Illustration: Sarah John
Three poets sat in my salon, the A/C churning, only one of us not chain-smoking. Egyptian and erudite, my guests had all lived for some years in the US; the eldest, a devoted Marxist, had served six years in the Egyptian army. The two younger ones met in an immigration line at Seattle airport and discovered they had mutual friends back in Cairo. One still lives in the US, but wishes he didn’t.
We drank Lebanese arak (‘sweat’ in Arabic, in this case, of grapes) and talked about Egypt. I’d passed through Liberation Square, near my flat, that morning. The central rotunda, epicentre of sit-in protests until August, was ringed with black-clad military police holding Plexiglas shields and sticks resembling ski poles. The scene was surreal: a circle of dirt with a few shrub-like trees surrounded by a stream of heavy traffic under 24-hour guard. What are they protecting? I asked.
‘A symbol,’ said one poet, ‘the rotunda is the sacred mound from which Egypt’s revolution sprung forth, just like the ancient Egyptian creation myth. Some people want it back.’ Indeed, there had been clashes with protesters who wished to occupy the space a few days before. It’s also a symbol of the military’s power, I added. Someone noted that people are free to gather or hold signs in the rest of the Square, which is immense, but the rotunda is off-limits. ‘How Egyptian,’ said another, ‘the box is open but they’re watching the keyhole.’ We all laughed.
Someone mentioned the so-called ‘Battle of the Camel’ (2 February) when horse- and camel-mounted police and paid thugs attacked protesters with sabres and sticks, conjuring images of medieval Arab raids. Someone cited a recent soccer game where (again, allegedly paid) thugs stormed the playing field, sparking fights between supporters of both teams. One wore a galabiyya (floor-length traditional dress, nowadays associated with fundamentalists) and the incident was dubbed ‘the Battle of the Galabiyya’. Everyone laughed at the Egyptian press’s wit.
One of the poets, a Christian, reminded us of the several hundred Copts who gathered to demand the right to divorce. The police dispersed the crowd by letting loose a single guard dog (Egyptians tend to dislike dogs, even friendly ones) and the media derisively baptized the event ‘the Battle of the Dog’. We laughed some more.
We talked about the Sufis, Muslims who seek a mystic oneness with god, and believe that worship is a private, not state, affair. A strong presence in Egypt, they’d formed a political party to counter the radical Salafists, who refuse the idea of a secular Egypt and wish to instate sharia law. We paused to lament the growing tensions between religious groups and Cairo’s lost cosmopolitanism. Nowadays, xenophobic rhetoric is rife in the mosques and sometimes the media: anti-West, anti-Israel, anti-non-Egyptian.
How can people change so much, I wondered aloud, recalling the Cairo of my youth, open-hearted, hospitable, and above all peaceful. Violent crime, once remarkably rare in this city of 23 million, is increasing – carjacking, armed theft and kidnapping. I was the only one in our group who had not heard about the vigilante Islamic justice reportedly administered in one of Cairo’s well-known slums just days before. Several men accused of theft were rounded up by some bearded types, and as a crowd gathered, one had his hand chopped off. I couldn’t believe that people would stand by and watch such a thing. ‘Some cheered,’ I was told. But others had apparently found a police officer or a military official who managed to break up the crowd.
I felt ill and poured us another stiff round of sweating grapes. In a climate of uncertainty – given the general absence of the police (internal security forces are regrouping) with money short, food prices high, tourism down, religious fervour up, and the long-mouldering anger released during the uprising still so close to the surface – anything goes. All of us had dearly wished for change in Egypt, but not like this. ‘An isolated incident, surely,’ I said and everyone enthusiastically agreed.
We drank in silence. The air-conditioner’s churn, no longer masked by talk and laughter, sounded ominously loud. One of my guests raised a toast, to the great 10th-century poet al-Mutanabbi, who said: many amusing events occur in Egypt, but the laughter there can resemble crying.
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