Scenes Before Departure

Over a year has passed since I first moved to Cairo. I’ve been terribly neglectful about blogging but there’s no use apologizing, what’s done is done. I still think this blog space spot will serve as a record of sorts for the past year, despite the omissions and general writerly neglect.

Last month, I finished the CASA program (or the program formerly known as CASA, since the U.S. consortium of universities pulled funding after the coup and officially relocated the program to Jordan, which means we lost the name and had to be retitled CAASIC – Center for Advanced Arabic Study in Cairo – and sometimes, inexplicably, CASIC) in mid-May. Afterward, I traveled to Mansoura with my husband and a colleague to cover the presidential elections for Mada Masr.

The take-away from the trip? Sisi won; many young people boycotted. We talked to several students who had been imprisoned or beaten for taking part in anti-military protests after June 30. A bookstore/music venue owner told us that he had, of late, observed many young people turning away from political activities. They were disillusioned with the course the country has taken under what is essentially a military government, and have been, instead, investing more of their time in music and art projects.

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Sisi and Sabbahi signs in Cairo

A street book seller in Mansoura

A street book seller in Mansoura

Mansoura residents voting

Mansoura residents voting

Sisi signs in Mansoura

Sisi signs in Mansoura

A poll in this bookshop/cafe revealed that half the students were planning to vote, and half were boycotting.

A poll in this bookshop and cafe revealed that half the clientele were planning to vote and half were boycotting.

Owner of Books and Beans

Owner of Books and Beans, and one of only two Sabbahi supporters I met.

Outside of Mansoura

Outside of Mansoura

Leaving Mansoura by train

Leaving the Delta by train

Upon our return, friends from Oakland and Boston visited and we took a second trip to Dahab, which mainly consisted of downing too many Stellas next to the Red Sea, snorkeling, and climbing Mount Sinai a second time. (I also had the opportunity to see the pyramids twice in a week’s time – once during a sandstorm.) After our friends left, my husband and I moved out of our flat on Abd el-Rahim (Basha) Sabry and he returned to the US to start a fellowship in Washington, D.C. I’ve resettled temporarily with friends in Agouza, a neighborhood a little to the north of Dokki.

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Mount Sinai

Agouza (which means ‘old woman’ in Egyptian Arabic) is a little more working class than Dokki, a little older, and wearier. I like it best at dusk, when Sharea Shaheen is full of people leaving work and walking in the streets with their messenger bags and briefcases, and there are no free seats at the qahuwas.  The side streets are mostly rubble and garbage, and there are more men hanging out on street corners. I woke up yesterday to the cry of a solitary vegetable seller wandering up and down  Mohammed Shokri street. “Yes, Mint!” he bellowed, over and over.”Yes, Mint!”

We have a small pharmacy and a bakery in our building, where a guinea buys you four hot pieces of bread. A few feet away is a small grocery often run by the owner’s 12-year old daughter, and an alcohol store which sells Stella and Omar Khayyam on the cheap. One of the shebab who hangs out by the store has adopted the moniker ‘Turbo’ and he can (apparently) get you any kind of drug you desire.

The window of the bedroom of my sixth floor apartment looks out on the debris of some chicken coops on the roof of the building across the street; torn barbed wire, pointed roofs. I’m reading Ahdaf Soueif’s book The Map of Love, and I’m struck by her lamentations for a Cairo of bygone years, when buildings were new(er) and there were no garish lights adorning the Cairo tower near Opera. What things must have been like before Sadat and his open door policies. It’s hard to make out what Agouza could have been in its heyday, but the crumbling, abandoned chicken coop and the overgrown yet still surviving greenhouse on the roof next door are clues. It’s also interesting to think that in the face of all of our talk of food deserts and new urban agriculture projects in the Bay area, Cairo neighborhoods have been locally producing food pretty much forever.

Over the course of the slow march toward summer and Ramadan (in July!), I’ve seen the fixtures of my community here melt away in a flurry of bright going away parties and send-offs. But Cairo, for all of her pollution and frenetic energy and deep-set problems, is a temptress. Most don’t plan to return but history bears witness to the fact that everyone (that we know, at least) usually does.

It’s growing dark outside and the fireworks – the pop and then the sound of fire dispersing, so like the sound of ice scudding across a linoleum floor – have begun. When I first arrived last June I stayed at Dahab hostel, and I remember being surprised to see this nightly display light up the sky through my window shutters. Now, I think of them as part of the landscape, but they still somehow convey that feeling that this night, this particular moment is worthy of celebration. I will miss it here – Egypt, with its arbitrary time shifts (thanks, new government) and indefatigable ability to hope for something new and different and better. I will most certainly be back.

The following paragraphs include some sketches and thoughts which I had intended to add to the blog but never did: a few scattered scenes to add some color to the last few months.

March 27:

Sisi has announced his candidacy, which basically means everything is wrapped up. The Khamseen is upon us – the seasonal winds that coat Cairo with buckets of dust. I asked a friend the other day how he would describe the weather in Arabic and the immediate response was “depressing.” The word for dusty is مترب, I found out, which immediately reminded me of ‘moribund.’

