The sum of our disappointments


© Sarah John

If there were an award for the ‘world’s best capital city’ issued not on the basis of aesthetics, functionality or value for money but for the inhabitants’ ability to endure the malfeasance of the so-called responsible authorities, then Cairo would win hands-down. Egypt’s capital is both holding together and falling apart; it’s a paradox. Everything functions, sort of, because people adhere valiantly to their daily routines. Asi

A distressing item at the forefront of many minds is the way the current government handled a stream of disasters it either directly or indirectly caused: the military bombing of a group of tourists in the desert last September (blamed on the tour operator for being in a restricted area); the October flooding of Alexandria that destroyed lives and livelihoods owing to poor maintenance of city drainage (blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood); the November 2015 Russian plane crash in Sinai (not blamed on an ISIS bomb, despite international forensic investigation proving otherwise); the torture and murder in February 2016 of young Giuglio Regeni (blamed on a gang of thugs who were summarily assassinated); and the (ongoing) disappearances of hundreds of civilians (not blamed on anyone but vigorously denied).

Such blunt disavowals have undermined confidence in leadership that consistently acts unilaterally. While most countries try to defend their land, Egypt’s administration has lately defended the reasons for giving two handsome chunks of it away (the Red Sea Islands of Tiran and Sanafir) to Saudi Arabia, no less – a country for whom average Egyptians hold little affection. The state said the islands were never Egyptian, Egypt just looked after them, and anyway they will be needed for the new bridge to be built across the Red Sea. While some Egyptians are impressed with the technical audacity of an engineering project of this scale, most Cairenes are either horrified by the environmental implications or else saying: wait a minute, we can barely cross the street around here, and you want to lay a road through the Red Sea?

If Egypt had popularity ratings, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s would probably be rather low, although many Egyptians empathize with his reversal of fortunes. He was lionized when elected, before the challenges and responsibilities he bravely assumed proved too great, but his behaviour has lately failed to meet even their (much reduced) expectations. ‘Sisi’s tears seen seven times in the media’ ran the headline of a recent article in an independent Arabic daily, describing the occasions on which the president openly wept: twice with family members of purported victims of terrorism; twice while others gave speeches praising him; once during Victory Day celebrations while watching a video of himself appealing to Egyptians to help him fight terrorism; again when asking Egyptians to support his decisions regarding relations with neighbouring Arab countries; and once while fondly remembering the deceased Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

In June, having completed two years in office, el-Sisi made another TV appearance, calling for ‘full trust in the monitoring bodies and their procedures’, saying ‘the culture of combating corruption should prevail’. This did not stop his administration from prosecuting the head of the Central Auditing Organization and sentencing him to a year in prison for finding that corruption was in fact systemic and that 600 billion Egyptian pounds ($67 billion) were lost to it in 2015 alone. Later in June, an administrative court annulled the agreement with Saudi Arabia to hand over the Red Sea islands, but citizens arrested when protesting the handover remained in jail.

This summer, Egypt’s population reached 91 million, a fearsome figure for anyone who is aware that this desert country’s water resources are unjustly distributed and already insufficient to meet the needs of uncounted thousands of average Egyptians. Yet despite what everyone knows and/or feels and knows everyone else is feeling, the centre still holds in Cairo. People are toeing the line, propelling themselves forward with an abstracted determination not unlike auto-pilot. There’s little joy in it and less hope, but each day that passes without some great catastrophe adds up to something. The question in the minds of many Cairenes is whether or not it adds up to a life.

Maria Golia is a long-time resident of Egypt and wrote this column from 2007-12.

Country Profile: Egypt

One of the world’s oldest nations, Egypt is often perceived as mired in the past and politically stagnant. The country’s last 150 years instead reflect a dynamic process, part of the greater human quest for fair self-governance. Egypt may be a casebook study of autocracy and centralized, top-down decision-making from the pharaohs till now, but it also illustrates how élitist, defensive power structures lose touch with the people, who thus learn to fend for themselves and their communities.


