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Photo by monasosh.

Nick Rowlands shares some snapshots of his return to Cairo, which in Arabic is called al-Qahirah, The Victorious. Note: All names have been changed.
Sunday 6th March 2011 – Mounira, south of Downtown Cairo – 7:30pm, roughly three hours after landing

Feet have memory. Mine feather the street, renew their love affair with the pits and the bumps, the concrete beauty spots that colour the roads of Cairo. Let me down gently off the too-high curbs, waltz me through traffic – one two three pause, and turn, and merge with the taxi and one two three pause – free my mind to take in the tanks and the burned out cars and the flags painted on walls and the knots of men chattering excitedly on street corners. Everything looks different. Everything looks the same.

Monday 7th – Kathy’s salon, Doqqi – 8:00pm

I’m catching up with artists I met at a creative writing retreat last year, where the alchemy of our bonding took us all by surprise, and resurrected the veins of gold in my leaden view of Egypt. I never told them this, but these people were a big part of my decision to come back. Mostafa is revolution’d out, drained, pessimistic – worried it’s all been for nothing, that the army have played it perfectly, that no real change is even possible. And then Yasmine reads a poem she’s written about the revolution, about hope and freedom and light and a future of possibility, and the thickening darkness fades back to trembling shadow. She’s become more confident in her delivery since last we met. My eyes are moist.

Tuesday 8th – playing poker, Zamalek – 9:00pm

Ibrahim keeps getting phone calls about clashes between Muslims and Christians in Manshiyat Nasser, where the Zabaleen garbage collectors live. I learn from twitter that there are Molotov cocktails and beatings and deaths, that the army is standing by and doing nothing. I flop top set and go all in. I’ve almost forgotten that the Million Women March earlier turned ugly.

Photo by monasosh.

Much later that evening I hear repeated cracks that sound like gunshots. Or fireworks. Or cars backfiring. How do you tell the difference?

Wednesday 9th – Horreya Bar, Downtown Cairo – just before 5:00pm

I’m drinking beer with Ed, a friend who left last year and has come back for a visit. People are milling around outside, swelling into commotion. All of a sudden the shutters are pulled down and we are ordered to drink up and leave and out on the street people and cars are streaming away from Tahrir and towards us and we jump in a taxi. Twitter tells me the army and baltigayya (state-sponsored thugs) have attacked the last of the protesters in Midan Tahrir. They’ve torn down the camp that occupied the square for weeks. We have to take a roundabout route to get to our mate’s house where we can drink and be miserable together.

For the first time in over four years, I don’t feel comfortable walking around in flip-flops. Footwear has become a strategic decision. It’s back to the tyranny of socks.

Thursday 10th – poky little juice bar, Mounira – 11:00am

I walk into my favourite Cairo juice bar and am welcomed with open arms and hairy kisses. It gives me a warm glow inside. The last time I saw the owners, I was at a party next door and might have come down a little drunk and asked to buy some hash. They didn’t mind. This time, I forget to pay for my sugar cane juice. When I realize, I feel excessively guilty.

I’m slowly tracking down all my friends. They keep asking me what I think of the New Egypt, and I don’t know how to answer. How to explain that it’s exciting and worrying and depressing and invigorating and the traffic is as bad as it always fucking is and the pollution too and there’s a palpable sense of expectation and frustration and I have plenty of opinions but don’t feel qualified to share them and really – really – I only really wanted to come back so I could see and hug and kiss my friends and share… something-I-don’t-know-what.

When we meet, it seems like no time has passed at all. But we know that deep waters have run between us.

Demonstration in Midan Tahrir. Photo by author.

Friday 11th – in front of a swan-shaped ice cream van, Midan Tahrir – 2:00pm

I’m with a few thousand protesters in Midan Tahrir. It feels festive, with families and popcorn and vendors selling Egyptian flags. No military in sight. But the atmosphere still strikes me as somehow muted, like a group of old friends visiting an amusement park when they might rather be chilling at home with a spliff and a cup of herbal tea. I don’t take my camera out of my bag, but snap a few pics on my new magic phone. Tweet them. A journalist friend of mine retweets me:

he’s back, tweeting from tahrir RT @Pharaonick Despite being dismantled 2 days ago #tahrir back up n running today

It makes me feel a little uncomfortable, as if my being here and doing this matters in any way. And then I leave and go meet a friend and look at a shitty flat.

Saturday 12th – crash pad, Mounira – 1:00pm

We’re watching the BBC news. Before that we were watching some French news channel. Japan – earthquake – tsunami – devastation – Libya – rebels – bombardment – destruction – Yemen – protesters – shooting – death. Rubbernecking on constant loop. Not much on Egypt. Do people know the army has been arresting and torturing protesters, that being labelled a thug can now carry the death penalty, that the curfew is still in place, that there’s a referendum coming up on amendments to the constitution that may make matters worse, that the revolution is fizzling and in a tense and unstable political stage? Do people care any more? Jacques sighs, “I’ve had enough of this. Change the channel.” Alan changes the channel. To Al Jazeera. Didn’t something happen in New Zealand recently?

