The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged cairo
Life in Cairo
Graffiti in Cairo: "Imagine Tomorrow." Photo by Parastou Hassouri. 

Graffiti in Cairo: "Imagine Tomorrow." Photo by Parastou Hassouri. 

the other day i walked down the street wearing a dress but it might as well have been a sign saying hurl abuse at me but don't you dare think about stopping or before you know it there'll be a voice in your ear telling you exactly what you are to them or a hand between your legs telling you exactly what they're going to do to you so shut your mouth and open your eyes and keep fucking walking, walk past the kid at your feet who hasn't eaten in three days selling tissues under a billboard that he can't read selling mansions where kids selling tissues aren't allowed to exist, past the building that casually leaned against its neighbor and the train that tripped and fell or flew and the prison where all your friends hang out, past the battles you thought were romantic once upon a time but turned out to be just as dismal as the soon-to-be-banned pop song blaring from the radios you can't shut out as you maneuver between cars that haven't moved for the past five hours and puppetmasters that haven't moved for the past five decades, past all the posturing and mediocrity and melodrama and even faster past all the absurdity and horror and heartbreak, skirt around the mounting piles of trash/teenagers being taught lessons at police stations in lieu of functional education systems, and while you're at it, you might as well pick up a state-authored paper from a dusty stack and catch up on what's happening in an alternate universe near you but be sure to avert your eyes and what remains of your heart from the actual news you can't access on the four hundred and twenty four blocked websites about a person being tortured for asking a question or taking a photo or wearing the wrong t-shirt or having an opinion or an imagination or some really shit luck, watch your step though for that dripping air-conditioner and collapsing bridge and animal carcass and particularly that stranger who doesn't know if he's more outraged at the idea that you appear to have a vagina and an undercut or a penis and multiple earrings, but you don't have time to wait for him to figure it out, you need to pick up a useless document signed by a man making ersatz peanuts even before they floated the currency who won't give it to you for a reason he won't tell you at an institution that will ensure that you are traumatized enough to never attempt to ask for it again, but don't panic, just take a fume-filled breath and pirouette around the brain that exploded on the sidewalk because it was shot for getting too close to the truth or maybe it just combusted spontaneously when it realized that it's trapped in a body that's trapped in a place where you're not allowed to think speak move touch sleep leave hope try share eat — if you can't afford it or if you happen to be hungry when the sun's out during the holy month of ramadan — hide fight rest gather breathe feel fuck act yell be dream heal dance die with any semblance of fucking peace, a foreign word reserved for mystical people (spies and whores, naturally) in faraway lands, all of whom, you are informed about fifty times a day, are conspiring to pillage the generous resources pouring out of the orifices of your three-thousand-year-old civilization like blood from that mosquito you killed on your thigh or from that woman who wanted to place flowers on a monument on the anniversary of a day you wish with everything you have you could forget, but you can't unlive unfeel unsee any of it, not even the fifteen minutes you spent skimming the hundreds of comments vilifying some kids who waved a rainbow flag at a concert that somehow still make you seethe and sigh and sink even though you'd think at this point in your life it wouldn't hurt this badly given that you already fucking know, goddammit, that almost everyone around you is unwavering in their conviction that what is different is sick and must die, but even that doesn't hurt as badly as realizing that the handful of people who don't think that are too broken to save people who are actually sick from dying, and so be prepared to spend a relatively alarming portion of your youth at burials where you're pointedly told not to grieve out loud because crying is of no help to the dead. praying, however, is encouraged at all times.

Habiba Effat (@HabibaEffat) is a copyeditor and an occasional writer with independent Egyptian journalism platform Mada Masr.

The Editorscairo, effat
Conversations in Cairo

Bidoun is back! And it has published a series of interviews with folks in Cairo. I know most of the people in these conversations, at least a bit, and I found them all well worth reading.

But my favorite is Lina Attalah -- editor of the independent news site Mada Masr, which has just been blocked -- interviewing Laila Soueif, professor, activist and mother of an extraordinary clan that includes Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Mona Seif and Sanaa Seif. Some of the other exchanges are clouded by a pained ambivalence over the uprising, its aftermath and its meaning. Whether you agree with Soueif's analysis or not, these two women talking to each other both have a hard-won, warm-hearted lucidity. 

Here is Soueif on her children:

LS: I don’t think children eat up your career. Your free time, but not your career. But I didn’t mind. When Alaa was born, he became my primary source of entertainment and relaxation. I would only go to social events if I could take him along. Otherwise, I just didn’t go. You lose some freedom, of course, but it’s worth it. If Alaa hadn’t been with me in France, I would have gone mad.

