The Dazzling Uncertainty of Egypt

It’s funny what you remember instantly when all your senses are engaged.

The central statue in Cairo's Talaat Harb square

Four and a half years after leaving Cairo (where I spent a year as Knight Fellow and first began this blog) so much had faded from memory. But it all comes back as I see and smell and taste and feel this wonderful mess of a city again.

Minding my step on the sidewalks—which can drop off suddenly or catch you in one of the ankle-wrenching holes—the motion memory kicks in. You recall the rhythm of crossing the ridiculously trafficked streets. The smell of the shisha from cafes and the desert dust in the nostrils sparks thoughts of evenings out. The taste of the Nile in the air near the corniche, and the foul medames (fava beans) and tameya (falafel) and hibiscus tea at breakfast, all trigger their own images.

Even the Arabic words (kalimat) come back when you hear the music of the oud or the play-by-play of the Zamalek or Ahly football games on the scratchy AM radio in a taxi.

These are clichés, I know. But all that surface stuff can lead you to deeper places.

Yesterday I walked, as I often did, from the Zamalek neighborhood (on an island in the Nile) to Tahrir square, where I would go each day to the downtown campus of the American University in Cairo. Yes, that Tahrir. The one where so much has happened in the past year. The one where a few hardy souls still huddle in a clutch of tents, refusing to budge from their historic and hard-earned spot. Where pavestones have been pulled up from the walkways to throw at the better-armed police and thugs for hire. The University gate I would often enter was on Muhammad Mahmoud street. In November, that was the scene where intense clashes erupted between protesters and the military, killing, wounding and blinding many—temporarily with tear gas, permanently with rubber bullets.

Meeting a friend on that street for coffee yesterday, I had to make a detour to get around a sizable wall built by the army. On the same block, the former AUC library is singed from fires and scrawled with anti-SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—the military rulers of post-Mubarak Egypt) graffiti. But business goes on. The folks at Costa coffee seemed as oblivious to the wall and barbed wire outside as they were indifferent to the few customers inside.

I saw no tourists in Tahrir square. But there were lots of flags for sale: satisfying a natural patriotic instinct when events suddenly change. (I remember a similar boost in flag sales back home in 2001.) We hope we can find unity under our nation’s colors.

Flags for sale in Tahrir Square

At night, I went to a launch party for 18 Days in Egypt, a crowd-sourced documentary project helmed by my friend Jigar Mehta with his Egyptian partners. They have created a platform for sharing video, blog posts and tweets from the first 18 days of Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Check out the beta version here. The ingenious interface allows a viewer to customize a viewing experience from any chosen moment and place during those momentous two and a half weeks between Jan 25 and the day President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after some 30 years in power.

After the launch party at a back patio of the Goethe Institute—with loudspeakers blaring with music from whirling DJs and an Arabic hip-hop group that was not my cup of shay—a friend and I found a favorite restaurant downtown. The streets were lively as usual. “Everybody talks about politics now,” my friend said as we walked past groups of men hanging out in front of shops. Talking not of Michelangelo and not just about the weather or Ahly, but of parliament andfailed Marnshall Tantawi.

That is a remarkable new development in a country where dissent was long repressed with a heavy pharaonic fist.  Talking openly about issues and politics is a first step in what will be a long process of change here. As the country faces such uncertainty in the coming months, I am reminded of a Mark Twain line about the weather—which has been remarkably chilly in Cairo this week and has everyone bundled up: “One of the brightest gems in the…weather,” he said about New England, but it certainly applies to Egypt, “is the dazzling uncertainty of it.”

The disco light and mirrors in the lobby of Cairo's Hotel Longchamps

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