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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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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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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