Maria Golia

Egypt’s last 150 years have seen a series of transitions, first from a feudalistic Ottoman province to a sovereign state under former viceroy Mohammed Ali. When Ali’s iconoclast grandson built the Suez Canal, he envisioned Egypt as the hub of a nascent global shipping industry. But the Canal enticed imperial interests seeking a shorter route to eastern colonies. A nationalist uprising in 1882 threatening foreign commercial interests gave the British Navy an excuse to bombard Alexandria and make Egypt ‘a protectorate’ under a puppet monarchy.

In 1919, a nationwide revolt paved the way for a constitutional monarchy and opposition representation in Parliament without diminishing the British presence. The 1952 Officers Revolution sent both the King and the British packing, launching a pan-Arab socialist experiment that concentrated economic power by nationalizing industry, but betrayed workers by nationalizing unions. Egypt’s referendum-elected presidents, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, all military men, monopolized political life while shaping the constitution to uphold their power. To quell dissent, whether from Islamists (who assassinated Sadat) or secular opposition, Mubarak poured money into the internal security apparatus which acted with brutal impunity.

Immediately after the uprising

Maria Golia

In January 2011, Egyptians took to the streets to demand Mubarak’s resignation after 30 years in office, and the right to elect his replacement. On 11 February 2011, after 18 days of continuous nationwide protests involving thousands of deaths and arrests, Mubarak stepped down. The Armed Forces, who refrained from attacking protesters, became the ‘protectors of the revolution’ but military trials for civilians continued and the hated security apparatus remained intact. The military meanwhile organized multiparty parliamentary elections which returned an Islamist majority; and presidential elections where the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won by a whisker.

A farmer in upper Egypt.

Maria Golia

Six months of power-brokering later, Morsi had enough clout to frame Egypt’s next constitution with zero gain of civil rights and more references to Islamic law. The battle for the constitution is still under way, with demonstrations and street battles dividing a society whose aspirations for democracy are leavened with an urgent need for stability and economic progress. Egypt’s new government has so far failed to inspire unity or to present a vision of the future that people can get behind.

High unemployment and low skill levels are endemic among youth, the bulk of Egypt’s population. They need a government that encourages their participation, but the present leadership reflects decades of authoritarian manoeuvring to eliminate competition and is as ill-prepared, unimaginative and defensive as its predecessors. The 2011 uprising has nonetheless raised the expectations of a public that won’t settle for incompetence, manipulation or religious appeals to obedience.

Egyptians face the threats of water, land and energy shortages and dwindling food sufficiency. How will they govern themselves past these obstacles? By relinquishing rights to the traditional strongman? Or by self-organizing on a nationwide scale, as active agents of renewal? Egyptians, in short, are confronting the same issues as the rest of the world, but time is no longer on their side.

To everything there is a season


The phrase ‘Arab Spring’ appears on the covers of nearly a hundred recently published books in English alone, with countless similar titles in other languages. Never has a temperate season been metaphorically stretched to accommodate such extreme agendas, from the romantic to the apocalyptic. Some call it a triumph of people power, the start of a transnational civil rights movement, the end of post-colonialism; others an Islamist takeover, the work of ‘hidden hands’, a harbinger of war. Commentators focus mostly on the power manoeuvres and economics, the threat or reality of violence, the maunderings of local and foreign heads of state. The result is spectacle, an objectified phenomenon shorn of its deeper meaning.

The Egypt described in most media is different from the one where I live. It’s a matter of what is placed in the frame; for instance, the ‘angry protesters’ as opposed to the families window-shopping and eating ice-cream a block away. ‘Hundreds of thousands of angry protesters’, the headlines blare, when I see maybe 10,000 Egyptians in Liberation Square, many of them couples with small children, neither angry nor protesting, only having a free outing, a chance to see other people, catch up on news, and, if single, perhaps to meet someone they like.

Still a hero? Demonstrators protesting against this year’s election results hold aloft photos of former president Nasser.

