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Notes on Returning to Cairo, the City Victorious

Cairo News
by Matador Creators Mar 19, 2011
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.

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.

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.

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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