For me, children are a source of emotional satisfaction in the face of distress. I knew of that at the time — once it was clear that Seif would be going to prison again, during that year that I was away from my PhD, I made sure to get pregnant. I knew I wanted to have another child to keep me busy, emotionally.

LA: Alaa always talked about his unique relationship with you, something far deeper than the traditional mother-and-son relationship. 

LS: The fact that Seif was in prison when Alaa was very young created a very special relationship between us. Alaa came with me to France when I did my PhD. I had to explain things that you should never have to explain to a child — why his father was in prison, that there are bad police and good police — the good ones, who catch thieves and organize traffic, and the bad ones, who arrest people who oppose the government. You don’t usually need to know these things when you’re four or five.

But Alaa was always sensitive to things. When we were in France, there was a wave of discrimination associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front. There were anti-immigrant ads with nooses, and it touched Alaa. He knew that the ad was addressing him somehow. Later, anytime someone said something negative about Christians, I told him that people who say bad things about Christians are like the ones who posted those ads. He became aware.

I think our relationship is also a function of Alaa’s character, though. I’ll never forget — one day, when Mona was a baby in France, I overslept. I’d had a cold. When I woke up I was frantic. It turned out that Alaa had taken Mona from her bed and made her breakfast. He just did this automatically. When Sanaa came along, it was the same. He took care of her, too. Of course Sanaa was extremely headstrong from the beginning. She still is. But when we fought with her, Alaa would take her aside and deal with her.

And on the political situation in Egypt: 

LS: Well, some things have changed. What happened in 2011 has changed the country. Where we will go is a different story. Sometimes, I think my life has had three stages. There’s everything before 2000, everything between 2000 and 2011, and then the period after 2011. Before 2000, you were always part of a small group. It might have had a certain significance, but you were always aware that you were in the minority — not only in relation to the authorities, but in relation to the people, too. Those were the years of the Islamists’ ascent. Then from 2000 to 2011, we began to see a movement in the streets that was not Islamist. Of course, the Islamist movement was bigger and stronger, but there was a non-Islamist movement as well.

LA: The era of Kifaya, March 9, and the April 6 Youth Movement.

LS: Yes. And then 2011 expanded that into a real popular movement, which succeeded in bringing down Mubarak and then suffered major defeats. But it was a real popular movement. There’s a big difference between being part of a defeated movement and being part of a defeated popular movement.

LA: What does that difference mean for you? For us?

LS: While our movement is defeated, it has an audience of sympathizers in the hundreds of thousands, if not in millions. It is scattered and confused; it doesn’t know where it wants to go, it’s leaderless, it has every problem in the universe… but it exists. We’ve never lived anything like this before. As someone who lived what feels like an entire lifetime in which there was no movement at all, I wouldn’t call this a desperate place. I wouldn’t call this situation we’re in, where we’re discussing real issues of human rights, a desperate situation. It’s a very developed situation. We’re fighting for the equality of women, against torture, against homophobia. It is a problem that these are tools that were developed in the last stage, when we were a minority dealing with a more careful regime, as opposed to the current one that beats everyone with abandon. But the situation has changed, and it changed because we became dangerous. That’s the significance of being a popular movement, even in defeat. The regime is lashing out because the regime itself is desperate. So the fact that we haven’t been able to develop new tools for the new situation doesn’t mean we haven’t progressed. 

LA: What would you point to as evidence of progress?

LS: I find it odd when I hear people say that conditions for women were better in the past. Maybe things looked nicer on the surface, but the situation of women on the ground today is deeply different from the 1960s and 1970s. Try to make women stay at home today. No way! 

Or people are always saying that the youth are apolitical — they’re disrespectful, they won’t listen to grown-ups, they just do what they want. When you get on a toktok in Boulaq al-Dakrour [a low-income area], you will hear rebellious, political songs. And then there are the informal settlements, the so-called ashwa’iyat where so much of the population lives. People have been forced to deal with their own matters, by themselves. They’re effectively outside the authority of the state. It’s not ideal, but this is the better-case scenario.

LA: So people’s relationship to authority is changing?

LS: I would say that the authorities are losing their grip on power. We’ve witnessed the collapse of the legend of the glorious national army; that can’t be reversed. We have more possibilities today than ever. But also more opportunities for a complete breakdown.

LA: You say that the problem is that we need new conceptualizations, new tools. But tools to do what, exactly? What does it mean to be politically engaged? What’s the purpose? Is it to create autonomous institutions, outside the system? To take power? To build power? To cause discomfort to those in power? 

