Azbekeya

I spent a few hours browsing the book stalls at the Azbekeya book market earlier today. A friend who works in the archives here needed to go for research purposes and she brought another friend, a professor (originally from Gaza) who is currently teaching Middle East History at my Alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. Such is the small world we inhabit.

The weather has been exceedingly hot lately and it being Ramadan, not a lot of people were out and about. I’m working on a story about the publishing industry in Egypt and asked a few of the vendors what books have been selling lately. Most people answered: lots of books by Ahmed Mourad and Youssef Ziedan. There were a few outliers, like Radwa Ashour’s  ثلاثية غرناطة (Granada Trilogy). I found a copy of Ghada Abd el-Aal’s عايزة اتجوز (I Want to Get Married) for five guinea, which seemed like a pretty unbeatable price. My friend was looking for magazines or newspapers from Alexandria in the 1920s but didn’t have much luck. I might head back to the souq on Sunday before I fly back to the states on Monday – a fact which I’m still coming to grips with. Here are a few pictures from the trip.

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Million Man March

Earlier this week, the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, an alliance of groups that support the Muslim Brotherhood, called for a million-man march to protest against the army’s killing of 53 protesters and the deposed President Morsi’s detention. Thousands of other people are expected to come out to protest in favor of the new transitional government. On the eve before the rival protests, I took a taxi downtown around sunset. It was close to Iftar, when all those observing Ramadan were just sitting down for first meal of the day, so there were almost no cars or small buses on the road. As we crossed the bridge on Sharea Tahrir heading toward downtown from Maydan Al Galaa, I could see the Nile stretching out across Cairo, and the giant ship-restaurants just turning on their lights.

Picture taken on 6/27

Picture taken on 6/29

Picture taken on 6/27

Picture taken on 6/29

I also saw two huge gray tanks on the Zamalek side of the bridge that resembled nothing so much as small RVs. They were blocking a street that led to the Sofitel hotel. At least we know that wealthy Zamalek won’t be experiencing anything out of the ordinary in the coming days.

On our way to a Syrian restaurant, my neighbor and I took a short cut through Tahrir Square, as I hadn’t seen it in person since before the June 30 protests. Because everyone was breaking the fast, nothing much was going on. There was a giant stage with a banner and the word ‘freedom’ written across it, and several other signs with various revolutionary messages. I immediately noticed one sign that I’d seen circulating around the internet proclaiming support for the American people, and rejecting the Obama administration. Small groups of people were scattered everywhere, and some vendors were selling flags and signs and soft drinks.

Picture from الصفحة الرسمية لحركة الاشتراكيين الثوريين - مصر

Picture from الصفحة الرسمية لحركة الاشتراكيين الثوريين – مصر

The city center seemed somewhat relaxed. Lots of people were out smoking shisha, watching mousalsalat (soap operas) and cartoons at outdoor cafes, and drinking chai. Small groups of kids had somehow gotten their hands on a stockpile of fireworks, which they kept setting off in the street.

On the way home, our taxi driver wasn’t able to answer any questions about the ongoing gas crisis except to point at a few empty gas stations and say that there was no problem anymore, which seemed like questionable logic. He then blamed his inability to talk on his bloated stomach, from having eaten and drunk too much at Iftar.

Later that night, I headed to the airport and my new taxi driver railed about the strictness of the Brotherhood and their tremendous organizational capabilities. “If they want a protest to happen, they just have to make one phone call. One,” he said, gesturing with his hands. After the protests on Friday, he told me, Inshaallah, the Ikhwan would be done with their demonstrations. Of course, they should be included in the transitional government. That’s democracy. “But,” he added, “they refused!”

As I wrap this up, it’s 12:45 pm, and the muezzin at our mosque downstairs is giving a rambling Ramadan sermon. There are less people than normal assembled on the prayer mats in the street and small side-yard below. They are all headed to the protests.

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For Ramadan, a Transitional Government

IMG_7610Last night, a musahirati (ramadan caller) wandered down my quiet street, beating his drum to usher in the start of the holy month. The pious were probably already awake, but you can never be sure. When I tried to catch a glimpse of him, I saw a few expats sharing a bottle of something under the street lamps before calling it a night. I’ve grown to love the complicated contradictions of this giant city, and how they play out among its millions of inhabitants. Even in the midst of political uncertainty, people continue to fast, feast and drink. For many, the rhythms of life continue unabated.

