I was far from Egypt this past month, travelling over the Christmas and New Year holidays to South Africa. Even at the opposite end of Africa, I found traces of Egypt. I drove through an area where South African explorers searched unsuccessfully for the source of the Nile. On the highways near Johannesburg there were advertisements for the African Cup, emblazoned with the quote (of Herodotus, I think) “He Who Conquers Egypt Rules Africa.” And I saw an ibis in the trees of Pretoria. It’s a large bird with a long, thin, downward-curving beak and a loud, plaintive squawk. It was the face of the ancient Egyptian creator god, Thoth, and today is a government logo.
For the most part, though, I was on vacation, and I left Cairo firmly behind. That’s always a strange and slightly amazing thing to do. Cairo is a city that, while you live there, seems never-ending, all-encompassing, and turns the rest of the world into a pale shadow (see Arabesque: Cairo, Close Up). Then when you leave, it’s Cairo itself with its 16 million inhabitants, endless chaos, life and noise that becomes unreal, a seeming impossibility.
As usual when leaving the Middle East, almost from the moment of buckling my airplane seatbelt, I felt what can only be described as relief. A sort of general opening up and unwinding. It’s not just that I could wear a sleeveless shirt or follow all the conversations around me (although that’s part of it). It’s not just that I could spend a few weeks without thinking and reading and writing and talking about all the region’s woes: about corruption and powerlessness; about terrorism and state violence; about the morasses of the Israeli and American occupations. It has something to do with the air, with the atmosphere. I love Cairo, but sometimes it tires me beyond belief.
It’s become commonplace to describe the Middle East as “stagnant”. A good friend and colleague once wrote that a much greater problem than the “Arab street” was the “Arab couch”; it is passivity, rather than explosiveness, that is the region’s curse. There is a joke that is told both in Syria and Egypt.
The president decides to test the people’s patience. He tells a policeman to stand at one of the city’s major bridges and make every driver pay a toll. Everyday the president asks the policeman if people are angry, and everyday the policeman says that no, people are paying without making any fuss. Every day the president raises the toll. Finally, he asks the policeman again if anyone is complaining. “Well, sir, there is one thing,” says the policeman, “The toll is slowing down traffic on that bridge, so people asked if you could send more policemen to collect it.”
This is pretty cynical and hopeless humour. Egyptians seem to have an almost fantastical forbearance for the intellectual censorship, sexual frustration, political powerlessness, economic injustice, and pure chicanery that is heaped upon their shoulders daily. This is one of the tiring contradictions that I am relieved to leave behind: that a city as vibrant as Cairo can also be so stultifying; that so much movement can take place where there is so little change; and that people who seem so cheerful and expansive can be so resigned, so truly afraid.
As a journalist, the moment I take out my microphone or notebook, people often shy away. When they are angry enough to speak, even their indignation can seem rote: the same formulas about injustice and the will of God. Very few people can imagine a truly different state of things. Everyone wants to just get by, live in peace, raise their family; and the end result is that one slips from one day to the next, mending things as best one can, consoling oneself with one’s family and friends, trying to avoid trouble.
Conversations in Egypt whether they take place between two cabdrivers or between intellectuals on famous TV programs go in circles, following terribly familiar curves, falling into conventional expressions like wheels into well-worn grooves. So much is avoided. Arguments are stale, exhausted. Words seem to die in the air. Sex, religion, politics everything that is interesting and important is skirted, obfuscated, stifled in common places. It’s all mamnoua (forbidden) to talk about.
How I’ve come to loathe this word, which is used by any person (usually male) who wants to tell you “no”. It’s mamnoua to walk down that street, to ask that question, to take that picture, to stay out of the house that late, to open that door. There is never any further reason beyond mamnoua the word is a blanket negation, a denial that needs no further explanation.
Of course the greatest use of such arbitrary denials is made by those in power from political and religious authorities to bosses and teachers and fathers. The Egyptian government in particular is like a bad magician who doesn’t even make the effort to hide how he does his tricks. And the Egyptian citizens are like a cowered or complicit audience, politely applauding instead of demanding their money back. Even now that things are undoubtedly changing in the Middle East, the change seems to come from far away and high up; it seems to be in great part for the consumption of the American government and the American public. People in Egypt are not making their own destiny as people in South Africa did in 1994; there is a sense that things will not change enough, or at least not for the better.
Perhaps I have been overcome by the pessimism and cynicism I decry. I feel guilty, coming down so hard on my adopted home. I don’t want to judge Egyptians for the predicament they suffer, or make invidious comparisons.
But I can’t help feeling that South Africa, with all its terrible problems (AIDS, violent crime, corruption, racism) seems better off, in some ways, than any Middle Eastern country I’ve been to. South Africa’s people don’t seem afraid to talk or to act. What is there for them to be afraid of? They’ve been through it all: they’ve been shot at in the streets and they’ve danced in front of tanks. They’ve had Nelson Mandela to call their own. One can only dream of similar courage, vision, inspiration of a great transformation, a great historical miracle like this for Egypt.