Mohamed Hassan Mekhamer / Demotix

When I came to Egypt in 1980, Liberation Square was the hub of a thriving black market in foreign currencies, liquor and everything from hashish to Swiss cheese. In the late 1980s, for the inauguration of Africa’s first metro, it was endowed with a grassy roundabout and the Egyptian Museum was repainted pink. For years, the traffic-bound square was a renowned gay pick-up zone. Then came 25 January 2011, a joyless national holiday called Police Day. Liberation Square became the stage of a grand consensus that resonated throughout a world desperate to acknowledge the ascendancy of right over wrong and unity over divisiveness, however briefly and vicariously. These days, the square looks raggedy, a crater of confusion. In my 2012 Egyptian agenda, 25 January is still marked as Police Day, but also Revolution Day, hinting at the ambivalence last year’s uprising has left in its wake.

Paternalistic traditions

The only Egyptian president likely to retain his heroic status for future generations is Gamal Abdel Nasser. Half freedom-fighter, half tyrant, he embodied the conflicting desires of the Egyptian people both to win their rights whatever the cost and to defer to a strong, charismatic leader. This contradiction remains embedded in the Egyptian psyche, rooted in paternalist traditions and hierarchies whose exponential emphasis – in family, business, bureaucracy, religion and state – have bred equal parts rebellion and acquiescence, and between them a kind of paralysis. ‘We only work when they beat us,’ some Egyptians say unapologetically; ‘we love our slavery,’ others tell you. ‘The nation needs a strong father,’ many agree.

Democratic elections have predictably returned an Islamist majority in post-revolution Egypt, largely because religious groups have long maintained community-outreach networks by distributing cheap or free food, school supplies and medical care. In short, they act precisely like the paternalist state that subsidizes basic commodities and offers free education and healthcare as a kind of baksheesh for putting up with them. Imaginative leadership is not the forte of control-oriented governments, whose job is to eliminate competition and ensure the public’s dependency. No wonder Egypt’s new regime resembles the one it replaced in its hierarchies and defensive manoeuverings.

Egyptians are hardly alone in their willingness to surrender rights and responsibilities, to obey and conform. Traditions promote the behavioural means by which societies agree to live with themselves, preserving ethics and attributes that prove valuable. For example, sociability and forbearance favour survival, especially in crowded environments with severely limited resources. But although the usefulness of other traditions, like the paternalism characterizing so many societies, has worn thin, it is endlessly, automatically, replicated. The love of strong men and their displays of power, wealth and deadly gadgetry, their assurances of protection and ‘security’, all of this points to a shared yet unacknowledged past and poses questions few are asking.

Egypt’s paternalist traditions and hierarchies have bred equal parts rebellion and acquiescence

In his Anatomy of a Civilization, Egyptologist Barry Kemp reflected on the similarities between ancient Egypt, with its rigid hierarchies and ritual displays of power, and the world today, with its presidential cavalcades, popes waving from palace windows and monarchs celebrating diamond jubilees. ‘History is a subversive subject. It undermines our claim to live in an age of reason and progress. Technology streaks ahead... but institutional man (and sometimes thinking man as well) still struggles to escape from the Bronze Age.’ This struggle reaches deep into human nature and societal – indeed, biological – attachments to aggression, defence and the ‘leader’.

In Egypt, where high officials tend to view themselves as stern but wise fathers, the people’s response has devolved over time from dedication and respect to fear, mistrust and often loathing. From the start, the uprising’s focus on Mubarak was personal; he embodied the public’s disillusionment, resentment and the resulting contempt for power. Yet emphasizing Mubarak’s responsibility for Egypt’s impoverishment obscured the people’s role in that same process. ‘Has he some power over you other than that which he receives from you?’ asked 16th-century anarchist Étienne de La Boétie in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Egypt is not just fighting tyranny, but the traditions that uphold it, including deference to authority as a pillar of the societal order, which has so far guaranteed survival. Like much of the world, it is fighting itself.

Sowing discord

By now it should be clear that basic freedoms are as vital as food and water; that without them ‘economic and political stability’ is mere oppression and ‘order’ sustained by force is a sham. States claiming to defend us from chaos are in fact sowing a greater discord. ‘They create desolation and call it peace,’ wrote Tacitus. Defensive thinking is by definition divisive and therefore destabilizing. The divided world is breaking apart, eroded by demagoguery and greed but also human ambivalence, the realization that so much is wrong alongside a reluctance to relinquish the status quo.

