Posts Tagged Cairo

This Beautiful City

This beautiful city
Finally fights to save her love
She awakens from the long sleep
and uncounts the river jewels taken from her bed
the sapphires he tried to use as eyes
the emeralds of envy
and the blood diamond she’d had as her heart
She uncurls each sacred story
and flies those ribbons beginning to sing again
She turns and turns
in the spinning top of hope
in the spinning top of hope

Linda Cleary (January 2011)*

This beautiful city haunts me. She holds me by the scruff of my neck in a dead, weary grip. I know that it would let go if I did but I never try. I see other worlds but something tells me I’d fall through a bottomless abyss if I let go. And so I stay. I don’t know what kind of magic Cairo works through people with her veined, callous hands, but she draws them in with a permanent enchantment and lives within them forever. There are those who manage to escape the spell but they never stop thinking of her. It haunts them everyday.

This city has shown me a thousand extreme faces in one lifetime. Sometimes those extremities race each other towards me within a second. I see vice and virtue walk hand in hand in the street and I see no child in the middle. One of them breeds the other and the other the same. They can’t exist without each other.

This beautiful city is back where it started. It has turned and it has turned in the spinning top of hope until it could turn no longer. The tyrant has hammered the final nail to her coffin as she dizzily fell into eternal despair.

This beautiful city has put on her ugly face. She lies in the arms of vice and sets out a trap for those who, by taking their brisk lively strides, by inhaling fresh, young breaths, by holding on to their books, by existing, are threatening her with hope once more.

The blood diamond heart has stopped beating and turned to stone. The river jewels are scattered everywhere, crushed by the judge’s hammer. The sapphires and emeralds taken away for good. The ribbons have been undone, pulled away and torn with delicate strands of hair and ripped to shreds.

This beautiful city has lost the fight. Her children have bathed themselves in blood, their kin tossed and turned in mud to put out the fire ignited in their souls.

What more can a young man give to this greedy witch other than his own life? And she still won’t stop killing him a thousand times over. How further unjust can injustice go? How can a man ever stop this atrocity of humiliation from continuing except by ceasing to continue himself? Should an Egyptian take a conscious decision to stop having children so that whoever is alive today would be the last? Let the young beating hearts grow old with her until they are no more. Let her take pride alone in the tyrants she has lain with over thousands of years. None of us care. Let her have her history. All we need is justice and, if it’s not too much to ask, life.

*The above poem was written by English poet and writer Linda Cleary who lived in Cairo for 5 years and was present at the time of the uprising in January 2011. I revisit her words today, three years later, after Mubarak and his police aids have been cleared of all charges in the murder of protesters. Below is a video shot of the families of the victims after learning about the verdict.

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Inhale and Hold On, Exhale and Let Go

A fragment of my kitchen, or my mind

Wow! I just walked out of my kitchen with some very scary realizations about myself. I’ve had this strong desire to hold time standing still for so long I’m starting to see what my life really looks like inside my head. I’m in one of those gloomy, sorry weeks and I haven’t been clearing anything I use in the kitchen. Coffee mug used? Right where I left it. Next day other coffee mug used? Still there. Tray out? Right where I left it with its corner sticking out the edge of the table. Spoon used? Yes, right next to her sisters in the sink. Day after day with mug after mug and spoon after spoon, and before I’m aware of it I have a disgusting kitchen with piles of ridiculously dismissed items that hadn’t really needed more than a quick rinse to begin with. Now if I try to look for a clean spoon I wouldn’t find one. All would be used.

That is precisely what I do with the life I have outside my kitchen. I hold on to everything, good or bad. Each bad experience, no matter how small or big, comes in, carves something in my gut and sits right there, and I do nothing to clear it. I leave those experiences intact instead of picking them up and working out where they need to be stacked so they could be more useful and less painful. Needless to say, I dig into my brain for one creative thought and can’t find any; all are too busy twirling around old experiences, keeping them alive and simmering.

My kitchen is the perfect visual representation of my mind. And I can’t count the number of times I was advised by close people to let go. Somehow I find this to be the single most challenging uphill task I have to take. Everything around me seems to be screaming at me to get over myself. I see it in that bored look my cat gives me whenever I start to space out and stare emptily at the TV, in the janitor’s snicker when I fuss over the lit cigarettes in front of the elevator, and now it’s crept into my dreams.

Yep, my dreams. Now as I write this the dream I had last night is actually falling into place. I dreamed that my sister and I were waiting for our mother to show up in some mall and she didn’t. I got worried about her but my sister didn’t seem to be as concerned as I was. I checked with my aunt and she didn’t seem concerned either. I was so frustrated that no one was worried, but when I checked with a friend of mine and she seemed to conceal something, I kept pressing her until she walked into a room and came out with my mother. I rushed to her and hugged her, but she didn’t hug me back. Her body was cold, but it wasn’t the kind of cold that works its way through the skin from the weather while the core is still warm; it was that inner, lifeless cold that crept its way out through the skin and to the hand that’s touching it.