The traffic was terrible today as I was trying to get to the Tahrir campus. A fine dust sits on everything. While walking to class, I saw a young man touching up some of the street art on Sharea Mohamed Mahmoud. He worked quickly, and used a paint brush to apply expert strokes. I wonder how much longer the revolutionary art will remain.

Late April:

It’s Friday morning, and a fortune teller is walking up and down our street in Dokki, calling out to people that she’ll read their palms. Later, a vegetable seller with his two sons drive by on a wooden cart and donkey, advertising fresh produce through a bullhorn. In the lead up to the presidential elections it feels like things have settled down; but just this morning there was another attack in the Sinai, and a bomb in Heliopolis.

My roommate’s boyfriend had an accident today on the Sixth of October bridge – a man in a car almost ran him off of the side of the road, while he was riding his scooter (moped) – and so the house was thrown into chaos this morning, between wondering who was occupying the bathroom (the other roommate’s boyfriend) and wondering whether the landlord had seen the first boyfriend come upstairs (which is not allowed) in betwixt all sorts of other chaos. Finally, we rushed to one of the several nearby hospitals and waited in the sticky plastic chairs, baking in our own sweat, wondering what to do.

In the end, Rami was fine, just shocked and a little bloody, and as we walked  home I noticed a crowd of well-dressed party hacks in suits and leather lace-up shoes milling around outside of the Wafd party headquarters. When I bought a bottle of Baraka water from our local kushk, I asked what was going on, and the owner told me that it was local elections day – planned for Friday so that people who worked could come out and vote. Huge billboards with giant pictures of candidates at Mecca, and other such pious places, now line a portion of our small street. Men stand around and smoke and talk with the type of affected, understated, controlled excitement that characterizes political events. I find myself wondering how similar- or different – elections are now in comparison with elections under Mubarak’s time. Are things less cronyish? Do people have more freedom to establish themselves – is there any type of diversity in the rolls? Or is it the same game but under a different name? Does revolution ever change anything at the local level?

Mid-May (Dar al Kutub):

As a last hurrah for my literature class, our professor offered to take us on a tour of Dar al Kutub, or the Egyptian National Library and Archives, across the Nile from Dokki on the Corniche. On our way, we get into a fight with the cab driver, who demands five more guinea. We are shown several floors (mostly empty of researchers, only a few employees proudly indicating collections here and there) and I take a few pictures of the periodicals room and another manuscript room which was cluttered and filled to the ceiling with envelopes. Everyone is very nice and one gets the feeling that you are in the 1970s, not unlike the feeling I had when touring the local broadcast news station I visited in San Francisco a few years back. The building itself is desperately in need of renovation.

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Magazines, some from the turn of the century

May 24:

Summer has returned – the days and nights are hot and muggy once again. We’ve removed all of the blankets from our bed, and it’s once again impossible to keep the windows open at night because of the multitudes of mosquitoes. Last night, we turned on the fan, latched the shutters closed, and hoped for the best. I remember this feeling – and realized that I have to accept the fact that again, I will be spending much of the the summer sitting in my own sweat. It’s a fact that takes some readjusting to.

It’s the weekend, and my husband and a friend and I take a taxi from Dokki to the Um Kalthoum statue in Zamalek to have coffee with a friend who works at the embassy. She brings other friends: a German PhD student, some Iranian embassy personnel. It strikes me that, to outside eyes, we could comprise an outrageously suspicious group.  Later, working at the Left Bank with friends, there are translation discussions taking place about various pieces people are working on for commercial firms. We decide to embrace the bougieness and order peach iced teas, which is a very good choice.

Later that night, the power’s out so I’ve cracked open the last Saqqara in the fridge and am sitting on our balcony and trying to read a post-revolution novel, Bab al Khuroog, a political thriller set in the future. The power outages have become more frequent lately; sometimes three or four a day. The other night I came home in the evening and our muezzin was standing on a wooden stool outside of the mosque on the first floor of our building, calling people to prayer with two hands cupped around his mouth. The loudspeaker wasn’t working. I’ve heard the power outages are supposed to get worse until July, after which they will, for some reason, improve. I may be gone by then, but hanshuf.

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Post Referendum

Friday morning is all quiet streets and the sound of our boab rolling up the prayer mats after noon prayers at the mosque on the first floor. It’s the Bekya (junk) man and his wooden cart, sandwiches from the Salafists who own the shop around the corner and Nescafé. There’s a cool breeze, and the Spanish girls on the first floor of our building are opening their shutters just as we close ours, to avoid the incessant rapping of a bird that wants to get in.

Egypt’s new draft constitution has just passed, with participation near 40 percent. Over 97 percent of people voted yes on the new document, though that’s hardly a surprise, as any dissenting voices were intimidated or arrested and ‘no’ campaigns were effectively banned. At a birthday party this weekend, an Egyptian lawyer who protested against the SCAF told me he was disgusted with the army-backed government and the referendum process and the direction of the country in general. “I’m extremely depressed,” he said.