Sometimes history overtakes us, like the first and second world wars. However deep their roots or incalculable their outcomes, such events are assigned beginnings, middles and ends, numbered to identify the sequence and consequence of our actions, to serve the urge for order. The ‘Arab Spring’ may yet prove the folly of this rationalized, sequential view of human history that ignores its destructive cycles, and judges the achievements of men and nations rather than our performance as so-called Homo sapiens inhabiting the planet Earth.

Beneath my fifth-floor balcony protesters march to Liberation Square chanting ‘nation, nation!’ and ‘god is great!’ The crowds are largely male; some beat drums that make my windows rattle. They’re mostly men of modest means who have been subjected to education systems unworthy of the name. They don’t eat well or have enough water or space; the air they breathe is as toxic as their discontent. ‘The world has long been dreaming of something that it can acquire only if it becomes conscious of it,’ wrote Marx. To me at least, the significance of the ‘Arab Spring’ lies less in what happened (and is still happening) but in how little reflection it engendered, and how quickly the portal of possibilities that opened last year in Liberation Square has shut down.

Maria Golia is a regular contributor to New Internationalist. She wrote the ‘Letter From Cairo’ column in the magazine from 2007-11. For more information, visit

Letter from Cairo

It was around 9am and I was on my way home from a grocery run, having stopped at the lady who sells onions and the Queen of Yemen coffee store. Next to the grocer is what I call the Nasser Pharmacy because it is run by an older couple who were probably in their teens in the 1950s when Egypt elected its first native-born president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and they have a large portrait of him on one wall. The pharmacy has no door, is more a shelf-lined kiosk open to the street, which I somehow associate with the populist optimism of an Egypt I never knew. I bought some vitamins, chatted with the Doktor and Doktora, and left.

On the corner, around 15 metres away, two young men were shouting because one had usurped the location where the other had lately been selling bread. By the time I reached them they were exchanging blows. A crowd gathered, mostly men, without intervening. One of the young men landed a punch on the other’s head, knocking him to the ground where his head hit the kerb and he fell, unconscious.

At this point the crowd mobilized to restrain the victor (who seemed anxious to get in another kick) and to minister to the defeated, who was turning a pasty white at our feet. No-one knew what to do. The men shook and tried to raise him, but he was limp, so they set him back down on the grimy sidewalk. It was unclear whether or not he was breathing. Recalling that the brain cannot survive long without oxygen, I raced back to the Nasser pharmacy to ask for help. I grabbed the Doktor’s arm from over the counter and tried to pull him to the street, but he balked. I urged him. He said he didn’t interfere with other people’s business. I looked at him blankly. ‘Besides,’ he said, ‘I’m not really a Doktor.’ Now he tells me.

I rushed back to the crowd where the boy still lay. One of his flip-flops had fallen off. His clothes were ragged; he wore a scarf around his head, was younger than I first thought, quite beautiful and possibly dying. What to do? At that moment the young man who works at the Queen of Yemen strode forth wielding a small bottle of perfume. He went purposefully to the injured man, and sprayed the stuff directly and copiously in his face, causing him to splutter back to life. The day was saved.

I’m not sure why, but the incident stayed with me. Nor was it overshadowed by a small electrical fire the next day that might have destroyed my flat and hence my world had I not been on hand with a fire extinguisher. It was that blooddrained face that unsettled me, the sense of helplessness before an event requiring some greater knowledge or preparedness than I possessed. Perhaps I even feared it because it touched upon the tenuousness of our physical existence.

I decided to do something about it and signed up for a class to learn the basics of first aid and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) using ancient rubber dummies and baby dolls. Yet, throughout my first lesson, thrusting my palms into a latex man’s sternum repeatedly, unrewardingly, my unease only grew. I hadn’t gotten to the heart, as it were, of the matter.

