Cities and the Dead


They say that this has not just now begun to happen: actually, it was the dead who built the upper Euspasia, in the image of their city. They say that in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead. 

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, “Cities and the Dead 3”

For our first real day off in a while, Kirsten and I decided to take the metro to the Mar Girgis (St. George) stop and visit Coptic Cairo, one of the city’s older neighborhoods. We initially planned to walk down Gezira Island from our neighborhood, Zamalek, to the metro station by the Opera House. Found the Opera House, couldn’t find the metro station. Realized we were near the Kasr-e-Nil Bridge, decided to walk across the Nile to Midan Tahrir and catch the metro at Sadat station. Dodged traffic to get to station entrance, discovered the Sadat station is closed, with black steel shutters blocking all the entrances. Our passage into the underground was locked tight.

Hot, tired, and hungry, we repaired to the Hardee’s across the street from Tahrir. The restaurant has famously served as a safe haven for women and the base of operations for Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault during demonstrations on Tahrir. But today it was just a place for chicken sandwiches and curly fries (two weeks in and the cravings for American junk food finally arrived). With Mar Girgis unreachable by metro and our willingness to find a cab going that way fading, we decided instead to go to the Egyptian Museum, just on the other side of the square.

I’d never seen so many armored vehicles in my life. The street in front of the museum, usually full of tourist trap cabs and pushy papyrus vendors, was a closed off parking lot with at least twenty armored personnel carriers parked in a row, soldiers perched on top amid water cannons and coils of barbed wire. I had to show a copy of my passport at a police checkpoint and Kirsten’s bag was x-rayed twice before we could get inside.

The museum was its usual self, packed to the brim with underlabeled sarcophagi, statues, haunting animal mummies (including a dog mummified in a pose I’ve seen my own dog make), beautiful Roman-era funerary portraits, and, in a wing that requires an extra ticket, two dozen mummies of kings and queens, their faces stretched tight over their skulls, their fingers and toes held straight with gold stays. Some had tiny white stone eyes inserted into their sockets. Some, according to the labels, had their eyes replaced with pearl onions.


We started to wonder how many dead lay in the museum. Dozens? Hundreds? It was a conversation that continued as we left, walking past the burnt-out National Democratic Party (Mubarak’s party) headquarters, a ruin that looms over the museum, the banners placing Defense Minister El-Sisi next to Nasser and Sadat, and the murals on the outside walls of American University’s Tahrir campus, depicting young men killed in the 2011 revolution with multicolored angel wings sprouting from their shoulders. They look like smiling cousins of the solemn Roman-era Egyptians looking out from their mummy portraits in the museum.


The dead crowd the living in Cairo, where there’s not enough space to file the past away. They lie in your path, jostle you, catcall you, hustle you as you walk. The past looms up around every corner, be it a statue of some long-dead pharaoh or pasha, 2011 graffiti that seems strangely dated now, the burnt remains of some street fight, or the coils of barbed wire laid in the street in its aftermath.

It’s a thrill, but exhausting too. Walking back out past the guns and the checkpoint, we grab the first cab we see and head home.

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I wrote this proposal a while ago for the BABEL Working Group’s biennial meeting, to be held at UC Santa Barbara in October 2014. I’m happy to say it’s been accepted.

The theme for the conference is “On the Beach: Precariousness, Forms of Life, Affinity, and Play at the Edge of the World.” Naturally, my thoughts turned to Egypt and its revolution,

My panel is “SOUS LES PAVÉS, LA PLAGE: Holidays and castaways in the (early) modern revolutionary moment.” Description follows. Email me if you are interested in contributing.

2013-05-29 09.43.33

29 May 2013. Sidewalk by the Tahrir Square campus of American University in Cairo. The paving stones were pulled up and thrown in 2011. Now your feet swish through sand walking by.

In Cairo, the sidewalks around Tahrir Square have turned into a beach. The paving stones were pulled up and thrown during the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, and never replaced. Sand has blown in and filled the space between the curbs.

The slogan “Sous les pavés, la plage!”—under the pavement, the beach—emerged from the May 1968 uprising in Paris. Hard, still stone would give way to soft, shifting sand, discovering a better, freer, more playful and less ordered world just beneath the certainties of life as it is. This spirit can be found in many modern protest movements—from the Wisconsin Capitol to Zuccotti Park to the streets of Athens and Tunis—that occupied public spaces during the heady year 2011.

That year saw Tahrir transformed from a traffic circle into a vibrant democratic assembly—and later the site of horrific assaults against women. Recently, occupations organized by the Muslim Brotherhood in other Cairo squares were dispersed by the military regime in a week of shocking violence. In the wake of a military coup, the old security state is reasserting itself with new vigor and popular support. In the face of over two years of uncertainty, revolutionary enthusiasm seems to have given way to nationalism and a resigned acceptance of authoritarian control.

Is the beach a space of freedom and play, or is it a place of chaos and vulnerability? Is it the womb of the new world or merely the grave of old? Once the paving stones come up, are we on holiday or cast away? I am looking for projects that address this aspect of the beach: the anarchic space, at once exhilarating and terrifying, lying just beneath or beyond the structures of civilization.

Relevant topics could include utopias, like Cockaigne, More’s Utopia, the City of the Sun, or the commonwealth described by Gonzalo as he stands in the sand on Prospero’s Isle. Or the beach as place of dangerous uncertainty, a place outside civilization’s comforting confines, where an exposed life must adapt or be extinguished, as in a castaway Viola’s uncertain prospects at the beginning of Twelfth Night or poor Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale, who sees all his old certainties swept away before being eaten by the bear on the fantastical seacoast of Bohemia. As the rising sea encroaches on our cities, blowing sand down their streets and washing their walls away, what shall we build out of the sand?

The nature of the session will depend on submissions. I imagine a round table, with four or five presenters giving short (10 minute) presentations (which can be traditional papers or some other medium) followed by an open discussion. Please place a proposal of up to 500 words in the body of an email to Justin Kolb (

If possible, I’d like to hold this session on the beach itself, standing amid sandcastles and waves.

KEYWORDS: Holiday/Castaway, Stone/Sand, Revolution/Counter-Revolution/Devolution, City/Shore, Old World/New World, Beach/Ocean, Submerge/Emerge, Party/Revelry, Piracy/Smuggling, Coast/Edge, Holiday/Play, Atoll/Reef, Weather/Atmosphere, Migration/Invasion, Hospitality/Mission, Raft/Castaway

THEMES: Anarchy, Authority, Thriving, Precariousness, Presentism, Affinity, Dissent, History, Temporality, Post/humanism, Materialism, Life, Ecology, Decolonization, Unlearning, Play/Enjoyment, Speculation, Post-Catastrophe

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