Baptism by Fire
By Jess HillFebruary 6, 2012
Moving to a new country is hard at the best of times. But moving to a new country that's being rocked by continuous revolution? That's ... interesting.
“Come and see, I show you,” Abdo beckoned. He strode to the computer in his real-estate office in Zamalek, a wealthy enclave in Cairo flanked by the Nile. Framed on the wall was a certificate in green calligraphy confirming Abdo as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
Abdo, a successful professional in his 30s, switched on his computer to show us photos of an apartment in a belle-époque building nearby. On his screen, several YouTube videos were open. “Have you seen this?” he asked, pointing to an apparently famous video shot during the January 25, 2011 revolution. My husband and I shook our heads, which was his cue to play several videos showing protesters being shot by government snipers. Abdo hit rewind and paused to show the exact moments of impact.
Where else but Cairo would your real-estate agent show you graphic footage of police violence in the very city in which you’re seeking to live?
The Cairo we’ve moved to is not Mubarak’s Cairo. Downtown, the streets fizz: people gather spontaneously to debate politics, and activists openly plot their next moves in outdoor ahwas, or cafes. Our first home, the Hotel Royal, is 10 minutes’ walk from Tahrir Square and overlooks an alleyway lined with ahwas full of young activists. Alongside the red and yellow scrabble of plastic chairs, a brick wall is painted with the faces of people killed during the revolution. Next to that, a familiar slogan: "The people want the removal of the regime.”
“Young people used to talk about two things: football, and how much they wanted to leave Egypt,” our hotel manager, Hussein, told us. “Now they feel like they can change things. The feeling here has totally changed.”
That feeling is what persuaded my husband and I to move to Cairo rather than Beirut, as we’d originally planned. Two months on, the mood is still infectious, but it’s shadowed by frustration and anxiety. Twelve thousand Egyptians have been tried in military courts since the 2011 revolution — more than the total number tried during former President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in power. Many of these are still languishing in prison; every other day, new protests call for their release.
There’s still energy in the revolutionary movement, but it’s splintering and shrinking. The one thing that unites them is a common adversary: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), namely its leader, Field Marshall Tantawi, who retains presidential control over Egypt. But there is a growing awareness of the realpolitik here, and even the most determined activists can’t really explain how to ‘remove’ SCAF from Egyptian politics. That’s because removing SCAF from politics would be like separating hay from glue: former military officers are inserted throughout the bureaucracy. The January revolution may have blown the roof off the regime, but the concrete foundations remain intact.
Throughout Egypt, uncertainty reigns supreme. People swap conspiracies like they’re talking about the weather. There are whispers about a rise in xenophobia; most savvy Egyptians we’ve spoken to blame state-owned media for the rise of the “foreign hands” bogeyman so popular throughout the Arab world. We’ve not experienced this xenophobia, but each new expat we meet relates a new story about someone being harassed, even placed under citizen arrest.
An Australian friend was returning home on the metro one afternoon when a woman turned to her and said, “What are you doing here? Egyptians don’t want foreigners here anymore.” In two other cases, the threat was more mysterious, and intimidating: Two American friends each have had their apartments broken into and in both cases their laptops and flash drives were stolen. Egyptian intelligence, or American? Both seem as likely and as unlikely. I’m starting to understand why Arabs are so partial to conspiracy theories.
Besides the low-level anxiety triggered by these cautionary tales, our time here has been almost entirely positive — and safe. Most locals go out of their way to welcome us, or to help us. And despite being one of the most densely populated cities in the world, there’s a quaintness to Cairo. It’s a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own distinct character. You could spend weeks getting to know just one: Islamic Cairo, for instance, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods. It’s a labyrinth of winding streets where the dress code is Muslim conservative and the sidewalks teem with vendors, teahouses, hectic discount markets and mosques. Islamic Cairo feels like it’s miles from neighbouring Downtown, and a totally different country (and era) from Zamalek, just across the Nile.
If there’s a quality here that feels uniquely Egyptian, it’s the noise. Cairo is LOUD. When Cairenes (as the city’s natives are known) aren’t honking horns, they’re yelling, fighting, blasting local dance music or watching TV like they have a hearing impairment. Silence is a commodity that Westerners pay for in European-style coffee shops and restaurants. (Smoke-free air, sadly, is not available.)
