Table Talk

Lunch conversations among my fellow new AUC faculty:

“So what were those women at your table arguing about in Arabic during the teaching workshop?”
“Oh, you know how we were supposed to talk about how to handle political disputes in the classroom? It turned into a political dispute. One prof teaches human rights, so she talked about the breakup of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins and how it was excessive, undemocratic, etc. And the professor across from her said, no, it was necessary. Then they started arguing about democracy. I tried to join in, and the one supporting the Army said ‘Why should we listen to Americans about democracy. America’s not a democracy. In 2003 they had millions in the street against the Iraq War and they still went to war. Here, the Army listened to the people in the streets.”
“Huh.”

“So you live in the apartments near campus too.”
“Uh-huh. They’re very nice. Good grocery store close by.”
“OK, so it’s close, but is it walkable? No car, remember?”
“Um, theoretically. I wouldn’t though. The traffic is really busy.”
“Imagine the headline: ‘Suicidal Foreigner Steps in Front of Car to Make Egypt Look Bad.'”
“We’re an international conspiracy right here. US, Egypt, you’re from Canada, right?”
“So they’re in on it. What about you? Where are you from?”
“Iran.”
“Perfect!” [Peals of laughter].

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Truth in Advertising

Our neighborhood contains one of Cairo’s few liquor stores. It is called Drinkies.

The beer selection is limited to Heineken, Stella (Egypt’s own crummy lager) and a few other equally uninspiring options. This will perhaps be the hardest part of moving here from Wisconsin.

Thank God they have South African wine. Egyptian wine is considered undrinkable by everyone we’ve asked and I’m not eager to challenge the conventional wisdom.

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Mohamed Sakeb St., 11:00 pm, Friday 23 August

Cairo’s 7 pm curfew has led us to walk Tenney, our Wisconsin shelter mutt, in our apartment building courtyard before bed. Last night it turned out the courtyard is the domain of the very territorial mother cats the guards feed. Lean and long-legged, Zamalek’s strays are a handsome, haughty bunch, not like the chubby housecats Tenney’s tried to harass back in the states. You see them leaping off of walls, skulking under cars, and slinking down the middle of the road all the time. I suppose there’s a reason I don’t hear many birds around here.

Tenney quickly found herself yapping and squriming on the end of her leash, her barks echoing LOUDLY through the courtyard as a gray-brown mean mother hissed and jabbed at her with some nasty looking claws. The dog was vexed, torn between her deeply-bred rat terrier drive to chase little furry things and the dawning realization that this cat could wreck her.

Thankfully, they didn’t get beyond threats. I ultimately had to pick Tenney up and carry her around the cat, who was persistently blocking our exit and hissing like machinery that’s broken in an expensive way. After this embarrassment, I took her out onto Mohamed Sakeb St., mildly worried that the assault rifle-toting policeman in his kiosk on the corner would yell at me (not knowing Arabic yet has left me painfully sensitive to any possibility I might give offense or break some rule).

I needn’t have worried. The street was nearly silent and free of cars (which is deeply strange for Cairo, especially on a summer night at only 11). As we turned right and headed up the block, an older woman walked by in the middle of the street. In front of an apartment building up the street, a trio of bawwabs (doormen) sat in kitchen chairs around an outdoor TV tuned at low volume to CBC, one of Egypt’s many satellite news channels. Above the Arabic crawl, an English logo in the corner of the screen screamed “EGYPT UNDER ATTACK” in bright red letters. Befitting this crisis, the screen was divided into six boxes with six different scenes from that day in Cairo. Three normal pedestrian streets, two streets (near Tahrir Square, as indicated by the pink Egyptian Museum in the background) blocked by tanks, one street full of pro-Morsi protestors milling about anxiously in yellow T-shirts featuring a hand with four upraised fingers.

Last week, over 600 (and likely far more) pro-Morsi demonstrators were killed when the police and army broke up a sit-in at the Rabba Adawiya mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood. “Rabba” is similar to the Arabic for “four,” making the hand a punning sign for the killings. The Muslim Brotherhood had called for a “Friday of Martyrdom” that day, massive marches to avenge the deaths. Heeding warnings from neighbors and the US State Department, Kirsten and I had hurried home after our morning errands in Downtown, before afternoon prayers kicked off Egypt’s traditional marching hours. We needn’t have worried. The pro-Morsi marches were tiny compared to the previous week, and the soldiers and police prevented them from joining each other. There’s was lot of shouting and shoving and milling around, but no one died.