Sunday 13th – Behoos Metro Station, Doqqi – 6:30pm

The man at the booth holds my ticket up against the window and I stub my finger on the glass reaching for it. “Optical illusion,” he grins, and repeats his joke once more for good measure, before passing me the ticket through the gap at the base of the window. I walk away smiling. Last year, I’d have walked away muttering.

Muslim-Christian unity, Midan Tahrir.

Photo by auhtor.

Monday 14th – Retro Cafe, Doqqi – 10:00pm

I’m shooting the shit with friends in Retro cafe, telling stories about San Francisco and gossiping and laughing and joking and pretending it’s not really the most fucked of times. A lanky, bespectacled guy walks in and Yasmine says, “Hey, that’s Amr Mahmoud,” and I say, “Who?” and she says, “@EgyptRights” and I say, “Ah,” and we remember.

Tuesday 15th – my shiny new flat, Doqqi – 2:00pm

There are 237 stairs up to my flat. When I first came to see it, and the elevator was working, I thought, “Great, I can climb these stairs for some exercise.” Then I moved in, and the elevator broke. Abu Khaled told me on Sunday that, “It will be working tomorrow, God willing.” But I think God currently has more on his mind than broken elevators.

One of my housemates tells me the revolution was boring, because he was stuck in the house, and “Egyptians don’t protest like in Algeria – we did it like the Libyans.” Again I feel guilty that I wasn’t here, that I’ve come back now.

Wednesday 16th – Yemen Restaurant, Doqqi – 1:30pm

I’m having dinner with Sam, an old friend of mine who also used to be a tour leader. He asks me why I came back. I tell him the truth: That I don’t really know. That I just… wanted to. That although I’m not invested in the politics, that although I do miss my family, that although I have no idea how long I will stay or what I will do, Cairo still feels more home to me than London. That I’m happy to be here.

For the past three years, Sam has poured himself and all his finances into the tour company he set up, Backpacker Concierge. 2011 was supposed to be THE BIG YEAR. It feels like A BIG YEAR, but not for the reasons he hoped. As we leave, and our feet guide us back up the pitted and bumpy street, waltz us through the traffic, he says, “All this has taught me a load of stuff. Patience. That things could be much worse. That it’s not worth working so hard, to enjoy life more, coz it can all be taken away in an instant.”


For more articles on Egypt, check out our Egypt Focus page.

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About The Author

Nick Rowlands

Nick lived in Egypt for six years, working as a tour leader, EFL teacher, city guide editor, and online guidebook writer. He's currently in San Francisco searching for his centre. He (kinda sporadically) blogs at Delicious Chaos, and you can follow him on twitter.

  • david miller

    feet have memory.

    really enjoyed reading this nick.

    • Nick Rowlands

      thanks man!

  • Jaymie

    Thanks, man!

    • Nick Rowlands

      la shukran 3ala wagil

  • Amirah

    Interesting read.

    I think for me the weirdest thing about being here now is how easy it is to go a day with complete ‘normalcy’ and then stop and realize that normal would have been extremely abnormal 3 months ago.

    I only catch that when I talk to friends outside of Egypt and they repeat things I say to them surprised..

    • Nick Rowlands

      Yep. Perhaps this is too obvious a thing to write, but it’s a constant source of wonder to me how different places / events appear so completely different depending on where you view them from.

  • Cheri Lucas

    “Feet have memory.”

    And later, you notice you no longer feel comfortable in flip-flops. Your feet, caught off-guard, sense change in (this new) Cairo. In this and other pieces on your blog — notably the shib-shib one — I like the rhythm you create; we move along the scene with you and hear what you hear (or hear what you create in your head), and I like following you as you bounce from spot to spot.

    In these recent posts on Egypt, and in what you have said in our conversations, there’s that “guilt of not being there” when it all went down and the thought that your presence there now doesn’t matter. I do understand that. But you continue to offer your perspective (unique in its own way) to others like me, so removed from it. And I appreciate that.

    • Nick Rowlands

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m really glad that you enjoy the Egypt pieces, and sense a touch of rhythm to them. Guilt – yep. I’m afraid that’s a constant in my life, which – thinking about it – is probably as self-indulgent as it sounds.

      Interesting that both you and David picked up on the “feet have memory” line. As I mulled this piece, whilst walking the streets of Cairo, it was the one constant refrain that I kept coming back to. And it’s definitely something I’ve felt strongly since getting back.

  • Hal Amen

    beautiful, nick. the format works perfectly for this.

    • Nick Rowlands

      Thanks dude! With so many contradictory and confusing impressions swirling around, this seemed like the easiest way to gather and arrange my thoughts.

  • Adventurous Wench

    Thanks for sharing your diary! Great content and format… heartfelt narration…

    • Nick Rowlands

      Thank you! Glad you enjoyed.