My mother was forever gone, and no amount of persistence brought her back to me. I was the only one holding on to something that was no longer there, unlike my sister and my aunt, who had accepted the fact that she was gone and simply let go–or so it seemed in my dream. Holding on to the memory of my mother’s presence in my life has been like taking a deep, satisfying breath of fresh, salty sea air. But because it’s just a memory, the air soon becomes a burden and nothing can relieve me except a powerful exhale. That’s what letting go is like; it’s like a much needed relief of a burden ripping at your chest, and I’ve been living my life with just an inhale.

But seriously now, I’m not sure what this is, to be honest. So before I conclude this particularly pointless post I’m going to go ahead and blame it on Cairo, as I always do with everything that annoys me. So maybe it’s a Cairo thing? Because I look around me at Cairo’s streets and whoa! That is one big grimy, slimy old kitchen that hasn’t been cleared up since the Mamluks. Cairo has layer after layer of history, and on a less romantic note, layer after layer of garbage and abandoned junk either crowding backyards of buildings or creeping into their service stairs, making them nice little hubs for rodents and reptiles. Many people have grown so accustomed to the mess around here that they no longer take notice of it. They’re aware of it, but they just accept it as the sorry reality that is their home city. It creeps into their subconscious and puts them in a bad mood each time they hit the streets, which could explain the road rage and the street fights and the honks. So yeah, Cairo has crept into my subconscious and given me this messy kitchen. And yes of course you’re reading this messy post, because how can I be creative with a mind as overloaded and messy as that kitchen, or as Cairo?

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Leaving

Each time I travel I keep thinking of the distance from the place and the people I leave. I actually watch it happen from the minute I walk out the door to the moment I reach the clouds and go above them to wherever lies ahead. I sit in the plane, I look at the flight monitor and I think of the actual physical miles that start adding up by the minute. And upon my arrival it blows my mind how many oceans and continents have now come to divide us. I silently thank God that I live in an age where my loved ones are just a click away. I can always talk to them and see them on my little gadgets. I don’t have to write a letter and wait for three weeks or more to get a response. When my brother went to study in America in 1977 I was a four year old and I don’t remember much, but the sight of my mother’s tears pouring down her face all through the flight back to Cairo stayed with me until today. She helplessly waited for his letters and couldn’t call him except through a switchboard and a very, very poor connection they’d both be yelling to the receivers to hear each other across continents.

Now I’m about her age at that time and I don’t have to go through any of that hassle. It’s ironic how these gadgets have come to work in my life. At times they’re the cloak I hide behind and talk to everyone through when I’m depressed, a cloak that soon turns into thick, brass walls that trap me inside and echo my own thoughts and obsessions and so add to my misery. Yet at other times they’re simply the only window to the faraway world I think about while I’m away.

And it’s funny how the people in my life are constantly shifting from the flesh and blood real to the voice and text virtual. I’ve spent all of my life with my heart cut in half between the here and there. The accessible near and the dreamy far–a far that is often entangled in longing, worry, and much, much anxiety. I have very close friends that live in two different continents, none of them my own, and I have a whole half of my family, with cousins I grew up with, living in a fourth continent. Heck I’ve even fallen in love across continents! That never lasted, of course.

With all of these people, sometimes we would meet and talk about everything on these little gadgets and it feels good to think we’re close. But we know we never actually are. Nothing compares to the physical nearness of a person you care about.

And just as we happen to be scattered all over the world, some of us end up in countries with much turmoil, tearing at the hearts of those faraway from them. Phone calls after phone calls run back and forth to reassure each other that we’re OK, until we finally get together and try to will time to stand still and hold the moment for as long as it can, but it can only hold it for as long as a human can hold a breath. Eventually it lets go–as it probably must. But then I try to hold on to the moment in my head for as long as I can too but it brings no comfort to me to think of a moment I’m not living anymore. Eventually I let go and I find that it’s actually a relief. Each time I say goodbye to a close one as they leave – or as I leave – knowing that our paths would cross again gives a temporary soothing numbness that takes me on to the next moment, and the next, and the next.

The uncertainty and the disenchantment of living in Egypt right now does not make separation easy, whether I was the one leaving or the one left behind. Egypt, where I stayed and continue to stay, used to be the hub for everyone I knew. Everyone used to come back and stay and they would be willing the moment to stand still, wishing with all their might to come back. My mind races with thoughts on my future and the future of my family. Is this going to pass soon or will we all be strangled in a limbo? We’re living our everyday quite normally but there’s an overarching feeling of depression residing in the air. The economy is down and there’s little or no tourists walking around (it’s actually strange how the sight of tourists in Cairo’s streets was so characteristic it feels almost unrecognizable without them now). I can’t stop asking when will this nation pick itself up again and I know the answer is not soon, because right now it’s still busy dismantling itself into scattered pieces and there are some who are actually trying to turn the pieces into lots of even smaller ones.

But it doesn’t do any good for me to think too much. I’m just a dot in history. I’m neither judge nor God to know fate; I’m only a passing witness so small and tiny for the universe to see with the naked eye. So much has happened over the seven thousand year old history of my home country that I can never know what is going to happen. But I know that it all comes in cycles and that it will pick itself up again, though probably not in my lifetime.