For all of the mocking of Morsi’s overuse of the word شرعية (legitimacy) in his last major televised speech, the siren song of stability has replaced it. This word is repeated again and again on news programs and in taxi cabs, intended to evoke an air of necessity, and to justify supporting the new constitution and the military crackdown. For the sake of stability, we have to arrest journalists, beat back protesters and prosecute them. For the sake of stability, we must give up rights. Because of stability, we must kill terrorists, a word that can apply to anyone who doesn’t agree with the powers that be. It calls to mind the United States’ constant references to national security. The US, for all of the conspiracy talk that they are backing the Ikhwan, is one of the biggest believers in the religion of stability. While rights groups were decrying the oppression of political dissent in Egypt ahead of the referendum, Congress announced that they had decided to award Egypt’s military-backed interim government $1.5 billion in aid.

It would be wrong to say that the new constitution, which was surrounded by an intense media campaign (thousands of posters and billboards exhorting Egyptians to vote yes if they loved their country and if they hate terrorism) has become a bellwether of voter’s individual politics.

photo: ABC News

photo: ABC News

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“Yes to the constitution, no to terrorism”

However, I think it’s fair to say that many of those who support the army and General Sisi equate this document with the continued reign of the military-backed government, and see it as an extension of Morsi’s removal on June 30. Many of those Egyptians who still support Morsi or who are wary of the army and its slow consolidation of power have decided to boycott.

The new document itself, though heavily endowed with political symbolism, deserves some independent consideration. It was drafted by a fifty-person committee of (mostly) secular Egyptians, and it has been criticized and commended by disparate groups: commended for the new protections allotted the disabled and women, and criticized for its expansion of powers for the military, such as enshrining the right to try civilians in military courts.

Samr, a twenty-something student working as a tour guide in Cairo, said she was pleased with how the constitution handled matters like women’s rights, but unhappy about how the military (the people who were responsible for writing the constitution, she said) was allotted so much power. In the end, though, for the sake of tourism and stability, she planned to vote yes.

This sentiment – that tourism required stability, and a yes vote on the new constitution was the way to get there – resurfaced over and over again in conversations I had with people in upper Egypt. In Luxor and Aswan, the political unrest in the country is clearly having an effect; the last time I visited in 2010, even though it was July and several of our group were stricken with heat stroke, the sites were crowded and lively. This winter, we often had the ancient temples to ourselves.

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Temple of the female pharoah Hatshepsut

A horse and buggy driver in Edfo that I spoke with said that he would vote yes because stability had to come before tourism would improve, as did a taxi driver in Luxor named Abu. Both equated stability and increased tourism with the new constitution. “I don’t want to be afraid that someone is going to come into my house at night and take my son, or my wife, away from me,” Abu said. “This is why I’m approving the new constitution.” He added that there were problems with it because the same people who were ruling the country were the ones responsible for writing the constitution, but the problems were not going to be solved before the new constitution was put in place. “The country has to move forward,” he said.

Mohamed, a tour guide operator in Luxor, said that the document had a solid basis and he was going to vote yes, since a yes vote on the constitution represented a yes vote to the June 30 revolution. At the end of our conversation, he delicately inquired why the US was supporting the Brotherhood.

The lone dissenter was a taxi driver in Cairo called Ali, who said that he was voting no because “that’s my right,” and that there were a lot of problems with the document, which he linked to the erasure of rights for most normal people in Egypt.

(In the middle of our conversation, a car with a dozen people in it, including several young children wearing kohl around their eyes, pulled up next to ours on the freeway, utilizing that careful, speeding dance that Egyptian drivers seem to be so good at. A harried-looking woman leaned out the window and asked Ali if he had a plastic bag she could use. He did. They chatted for a while before the traffic started to move, and the station wagon’s passengers said that they were on their way to a wedding. Our driver smiled and wished them luck. We never found out what the plastic bag was for.)

Another taxi driver called Rami said that there were problems with the constitution as there are in any document that man writes. “But we need a strong Egypt. We want to be a progressive country that is moving forward. We are the center of the Middle East, you know,” he said.

We arrived the day before the referendum, and driving back from the airport, I noticed that someone was using a high power beam to project “Yes to the Constitution, for Egypt’s sake” on one wall of a giant highrise building downtown. I flipped through some news channels the next day, and the phrase ‘Egypt Fights Terrorism’ was emblazoned – in English – on the lower left corner of the screen, during a CBC news program about the referendum. Later that night, after dinner in Zamalek to celebrate my mother in law’s last night in Egypt, we passed a group of children and a few adults spontaneously cheering in the street and clapping their hands. “Egypt, Egypt!” the children shrieked. “Sisi, Sisi!”

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Seventeen Checkpoints

Much has happened in Egypt since I last wrote; probably too much to summarize at this point. Between Arabic study and work, I failed to write much of anything over the past few months, but I intend to remedy that now. As promised, here are a few impressions of our trip through the Sinai Peninsula back in October.

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10.11.2013

It’s Eid al Adha. I wake early, and shake off my five hours of sleep. While gathering my still-wet clothes from the clothesline, I think about the nine-hour trip that lies ahead. My husband and I and a few friends are taking a bus from Cairo to Dahab, an idyllic-sounding beach town on the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba.  I have a few days off from my Arabic program because of Eid, and getting out of Cairo (it would be the first time in several months) seems like a good idea. Fresh air, a change of pace, that sort of thing.