LS: It depends on when we are talking about, but I think the least we can do is give the bad guys a hard time. If you have any kind of public profile, this is the very least you can do. I get so angry at people who have audiences who choose to remain silent. They tell you it’s pointless, but that’s just not true. If your words can have an echo for people, how can you be silent? I like to think that we are sitting like Banquo’s ghost for them. Even when we fail… like in the case of Tiran and Sanafir, the islands the government gave to Saudi Arabia last year — we mobilized, organized protests, filed lawsuits. And okay, so we may not have been able to screw the marriage, but we definitely screwed the wedding. It was not a political win for the authorities.

But real politics is not about this. It’s about giving people more control over their own lives, making people’s lives better. It’s about development — making it so that people aren’t dying from curable diseases. Of course, at that level, what can be done in power is much more significant than what can be done from the outside.

I used to think that our worst nightmare would be for our revolution to end up like the Iranian revolution, but I think it turned out even worse for us. In Iran, the Islamists were part of the fight that ended the old regime, and then they turned against their allies on the Left and took power. And of course, there is oppression, and it is a terrible regime that we have to keep fighting. But there was development, too. Iran today has less poverty, more and better universities, greater industrialization. In Egypt’s case, I honestly thought there was going to be a period of reform when the Brotherhood came to power. But they didn’t have any sort of plan for development. It just wasn’t a priority. So we experienced the worst.

The Anti-Cairo
The planned government sector of the new city, featuring a People's Gateway, People's Piazza, decorative obelisk, Parliament and Presidential Palace [5+ UDC]

The planned government sector of the new city, featuring a People's Gateway, People's Piazza, decorative obelisk, Parliament and Presidential Palace [5+ UDC]

Like many who have lived in Cairo, I remain obsessed with the city -- its squandered potential, its exhausting dysfunction, its liveliness and its charm. I've written something for the excellent Places Journal about the Egyptian government's proposal to move the country's capital to a new administrative city in the desert 45 Kilometers outside Cairo. I'm still not sure how seriously to take the fantastical announcements and graphic renderings of this future city (the authorities in Egypt are not exactly reliable, and the project seems preposterous) but something is already definitely being built. I analyzed the plans for the city as a key to understanding how the Sisi regime views the real, existing capital and public space. I also took a look back at Cairo's history and at the few years after Mubarak's ouster when activists, urbanists and citizens shared so many initiatives and proposals to make Cairo the city it should be. 

One of the densest cities in the world. Informal housing in Cairo and protesters praying in Tahrir. Photo courtesy of Fady El Sadek.

One of the densest cities in the world. Informal housing in Cairo and protesters praying in Tahrir. Photo courtesy of Fady El Sadek.

Q&A: The Tentmakers of Cairo
Lawrence Underhill 2013.

Lawrence Underhill 2013.

For three years, film-maker Kim Beamish hung out with the tent-makers in the Khaimiya district of Cairo. Three turbulent years, spanning the aftermath of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of Mohamed Morsi, and the protests and coup that led to the presidency of military leader Abdel Fattah El Sisi. In Beamish' film, The Tentmakers of Cairo, all of this unfolds in the background -- most often, on a TV screen.  Although their contempt for the Muslim Brothers is palpable and their relief at the ascendancy of a strongman who can restore order is clear, the men in the alley focus largely on thei craft and their business. This is a movie in which very little happens, whose highlights are snippets of overheard conversation (my personal favorite is a father yelling at his young son, while the usual nationalist anthems blare on the TV: "Put down that book and watch TV! Don't you love your country?"). The ease with which these middle-aged, reasonable, well-intentioned men can be down to earth and funny, and then repeat silly rumors or put forth nonsensical arguments, is quite dispiriting. And as the film patiently documents their largely non-eventful lives, some may hanker for a bit more narrative, a bit more drama. But for those who are interested in what the January 25 uprising felt like to the majority in Egypt who watched anxiously and rather suspiciously on the side lines, this understated film offers many insights. 

The film will have its world premiere this Tuesday, 21 April in Nyon, Switzerland at the Visions du Reel Film Festival. Beamish is also hoping to organize screenings in Cairo in June or July. What follows is an email conversation between Beamish and myself. 

The Arabist: How did you end up in Cairo and focus on the Khaimiya neighborhood in the first place?