Commentators speculated on the collapse of the MB’s organizational ability, given that the highly hierarchical organization’s leadership is locked up and many of its most committed members died last week. Timothy Kaldas, an Egyptian twitterer I follow, probably offered the day’s best analysis:

On the Bawwabs’ TV, CBC had come all dressed up for a battle that didn’t come. State and private TV networks both have been hyping up the “War on Terror” (yep, that exact phrase) declared by Defense Minister El-Sisi with bombastic glee and much of the population has bought into it. Conversations with even very worldly and well-educated Egyptians have led to an uncritical endorsement of the idea that the MB (in nefarious league with some combination of Hamas, the USA, Qatar, the Europeans, Al Qaeda, and Israel) is behind all of the evils to befall Egypt and that the Army is only right to stamp them out. (I should add that I’ve heard many thoughtful and nuanced responses to the political situation as well, but that doesn’t make the conspiracy theories any less jarring). While Mohamed Morsi’s rule was incompetent, repressive, and bigoted, and the MB’s hands are not clean in the recent violence, it’s ludicrous to brand a whole political movement (one which was winning national elections a little over a year ago) as terrorists. It’s also silly to think that a newly emboldened security state will limit its repression to the MB. Many of the liberal and secularist groups now cheering on the generals might find themselves targets soon enough.

For now, events weren’t cooperating with the newscast. The six boxes weren’t showing a Egypt under attack at all, but a curfewed country under tight control, with daily life squeezed into the boxes set by the authorities. Even without understanding the newsreader’s Arabic, I couldn’t help but detect a note of disappointment in his voice. After all, there wasn’t anything else to hear on that street.

I may well be wrong about this, but I’ve noticed a weariness in post-revolutionary Egypt. Two-plus years of revolutionary upheaval, with its attendant economic collapse, massive demonstrations, crime, sectarian violence, and general anxiety have wrung Egyptians out. Conversations these days are never that far from politics, and political talk is tinged with sadness, the kind that makes typically voluble Egyptians go quiet, look at the table, and take a longer-than-usual drag on their cigarettes. There’s a sense that something’s been lost, that the huge hopes of the 2011 revolution (“BREAD! FREEDOM! SOCIAL JUSTICE!”) have been compromised, sold out, or killed. Last week, another Egyptian tweeter, Mosa’ab Elshamy, changed his Twitter bio to a line that breaks my heart: “Love was a country we couldn’t defend.”

Not to go out on a psychoanalytic limb here, but perhaps current Egyptian politics can be explained as a series of reactions to this loss. Some eagerly join the scapegoating of the MB, turning them into the sacrificial lamb on whom all the sins and failures of the last few years can but put (I should note here that the nickname given to MB supporters by their opponents is “sheep”). Others have lapsed into resignation, deciding that Egypt just wasn’t ready for democracy yet, or that any significant change is years away. “It’s going to take a generation,” said a colleague on her terrace the other night, as we watched the moon rise over silent Zamalek. “There will need to be a whole new elite. In the meantime, our young people want to leave, go abroad. This is a hard place to be young.” Some hold out hope that once the Army re-establishes order, the stage will be set for gradual systemic change. A bold few liberals and leftists say no to both Army and MB and experiment with new forms of activism. There’s a general anxiety about what kind of violent retaliation may come from the crushed MB and its allies. There’s already a low-level insurgency going in the Sinai. Will it spread?

For now, those anxieties seem out of place, a narrative waiting for events to fill it in. Egypt is in a relative lull this week, the Army triumphant, the MB in disarray. The curfew might be bumped back to 9 pm tomorrow. Daily life goes on in its straitened confines. During the day, the streets still bustle and the generosity, humor, and energy of Cairo can still be seen. Tomorrow, I start my orientation at AUC and I’m eager to see how that community of scholars and students will react to new school year in the midst of the latest crisis. I’m eager to hear the conversations emerging from this strange post-revolutionary moment.

But not at night. Tenney and I walked up our empty street until she relieved herself on a patch of dirt and we turned back around. No problem, no sound but the Bawwabs’ TV.

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