This is a series of articles based on conversations on streets and in cafés across the region investigating Arab identity – who we are and who we would like to be – from a local and subjective perspective.
“El Horeyya fén?” I ask to a bewildered stream of random local pedestrians that decided to pause their lives for a couple of minutes to help out a man with a camera and a broken accent, an engagingly forced mélange of Egyptian and Lebanese, asking, “Where is freedom?” Looking for freedom in the streets of Cairo seems like an adequate warm-up exercise for everything to come from this tantalizing city.
The Cairene persona is one that embodies the perfectly rounded street monger – an advocate of a life that is incomplete without the candidly public sidewalk. This persona and the cafés designed to host it make the streets of Cairo richer than many others I’ve walked on. To Cairenes, to be stopped and asked, “Where is freedom?” amidst a political temperature beyond boiling point for Egypt is a merely marginal scene in the continuous movie-like existence that is life in Cairo.
Some strangers reacted to my question with vernacular political manifestos, while others wanted to walk around with me, eerily inquiring about my perception of God from a Lebanese point of view. A handful understood that I was asking for “El Horeyya,” a café called freedom, where no pictures were allowed to be taken, and they diligently pointed towards it.
After an essential drink at “El Horeyya,” the only café in downtown Cairo that serves beer, I head towards the Nile. The generous river is Cairo’s beautiful artery. I love it enviously; as I watch the rivers of my two hometowns, Beirut and Tripoli, dry to death due to lack of maintenance and their contemporary use as eventual sewage dumps that lead to the sea. Along the grand corniche of the Nile, while still abusing my “El Horeyya fén?” game, I meet a handsome old man with white hair, a grey moustache and a white shirt tucked under pants held steady with a fake leather black belt and a shiny buckle. After the usual back and forth about freedom, Cairo, Beirut the Horeyya Café, and the revolution, he took the liberty to ask a question slightly more peculiar than mine.
Are you one of us?
What do you mean?
You’re Lebanese, aren’t you?
So you are! I’m very happy I met you.
I’m sorry, but I really don’t know what you’re talking about.
Christian! Christian, like me.
The old man’s eyes gleamed of an interesting sense of safety, so I lied and said yes. Religious naiveté is a Lebanese’s cup of tea, but little did I know that such conversations would follow me to Cairo. Actually, my attempt to answer a question about my “religious” views to another stranger directing me to “freedom” earlier that day was rather puzzling for both of us. “In Lebanon, it is okay to not have a god?” he asked with a hint of interest and blasphemy. I was absolutely uninterested in reliving that automatically patronizing routine of an enlightenment debate. So with my new stranger, I lied. He asked for my number, then asked me to take a “beautiful” picture of him in front of the Nile and left.
He said he would call me for the picture but he didn’t. He either forgot or just wanted to be recorded – archived on a stranger’s film roll. There is an interesting schism in the relationships of Arab cities with cameras. It’s a love/hate relationship of some sort. With security infringements that come along political unrest in the region, there is an institutional paranoia that wraps these cities. Public sectors and private establishments have come to the alarming conclusion that cameras, and people that hold them, are threats to their safety. I tried to convince the director of “Garaj Al Opera” (The Opera Multi-story Car Park) otherwise, but he ended the conversation by threatening to break my camera.
Much like most Arab scenarios, government employees in Cairo are hired on the basis of testosterone saturation, not specialized merit, so I stop, perform an act of surrender and sell him another scenario, “Can I draw the building instead?” I am entertained by his confusion, “You have ten minutes, and I will walk with you to make sure you’re not playing any games.” I couldn’t sneak in any photos, and had to make do with quick sketches of everything I see.
“Before this was a car park, it was an opera house, right?” He nodded a yes. “And it burned down in the fifties, right?” I had done my research, and he nodded another slightly less amused yes. “Why wasn’t it renovated?” He remained silent. As I continued sketching, I asked, “If Golden Age greats sang here, it should have become a shrine, not a car park.” No trace of amusement was left in his dark eyes, “Right?” He closed my sketchbook, “Your time is up,” and asked one of his guards to escort me outside.
I was kicked out of a car park. As appalling as it was, I couldn’t help but laugh. I am on the blacklist of a car park in Cairo. This still hadn’t happened to me in Beirut! I pack my camera in my backpack and walk away, as to not scare anyone with it anymore. These layers of idiotic protection measures are common in the region, choreographing what people can or cannot do for no real reason. It’s such a wasted effort, given that you can get away with almost anything for the right amount of cash within its rotten web of authority.
I usually refrain from offering bribes, but sometimes you just have to. I see a man in his late forties sleeping in the shade next to a bicycle at the entrance of a seemingly abandoned mansion, and wake him up with an old fashioned “As-salamu alaykum.”
Are you responsible for this mansion?
Can I enter, please?
Is there a specific reason?
Would you pretend I didn’t enter for 20 pounds?
But don’t take any pictures.
I took out my camera and started filming my stroll in the mansion’s garden, and for the little sum, the gatekeeper volunteered to be my tour guide, “This historical mansion was bought by a Saudi prince almost twenty years ago,” he said. “Does he ever come here?” I ask with obvious anger to the abandoned state of this place. The answer was not too surprising. The owner hasn’t ever visited this mansion. It is a typical case of urban abduction. This mansion has been frozen in time because its owner does not care about it. You can’t leave the decision regarding the fate of a part of a city to someone who doesn’t care for it – especially if they’re heritage sites. Erratic real estate romance is killing the Arab city.
This mansion’s beautiful garden has forcefully been made secret by the neo-barbaric act of buying a piece of land and waiting for it to increase in value before deciding how to commodify and liquidate it into cash. While a city’s heritage must be somehow owned and shared by its public, this abandoned paradise is out of reach of the people that make this city. This luscious stretch of land, and many like it, remains empty while the city is left to oversaturate beyond containable thresholds.
Cairo is a patchwork of the crazy and the absurd, the emotive and the sensual, the raging, the timid and the restless. Its dusty aroma is a constant combination of all of those. While crafting random conversations on its streets, or trying to trespass its allowed boundaries, Cairo is a conversation that casts a very specific spell on its visitors and its inhabitants. It is a place that cannot be defined neither by its quickly changing political regimes, or its urban transformations. Cairo is an inconclusive conversation. It can only be tangentially understood by being there – through inevitably random chats with its notwithstandingly spirited people.