Disclaimers, departures

Flying out early tomorrow morning. It has been a vicarious emotional rollercoaster of a trip, but weirdly productive in terms of work meetings too. If I’ve told you about certain all-too-familiar Cairenes rather than pretend to show a representative cross-section of Egypt, it’s because 1) I’m not a reporter and 2) I’ve mainly been going about my business here, which is with intellectuals (interviewing people for research, working out arrangements to get my book translated, etc). The great majority of my peers and interlocutors, whatever their reactionary or revolutionary convictions, earn their living through the state culture sector: media, public higher education, theatre, translation.  It’s all state-funded and more or less continues to function.

Today I took the day off, visiting friends. (Sorry, people who wanted souvenirs: totally forgot to shop.)  On my way from one privileged neighborhood to another, I took the metro from Maadi and got off the metro in Tahrir. It was precisely time for the noon prayer. Vendors were selling miniature red-black-and-white umbrellas and, I think, umbrella hats. The Brothers and their allies were massing, many carrying water bottles and snacks, some wearing baseball caps against the furious sun. Some hurried a bit. One man walked slowly across the October bridge with a folded green prayer rug balanced on his head: some shade at least.  With the MB’s trademark courtesy and efficiency, the guys guarding the entrances to the square barred motorcycles from entering and frisked all the men.  I walked in the opposite direction, across the bridge toward what journalists usually describe as the “upscale island neighborhood” of Zamalek, where expat life seems to be thriving and a number of new restaurants and cafes have opened (exploiting the breakdown of the permit system I guess) just since I was here in December. All the statues on the bridge have been covered up with scaffolding: under reconstruction.

Later, at the dusk prayers, my friend and I passed through Tahrir again on our way to eat downtown. Now there was a separate entrance queue for women, with female volunteers checking IDs and bags. People were milling around or praying. One Salafi couple carried their toddler daughter, who kicked off her little shoes and was about to lose them. I noticed and picked them up,  handed them back; the man thanked me very politely.  They went back to their rally, and we went back out of the square, toward dinner and a beer.  Several places were closed; everything seemed subdued. The suspense is really getting to people. But as a foreigner I could also find the scene beautiful, noticing the sliver of crescent moon above the square in the smog-purple sky.

The afternoon we skipped, between those two glimpses of Tahrir, was of course the huge rally: leftists standing hand in hand with Brotherhood leaders and two hundred thousand Egyptians in the blazing sun shouting “Down with military rule!”  At some point, Morsi gave a press conference at a hotel in Heliopolis, reiterating the Brotherhood’s demands and pointing out the leftists it had enticed back into the fold. Meanwhile we had been visiting the Refugee Day festivities at the Sawy Culture Wheel and eating ice cream at Mandarine Koweider.  Because when it’s 95 degrees out I recall that I’m not a journalist and don’t have to go where the “news” is.  But it’s still a funny feeling to be living one’s little life and thinking of a major national narrative at the same time, in parallel.  I don’t think this will work for very long in Boston.  (For one thing, I can’t keep sleeping 3 hours a night.)

Always sad when I leave this place.  But the naughty little Salafi kid (she was cute too) made me miss my own. So: maybe soon, again, and inshallah (though realistically this is very hard to imagine) in better circumstances.


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