Meanwhile, at Tahrir

The movement to boycott the elections seems not to have gained much traction; Thanassis Cambanis’ post yesterday quotes some voters explaining why.  The popular blogger Sandmonkey (aka Mahmoud Salem) is even running for parliament himself!  But a number of activists remained in Tahrir yesterday, or showed up there after voting.  As I went to take the metro around 4pm yesterday to pick up my kids from school, I saw them organizing themselves to perform the protest recorded here (Activist Gigi Ibrahim’s video: Tahrir, Nov 28 2011):

The video includes an interesting argument about the Salafis.  Says the man on the left: “They were with us in Tahrir from the first days. Some of the young guys are quite sincere. Those are the people we want.”  His interlocutor is skeptical.  These are some of the divides these activists will have to bridge (and it will require some ideological nose-holding of which almost no one I know would be actually capable!) to be effective rather than just self-righteous.

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Mohamed Mahmoud Street, home of the AUC side gate (through which we would normally enter for our classes on the Downtown Campus) has been renamed “Ayn al-Hurriyya” street: Eye of Liberty. It looks like a sort of modified war zone now: cleaned up, but the field hospitals are still in place (that’s the guy in the blue helmet with the goggles and the piles of donated blankets) and you can see where the pavement has been torn up for rock-throwing ammunition. The guys checking passports at the entrances to the square were exceptionally polite to me. The young man in the white t-shirt and red keffiyyeh encouraged me to take a photo over the tape divider into Mohamed Mahmoud Street.  He said he is not voting: “I lived in England for two years, and when there were demonstrations there, the cops hit you, but they were civilized.  Here, it was like… [a gesture of severe beating].”

Iconized already

Again you can see the revolution iconizing itself in almost real time, and with excellent graphic design help coming from somewhere: the big poster with the running man and the tear gas says: “Heroes of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Thank You!”

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Maintaining the morale

We had a conversation about a month ago with a friend’s husband, who is a plastic surgeon. He works in a military hospital. I asked him what he did. “Well, it used to be reconstructive surgery on wounded soldiers and so on.”
And now that Egypt has been at peace?
“Now it’s mostly boob jobs on generals’ wives.”

On my street

Yesterday: Demonstration, what demonstration? The men in the neighborhood are all glued to the football match. Al-Ahly 1, Ittihad 0.

Earlier: A man wearing a galabiyya and flip-flops, riding a rickety old bicycle the wrong way down the middle of our one-way street, texting on a neon-green smartphone.

At the Shooting Club

Another scene I haven’t dared to photograph for the multitasking file: On the playground at Nadi El-Seid (the Shooting Club, which we’ve reluctantly joined, not for rifle training but because we live almost next door and it has actual swings and seesaws whereas there is so little usable free outdoor public space in this city — people who can’t afford to join a club sometimes take their children for picnics in traffic medians) there are little kids aged maybe 2 to 5, accompanied by mommies or daddies or babysitters.  (The youngest babysitter I talked to turned out to be 11: a muhaggaba girl who served as live-in nanny for a fairly sophisticated 4-year-old from Mohandiseen.  She was as surprised by the conversation as I was: where was my kids’ nanny, and what did I mean I didn’t need one because I was at the club myself?)  When age doesn’t tip you off, you can tell the mommies from the nannies by the designer sunglasses (not always – some members seem pretty middle class on first view, which is actually shocking considering the reputed 100,000 LE or $16K lifetime joining fee for Egyptians, which could be some people’s entire savings) and also because they are so busy training their children to manage their time efficiently. Three times in two brief afternoons I have witnessed the following: a mom running around behind her child clutching a plastic container with a fork sticking out.  As the child is (literally!) climbing a jungle gym or going down a slide, the mom reaches up, trying to catch the wee one and feed him or her a bite of TupperSupper. Because nutrition can’t wait. Because stuffing in that one bite is more important than training a kid to sit down at a table to eat.