Walking home along the Nile – it was an incongruously beautiful day – I realized one cannot help embody the times in which one lives; the volatility, confusion, vulnerability. If Egypt has taught me anything, it’s that we belong to our surroundings and to one another in countless conscious and unconscious ways. This knowledge of interconnectivity, so deeply embedded yet so long overlooked, is rising once more to the surface, here as elsewhere throughout our world. Nor can we ignore that the degree of effort it will take to uproot the failed systems we’ve helped create and empower is very great indeed.

But perhaps we carry some preparedness within us, and whatever we lack, we can learn on the job. I think of Beckett – ‘try again, fail again, fail better’ – and wonder if this is not only the best we can do, but something to actually look forward to.

Maria Golia would like to thank readers who have followed this column: they can continue to check out her writing at:

A fierce beauty

My dear friend Roman Bunka, a great guitarist, aoud (lute) player and composer, came to town and we visited one of his mentors and collaborators, Abdu Dagher, in an old Cairo neighbourhood. Originally from Tanta (a Delta town associated with a Sufi saint loved by musicians, dancers, and hashish-smokers) Abdu is neither rich nor particularly famous. But what a musician! A masterful violinist and aoud player, he also makes these instruments for which, although he had no formal training, he has composed works of surpassing passion, precision and intricacy.

Illustration: Sarah John

Blunt and ironic, Abdu knows his worth and thinks those who don’t are idiots, especially those in power. Because of his outspoken politics, he has been marginalized by the toadies of the Ministry of Culture and for most of his 50-year career his concerts have been rare. Yet thanks in part to Roman, who arranged performances in Europe, Abdu Dagher’s work has been recorded and he attracts avid students and aficionados from around the world.

Wiry and defiant at 70, with one stray eye, Abdu Dagher dresses in a galabiyya and though not exactly refined, is undeniably charismatic with a cutting wit and penchant for puns. When I ask him about post-revolution Egypt, he says: ‘kofta and shebab’ (‘minced-meat and youth’ instead of kebab). The ousted regime he calls ‘homarcedes’ (homar is donkey in Arabic and Mercedes the despised élite’s favourite car). I mentioned the country’s dire economic straits. ‘But Egypt is rich!’ Abdu maintained. ‘How else could those homar have been robbing us for so long?’

Abdu’s wife died this year after a protracted illness and in April one of his sons, a successful young fashion designer, was murdered in his home. But Abdu looked stronger than ever. When I offered my condolences he said, as is customary, ‘Praise be to god’. His physical and emotional resilience reflects a belief not just in god but in music. He loves to talk about its transformative, healing powers, how it makes plants grow and charms the savage beast. He praises the subtleties of the quarter-tone scale, for the greater range of expression it allows, and claims to be one of the last living purveyors of a hybrid musical tradition born in the cultural co-mingling of the Ottoman Empire.

We sat in a tiny reception room crammed literally with musical chairs; each would be filled, in the course of the evening, by different musicians, here to pay their respects and play a while together, impromptu gatherings of some astounding yet unknown talents. An ancient air conditioner makes the thin walls rattle. Everyone smokes, especially Abdu, despite wracking coughing fits punctuated by discreet spitting on the floor.

Roman starts to play the aoud, an Andalusian theme at first, then a kind of tango, finally settling on one of Abdu’s compositions. Abdu’s grandson Khaled has been sitting with us quietly, an attractive, muscular youth of around 20, with short-cropped hair and beard, wearing jeans and a tight-fitting turquoise T-shirt. He picks up a violin and joins Roman. I am surprised not only to see that he plays, but by how he is the very aural image of his granddad: the same rich, plaintive tone, his head tilted towards his instrument, his eyes half-closed.

Abdu smiles, acknowledging Roman’s graceful technique and his grandson’s inherited talents. When he reaches for his violin a current runs through the room and everyone’s attention is instantly piqued. He wields it tenderly, yet like a weapon, slicing through the complex arrangement, mixing time signatures and keys, moving from one mood to the other, from structured phrase to improvised interval, as if in conversation with himself. There’s no pain, no death, no fear of anything that the fierce beauty of his music cannot assuage. This too is the voice of Egypt, valiant and true, yet seldom heard.

