came down the stairs to find the heads of the sheep with whom I had shared so many enlightened moments, severed and grouped like a Christian symbol for trinity in an electric-blue plastic tub. Agnus Dei. The girls were with their mother on the floor in their tiny salon watching TV and making ground meat with a large, old fashioned pewter grinder clamped with a vice mechanism onto the windowsill. They were grinding blind, their eyes glued to the television and wordlessly they motioned for me to join them. I sat cross-legged beside them and watched.

It was a ritualistic military parade designed primarily for television spectators and its reverential repetitiveness was blandly underscored by a somber voiced commentator. The screen was filled with a series of sunwashed images whose poor quality made the sequence already seem like a vintage newsreel. There was a stagey tribunal with Sadat surrounded by his cronies, himself seated in Pharaonic splendor holding a small staff with a lotus on top. Then the picture cut to a ponderous procession of ramshackle tanks followed by a scene of jet planes in formation. The commentator droned in unison with the aircraft and I began to wonder what my hostesses were so excited about.

We were treated to a close-up of Sadat looking mighty satisfied before a cut back to the planes. The commentator’s monotone relented somewhat as we returned to Sadat beaming upwards with a look of heavenly pride and a bit of mist in his eyes. Cut back to the planes. Anyone who was still awake might have noticed that the droning soundtrack was perforated with a series of popping sounds followed by a growing murmur of commotion. The camera swerved and we saw the tribunal, now chaotic with chairs flying, people scattering, crawling under the chairs. The screen went blank.

The women were grinding dejectedly, dabbing at their eyes with the back of their wrists, their sleeves rolled up away from fat-covered hands. Someone thrust a pigeon-feather fan into my hands commanding me to keep away the flies. The room absolutely reeked of lamb. Madame rewound the tape and we watched the whole sequence of events again and I surmised that that was what the ladies had been doing all morning, besides filling the world with kofta. This time when we reached the part where Sadat was eyeing his planes, the women cried out variously, "Run!” "Beware"! "Stop them, get out of there, Run!!". Futile warnings. Sadat's image was deaf to their urgent pleas.

Once again the tribunal was scattered to the accompaniment of a score of pops. Rewind, start again. The women were crying openly. Their tears fell into the big aluminum casseroles holding quivering white slabs of sheep fat and mounds of ground meat. Sadat took the first bullet in the neck, right between his fetish lotus collar ornaments. A scarlet bib obliterated the beribboned front of his jacket and when his arm reflexively went to his throat it was nearly removed at the shoulder by another volley of shots. The tribunal was a tumult of crawling wounded men pathetically seeking shelter behind overturned chairs.

The cameraman jolted in his shock and for a moment the screen was filled with a cloudless sky. When he recovered we saw men staggering, leaping into action, running, sobbing. A crowd surrounded the place where the president had fallen. If he wasn't already dead, they would have suffocated him. The screen went blank once more, finally. I was fanning assiduously, and feeling slightly ill. I never liked TV and ever since that day have a hard time with lamb. As for the women, in a coup de video they had relegated the death of their erstwhile leader to both fiction and history.

Later we heard that a man in the ranks had turned towards the president while passing the tribunal, whipped out his weapon and opened fire, shouting, "I have killed Pharaoh and I am not afraid." We also learned that he did not act alone. In the afternoon of the same day a tank lumbered into Batneyya Square…