This behavior pattern answers my toddler daughter’s question: “Mommy, why is there a piece of pasta on the carousel?” But it raises other questions.  I won’t get into the nadi (club) culture, and how much of their lives people might be sacrificing to bring their children to the club, and why; we can save that for another post; maybe I’ll take some pix under the guise of photographing my kids. But can we talk about the deeply bizarre food culture? Okay, according to Amitav Ghosh (in In an Antique Land, also probably somewhere in S.D. Goitein), Egyptians have been ordering takeout since at least the twelfth century. Today, they make the Americans I know look like Slow Food devotees (although granted the Americans I know may be atypical – I hear some people do eat things that come individually wrapped, and what about those diehard commuters with glove-compartment microwaves?) Except for Ramadan iftar, I don’t know that Cairene families actually sit down to eat meals together very often. Or sit down to eat at all. Blame it on the long and fragmented work days, the snarly traffic, the implausible commutes. Credit it to the range and quality of street food available, including dozens of kinds of sandwich (liver! french fries! moussaka!), most of them made with fresh ingredients and quite nutritious and inexpensive. Blame it on the contrasting priciness of formal restaurants: when people do sit down to hang out, it’s for much cheaper coffee or tea. None of which, still, explains why you would leave so little time for your three-year-old to eat dinner and play on the slide that you would think it’s a good idea for her to do these two things simultaneously. Maybe we need to talk about nadi culture, or at least upper-middle-class aspirational Cairo parenting culture, after all?

In the women’s car

Since we’ve moved to Dokki, the defining experience of my daily life here, framing everything else, is no longer the taxi but the metro.  Specifically, the women’s car. One day I will work up the courage to take photos there (look, this tourist did it); perhaps I will tell people I am a reporter doing a story on hijab fashion for some local magazine. Actually I will be photographing not just the elaborately color-coordinated and outrageously sexy outfits some girls are wearing but mainly the amazing things people do with their higabs – my favorite is when they use them to store a used subway ticket for the exit gate, or as a nifty hands-free device to hold a cell phone. Women across all societies I’ve seen tend to be resourceful and, being generally overworked, value efficiency.

For now, from the multitasking file, just this.  On Monday I was coming home from Tahrir to Bahoos at 6:30pm and saw a woman actually doing her prayers in the subway car.  Prostrations and everything. She didn’t have a prayer rug, not even a newspaper to spread on the floor, so my first thought was that she had lost an earring and was looking for it under the seats. It was rather crowded; people had to move around to make sure she had space. But she was being as discreet as possible, facing the back wall away from the platform-side door. No one said anything until a lady walked through selling phone recharge cards. Here it comes, I thought, the question about why this prayer is so urgent that it couldn’t wait till she got off the train and at least onto the platform. The vendor stepped around the praying woman, then said, “Honey, the qibla [direction of Mecca] isn’t that way at all, it’s in the totally opposite direction!” The praying woman looked up in mid-prostration. “Really?” Other passengers seemed to confirm.  Then she got up, turned herself around so her hands protruded dangerously under the feet of various bemused passengers, and continued; someone gave her a plastic bag to mark her space so people wouldn’t step on her. Everyone got very solicitous. Even I found myself looking in my bag for a newspaper.

Then we got to the next stop, and the praying lady got off! I believe she had ridden three stops, same as me. But maybe God couldn’t wait. Or maybe (like many extreme multitaskers) she needed to prove it could be done?

