I spent most of my teenage years in Cairo, Egypt. Five months after my family and I moved away from the country in 2010, the world witnessed the Arab Spring. Protests erupted in the Middle East. Thousands of protestors gathered in Tahrir Square, asking for an end to Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
February 11, 2011 was a cold evening in London. My friends and I were all huddled together in our university’s common room in front of the television. We couldn’t believe it. Mubarak had stepped down. He had been in power for 30 years.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2017 when I visited Cairo for the first time since I left, seven years ago. Cairo is Africa’s most populated metropolitan city and also the fastest-growing city in the world. One can tell. It is not a singular organism but a complex, chaotic labyrinth hiding in its folds men, women, vestiges of ancient civilisations and a lurking sense of disappointment, of things not going quite as hoped.
At this point in time, the country has been through hell, purgatory, and back to a worse hell some say. Mohammed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president in 2012. Although democratically elected, Morsi began to widen the scope of his presidential powers. Another variety of autocracy began to emerge, this time shaded by increasing religious intolerance. Egypt saw violent street protests again. By mid-2013, Morsi was gone. The army, in the guise of the secular, stable saviour, was back in power. A lot of blood was shed; pro-Morsi supporters were killed, with sectarianism on the rise and Coptic Christians suffering the worst attacks in years. By 2014, the former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi emerged as the winner of the presidential election. Back to square one. The people were relieved. The army knew best.
Except this time Egypt was in the middle of a deep economic-crisis. There was also an energy crisis, and the increase in terrorist attacks from the Islamic State had severely dented the tourism industry. An Egyptian pound converted to $6 in 2011, in 2017 it has fallen to $17.
I am staying in Zamalek, a posh district of Cairo, in the north of the Gezira Island: green and utterly beautiful, straddling the River Nile on both sides. On my first day back I take a stroll. It is a beautiful evening and the departing sunrays creep through the foliage of the Flame of the Forest, making tiny star-like patterns on the road. It is strange to be back, and my olfactory memory is jolted with familiar smells. Walking alone, not being ogled at with my thoughts uninterrupted is refreshing. An experience uncommon back home.
Next during the trip, I run along the Nile, side-by side with my father. I have never run with my father in a public space before today. We cross the 6th October Bridge and run along the Corniche. Cairo is waking up from it slumber and the air is losing its crispness as we jog lightly on a Saturday morning. There are a few buses on the roads. We make our way down south to the Qasr el Nile bridge, an edifice that featured heavily during the revolution, with thousands of protestors using it to march east: towards Tahrir Square. It is strange to think about this while I run on the same bridge, now empty, the protestors long gone.
On another night, my mother and I decide to take a walk west off the Nile, near Mohandessin. The city is bustling with life. We cross the 26th July Bridge. The bridge’s name commemorates the day the military forced King Farouk to abdicate. Long live the military.
It’s hard to keep up with my mother. She is fierce and nimble and small-framed. She has been fasting the entire month and today is her last fast. We are lost and have ended up in a slum. There are women sitting outside their homes and little girls playing on the street. The streets are embellished with silver confetti. It is a therapeutic walk since we are walking for the sake of walking. Even though it is night-time, we are strolling at our own pace. Two women, content. I have missed this feeling.
This trip is my husband’s first time in Cairo. We go to the Egyptian museum one day to see remnants of an ancient civilisation long past. As we leave the museum I take my camera out. A man starts yelling at me in Arabic. I pretend I don’t understand. He asks me to stop. Angrily, I turn around. I immediately realise he is an undercover cop.
“You are not allowed to photograph anywhere near Tahrir Square!” he exclaims. He goes through our reel, lectures us again and then lets us go. This is the first time I begin to feel claustrophobic in Cairo.
It is also when I realise why my friend was not too keen on watching Tickling Giants, a documentary following the political satirist Bassem Youssef’s journey beginning from the revolution all the way to General Sisi’s election. “It’s too depressing,” he had exclaimed, “I don’t want to be reminded of how we had a window of hope, and here we are, today, back where we started.” Bassem Youssef lives in self-exile now, he told me.
My husband and I walk through Downtown Cairo and discover graffiti from 2011. Expletives rebuking the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The buildings stand tall and grand but I begin to notice how the manic drivers on the road are even more impatient than before, blaring their horns needlessly. Everyone is exhausted.
Alexandria is an ancient port city situated along the Mediterranean Sea. It is much more conservative than Cairo and the women are mostly veiled. During my family’s first evening in Alexandria, or ‘Alex’ in common parlance, after finishing up a delicious seafood dinner, we decide to walk back to our hotel. We avoid the Corniche and take the thin, inner city streets. Suddenly, we are blinded by bright lights and blaring sounds. There is a small carnival taking place. Rickety makeshift swing rides and merry-go-rounds and bumper cars. It is beautiful. Surprisingly, it is also filled with women, all veiled, and all having an excellent time with their families and friends. Laughing rambunctiously.
This is what always attracted me to Egypt, all those years back and even now. The way women carry themselves with conviction in public spaces. How their heads may be covered but their access to worlds outside their homes allows them to navigate public spaces with such ease and confidence.
Interestingly, all my intimate observations of Cairo and Alexandria were only possible due to my resolve to explore the city by foot. It is such a simple act, but one that is both deeply political and personal.
Egyptians are a happy people, resilient and stubborn. Today I leave Cairo with a sense of loss for all it could have achieved but also some glimmering hope for the future. Until next time.