Kim Beamish: I came to Cairo with my wife and kids after she had taken a job here. I had initially been very keen to look at something a little more "frontline," shall we say. Something with a bit more of the revolution in the foreground, and I was excited by what I might find. However I have always been interested in the effects these big historical events have on those who have not taken part in them and yet are effected by their outcome, sometimes more than those that have taken part. 

I came across the story of the Khaimiya before I arrived in Egypt when I was speaking with a professor at the Australian National University, Professor Bob Bowker, who had told me about some work his wife had been doing with the Tentmakers. I wasn't all that interested to be honest, it did not fit the "frontline" idea I had in my head. However I felt somehow obliged to keep it in mind and met Jenny Bowker only three days after arriving in Cairo, as she coincidently was also in Cairo for a visit, and she took me to meet the Tentmakers.

Because of the years Jenny had previously spent working with the guys there was a lot of trust already established and I was, on the back of this trust, able to walk straight in and pretty much start filming straight away. I was still not sure but the golden rule is "access, access, access" and I had just got it in buckets.

All of the men in the street, more than just the five characters in the film, let me into their shops, work shops and in several cases their homes. As soon as this started to fall into place I decided to concentrate 100% on the Tentmakers.

You said you didn't speak much Arabic when this project started. Yet many of the footage you use has been chosen because you overhear folks saying particular things. How did the translation/editing process work? (Where you translating all along or at the end; did you translate everything?) How did you select the footage to use in the end?

This was a major issue in regards to production and filming. I really had no Arabic when I started filming, and lets be honest I only have a small smattering of Arabic now.

I had initially started teaching myself through some books and Ahmed, one of the characters, started teaching me for a short while but most of my Arabic was picked up by listening to the guys and just asking questions. Most of them have a little English, enough to talk to tourists, and then it was a lot of back and forth. In the end I think it was because of this lack of a common language that I was able to capture what I did, as it meant that I was not intruding as much on the situation by asking questions or predicting what might come next. 

As I got to know them more I also learnt that they generally talked about the same things almost every day; money, politics, security issues and then the ongoing rivalries of the street. Also there was so much happening outside of the street that they were watching on television I could pretty much work out what they were going to talk about by making sure that I kept up to date with the events of the day. 

In regards to editing I feel upon a young Syrian filmmaker, Ali Sheik Kadr, who found out about my work as he passed by my room in a communal office we shared in Dokki. This was almost at the end of shooting so he had many, many hours of footage to go through but by talking a lot he soon worked out what I wanted as well as finding a lot of scenes I had no idea I had filmed. Ali was really instrumental in getting the film finished and was really on the same wave length when it came to finding what I needed to tell the story.

Almost at the same time I found Jason Reeder, an American who was studying translation at the American University in Cairo and so between Ali and Jason we were able to translate and subtitle all of the footage we needed.

Were there particular works that were models or influences for you?

I have always like observational or verité film and had always wanted to have the time and the subject to be able to make one. Two major influences would be the work of Kim Longinotto, especially her film Divorce Iranian Style, and Abbas Kirostami, no particular film but just his style and use of long shots, scenes and not a rapid rate of editing. There are lot of European films and British filmmakers like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and of course Werner Herzog that I have always admired. Again, I think that the lack of language actually gave me more time to concentrate on the shot and the ability to think through the edit of a scene while I was shooting, as I did not have to think as much about what everyone was saying. I would film very long takes so as not to cut half way through sentences or subject matter.

There are some prominent characters in the film, but you don't pick one or two of the men and follow them home, tell their biographies, etc. It is really a portrait of a neighborhood, a collective portrait, with an almost anthropological approach. Did you always plan this? 

I suppose I did. And it has become a slightly ethnographic film because of it. I found the street to be this microcosm of what was happening throughout Egypt, especially Cairo. Rumour and mis-information would blow through the street like small dust storms: You could almost see it start at one end of the street and then finish up at the other end. Everyone in the street knows everyone else; they have all grown up together. In the end it is exactly as you say, a portrait of neighborhood. I think if I had left it, the street, the film would have become something very different and possibly like many of the other films which have looked at the past few years in Egypt.

Also, there is not a lot of drama in the film – no climactic confrontation, no defined narrative arc. The revolution happens in the background (mostly on TV). How much was it a conscious choice to make a non-sensational, very "ordinary" film about this extraordinary time? And to make a film with very little "story"? 

In some way it was probably an experiment in regards to the story arc. I wanted to break it. I was sick of seeing all these documentaries of prominent moments concentrating on single heroes whilst at the same time being bored to death by historic films which never showed the individuals outside of historic figures, presidents, activists and signed documents. I'm always wanting to know what the lives of the people who surround the hero are like.