Children's books on display at the Diwan bookstore, Zamalek

Al-Fann Midan

It was dark, but we took a few photos at the Fann Midan festival in Midan Abdin last Saturday night. This is a monthly event that’s been going on since shortly after the revolution: a coalition of a few hundred independent artists putting on concerts and art workshops and handicraft exhibitions in several cities in different parts of Egypt, not just in Cairo. This month’s fest, for the first time, got Ministry of Culture support; this has not been in any way a state initiative.
I talked to one of the women painting in the colors on the mural; she is a “professional artist” (like many people profiled in my friend Jessica’s amazing book Creative Reckonings): what that means here is that she graduated from the Faculty of Art and now teaches art in a school. These are essentially middle-class people, not some kind of snooty elite that has to work super-hard to “bring art to the masses.” At the same time the idea of “tathqif” (the verbal noun of a transitive verb: “to culture, culturing”) the masses is never far from view.
The artist painting people through the plastic sheet had a promising technique and also a challenge; the sheet kept sagging! He solved it by having his subjects hold up the sheet. How to explain why they all had their hands in the air? At the end, paint their hands making victory signs! I would have solved this differently, by making them straphangers in a bus or metro.
(You see some graffiti in “support” of Syria. But organized solidarity for that cause has been weak here. I looked at an apartment across from the Syrian embassy on Friday, and when I asked about possible noise from protest demonstrations, I was told there would be almost none, very sporadic, nothing serious. Egyptian papers carry news from Syria and Libya on the deep inside pages.)
Anyway – what my pix don’t capture is the music, everything from Hasaballah (a weirdly endearing klezmer/marching band hybrid played by elderly men) to “oud rock” to Arabic hip-hop. People of several social classes and cultural preferences from bohemian artist types to munaqabbat (the full face-veil people), some local and others (like a family we talked with who gave my daughter a puppet) trekking in all the way from the Pyramids neighborhood to be there. What a great scene.

The people wants… its chairs back!

On the way home tonight we saw a very small demo on Mohamed Sabri Abou Alam Street just off Talaat Harb Square.  Maybe fifty peaceful protesters, guarded by not very many red-bereted military police. They were chanting, among other things: “The people want the downfall of the Field Marshal.”  Really, at eleven o’clock on a Wednesday night, that’s what they want?
Apparently, according to some friends of my friend whom we ran into at the scene, the military had picked this fight. Military police had inexplicably arrived at the Borsa pedestrian area and started clearing chairs out of its open-air cafes, making some spurious argument about it being too crowded.  This despite the fact that the Borsa area has been pedestrian for years (it’s actually a really nice area), and also that the city is full of other spontaneous cafes and fruit stands etc. that really do tie up traffic and call out for enforcement.  As people are tweeting now (do I know these things?), there was also a soccer match on.  So the military successfully roused people who had wanted nothing more tonight than to drink their tea and watch their football, and got them to stand up and demonstrate.  Well, duh, when you take away their chairs.  (My friends said Borsa was the one part of the city where cafes had stayed open even during the revolution. As though nothing was happening.)
As we walked by Borsa on our way to Midan Falaki to catch me a cab we saw the cafes open again: sheesha, tea, plastic chairs and little tables in full swing. As though nothing had happened.
(Later, after we left, more military police would arrive; the lights would go out in Talaat Harb square; a few protesters would head to Tahrir. All this was after I was home in my pajamas.)
Update next morning: even sports talk shows on the radio are touching on the event: why close down these cafes in particular? Why in the middle of a match and not wait till it’s over? why not publicize the new “rules” about public chair-positioning in the newspapers and on TV, rather than leading with the enforcement?

Celebrity sighting?

I was sitting at Cafe Riche tonight having a properly literary conversation with some friends when in walks Buthaina Kamel, a TV announcer (apparently known for a call-in show about sex? — this is all news to me) and the only female candidate for the presidency of Egypt.  She makes quite an impression.  She sat two tables over from us and discussed politics with someone. At some point the owner came over to her with a younger male relative: son? nephew? and chatted for a while. I was tempted to take a picture of her, or rather of my friend with Buthaina in the background — didn’t want to interrupt the conversation and appear shallow, but now regret not doing it.  Here is what she looks like:

and talks like.  We didn’t talk to her.  Although, if she’s really running for president, isn’t it her job to talk to people?

Cafe Riche (photos here, not mine), by the way, seems to be having some kind of post-revolution renaissance. The joint was jumping tonight; several tables of young and especially middle-aged muthaqafeen (intellectuals), the odd tourist, a couple of pairs of middle-aged women catching up earnestly over coffee or lemonade. It’s a venerable part of the literary life of Cairo but had declined in recent years into a caricature of itself, or what was sometimes called “a slice of history”; often it was empty, and at some point in the last ten years it was even threatened with destruction.  There’s a nice history of the place, with literary allusions including Naguib Sorur’s Protokolat Hukama’ Riche, in Haaretz of all places.  Maybe its regained popularity has more to do with renovation than revolution?