When I arrived in Cairo in 1981, it was summer and I’d never known such heat: glaring white and suffocating, the kind that makes your calves sweat. I blamed the weather for people’s daytime irritability, and it seemed reasonable they spent the cooler nights eating, smoking and drinking tea until dawn. There was more to it than that, I soon learned – it was Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting.
My Egyptian education has proceeded apace, but at that time, as I recall, not everyone fasted, and friends concur that many who did tailored their abstinence in ways they found appropriately challenging. People gave up smoking, drinking, or eating, but not water – so as to remain functional at work despite the heat. Plenty went all the way, but the great uniformity of today’s Ramadan, with its sullen rigour, was absent, and no-one cared that much if you fasted or not.
I’d lived in Paris and Rome, but despite their sophistication found mid-1980s Cairo more deeply cosmopolitan and tolerant, its supra-human inhabitants able to leap tall contradictions, differences in wealth, temperament, background and spirituality, in a single gracious bound. Cairo was a city of grasshoppers in a world of nasty ants. Friendships could be forged in an instant; no-one saved for winter, or ever held back what they had.
When things went wrong, Cairenes said ‘god makes it easy’, a mantra that seemed to mitigate the pain of every loss. But the biggest loss was in the making. Egypt was enjoying its last moments of relative innocence and isolation from the culture of time and money – my culture, America’s.
In 1985, circumstances sent me back to the States. When I returned, in 1992, Cairo had changed. In the wake of the first Gulf War, people had retained their humour, but the Government had opened Egypt as never before to Western-style consumerism and development. The backlash came in the form of terrorist attacks against tourism, a pillar of the (secular) state’s economy, catering to foreigners and perceivably benefiting primarily Egypt’s élite.
By the turn of the millennium, between tourism, satellite TV and reports from relatives working abroad, average Egyptians had glimpsed lives full of the comforts, order and options that political greed and manœuvering had persistently denied them. Women started covering their heads, as if in mourning. Public expressions of religiosity grew alongside disillusion with state corruption and injustice, and post-9/11 dismay at the unravelling chances for regional peace. Although ostensibly devout, people grew less considerate; men started harassing women in the streets. The punchlines to jokes became cruder, bitterer.
Today, Cairenes seem to match their surroundings: neglected, frayed. Tempers flare frequently, especially during Ramadan. The high-decibel vituperation of the imams’ Friday sermons is like a volley of ringing, ear-reddening slaps. On the metro, in banks and doctors’ waiting rooms, people chant the Qur’an aloud. At prayer times, building hallways and stairwell landings become mini-mosques, full of supplicants bowing to an elevator shaft, seeing past it, one supposes, to god and reward.
Many, like my friend Bassim, a lawyer and civil servant, lament the new religiosity, how everyone wants to make everyone else toe the line. No-one used to pray in Bassim’s office but now everyone does – including him, he confesses, and conspicuously so, on the floor beside his desk. Prayer and observance were once a pact made with god, not your officemates. Now people do extra fasts throughout the year, to show off, Bassim says, but also because they’re scared.
Indeed, despite their entreaties, God has made things harder, and I suspect He’s been secretly reproached. People need forgiveness now, aside from help. Sick people fast, even though they’re allowed to skip the days they’re ill. Old people fast, though it can kill them, especially working all day without water. Kids fast, insisting they’re old enough. Fasting says, ‘we can take it’.
Egyptians never used to feel obliged to make such statements. Several millennia of group continuity buttressed their confidence in a unique identity, and in the higher powers that had helped them, despite invasions and other calamities, sustain it. Cairo’s religious conformity, however often described as a reaffirmation of cultural identity, suggests to me its loss.
An artist friend tried to reassure me that the religious trend won’t last, that Egypt would recover its idiosyncratic nonchalance. ‘We Egyptians don’t believe in anything,’ he said, ‘not in government, or hope, or in the future. We have enough history to entertain us for a lifetime. Who needs a future?’
How about the half of Egypt’s population still largely in its teens, I inquired? My friend blinked. ‘Only God can save them now,’ he said.