Beyond that, Cairo is still recovering from a recent paryoxysm of violence. Fifty people died last weekend when protesters turned out to demonstrate against the military-backed government during Egypt’s national holiday marking the 1973 war with Israel. Egyptian security forces attacked the pro-Morsi protesters with live ammunition, and followed some of them into our neighborhood. From our balconies, my neighbors and I watched people fleeing the army on our quiet side street. Following the Sunday protests, there were three more attacks on Monday – one in Suez, one in Sinai, and one in the Cairo expat neighborhood of Maadi, where armed gunmen with RPGs targeted a telecom station.

Dahab, in contrast, we were promised by friends, is serene. Guidebooks present it as an old backpacker stop-off, where visitors can find good hash and always stay longer than expected. It’s located in the southeastern part of the Sinai peninsula, close to Sharm el Sheikh, but lacks the over-the-top luxury, the Russian patronage, the Vegas-like casinos and hotels. I want to get there and relax in short succession, but in order to do that we have to travel through Sinai, which has seen three separate attacks in the past two weeks alone. There’s a small risk that something could happen during our bus trip. It’s not significant, but it’s enough to keep my mind working overtime.

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Leaving Cairo by bus

My husband and I and a friend who is traveling with us hail a taxi on Tahrir street to Turgoman bus station. Our taxi has to take a winding, circuitous route to bypass several maydans that are blocked off with army tanks and barbed wire. We pass Tahrir Square, and I notice that it is completely closed by six tanks and several police vans. Like the rest of Cairo’s 20 million inhabitants, we have grown accustomed to the traffic jams and the uncanny feeling that we are under some vague form of people-approved military occupation. But today, it seems a bad omen.

At the station, the three of us buy tickets, then descend two escalators and purchase some sustenance for the trip – the ubiquitous Chipsys, Snickers, some water and soda. After meeting up with two more friends – we now number five – we follow a man yelling “Dahab” and board the bus.

I discover that we know two of the other passengers, which isn’t really a surprise. The expat community here is small, and everyone seems to be getting out of town for the holiday. As our bus weaves its way through Cairo, we pass people pouring out of the mosques. Two different coalitions have called for more protests today around the city, and I wonder if we will get caught in the ensuing traffic. We finally reach the outskirts of the city around 1 pm, and I slowly let all of the air that was building up in my lungs. We have beat the traffic and avoided getting held up in any protest marches. Now the only thing that lies between us and Dahab is the peninsula.

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Kushk; leaving Cairo

Leaving Cairo, we pass wealthy compounds with tall walls which shelter palm trees and villas. Their red tile roofs remind me of gated communities, or a Los Angeles suburb. Up the road is Cairo English School, with its fleet of sleek buses parked outside. Billboards advertise Mirage Mall, where one can ‘Shop with Style.’

We also pass miles of empty, square, unfinished brick buildings which litter the horizon with their cereal-box shapes. The brick melts into sand, and we see nothing for miles and miles save for a few soldiers in small lookout posts, their green helmets poking out from behind walls of sandbags.  A motorcycle gang in leather passes us. ‘Arabian Knights Riders’ is emblazoned in gold on the back of their vests.

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Egypt is a welter of contrast, and the road to Sinai is no exception. There’s something incongruent about boarding a bus and watching the jumbled mass of life that is Cairo replaced with asphalt, a few spare car parts, and scraps of cloth blowing across the desert. There’s something incongruent as well in the billboard images of planned building developments – green, lush images, showing women in short sleeves, looking joyful – surrounded by desert and power lines and empty, dun-colored buildings, reminiscent of the edges of the Rub’ al Khali. More images float past: a lone tank and a soldier with his gun on top, staring into nothingness. A tall, fake palm tree – a cellphone tower? Garbage piled up (whose?) and a stray dog, and standing armies of empty buildings.

We also pass several buses laden with Egyptian tourists, all straining to leave the city’s chaos for Eid. We are the wealthy ones, the ones who can escape. Most can’t.  It’s easy to forget this simple truth.

Our first real checkpoint is near Suez. It’s manned by a soldier, a tank and a red and white umbrella. A small distance away, five other soldiers stand around in fatigues, looking existentially bored. Two men sit in chairs reading the papers.  Our giant bus full of holiday goers is waved through.

A checkpoint

 

We pass other tanks, each one alone in the desert in a different way.  At our third, a boy who appears to be about fourteen and wielding a giant gun boards our bus. He walks up and down the aisles like the other soldiers have done, flipping through people’s passports. When he reaches the back, he stares at the five Americans taking up the back seat. He glances through my friend’s passport. Satisfied, though not looking it, he leaves. Someone whispers that if they army was really trying to intimidate would-be terrorists, handing adolescents big guns is an ingenious technique.

Eventually the road is flanked by a sparkling expanse of blue – the Gulf of Suez. For a while there is nothing but desert and water, and the occasional small domed mosque rising out of the flatness, which calls to mind the small churches that dot the central Illinois countryside. Later we pass fields of plastic bags, and kids squatting in the dirt beside their concrete block homes.  A mud dovecote breaks up the horizontal lines of the horizon, and summons memories of a childhood spent in Alexandria, indelibly marked by peregrinations across the Atlantic, a dividing line of cultures and continents.