What did you learn -- about film-making, or about Egypt -- from this project? 

I have learnt a lot about filmmaking on this film as I have produced, directed, filmed, edited, fund raised, marketed and catered on the film. Not intentionally but just due to circumstances. So I have learnt a fair deal. The biggest lesson is I would prefer not to have to do this alone again but on the flip side I know that I can if I have to. 

About Egypt – there is so much to say and there are so many far more educated people than me who have already said a lot. I think Egypt could be so much more than what it is. However I do not see that happening any time soon. I think this revolution, this story, has a lot more to play out. I don't have advice and sometimes I feel that even if I did it would not be listened to. There is a great future for Egypt but there is a lot of growing up and taking a good hard look at oneself that needs to happen before that future becomes a reality. And before all that can even start to happen, Egyptians just need to stop killing each other.

How and when did you know you were finished? 

I initially thought I was finished when Morsi was elected. I saw that as a good ending until everything started falling apart again and so I kept filming. The rise and rise of Sisi then became interesting and the whole coup/not coup thing. But it was literally as I was filming the last shot of the film that I said to myself, "this is it!", the election was over, Sisi was now President and everything was now going to be great? I literally finished the shot, put my camera away, drank some shay and said goodbye. I still visit the street a lot, but not with my camera.

Have you shown the documentary in the neighborhood it was filmed? If so, what have been the reactions? If not, do you plan to?

I have shown the film to the main characters, who have then told the rest of the street about it. I have also given each of the main characters a DVD of the film so it may have been watched a little more widely. They are happy and only had two remarks and requests, one of which I was able to do and the other I could not but I explained why and they were OK with it in the end.

I am hoping to get a screening in early May in Cairo and to invite the street. It will be interesting to see who turns up and what their thoughts are.  

Buying books in Cairo

 Do read this great essay by Elliot Colla on buying (and reading, and discussing) books in Cairo, over the span of many decades. 

When you go into Dar Merit, you will be asked whether you would drink coffee or tea. If you stay long enough two things will happen. First, Muhammad will roll a fat joint and pass it to you. Second, back in those days, the great Egyptian poet Ahmad Fouad Negm would probably come over around nightfall for an impromptu literary salon. I count myself very fortunate that those two things happened to me as often as I wanted that summer.
In January 2011, Dar Merit became something of a forward base of operations for young revolutionaries. Any poet or critic or artist or singer or stagehand who needed tea and a place to rest would find it at Dar Merit. Were it not for Dar Merit, we might not have any serious literary accounts of the 2011 uprising. In recent months, Mohammad Hashem has spoken about moving away from Egypt for good.

I have similar fond memories of Dar Merit, where I was always seemingly welcome to drop in. (Which was all the more gracious as often when Ustez Mohammad arrived there in the late afternoon I had the distinct impression that this was the beginning of his day. He once called a friend and writer I was meeting at his office and told him: "Hurry up! There's a khawaga here you wants to give you tons of money!" Followed by a wild cackle). As for the Cairo Book Fair, I visited last year for the first time in a long time and wrote this.  

AsidesUrsula Lindseycairo, books
We'll Always Have Cairo

This summer, The Arabist household relocated from Egypt to Morocco, after well over a decade living in Cairo. It wasn't an easy step to take. 

We left at a low point (even as we fear that things will be getting worse still). There are many things I won’t miss about Egypt, especially Egypt of late: the hypocrisy, the violence to bodies and to truth, the staggering waste. I won't miss the conspiracy theories and the mock trials; or the way people lower their voices again now to talk about politics; the smug smile of the new president or the anxious, endless diatribes of his sycophants. 

But Cairo is also where Issandr and I met, spent most of our twenties, and became journalists. It’s where we witnessed tens of thousands of strangers dancing a conga line all night around Tahrir Square. So I want to write about the things we will miss.

Driving home on the Kasr El Nil Bridge with a good song playing on a crackling taxi stereo, wishing a silent goodnight to the bronze lions who guard the bridge. Windows rolled down, watching the newlyweds taking their pictures, the young couples in intense negotiations, the teenage boys sitting on the railing laughing, the families out for a midnight stroll. The great black river carrying a rare breeze and full of reflected light, small open motor boats skimming its surface like electric water bugs, draped in colored lights and pulsing with pop music. As you think: There's no city quite like this. 

Having fuul for breakfast from a cart in Garden City.

 

The time-lapse pyrotechnics of flame trees slowly blooming. 