In most other venues, fewer than five independent sources of noise would be considered eerily quiet. Case in point: I’m writing this in a café in middle-class Mohandeseen. It’s a beautiful, old venue: low light, dark wood, and populated by elderly Egyptian chaps playing backgammon. Traditional music calmly backgrounds bubbling sheesha water pipes, dice rattle over felt. But it turns out the ambience is accidental. A waiter senses the absence of din and abruptly turns on every television in the café, setting them to different channels before cranking them up. When I ask him to please just turn down the nearest one, he looks confused. “Many different sounds,” I explain. He shrugs.
Then there’s the Darwinian struggle for spare tarmac known as Cairo’s traffic. Tubercular congestion can stretch a 20-minute journey to two fume-drenched hours. Between 10,000 and 25,000 people in Cairo die each year due to pollution-related sickness. Sarah, an Egyptian environmental activist, says pollution is what the presidential candidates should campaign on: “Instead they debate whether alcohol should be banned, or if women should wear the veil.”
Within the clamour, however, there are moments of levity. Five times a day the call to prayer cuts through the chaos and forces its way between you and the street. Horns, engines and chatter are backgrounded, and suddenly you remember to breathe (but not too deeply).
The city’s constant, crowded movement often disorients, but the outlines of Downtown’s once grand European avenues steady the nerves. While enjoying Paris, 19th century Egyptian ruler Khedive Ismail commissioned French architects to build his own little Paris, in Cairo. Until King Farouk was forced into exile in 1952, Downtown was a cosmopolitan mix of foreigners and intellectuals. Soon Gamal Abdel Nasser’s xenophobic policies forced out the foreigners, and Downtown was handed over to military officers and their wives.
After almost six decades of neglect, Downtown now feels like Miss Havisham’s mansion: a sad picture of former opulence brought to ruin by decay, dirt and rubbish.
People of a certain age remember Cairo before Mubarak, and they remember it wistfully. “You should’ve seen it before,” they say. Cairo has aged centuries since Mubarak came to power 30 years ago — a testimony to the criminal negligence of his regime.
It’s hard, then, to understand how anyone could be nostalgic for his leadership. Still, some of those who did well out of Mubarak think the revolution was a mistake. Egyptians have a word for such ostriches: felool. While they’re definitely in the minority, they’re not hard to find.
In a popular old pâtisserie in Zamalek one night, the owner laid on complimentary pastries, pulling up a chair. A wealthy Egyptian who had lived mostly abroad, he insisted Mubarak had been a good leader. Maybe for the rich, I countered, but what about the regular Egyptians who could be hauled away by police at random, beaten and sexually humiliated? (Egypt’s police force has long been notorious for its brutality, and stories of young men being arrested without charge, beaten and even sodomised, are legion.)
"These people,” he said, leaning in close, “they tell a lot of stories.”
It’s not just the rich who have reservations about the revolution. Shukuku, an elderly driver who returned us from the Pyramids, bemoaned the loss of Egypt’s former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, Egypt’s most hated official. Stuck in peak-hour gridlock, he said, “At least when el-Adly was in charge, people were afraid to break the rules. Now look — those people are driving the wrong way up a one-way street. Nobody cares anymore,” he said, shaking his head.
What Egyptians are starting to realise is that toppling a dictator is one thing, but recovering from dictatorship is quite another. Like citizens in Eastern Europe discovered after the fall of the Soviet Union, dictators do more than just control the nation’s affairs, they invade the nation’s psyche. Ahmed, a young medical student we met in Alexandria, put it this way: “We all have a little Mubarak inside of us. We have to face this.”
Others are deeply pessimistic about Egypt’s future. “Egypt needs a lot of time,” one middle-class Egyptian told us as we hunted for apartments in Zamalek. “But we also need to kill a lot of people. We need to kill at least 50 per cent.”
“About 40 million?” I asked, playing along.
He nodded earnestly. “Egyptians don’t want to work, and they don’t want to change.”
Despite what the Cassandras say, Cairo is one of the most exciting cities in the world right now. That’s why, despite its myriad frustrations (and howling tomcats), we’ve chosen to live here. Our YouTube broker, Abdo, found us an apartment, a beautiful old place owned by a lovely Egyptian grandmother, Madame Samia. When we first walked into the apartment, the décor was a shock of Miss-Marple-in-Arabia chintz. But we’ve disassembled the worst of it, and now it feels like home.
Nobody can say what history Egyptians will write this year, but with the very notion of democracy in the Arab world up for grabs, it sure makes compulsive viewing.