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small mosque in the sinai

We reach Dahab after several more checkpoints. We’ve been on the bus for eleven hours. There are some negotiations (our friend who has been in Egypt the longest take charge, loudly demanding a lower taxi price) but we are soon checking into our hotel a few blocks from the shore. The air conditioning doesn’t really work and neither does the bedside lamp but I don’t mind. We  pour ourselves a drink with the whiskey someone has brought in their backpack, and I slip my feet into the pool, and breathe. The air in Dahab is indeed much fresher than Cairo’s smog, which tastes like it has been in the lungs of hundreds of thousands of other people before it finally reaches yours. The air in Dahab tastes good.

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The next five days are glorious. We snorkel, drink too many Stellas at cafes next to the water, watch Egypt lose a World Cup qualifying match, and sleep. There are very few people here. We meet a young Russian woman who owns a yoga hotel where patrons can stay in hot cottages with thatched roofs. We see some acquaintances from Cairo and share drinks with them on the beach at night. We lie by the water and feel at peace.  I can’t remember the last time I noticed the silence.

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One night we decide to climb Mount Sinai in the moonlight. Our Bedu guide, who pronounces the letter jeem like the Jordanians, effortlessly makes the climb in sandals. We have to struggle, dodging camels as we slide our way up the rocky path in the dark. Near the top it is unbelievably cold and my husband and I and two friends eat hot instant soup and gulp hot chocolate and crouch under blankets in a small shack near the summit, waiting for the sun to rise. We are all in dark places – hungry, cold, exhausted. But then we climb the last part to the top, and it is worth the wait. I hear the monks chanting at Saint Katherine’s monastery from the valley below. They have only the wind to compete with. The trip passes too quickly; the guidebooks are right. I want to stay longer. A friend finds a driver with a microbus and our group – now seven – prepares to leave.

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chaos at sunset

chaos at sunset

Heading down

Heading down

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St. Katherine's Monastery

St. Katherine’s Monastery

Five days after our arrival, our second bus through the Sinai sets off at 2 pm. We are accompanied by one driver (there were supposed to be two, but despite an attempted rendezvous in a ditch on the side of an unnamed road, we are still left with one) and a rakish young tourist policeman. He arrives late, wearing a grey suit, an untied pink tie slung around his neck, and carrying a small, shiny handgun in his breast pocket.

We fill the time by eating Snickers, reading, sleeping. Near our first checkpoint, I watch four police officers push a black Nissan to try and start it. We pass through with no problem, despite the fact that one of our group doesn’t have a valid visa.

Eventually, our tourist policeman notices another member of our group, a young woman sitting up front. “Do you live in Cairo?” He asks. “Where in Cairo? Do you live alone?”

A beat.

“Do you have an Egyptian phone?”

Finally, “What’s your number?”

Another passenger reads Farther Away, a collection of Jonathan Franzen essays.  I stare out the window, watching giant mountains of rock and sand, red in the late afternoon sun, shot through with streaks of gray.

At another checkpoint, a green tank sits next to a hut covered with palm fronds.

I stare out the window some more. The soft curve of the mountains on the horizon is like so many bodies, lying down together.

Further on down the road, we pass some Bedu on camels. Next is Sharm el Sheikh, which looks like Malibu. White resorts, perfectly manicured lawns. We hit checkpoint number six.

A man in a blue plaid shirt with a revolver in his front pocket looks us over, then lets us pass. Our friend with the expired visa lets out his breath slowly. “Suez is the checkpoint I’m worried about.”

I stretch my legs as best I can in the back of the van. I’m sore from the midnight Mount Sinai climb, which is starting to feel more and more like a dream.

After Sharm, there are long stretches of nothing. Oil rigs in the distance, tanks, sand, scrub. I wonder if the police will give us trouble for getting back to Cairo after curfew.  The sun is setting over the water, and the desert starts to grow cold.

At another checkpoint, we see signs advertising the Moses Pool. We drive on.

Finally, we arrive in Suez. Our well-dressed escort gathers our passports and heartily greets a group of three stone-faced policemen who are sitting in plastic chairs.

“Yes, yes. They’re all American. Seven Americans.” Where to? “Cairo. Seven Americans to Cairo.”

One of the men reaches for our thick stack of passports. Our policeman stalls.

“They’re all students at the American University. All American university students! All students.” This is not actually true. Only three of the seven of us are students. He smiles widely. Money is pressed into a hot, waiting palm.

We are waved through.

The stressful moment passes, and we celebrate by eating more Chipsys.

By the time the light starts to fade I have borrowed the Franzen book. The book’s owner is translating a novel from Arabic to English using Hans Wehr, which he is trying to read by the light of his laptop.  The driver is snapping his fingers in time with some unheard music.

Around 9 pm we have reached one of our final checkpoints, and our driver addresses a man in a white galabeya and gutra, which is flapping in the wind. “Ya Aaam,” he calls him, in a wheedling voice. Uncle.  A group of policemen look curiously through the window at us, and then pull the sliding minivan door open. They look at us some more. We stare back.