Mangoes, fresh pomegranate juice and molokheyya.

Egyptian dialect in all its inflections and registers, from the cynical to the lyrical, the melodramatic to the bombastic. The stream of jokes and anecdotes and delightfully surprising things you hear every day in a city this big and loquacious. 

The many kind, funny, graceful, ridiculously optimistic, incredibly forbearing, brave people we've met. 

The grimy glory of Islamic Cairo and Khedival Cairo. Especially on Friday mornings. 

One view from Bab Zuweila

One view from Bab Zuweila

Getting deliveries of everything at every time of day and night. 

Our friends.  

Graffiti on a cinderblock wall blocking an entrance to Tahrir Square

Graffiti on a cinderblock wall blocking an entrance to Tahrir Square


Learning from Cairo | Mada Masr
Mada Masr has just published my review of two new books about Cairo that focus on the relationship between political upheaval and the urban environment. CLUSTER's book Archiving The City in Flux is an excellent, eloquent introduction to informality -- the many ways that Cairenes use public spaces despite, or outside, government regulation -- in the city. 
Nagati and Stryker argue that what happened in January 2011 was the result of “decades of the urbanization of injustice.” What happened after the uprising was the temporary breakdown of the state’s heavy-handed presence, for better and for worse. One informal neighborhood took the unprecedented step of connecting itself to Cairo’s ring road by building its own access ramp. Others have taken advantage of the chaos to engage in less civic behavior, from petty crime to riding motorcycles on sidewalks. 

The proliferation of street vendors in downtown Cairo — where they occupy growing swaths of the sidewalk and the street, poach business from shops and blast music from speakers — is one of the case studies included in “Archiving the City in Flux.” It is a hugely contentious issue and a litmus test for people’s political attitudes and their class prejudices. For some, street vendors represent a much-dreaded lower-class chaos (interestingly, they attract a level of disapprobation that triple-parked Mercedes don’t seem to). For others, they are “the people,” struggling to make a living and challenging the authority of the state.

The CLUSTER team’s work exposes the unfair stigmatization of lower-class informality while not romanticizing every example of people laying claim to a bit of this crowded, competitive city as an act of admirable political subversion. Their approach is empathetic yet empirical. They measured what percentage of sidewalk in downtown Cairo is occupied by street vendors (64 percent). They created a map showing where marches to Tahrir originated from, and they catalogued the changing products sold there (from cotton candy to gas masks to, during extended sit-ins, pillows). They used time-lapse photography to document how sidewalk stalls evolve throughout the day. They drove along the ring road charting where microbus stops, tea stalls, mechanics and staircases have been created by the local communities that were originally encircled but not served by the freeway.

You can see the full text of both Archiving the City in Flux and Learning from Cairo online here

 

Understanding Cairo

Lovely piece by Nael Shama in Le Monde Diplomatique on how Morsi and other Egyptian presidents did not understand Cairo, unlike Nasser who made it the centerpiece of his modernist societal project: 

Only Nasser — who clipped the wings of the aristocracy and uplifted the poor, creating a viable middle class — bonded with Cairo. The expansion in education and health services and the establishment of an industry-oriented public sector gave rise to, and consolidated, Egypt’s middle class in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956, he vowed steadfastness against the tripartite aggression (Suez) from the rostrum of the widely revered Al-Azhar mosque, in the heart of Cairo’s old Islamic city. “I am here in Cairo with you and my children are also here in Cairo. I did not send them away [for protection from air raids],” he said, to affirm his loyalty to the city.

Nasser did not travel much during his reign. He was not a big fan of the tourist retreats of Egypt’s pre-revolution aristocracy. He stayed in Cairo, and there he died. In the autumn of 1970, Nasser resided for a few days in Cairo’s posh Nile Hilton during the emergency Arab summit convened to put an end to the bloody Palestinian-Jordanian conflict — Black September. On the night of September 27th, on the balcony of his hotel room that overlooked River Nile, Kasr El-Nil Bridge and the lights of the city that never sleeps, he told his friend Mohamed Heikal: “This is the best view in the world.” On the following day, he died.

Curfew Chronicles

A passionate and beautifully written defense of the choice to live in Cairo (addressed to all the worried relatives and acquaintances who want the author to "come on home" now.)