  • Ismail Wahby

    IN MY OPINION Nick has “Plenty of” GOOD “opinions”

    Cheers man, me like :)

    • Nick Rowlands

      Nice to see you hear, Ismail. YOUR OPINION is always welcome!

  • Reeti

    Nick, I’m glad you’re safe and back in Egypt. It was great meeting you in London and look forward to reading more of your work, as always :)

    • Nick Rowlands

      Likewise, Reeti. Hope all is going well for you!

  • Mary

    Oh, this was beautiful! Loved the format and especially the sort of stream-of-consciousness style. I love this piece because you didn’t try to make it have some overarching meaning or a metaphor for the situation in Egypt. It was great because you DON’T have it all figured out yet–the situation or how you feel about it. And I think sometimes (many times?) it’s better to write about how things feel and seem even when you don’t know what you feel and how things really are, rather than wait for the time “when it all makes sense.” Wonderful work, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

    • Nick Rowlands


      “it’s better to write about how things feel and seem even when you don’t know what you feel and how things really are, rather than wait for the time ‘when it all makes sense.’” – AGREED. That’s how it seems to me. And if I waited till “it all makes sense”, I’d never write anything!

  • emma

    Nick, another beautiful, powerful piece. You make it look so easy, this writing lark.

    I hope you can shake of the overwhelming sense of guilt that weighs down this piece. You’re clearly glad to be back, deep down.

    I hope the referendum lifts people’s spirits. This is real, genuine, world-leading progress. The world is rooting for Egypt and its people.

    Stay safe.

    • Nick Rowlands

      Appreciate that, Emma. Yesterday many of my friends were very down on the yes vote carrying, and there are lots of questions still unanswered (imho) about what this means. Personally, I kinda think it’s a positive, in that now the opposition has electoral data, and know who their “friends” and “enemies” are. Now they just got to get their shit together and engage in the political phase. Still a massively long road ahead.

      As for the sense of guilt, I guess I have to be the first to admit that I have a rather puffed up sense of melodrama ;)

  • neha

    Fantastic piece Nick. I loved this paragraph:

    “Hey, that’s Amr Mahmoud,” and I say, “Who?” and she says, “@EgyptRights” and I say, “Ah,” and we remember.

    It says so much about so much.

    • Nick Rowlands

      Cheers, Neha! Glad you picked up on that graf – it’s probably my fave too.

  • Michelle Schusterman

    Intense and sad, but hopeful too. Thanks for sharing this, Nick.

    • Nick Rowlands

      Thanks a lot, Michelle. “Sad but hopeful” about sums it up, I reckon…

  • Rebecca

    Great article, thanks for sharing! Being in Cairo was probably surreal and thrilling at the same time.

  • grashina

    hey nick

    i remember reading your article on trying to get a job in london….the awkwardness at the job agency. hah it was such a good story. so it was really interesting to read that you are back in egypt now and what it is like. hope all goes well and i look forward to further stories.

    • Nick Rowlands

      Thanks, Grashina. Ya know, when I wrote the employment agency story – and quite possibly whilst looking for work – I think I’d already decided I was coming back, but just hadn’t admitted it yet.

  • Christina Koukkos

    Nick, this is a beautiful story. The “feet have memory line” struck and stuck with me as well. A perfect way to capture the physicality of getting reacquainted with a place.

    I love that your fondness for Egypt oozes from every word and phrase. To paraphrase Cheri above, the rhythm of your writing makes me feel like I’m waltzing the streets of Cairo along with you.

    • Nick Rowlands

      Let me know if you ever come to Cairo – we can waltz together ;)

  • Zak

    Awesome job, Nick. Loved reading this :)

    The guilt you express at certain points in this piece is something I’ve felt, too…like we’ve given ourselves permission and responsibility to be part of something that’s bigger than us, but when we don’t respond in our most ideal fashion we quickly fall out of favor with ourselves.

    All we can do, I guess, is to keep our chins up. Our respective causes and our lives are one and the same, and I have to remind myself routinely that they won’t always look like how I think they should. But we keep open minds, and we write effectively about what surrounds us, and when enough people read our words, they’re influenced and inspired, too. And maybe that’s enough of a cause, at least for that moment :)

    • Nick Rowlands

      Thanks Zak.

      “when enough people read our words, they’re influenced and inspired, too.” – one of the sweetest comments I ever received (by email) was that this sort of writing put a ‘human’ connection to Egypt, and made the reader care. for me, that’s what it’s all about.

  • Candice Walsh

    I love how much you love Egypt. Love, love, love.

    • Nick Rowlands

      Thanks Candice. Wasn’t sure whether that came through in the article… glad it did ;)

  • Tim Patterson

    Oh shit, just read this for the first time and am ashamed it took me so long, and a little scared that I almost missed out on it, because every line is so freaking good. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

    • Nick Rowlands

      Awesome – cheers, Tim! Glad you caught it. What can I say? Er – pay closer attention next time ; )

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