“Do you speak Arabic?” one asks. It’s never clear what to do in these situations. If your Arabic is too good, there’s a chance they might think you a spy, which  is a common accusation tossed around these days. With no Arabic, you’re just a stupid tourist, but how many stupid tourists are actually in Egypt right now traveling through the Sinai on a lark? Someone replies in the affirmative.

The man’s face creases, heading in the direction of a frown, but ends up in a smile. “You all speak Arabic? Good, very good! Go ahead,” he says. Cairo awaits.

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Armed Forces Day

As I write, scattered gunfire intermittently breaks the silence. It’s 8 pm, and we’ve been uneasily listening to the sharp, ricocheting sounds of live ammunition for the past several hours, as security forces and protesters clash around the city. Today is Armed Forces Day, a national holiday that has assumed a new, more insidious meaning this year in the wake of the army-backed government’s slow consolidation of power. Today represented a swift resurgence of the slow-motion train wreck of the summer – protesters clashing with security forces, army opening fire on protesters, foreign media targeted and attacked, civil rights rescinded.

We don’t know much at this point, but we do know that at least 34 people died, and hundreds were injured. A journalist friend was beaten up and arrested while covering a protest, but was thankfully released earlier this evening. What is clear is that the Muslim Brotherhood has not disappeared and there’s enough popular anger simmering to keep the military and the government on their toes.

In between the helicopters and alarming sounds of live ammunition, we were drawn to our balcony in time to see protesters and bystanders fleeing down my street to escape whatever was happening on Sharea Tahrir or in Maydan al Galaa, a square next to the Nile and near a bridge that leads to downtown. In between the alarmed older men and odd masked protester run-walking down our street, I spotted a few remarkably nonplussed women talking on their cellphones, carrying shopping bags full of mundane essentials like toilet paper. In the midst of the chaos I felt a strange sense of camaraderie with my neighbors, who were all at their balconies as well, talking to spouses or silently watching the scattered parade of people below us pass by.

My flatmate is stuck in Heliopolis and in an attempt to distract ourselves, my husband and I have opened the Omar Khayyam wine (just barely drinkable when cold) and the last of our friend’s beers that he stored in the fridge. Things finally seem to be calming down, somewhat.  I have no intelligent thoughts to add about the horrendous loss of life today, only that it’s been a dark, dismal day for Egypt and I’m glad to see it come to an end.

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Protesters rerouted through Dokki because of the army’s violent dispersal near the Corniche

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An injured protester flees with the help of his friends. One of them calls his pursuers a dog.

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On cue, a neighborhood dog decides to make an appearance.

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Winds of Unrest

wallSeptember 19, 2013 (I wrote this a few weeks ago, finally got around to posting):

When I opened my heavy green balcony shutters this morning to let in the light, I  noticed that the hot, dry air that is a mix of pollution and Egypt’s summer heat had lifted a bit. The wind was stirring the trees and agitating the neighborhood stray dogs. I hoped (sort of hopelessly) that this meant a change in the weather was coming.

The political atmosphere has been calm here for the past few weeks – if you can call random arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members, political dissidents and journalists, an escalated assault on armed gunmen in the Sinai, an assassination attempt on the interior minister, several small protests and the detainment and consequent killing of a spy bird calm – but it goes without saying that there is much simmering below the surface.

Our curfew has been lifted so that it now begins at 12 pm and ends at 6 am on most nights, except for Fridays, notorious for protests; then we’re back to the familiar 7 pm curfew. I’ve started my classes again at the American University in Cairo campus in Zamalek and so have barely noticed the change in curfew. Work takes up almost every spare second.

That being said, it’s not difficult to notice that we still live in a city that feels for all the world like it is under military occupation. I was downtown with some friends this weekend in an area called Boursa, where hundreds of people sat outside in a maze of colorful plastic chairs, smoking cigarettes and shisha, drinking hot sweet tea and juice, playing on their phones and laughing hysterically at something their friend just said.  We joined in and took over a few tables and accepted a ladies’ offer of a handful of peanuts for a few guinea, an offer my husband and I would come to regret later when our stomachs fiercely rebelled.

While winding our way through the maze of people to another part of downtown, we stumbled across a tank situated in the front end of a square. I had the uncanny feeling of being on the set of a play, because inside the tank, one man sat manning a gigantic gun and staring, unblinking, at the people milling about, buying soft drinks and laughing.  Another soldier in fatigues stood nearby, talking and joking with passersby. The tank-man’s face was completely blank. I kept walking and we eventually passed the square filled with laughing people and a tank, but I looked back a few times.  The solider was still frozen at the helm of his gun, staring into nothingness.

In all honesty, I’m not sure how to confront the fact that the country is under military rule in everything but name these days. It’s an uncomfortable reality that everyone seems to be embracing as best they can, with a few exceptions. Twenty more people were arrested today for attempting to protest at metro stops. I continue to go to classes, watch the tanks warily, and return home before curfew.

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A Tale of Multiple Egypts

It’s dusk on Sunday evening here and the nightly protests have just begun. I just saw a family with flags in hand (the mom had a sign tucked under her arm) heading off down Basha Sabry street.