I translate this paragraph below:

En dépit des difficultés connues de la capitale égyptienne (poussière, pollution, chaleur, harcèlement, instabilité politique), vivre au Caire n'est pas une lubie. Surtout si ce choix s'inscrit dans la durée. Les étés au Caire sont chauds mais ses hivers sont doux comme les printemps dans le sud de la France. Ses journées sont bruyantes et peuplées, mais ses nuits sont de loin les plus fabuleuses de la région. Paris se couche à 2 heures les soirs de week-end quand Le Caire veille jusqu'à l'aube tous les soirs, indifférente aux débuts, aux milieux et aux fins de semaine. Là où Paris se tasse dans des 2 pièces de 25 mètres carré, Le Caire se repait d'espace, d'appartements aux plafonds hauts, aux terrasses ensoleillées. Quand on a la chance d'y gagner sa vie en euros, on n'a pas à penser à l'argent au Caire, on n'est pas obligé de compter pour dépenser, et en plus, on se retrouve avec du temps sur les bras, pour écrire, lire, nager, repeindre le salon. Et puis il y a des gens au Caire, des gens que précisément on ne risque de croiser ni à Paris ni à New York, des gens qui ont à la fois quelque chose en plus et une case en moins, des gens qui ne se sentent à leur place nulle part, qui n'ont ni de certitude, ni d'aptitude au confort, ni peur d'être d'éternels débutants.

Despite the well-known difficulties of the Egyptian capital (dust, pollution, heat, harassment, political instability), living in Cairo isn't a whim. Especially if it's a long-term choice. Summers in Cairo are hot but winters are as mild as springs in the south of France. Its days are noisy and crowded, but its nights are by far the most fabulous in the region. Paris goes to bed at 2am on weekends while Cairo stays up till dawn every night, at the beginning, middle and end of the week. While Paris stuffs itself into two 25-square-meter rooms, Cairo revels in space, in high-ceilinged apartments with sunny terraces. If you are lucky enough to earn your living in euros, you don't need to worry about money in Cairo, and what's more you find yourself with time on your hands, to write, read, swim, repaint the living-room. And then there are people in Cairo, precisely the kind of people who you won't come across in Paris or New York, people who have a little something extra and a little something off, people who don't feel at home anywhere, who have no certainties, no aptitude for comfort, no fear of being eternal beginners. 

 

Driving about with the Islamists

 Sixth of October Bridge is missing parts of its railing. Although only one armored vehicle was fell off it. 

With one eye on the railing rather than the road and another on his phone, my cousin searched for a scandalous picture on his phone. “I found it! Look at actress Elham Shaheen sleeping naked next to Mahmoud Abdel Aziz!” he said, showing us a blurry picture of a clothed Menna Shalabi and Kareem Abdul Aziz cuddling under a blanket that’s only a few inches short of their neck.  

“And then she gets mad when Abdullah Badr calls her a whore,” my father said, shaking his head, and passed the phone to my uncle to see. 

“Oh, it’s art! It has a message within the dramatic context; it’s purposeful!” my uncle quoted the common intellectual defense of nudity in films in a singsong manner. 

“The message is: I am a whore,” my cousin replied. They guffawed.

The laughter died once the Ministry of Finance finally came into view, it was reportedly attacked by MB supporters on Wednesday night with Molotov cocktails. 24 hours later, parts of the building were on fire again. On the seventh floor, bright yellow and orange flames were dancing unfettered by the three fire trucks parked in front of the building. The firefighters, distracted by their sandwiches, had pointed their hoses a tad too low, accidentally watering the shrubbery in front of the ministry instead of putting out the fire.

Next stop on our field trip around Cairo, inspecting the damage of the sit-ins dispersal and the violence that followed them, was Raba’a al-Adaweya. It was mostly smoky and empty, just charred buildings, broken glass and burned cars. The streets were littered with remains of the sit-in: blankets, torn clothes and indistinguishable items, or parts of them, some of which choosy robabekya men (junk traders) scrutinized before collecting. 

Every now and then, my company would stop lamenting the events of August 14 and existence of Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and express their bewilderment at the virtually pristine condition Cook Door, a fast food restaurant in Raba’a, managed to stay in.  

Much like Raba’a, El Alf Maskan looked battered. During an attempt to launch a third sit-in the area, MB supporters clashed with security forces. The result was the combustion of innocent cars and the dismantling of sidewalks. Now piled up pieces of the sidewalk lie abandoned by the side of the road waiting for closure. 

Meanwhile, the Giza Governorate Complex caught fire, news which pleased my father for he thought that meant that the believed-to-be-responsible MB supporters have now “seized” the governorate. Already, my uncle was half-seriously entertaining thoughts of moving to the fledgling emirate. 

