Ten years ago, academic year 2001-2, I lived in a half-unfinished rooftop apartment in the pulsing and car-horn-honking center of central Cairo, steps from Midan al-Tahrir, overlooking Sharia Tahrir and in particular the feteer shop Fatatri Tahrir. Six steep high-ceilinged flights up; elevator probably hadn’t worked since the days of King Farouk. Occasionally, exercising the foreigner’s privilege of behaving in ways inappropriate to my class, I would phone the feteer shop downstairs and the juice shop next door to place an order, then stand on my balcony and let down 30 meters of rope, at the end of which was a plastic basket with some money. Five minutes later I would pull up the basket, now containing a delicious hot feteer and a bottle of pulpy mango juice. Instant gratification. No one did this downtown, but in sha3abi (“popular”) neighborhoods it was common practice.
A lot happened that year; I hope to tell you about it sometime. But a lot has happened this year, too. When the events of January-February 2011 began to develop, I wished more than anything that I still had that rickety rooftop apartment with the bare cement floor (later tiled for a subsequent tenant) and the spectacular view. Instead I sat in Boston. Like everyone else I stayed up late glued to Facebook and Al-Jazeera, bouncing between jubilation at what people were actually accomplishing and vague dread of the disappointments that would inevitably follow.
It took me till late August 2011 to actually get back here. I have a family now; we’re staying only four months, in a nice expat-appropriate apartment in Zamalek, not downtown at all. My early impression is that “the eighteen days” (the accepted term for the period between January 25, when the demonstrations began, and February 11, the day the military finally put Mubarak on a helicopter to Sharm el-Sheikh) have changed both everything in Egypt… and nothing. Perhaps some people take themselves a bit more seriously, brag a little less about their damm khafiif or “light blood,” the trademark Egyptian ability to make a joke (usually at their own expense) in any situation. But the army is still in charge, more visibly than ever. The bread is more expensive, and its sawdust content seems high. There is shiny new construction in well-guarded satellite cities, and there are everyday products (table salt, liquid soap) imported for no reason from Saudi Arabia. There is talk of “protest fatigue.” Which is to say: there are problems that protests can’t solve.
The urge to blog about this visit is irresistible; it will keep me noticing stuff. Still getting the hang of this blogging business, though in limited ways I’ve done it before. Older now, further removed from my brief past career as a journalist, professionally schooled (as an academic) in methodological humility and tentativeness, I don’t really think anymore that I can connect with “the people.” Certainly not with any kind of Egyptian or Arab (or American!) “street.” I can only send down my basket — small, idiosyncratically selective, a bit socially inappropriate at times — and see what I find.