A few minutes ago, the normal cavalcade of air vehicles flew by my balcony – the security guard at the building below me barely glances up anymore. A few Apache helicopters ornamented with Egyptian flags, then eight or nine jets that release colored smoke and spell out things like “Egypt” and draw hearts for the supportive crowds in Tahrir, and finally, four very fast, very loud F16s, to “show some muscle” as my neighbor put it.  Morsi is officially deposed, but the protests, and the battle for a legitimate representative of the Egyptian people, continue.

A lot has happened in the last day and it’s hard to keep up with all of the news. Today, Al Masry Al Youm’s headline read  “Secrets of the ElBaradei Assignment Crisis.”almasryalyoum77 Since my last post, Mohammed ElBaradei, the liberal darling and ex-head of the UN’s IAEA, was reportedly assigned to the position of Prime Minister. A conservative Salafist party (the Noor Party) categorically refused this appointment and he was just as quickly unassigned. The press (and liberals) were justifiably not happy about this development.

Also earlier today, thousands of pro-Morsi supporters gathered for an extended sit-in outside of the Republican Guard building where Morsi is reportedly being held to protest his detention. While watching footage of other marches around the city, I noticed a fair amount of anti-American and anti CNN signs, claiming both CNN and Obama are supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore terrorism. I’m no big fan of Obama, and think his decision to deploy drone strikes deplorable, but I find this particular brand of criticism odd because Obama has (to my knowledge, at least) refrained from calling the army’s move a coup, thus treating the new transitional government as a legitimate entity. Yes, Ambassador Anne Patterson made some comments about her skepticism toward the protests and in favor of the Brotherhood, but I can’t pinpoint what it is exactly that Obama is being blamed for.  An Egyptian friend is stopping by later after he leaves Tahrir Square to update me on what’s been happening, and I’m hoping he can explain this further.

*Update: Egyptian media reported today that on top of the anti-revolutionary and pro-Ikhwan comments, the US ambassador held two meetings with the Salafists before they rejected ElBaradei as PM. This, combined with Obama’s reticence and refusal to come out strongly on one side or the other, is seen as America playing the sly puppet master behind the scenes. The fact that the U.S. gives $1.3 billion to the army only reinforces this. People are really angry about the U.S. intervening, and I can see why, considering our historical support for dictators here. People are also asking questions about why the US evacuated so many people right before all the violence on Friday. It definitely doesn’t make Obama look good. CNN and much of the US media have been decrying what happened as a military coup, hence the anti CNN signs.

The CASA fellows, Fulbright fellows, Boren fellows and some AUC students have been evacuated and remain scattered in various locations. The CASA fellows are composing a letter to show their strong support for returning and continuing the year-long program, though so far, it’s proven a bit challenging for 29 opinionated, advanced Arabic students to agree on terminology. Our email chain currently numbers 31 and continues to climb.

On the point of terminology, Egyptians who are supporters of Morsi and the deposed Ikhwan government insist on calling what occurred after the June 30 protests a military coup which lacks legitimacy (legitimacy is one word I will never, ever forget in Arabic, not least because Morsi mentioned it 57 times in one of his speeches). The other side, the anti-Morsi protesters, liberals, revolutionaries, millions of ordinary Egyptians, etc., insist that it is not a military coup. Their preferences range from calling it a revolution, the second wave of the first revolution, or a people’s coup. I tend to think it was a bit of both; there was obviously a popular mandate to depose Morsi, but if we want to get technical here, the army was the actual actor that deposed him. Everyone is still holding their breath, waiting to see if the army is going to hand power back to the people or do what they did last time, namely, rule the country via SCAF (the Supreme Council of Armed Forces) for a year and a half.

 Egyptian news stations may have pioneered this technique of covering multiple protests of once.

Egyptian news stations may have pioneered this technique of covering multiple protests at once. Then there’s that guy in the middle.

It is unquestionably odd to be in a city divided, however uneven the divide. One large segment of the population is celebrating, while another smaller segment is mourning and vowing that they will not go quietly into any good night. This dichotomy has played itself out in protests.  On Friday night, I watched clashes at sit-ins and marches on the news. The army shot some people with bird shot, including a BBC reporter, then hung back while people fought in different locations around the city. 30 people died across Egypt. It made me feel a sense of loss and sadness that I can’t remember feeling since Israel was shelling civilians near my apartment in Beirut in 2006. I know worse happens in Syria and elsewhere every day, but there is something different and more immediate about being a few blocks away from the event. Perhaps it’s because they are part of my imagined community in Cairo; I’m here, and I feel like we are all in this historic, messy, exciting moment together.

This is not completely true, though. Among the expat community, many people seem desensitized to the violence, and much of life continues as if nothing is happening. I’m sure I’m guilty of this as well. Cairo Scholars (a useful listserv community with about 3000 subscribers) continues to post emails about Agatha Christie novels to sell and apartments to lease and felucca trips to upper Egypt, even as protesters die for their beliefs in legitimacy, rights, and competing concepts of democracy. It’s all quite surreal and chilling, and gives one the feeling that we are living on tiny islands in Cairo, only dully aware of what is going on around us.