“For every action, there is a reaction,” my father explained time and time again. If el-Sisi thinks he can toppled the president, kill his supporters and get away with it, then he’s got another thing coming for him. Namely, the burning of churches and/or anything believed to have contributed to the coup, such as the house and farm of military-friendly and former Gamal Abdel Nasser’s good friend, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, in Belqas, Dakahlia. 

Like many Islamists, my company fluctuated from denying responsibility for the attacks to taking pride in them. One minute they blamed the conspiring Christians, “who caused this mess with the army,” for growing beards and burning their own churches to make it look as if Islamists were burning their churches and the next they reveled in the belief that the Islamists are and will continue to rightly burn churches to punish the people who tried to end Islam. 

Similarly, some in the anti-Morsi camp maintain that the Morsi supporters shot themselves to make it look as if the military killed protesters, when they are actually being shot at by protester-killing protesters. Such claims, no doubt, will be supported by a shaky video with an arrow or a red circle around some indiscernible yet revealing detail in the footage meant to give the attentive viewer a headache and allow the prejudiced viewer to sleep easy knowing that the video title is proven by that thing they didn’t actually see in the video, but must have been there, because otherwise the title would be wrong.

Art in Cairo

The radio program The World just ran a piece I did on the Cairo arts scene and particularly on how artists are taking advantage of the current chaos/freedom to use public spaces they were barred from before and to connect with new audiences.

The piece discusses the recent Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival and an installation by Ganzeer and Yasmine El Ayat.

I also spoke to several other artists, but due to time constraints, those conversations didn't make it into the piece. 

Artist Hady Kamar, for example, took time to chat with me about the difficulties of defining "revolutionary" art and the reasons behind the (modest but noticeable) increase in new arts spaces and initiatives in Cairo. 

"I think a lot of people are doing more now on their own because a lot of the promises of the revolution weren't fulfilled, " Kamar said. "For example, openness -- societal openness or just a political openness. You can only rely on yourself and you can't sit around relying on [the fact that] the government is going to assist with this or we're going to become a place where there are going to be a lot of cultural spaces,  without people taking it on themselves and doing it themselves. "

Kamar is one of the artists behind the charming new Nile Sunset Annex, a one-room exhibition space (in an apartment/studio in Garden City) that puts on a monthly show of physical (as opposed to digital) work and that, in my view, plays with the boundaries between professional art-making and other forms of creativity and craftsmanship, as well as those between genres (in the two shows I've gone to I've seen drawing, music, furniture replicas and embroidery).

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The other artists I had the pleasure of meeting recently is Amira Hanafy, who did a piece entitled Mahdy's Walk for the gallery Art Ellewa (in the informal neighborhood of Ard Ellewa). In fact, I am part of Hanafy's piece, an aural portrait of the area made up of conversations with residents and visitors, recorded while following a circuit through the neighborhood. The walk took in one of the remaining open fields in the area, a patch of emerald-green barsoum that will undoubtedly be gone in a few years (there are already half-built apartment blocks standing on its edge) and the sound collage features conversations about the area's history, break-neck development and problems: land speculation, security, garbage collection. 

Graffiti featuring kids from Ard Ellewa

Graffiti featuring kids from Ard Ellewa

While not all art can (or need) be socially or politically engaged, this particular moment in Egypt is such that many artists are both looking for new models to organize and sustain themselves and for ways to break out of Cairo's small alternative gallery scene and engage wider audiences. Hanafy's piece and the work at Art Ellewa generally is a great example of art that is embedded in, and relevant to, the community that surrounds it. 

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In Cairo

I've written something on the London Review of Books blog about the last few weeks -- and the dispirited, unsettled mood -- in Cairo. 

I start by describing a little unwanted detour I had to take recently. 

The street lamps on the Kasr El Nil bridge are out. The Semiramis hotel is battered and shuttered: during the latest round of clashes the hotel was looted by a well-armed mob that showed up one night at 2 a.m. The staff called the army and the police, in vain. As our taxi turns the corner by the Semiramis – on the edge of Tahrir Square, a few minutes from the American Embassy – there’s a crowd of young men in the street in front of us. A boy with a keffiyeh wrapped around his mouth winds up his arm and lets loose, aiming squarely at our windscreen – but his hand is empty, he’s just joking. Another boy waves us through. The first boy comes running over and, hanging on the open window, yells at the driver. I’m too flustered to catch what he says, but it’s clear we won’t be let through. We head back to the bridge, back across the Nile, up the other side and home by a different bridge.

And go on to discuss how masked teenagers closing down major thoroughfares for kicks is the mildest form of the trouble we're in. 

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