Maria Golia is the author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt.

Egyptian laughter

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.

Maria Golia is the author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt.

Podcast: Maria Golia on Egypt

Since 2007, Maria Golia has written a Letter from Cairo column for our magazine, describing the highs and lows of life in Egypt and, in recent months, providing a view from the ground of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak and its aftermath. We regularly receive letters praising her writing, and the light it casts on corners of Cairo that Westerners rarely see. Sadly, her column is now coming to an end, but you can see close to its full history at Maria's contributor page.

Here, Maria discusses the atmosphere in Egypt eight months after Mubarak's resignation with Nyan Storey in our latest Radio NI interview. They touch on the behaviour of the army since the revolution, the former dictator's trial, the attitude of Egyptians to uprisings in Syria and elsewhere, and much more.

Letter from Cairo

Illustration: Sarah John

Sayyid is a wiry man in his mid-twenties who lives near the Giza Pyramids and works part-time hustling tourists. He’s also my research assistant and guide through Cairo’s labyrinthine slums. The Egyptian word for slum is ashwa’iyya, whose root meaning is ‘chaos’, ‘randomness’ or, in this case, ‘unplanned’, but the etymology goes further. Ashwa is what the Arabs called an old camel that had lost its eyesight and barged around the camp wreaking havoc. This image of bestial disorder lies just beneath Cairo’s venerably chafed hide, especially now, as the power of Egypt’s self-organized uprising fades to memory.

Sayyid’s sinewy arms are covered in cutting scars, dozens of short horizontal slashes inflicted while under the influence of sedatives and painkillers. He says he quit pills eight years ago as a promise to his girlfriend. He showed me pictures of Zeinab (who was ‘dying to meet me’) saying he needed 4,000 Egyptian pounds ($665) to be formally engaged but hadn’t managed to save up. Yet Zeinab had waited for him for eight years, refusing other suitors. So I agreed to accompany him to her house in an ashwa’iyya not far from his. En route, Sayyid said he hadn’t seen Zeinab in 28 days and six hours. I assumed she knew we were coming.

Our microbus entered a maze of brick boxes along a semi-paved road flanked with grocers, barbers and photography studios where people can have their portraits digitally altered to suggest they’re somewhere else. Sydney, Paris and Vegas are popular backdrops. Sayyid and I disembarked and zigzagged along narrow alleys muddy with sewage. After 20 minutes we arrived at a makeshift door in a brick box where Zeinab’s brother welcomed us into a room lit by a hole in the ceiling, furnished with a single bench.

Zeinab appeared briefly and asked why Sayyid hadn’t called. He said the signal was weak in her area. Like his excuse, she retorted, and stalked off. I berated Sayyid for not announcing our visit. He said Zeinab was thrilled to see us but pretending otherwise. He sat beside me, took a bit of foil from his pocket, unwrapped a red pill and broke it in half. I asked if these were the pills he stopped taking eight years ago. He said this one was ‘for power’, ie an amphetamine and therefore good, as opposed to the evil painkiller/sedatives. No wonder he can’t save for his wedding, I thought.

In a room off the entry, I noticed a pile of blankets begin to stir. From it emerged a taurine man of around 50, Zeinab’s father. He grunted, sat up and invited us to join him. I offered the usual greetings but he wasn’t interested in conversation, aside from asking Sayyid if he had any pills and corroborating his story that the red ones were for power. We sat around a humming refrigerator and a small TV running without sound, watching close-ups of spears ejaculating blood. Sayyid engaged Zeinab’s help in topping up his phone. She read the numbers from the card, he punched them in – an attempt at intimacy.

Suddenly, a toy ball entered the room, kicked there accidentally by kids playing in the alley. Zeinab’s father leapt up, grabbed the ball and bellowed for someone to bring him a knife so he could destroy it. It took all four of us to wrench the battered toy from his burly fists.