As I conclude this post, Doqqi is still quiet and calm, though I can still hear the occasional celebratory honking. A few of the helicopters just returned in darkness to wherever they came from. I hope that the army has more to offer than aerial shows,  and forms a transitional government that is better than the last, and then gets out of the way. We’re all waiting and watching to see what will happen.

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Sky Hearts, Aerial Shows and Trouble in the Sinai

It’s Friday morning. The sounds of various muezzins performing the azzan (call to prayer) are starting to filter in through my window, echoing off of the tall buildings of Cairo. In the face of all of the dire U.S. media coverage of this purported coup, the Egyptian people continue to celebrate Morsi’s ouster, and Cairo feels for all the world like a city victorious.

As I sat down to write a few minutes ago, I heard the now-unmistakeable sound of whirling metal, and the shadow of a helicopter  flying the Egyptian flag fell over my balcony. This was followed by an impressively loud aerial show: five fighter jets performed daring stunts and released red and white smoke into the sky. They also drew hearts:

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Egypt Heart in the Sky

(This photo was taken by a friend of a friend, and posted on Facebook.)

Yesterday, my roommate and a former Casawiyy and I picked up a cab near the Corniche on our way to classes and I learned a new phrase:  تحيا مصر or “Viva Egypt!” When we arrived at the Zamalek campus, I said my usual hello to the security guards who check our bags every day. Instead of “Sabah al-Kheir” or “Sabah al-Fool” (good morning), one of them responded with “Sabah al-Thoura!”  –  roughly, “Happy morning of the revolution!”

In keeping with this general mood of merriment, there are still Egyptian flags everywhere. On my way to visit the ATM in Maydan Feeny a few blocks away, I came across a hastily erected sign on our street celebrating the new President, the head of Egypt’s supreme court, Adly Mansour. The sign says: the nation of Egypt belongs to everyone.

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sign1

I also saw a similar sign outside of the Department of Police in Doqqi on Maydan al-Gal’a about an hour ago, but this sign was backed up by three tanks and over a dozen military personnel, who were milling about and making kissy faces at Agnabiyat. It was unclear whether there were tanks in the square to reassure people that the military was in charge or intimidate anyone who might consider protesting after Friday noon prayers (both reasons are likely true).

I struck up a conversation with a man who was reading the paper and watching the tanks. He owned a tourist shop up the street with old papyrus paintings and kept inviting me in for chai, but I wasn’t interested in buying any papyrus. I did want to know what he thought of this sudden military presence. “God willing, all will be well,” he said, a sentiment I’ve heard a lot over the last few days. My local newspaper seller, Ali Abd al Illa, said the same thing. He also added that Morsi’s overthrow was a good thing for the country. People in Doqqi seem to be reading a lot of newspapers, gathering in coffee shops, and having lots of excited discussions about recent events; the overall feeling tends to be positive and hopeful.

Yet in the face of all of this positivity, the study abroad programs here in Cairo are being quickly shut down. The same evening that the popular movement to overthrow Morsi occurred (the term coup has quickly become politicized), our program announced that CASA fellows were going to be evacuated on Friday. Bizarrely, this announcement arrived in our inboxes around the same time that we learned we were going to have classes as usual the next day. I can’t help but feel like this is premature, since every Egyptian (and a good number of expats) that I’ve spoken with feel that the situation has been stabilized. Of course, things may devolve over the weekend…no one can really be sure. In another surreal twist, the UT Austin insurance company offered to evacuate people to any city of their choice, so my colleagues are flying off to spend five days in Amsterdam, Rome, Istanbul, Paris, Tunis, the Greek island of Santorini and elsewhere.

All of the CASA fellows hope to return within a week, but whether or not that is going to happen probably depends on this weekend’s events. Everyone seemed really reluctant to go. I chose to stay behind and try to freelance, since this is one of the reasons why I came to Egypt in the first place. I know a fair number of other people outside of the program who are staying, and it seemed idiotic to flee the country right when most journalists are hammering on the door to get in.

Things are also changing very quickly here. An Egyptian friend described the recent events as “a second wave, yanni, a continuation of the original revolution,” and while many people are jubilant, there have been a few worrisome developments since the people kicked Morsi out. The new transitional government closed four TV channels they deemed too sympathetic to the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), and most of the Ikhwan’s leadership has been detained, at least temporarily.  There have also been reports of gunmen attacking the airport and various military checkpoints in the Sinai today. That’s far from Cairo, but worth noting nonetheless. Friday prayers are traditionally a time for protests, so there will most likely be more events later today.

As of right now, though, people are still trudging along, performing their mundane day-to-day tasks. Earlier this morning, I watched our husband-and-wife boab team hanging a green banner on the street outside my apartment. We have a tiny mosque on the first floor of our building, and they usually roll out mats on the street so that people can pray there during Friday noon prayers. I usually only see Bata (the female half of the boab team) around our building; she is swarthy, loud, and tried to carry our suitcases up four flights of stairs when my roommate and I first arrived. She’s offering some constructive criticism to her husband in the picture below.

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