I think that what I’m trying to say is that as seemingly exciting and rich a traveler’s life can be, with friends and loved ones in every continent, when the ground they once stood so solidly on – that anchor point they always came back to – suddenly begins to shake, all they can think about is how much they long for bringing everyone they love together and staying put with them in one reliably solid, safe place where no one can ever get hurt and no one ever has to say goodbye. I’d give up all my traveling and all my flying around for just this and the peace of mind that comes with it. That’s just the way I feel.

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Rants of a Shackled Egyptian

I wake and sleep to the sounds of the traffic and sirens outside my window. I look at this and think twice before I go out for any reason. (Can you spot the ambulance on the left?)

How badly can you want something? What would normally be the thing to do when you are placed with someone who has authority over the thing you want so much and withholds it from you? Would you walk your talk, confront them and live up with the consequences? Would you speak with fear of being denied your thing and so you acknowledge the authority lest you wake the beast?

My story today may not be that dramatic, but little violations of my rights everyday can turn me into something I’m not pleased with.

I was driving home last night, trying to arrive within less than 30 minutes on a route that should in any other city take 10 minutes. I started my journey with my car crawling among other cars in a pool of chaos. I managed to get near the area where I lived around 7:30, exactly 30 minutes later. To my surprise I found that the street I normally take to reach my home was blocked with police rails and two officers were standing there. If I missed that street it would take me another 30 to 45 minutes of turning in the chaos to get back to a previous spot and choose another street. I had no option.

I spoke to one of the officers. “I live right there and I need to get home quickly.”

“Sorry madam, prohibited. There’s a tashreefa.”

Tashreefa has no literal translation in the English language, probably because there is no equivalent to the phenomenon outside our world. It is a deliberate blockage of streets in anticipation of a prominent politician passing in his bullet-proof car. The streets get decorated by soldiers, human beings that are placed on both sides of the road from beginning to end for hours until the sacred passing takes place. Until then the street is literally out of order. No forewarning, no easy access to alternative routes. You drive there, get stuck, and discover that it’s a tashreefa.

My blood began to simmer. “You cannot deny me access to my own home. I must get there now!” He went to speak to a higher authority sitting on a chair with its back to the street and busying itself with some papers. He came back with the same answer. “It’s prohibited, madam.”

At this moment the simmering grew to a boil. I found myself opening the door and charging out of the car in an anger fit I usually describe as an out of body experience. I suddenly acquire a much higher voice and begin to say and do things I have no control of. I walked to the “authority” on the chair and ignored the officer’s calls after me.

“I need to get to my home. All I demand of you is a little respect to my basic human right as a citizen of this country!”

The man’s eyes were wide open staring at me in disbelief. “You may take the next street.” I began to fume. “The next street is a one-way street and if one of you catches me he’d charge me 1000 EGP, and there is no way I can enter it since it is equally blocked with cars trying to get to the already blocked road we’re in. So now please allow me to get into my home. You may search me if you will. I have no weapons. I need to get to the child that is waiting for me there!”

I had no idea who that child was, unless I count my cat as one.

Predicting that he would not be rid of me soon, he waved at his subjects to allow me in. I walked to my car without another word and drove in. It was a party in the Turkish ambassador’s residence. Black cars, black suits, black dresses. I was thrown back into my black mood. I drove with so much fury and kept cursing out loud alone in the car.

I got to my home and all I could think of was how many of us end up being reduced to basic levels just to protect our rights to go by in the streets of Cairo with no hassle. What’s more important, I was alarmed at the things I said. I said “please.” Please?? What the hell was I thinking? Was I so afraid he’d let me do the 45 minutes turn and I was secretly begging for his mercy? A “child”?? What child? I lied!

Is it the systematic subordination we’ve been subjected to in our society for so many years that made inner submissive cowards out of us? Has the hierarchical system of authority been passed down to us individuals, making us oppressive to those below us and submissive to those above?

Yes. As children many of us went to schools where we were beaten by teachers for speaking in class or for not doing our homework. We were yelled at and humiliated in front of our peers in class. When we grew up we became used to laws and regulations being issued overnight and executed with no consideration of any say on our part.

The spark that I see in the eyes of Egyptians as I look at pictures taken some forty or more years ago no longer exists. The people I see walking in the street have a look of defeat in their eyes. The women have lost their glory, lines of exhaustion and fatigue have carved their ways on their faces. The men have lost their sense of self-worth. The little sense of control they still aspire to have is practiced on their children or wives.

Egyptians have been systematically neutralized by a smart centralized authority that has reigned above them for so many decades. They used to revolt, but now they can’t get more than a hundred people to stand still in a demonstration. A culture of prohibition overrules everything. I can’t get a refund in a shop, I can’t change my order in a restaurant, I can’t enter certain restaurants because I cover my hair. The list continues.

Inside me there’s a free soul longing for harmony with its surroundings, but sometimes I feel like it’s forever caged inside the body of the hesitant person I have become. I don’t know how long I will further have to wait until it is out, but I’m going to keep trying to unshackle it bit by bit until I, all of me, am free.

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