I asked to see the roof. Zeinab and I climbed unfinished concrete stairs to a garbage-strewn space surrounded by taller brick boxes framing a wan scrap of sky. A pair of geese and a few chickens roosted there. Everything smelt of burnt garbage; the reek of boredom and despair.

The bulk of Cairo’s population lives in these so-called ‘informal quarters’, built in the last 20 to 30 years without licence or expertise, mostly on precious agricultural land. In this chaotic simulacrum of urbanity, people heroically pursue the illusion of an orderly life.

It seems all human history may be seen as the struggle to impose order, and the companion desire to say the hell with it. We are ambivalent that way but won’t admit it, as divided from within as from without.

If order was our forte you’d see it everywhere, pervasive and convincing, reflecting the harmonious interactions of great nature. But it’s spotty, tenuous, often forced. Chaos is what we’re good at, blind and rampaging, it’s our secret love and fertile: from it all things issue forth.

Maria Golia is the author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt.

Letter from Cairo: the struggle for a free press

Now that Egypt is in revolution mode, Cairo is attracting more than its usual large share of artists, journalists, academics, analysts and spooks. People are getting out more, throwing parties. Friends you haven’t seen in ages are back in touch, and new alliances formed over coffee and beers. In this convivial atmosphere, people are sharing their hopes – and fears. Will the fundamentalists take over? The economy fail? Lawlessness prevail? The regime make a come-back? I ran into an old colleague who reminded me of conditions preceding the uprising, and how, in the hearts of many individuals, something ineluctable yet vital had changed.

I met Hisham Kassem in the 1990s, at a time when the state had loosened its monopolistic grip on the press and opened somewhat to independent publishers. This was in keeping with both the regime’s programme of economic liberalization and the US wish that its strategic ally could at least pretend to appear more democratic. Several entrepreneurs entered the fray, some focusing on the Arabic-language news market, others on fashion/society glossies targeting the niche market of high-end consumers. Only Hisham had the idea of doing an English-language news weekly. At that time Egypt’s existing English newspapers belonged to the state-owed Al Ahram franchise; one tried to disguise its bias, the other was frankly sycophantic.

The red lines were still there – the president and his security apparatus brooked no criticism – but the new Cairo Times challenged them with critical coverage of political, environmental and social developments, emphasizing human rights abuses and corruption-related scandals. I was one of several columnists given the freedom to write pretty much what I pleased. The paper soon acquired a small but influential following in Egypt and abroad. It even ran a decent profit thanks to the support of advertisers who identified its readership as their target audience (middle/upper class Egyptian youth and young adults, foreign residents and Egypt watchers). Several now influential journalists, bloggers, commentators and activists (Egyptian and foreign), got their start at the Cairo Times, even though as matters progressed it became more and more difficult to get paid.

In response to his efforts, Hisham, the paper’s editor-in-chief, was hauled in for questioning by state security on more than one occasion, the surest of all signs that journalistically, he was doing something right. Then several issues of the paper were banned by state censors, creating a sense of uncertainty among advertisers. Although the Cairo Times offered low ad prices and reached the right audience, it was having trouble reaching the streets. Advertisers were further dismayed by phone calls from the Ministry of Information suggesting that state-owned papers had a much larger readership and their ads would be most welcome there.

In the ensuing years the regime waged a tug-of-war with the independent press, employing a variety of intimidation tactics. The Cairo Times was one of the publications that lamentably went under. It took a while, but Hisham eventually emerged from bankruptcy and helped start the Masry al-Youm, an independent Arabic daily that today boasts one of Egypt’s largest readerships and English and Arabic websites that attract a half-million hits per day combined.

I bumped into Hisham at a party, and learned that his mother passed away last year, a sad loss, not least since she was his most stalwart supporter. Hisham came from an upper-class family and was meant to be a banker, lawyer or diplomat, positions he eschewed, much to his father’s disappointment. But his mother understood that he wanted a hand in something meaningful, like restoring freedom of the press to Egypt, and was rightly proud.