As far as news, there’s been a lot in the last few days. The US media is still proclaiming the death of democracy in Egypt, which I continue to find overly dramatic. The fact remains that millions of Egyptians (more than voted for Morsi) called for the ouster of a democratically elected president, and he was duly ousted by the military in response to these giant protests. Then, the military opened fire on the Ikhwan supporters (now opposition protesters themselves in a swift turn of events) and killed a horrendous number. This is clearly a horrible, horrible event, and needs to be dealt with accordingly. This does not delegitimize the desire of millions of Egyptians to be rid of the Ikhwan government. I do think, however, that it stands as a moment of national reckoning, and casts much doubt on the ability of the military to do anything besides brutally beat back those who oppose them. The new Prime Minister, Hazem Al-Biblawi, is putting together a transitional government which will hopefully include voices and representatives from all the political parties, to restore some sort of legitimacy to Egypt’s current political scene.

To further complicate matters, Al Jazeera English reported today that the US government was quietly funneling money to the anti-Morsi protesters. I have no idea how this is going to play out in the local press. I can say that I’ve noticed a definite bias in Al Jazeera Arabic’s coverage in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. On Monday, 22 Al Jazeera reporters resigned in response to this apparent bias. At a press conference in Cairo a few days ago, the other reporters booed the Al Jazeera reporter out of the room before the press conference was allowed to continue. I tend to think that this must be wrapped up with Gulf aid: Qatar apparently gave a good deal of funding to the Ikhwan when they were in office, and now that Morsi is gone, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates just pledged over 8 billion in aid and loans to Egypt. Regional power battles definitely seem to be affecting media coverage.

The US bogeyman seems to be everywhere these days: the Ikhwan and their supporters say that the US has abandoned its democratic principles and is supporting the opposition, the anti-Morsi protesters say that the US is supporting Morsi , the Ikhwan and Salafists and funding the army at the same time. While I can’t speak to the other claims, we know the army claim is true. People seem to agree that the US needs to get the hell out of Egypt’s politics. Today however, in comparison with the Gulf states, the US seems almost confused.  No decision has been made about whether the US government will continue giving 1.3 billion in aid to Egypt. Obama appears to be doing exactly what he did during the revolution of 2011, i.e., biding his time before he picks one side or the other, though I don’t doubt that there’s more going on that I’m not aware of.

A friend posted a picture of a Quranic verse drawn on a building on Mohamed Mahmoud street in Cairo yesterday. The verse reads: And they say, our Lord, we obeyed our princes and great men, and they misled us from the Way. (67) Our Lord! Oh, give them double torment and curse them with a great curse.

Photo by Ahmed Farag

Photo by Ahmed Farag

While this speaks to the people’s general unhappiness with the Ikhwan, it also could just as easily be applied to the army and their actions two days ago. In the wake of the shooting of 51 pro-Morsi protesters outside of the Republican Guard building, the Muslim Brotherhood  has called for a national uprising. This call has left many in the city (including myself) uneasy about what is to come.

I wanted to see if anything had changed since the violent events earlier this week, so I went out for a walk around Maydan Al Galaa. While I didn’t see any long lines of cars waiting for petrol, or any tanks, I did notice that someone had used black spray paint to write “Down, down with the military government!” on the statue in the middle of the square. I also took a picture of some street art from the 2011 revolution.

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While wandering around, I noticed a lot more traffic than usual on the side streets of Doqqi and asked a guy working at a pizza shop what was going on. “It’s because of the protests,” he said. “So, the protests are still happening, even right now?” I asked. “Yes, yes, in front of the Republican Guard, in Tahrir, in Rabea al Adawiya…” he listed off a few more places. After noon prayers, people were heading out to continue to assert their right to be heard.

I continue to be impressed that so many individuals and families are participating in these protests, as it’s unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed in the US or anywhere else.  I also can’t help but wonder what effect the advent of Ramadan will have on all of these events. Between the heat, the fasting, and the political unrest, people seem a little on edge. I witnessed two men get into a fight over some driving incident on my street earlier, and as happens here sometimes, a bunch of strangers jumped in to help. After a little bit of shouting, they managed to separate the two men and calm everyone down. I noticed that they called one of the guys “uncle,” and the other one “ustaaz,” or teacher, which is a polite way of addressing an educated man. The two men eventually exchanged some friendly words, one of them slapped the other’s shoulder, and they went on their way. It was all over pretty quickly.

Right now, the sun is starting to fade in the sky and the city has grown very quiet. There’s no one on the streets except for the occasional expat – most people are at home with family and friends, getting ready for Iftar.  The city feels calm, which is a rarity for Cairo.

Earlier today, a friend shared this piece from the New Yorker, which includes a good discussion of the concept of fasting and abstaining for the sake of self improvement.  I’m looking forward to seeing what Ramadan brings – let’s hope it’s a functioning transitional government.

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