Cairo revisited

by Nariman Youssef

** revised version of a post I published yesterday **

Having been away since end of Feb, I go back to Cairo for a quick fix from Friday 15th to Wednesday 20th.

Day 1 —

Taxi from airport. Cairo is reassuring and uplifting. News from twitter and facebook would make you think knives are slashing skin on every street, and on every corner a crazed preacher like the Jesus guy outside Camden station, except this one would be holding a Quran. But Cairo is reassuring and uplifting, traffic a tad better than usual, my taxi driver in a good mood. On recent Mubarak news he says: “I’m sorry for the old man, but justice feels good.” A sentiment I hear echoed in many conversations in the few days that follow.

I call my parents and tell them I’m on my way. They sound relieved. We hardly spoke while I was away. In the weeks before I left, our arguments are of the kind you hold on to until someone is diagnosed with terminal illness. They accused me of ruining the country. I tried to wring their stupidity wide open for them to see but kept tearing at my own hair instead. I disappeared for days and let them assume my whereabouts. They talked to me as if I held some sway over the protesters in Tahrir. Some of my relatives would call to say things like “Please tell your friends to go home now, enough is enough!!” They’re not really stupid, my parents and aunts and cousins, nor were they pro-Mubarak per se. Mainly they were just scared.

Day 2 —

I wake up at 5am. First rays of sunshine on the Nile and all that. I spend the morning reading and writing, sipping coffee and listening to Darwish. After weeks of reading the news online, I can finally fetishise The Newspaper. I find all the copies in my parent’s house and sail through yesterday’s news.

The first pre-summer night of the year and the outdoor wedding party of M and A. Black cotton dress and orange shoes. Some people here I haven’t seen since Tahrir. It’s hot and we are all as still and as spent as the leaves on the trees. Each small group oblivious of the rest, we drink and talk our way through the first half of the evening. I can only talk about the revolution or my stalling PhD. It’s good to remember how much has happened over the past few months, even if I have hardly written a word! We move with the evening, the mood shifts and it’s like we’ve had to shed some urgent layers of conversation before we’re ready to party. I lose track of how many hours I spend on the makeshift dance floor.

Day  3 —

I meet up with S who’s working on a post-Jan25 project evaluating “media accessibility” in poor communities. Everyone I know is involved in an outreach initiative or a political party. And they all seem genuinely enthusiastic and purpose-bound. Two measurable declines in post-revolution Egypt: the stock market index and levels of cynicism.

But then.. there’s always but and there’s always then.. there’s the story of my brother and the two Sherifs: “the one that stays and the one that goes and how we wish it was the other way round”.

The first Sherif is moving with his family to the States. I meet my bro on the margin of his leaving do, and hear the familiar narrative: An Egyptian Copt, his wife American, they fear that Egypt is no longer a safe place for their children. Good people ambivalent about a good thing, they leave because they can. It’s depressing.

The other Sherif is a childhood friend of ours who at some point in his mid-twenties decided to find God. In a chance meeting two days earlier, he enquires about my brother’s marital status and advises him that it’s not good for a Moslem man to be single (read: unmarried). It invites temptation you see. He then opines that Egypt is on the right track and “the Islamic state is on its way.”

In my anecdotal version of reality, the two Sherifs provide the only sources of worry during my short happy trip.

Day 4 –

I spend most of the day in downtown Cairo, and am struck by the feeling of normality in the streets and bars. I realise that this is the first time since January that I see downtown Cairo without a demonstration, or at least a few small traffic-halting protests here and there. Is this nostalgia that I’m feeling?

Lunch with my “writing friends”. A group of mixed nationalities, at least 2 of us positive that they’re not interested in politics, we still find it hard to keep away from the topic of Egyptian politics for more than 10 minutes. I even venture some details about my love life to lend some variety to the conversation, but that’s not as exciting as trying to decipher what some army general or other might be thinking. I remember what monasosh has jokingly told me: how the only relationship she can sustain these days is her relationship with the army.

I’ve been bringing up the subject of detainees with almost everyone. People are concerned, yet the prevailing attitude seems to be playing along with the army until they go back to their barracks. And about Maikel Nabil? Reassuringly no one I speak to –friends and immediate family―thinks that the “Israel thing” changes much. What people see is a guy who’s in prison for writing on his blog. “Told you that military rule would be a lot worse than Mubarak,” is what my father has to say. I swallow my reply as I try to honour the vow of never discussing politics with my parents.

Day 5 –

I need to work. So I take my laptop to a café where I can sit outside and enjoy the sun while.. err.. working. It’s good to be in Cairo. Even better when I run into A and H, two friends who never fail to exude positivity it would be annoying if it wasn’t the very reason I’m in Cairo for. I need a fix. Give me your optimistic views and I’ll mix them with a hint of sugar into my double macchiato. When they leave in a couple of hours it’s to attend a vigil held for Vittorio Arrigoni outside the Italian embassy.

Later on in a taxi going past Maspiro. Traffic is stalled, there must be a demo that I don’t know about. We edge closer, I try to make out what’s written on the placards.. The people want freedom for… the president? Really? A hundred or so demonstrators hold pictures of Mubarak in military uniform. The placards don’t only demand his release but insist on reinstating him as some kind of hero.

They are slapping pro-Mubarak stickers onto passing cars. I stare a warning to stay away from my taxi. We speed away as soon as there’s an opening.