Hisham said that despite her death he continued to feel her presence until, returning to their home one day after the uprising, it seemed gone. He equated this with the fact that he’d finally seen his work of speaking truth to power reflected on the streets of Egypt, where millions gathered in defiance of an oppressive state. For the first time since he began his press career, he no longer felt afraid of harassment, financial blackmail, arrest or worse. The balance of power had shifted: the independent press he’d helped establish had gained enough strength to protect him. His mother’s watchful eye, however loving, was no longer needed. Everyone, somehow, was free to move on.

What is a 'true Egyptian'?

It’s hard to stay grounded in the wake of Egypt’s uprising: there are too many issues demanding attention, too many dissonant energies and unfortunate events, sectarian violence the most disturbing among them. In recent years, scandals have emerged surrounding Christian women who allegedly left their husbands and converted to Islam, having fallen for Muslim men. The details are never clear: ask a Christian, and they will say the woman was kidnapped and forced to convert. Ask a Muslim, and they will say the woman was imprisoned by her family and priests before the romance could be consummated. Such stories are fuelled by rumour and a penchant for melodrama – a titillating combo of taboo sex, viral machismo and religious pride.

It happened again in May. The protagonist’s name, Kamelia, echoed throughout the nation, heralding another distraction from more urgent matters, including the parliamentary elections scheduled for September, where religious factions are manœuvring for position. The polemic approached the danger point with angry protests by Muslims, demanding the woman be allowed to convert, and Christians (a minority in Egypt) saying she never wanted to in the first place. I discussed the matter with a group of well-heeled Egyptian friends. ‘Who cares about Kamelia, or who she sleeps with? We never bothered with such things before,’ said one woman. ‘No siren,’ I remarked of Kamelia’s nondescript appearance. ‘And yet,’ one man noted, ‘this was the face that launched a thousand beards.’ The situation wasn’t funny, but we all laughed like mad. The next day 15 people were killed in a poor Cairo neighbourhood, where purportedly fundamentalist Muslims attacked a church in Kamelia’s name.

I’ve since asked friends and strangers to share their thoughts on the increase in sectarian strife: a church bombing in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, lethal religious riots in another poor quarter of Cairo in March, and now this. They mostly said the same thing: haram, the Arabic word for ‘forbidden’ but meaning in this case ‘for shame’.

Everyone wondered how this could happen. True Egyptians would never do this – launch a murderous rampage on their compatriots. It’s ignorance, some said; people are too easily influenced by rumour. It’s the media, said others; extremists should not be given column space/air time. It’s the army (currently overseeing an interim government), for failing to protect us properly. It’s the old regime, sowing discord from behind the scenes. Some blamed the undercurrent of anger the uprising has brought to the fore, and were themselves angry that this has proved to be the case. Many were frightened about how things might go, should Egypt miss its shot at a secular democracy. I felt detached from this insidious reality where religious divisiveness overcomes custom and common sense.

A ‘true Egyptian’ would never do this, so what is a true Egyptian? Someone who would never wantonly attack another human on the basis of faith or anything else; someone who shoulders their burdens, and expects nothing from the state but ineptitude and belligerence. ‘True Egyptians’ are aware of personal and societal shortcomings; indeed, accepting to a fault. Having accepted their exclusion from power for so long, they are uncertain how to use what little the uprising has given them, unacquainted with the responsibilities that power entails. Swept along by events, people have little time to spare for self-questioning. Virtually every aspect of institutional and civic life demands revision. Where to begin?

It is enough to attend a demonstration in Liberation Square to see how desperately focus is needed. The last one I went to was conducted in typical fashion, with ear-splitting rants issuing from five stages at once. There were at least as many people there for the outing (children in tow) as with the intention of taking a stand on a particular issue or making a show of collective strength. Local media reported attendance in the tens of thousands, an optimistic exaggeration reminiscent of the state’s flubbing of figures (GDP, unemployment, etc) to make things seem better than they were. In the afternoon, news of former first lady Suzanne Mubarak’s detention swept the crowd, making Kamelia and the killing of Christians old news. Here was yet another distraction, something to wave a flag about. Buffeted by the winds of change, Egypt is awash in emotions – anger, fear, pride – and sailing blindly into the future.


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