Report No. 1: Settling In, Post-revolution Egypt, Reconnecting to Life in Cairo
by Leyla Lanty
From the Field June 14 – July 1 5, 2011
posted September 18, 2011
On June 14, 2011, I left home for a month long stay in Cairo, Egypt, my home away from home. The purpose of this trip, one of many I’ve made there, was to attend Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2011 as well as visit with old friends, make new ones and most important of all this year, to see and experience some of the changes taking place after Egypt’s revolution in January. What follows is a six-part recounting of what I saw, did and felt, based on a diary I kept while I was there.
Feels like home! Over the last 20-plus years, I’ve been coming here often, and every time I arrive, it feels like home – almost as if I never left. After being here 6 days, I’m somewhat over the jet lag. My brain has almost adjusted to the new time zone, 9 hours later than California. The time difference is usually 10 hours, but this year, Egypt did not change to daylight savings time.
Like a lot of Egyptians, I stay up a good part of the night and don’t get up until noon, or sometimes even later, in order to avoid the heat. Those who can, go to bed between 6 and 8 a.m. and get up in the late afternoon.
I’m going to have to mend my ways by Monday when Ahlan Wa Sahlan begins. Even if I only take afternoon classes, they start at 1 and 4 p.m. I’m not too far from the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, where the festival takes place, but it takes about an hour to get there, chat with people, get into the classroom (after showing my ticket), change shoes, and get ready to learn. No more sleeping in if I sign up for a 1 p.m. class, or (Heaven forbid!) something earlier. Watch for more about Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2011 in a later report.
I have moved into the flat I rented in both 2009 and 2010. It’s a clean, somewhat larger than I really need, well-furnished place with more than adequate air conditioning in all rooms. Writing this, I’m in the living room with the balcony door open and the a/c off. It’s 1:30 pm, bright and sunny and probably in the high 80s Fahrenheit. Inside, it feels like the high 70s. I have dish TV so I can watch the BBC news and another channel that carries world news. There are lots of movie and music channels so I don’t lack for entertainment at home. In the first photo is the reception/dining area. The second photo shows the living room where I wrote this blog.
On my 2nd day here, I went with my friend, Ahmed, who always helps me when I’m here, and his family to the Dandy Mall on the outskirts of Cairo along the Desert Road that goes to Alexandria. It’s a large indoor shopping mall where the anchor store is Carrefour, a large place that is very much like a super Wal-mart crossed with Costco. We stocked up on supplies for the next month for all of us. It was exhausting but necessary! In the photo, Karim unloading the shopping carts at Carrefour.
A few words about conditions here after the January 25 revolution:
In most ways, Cairo is the same old Cairo – noisy and crazy traffic, friendly and warm people. However there’s something new in the air. It’s the freedom to talk openly about government, social and economic conditions and just about anything anyone wants to talk about. Everyone has told me about this, and I can feel it in the air. People are having a really rough time economically, but when they talk about sociopolitical issues, their smiles are radiant (with their newly found freedom to say what they think). There are many signs that Egypt is coming back and that it will be better than ever.
Public safety has been a concern for foreigners, most of whom canceled their trips to Egypt since the revolution in late January, early February. Things have definitely changed since the early days. The police force is back but has been reorganized. Their commission is to maintain public safety, not to be the political police that they were, and they are no longer authorized to shake down citizens on suspicion of being dissidents, looking for bribes like they used to do. Many new people are being trained as police. They have a visible presence in every place that’s popular with tourists that I’ve visited so far.
Probably, you have been hearing about continuing demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the main square in downtown Cairo. There are sometimes political protests as well as striking workers demanding better working conditions and pay.
In the evenings when there are no strikes or protests, families and groups of friends come out and enjoy the grassy areas and the snacks and drinks offered by street vendors who gather there. No one has ever seen the square being used in any of these ways over the last 30-some years. Everyone has remarked about this and is happy about it.
The biggest concern I’ve heard is that the Egyptian people, most of whom have never experienced such freedom, have to sort out where freedom ends and responsibility to others begins. It will take some time, but I’m sure they will do it.
One day while Ahmed’s son, Karim, was driving me somewhere, we traveled along Pyramid Street (Al Haram Street) where many night clubs are located. He told me about watching a hotel and “all” the night clubs on Haram St. being looted and burned after the revolution. He said it was the criminals that had somehow broken out of jail who did it. He said that, to him, it was the worst day in Egypt’s history – Egyptians looting and burning, fueled by greed and extremism. Two nightclubs are now back in operation, El Leil and El Andelus. One or two others show the beginning signs of reconstruction.
My perception is that travel to and inside of Egypt is now safe. All the tourist destinations are open, operating and anticipating the return of tourism to the country. The tourists are beginning to trickle in, but Egypt needs more – the economy depends heavily on them!
While talking with a young Egyptian woman about the revolution and coming changes in Egypt, I said it would be a “bumpy ride.” She didn’t know what “bumpy” meant so I explained it would be like riding in a hantour (horse carriage) and she laughed, gave me a high five and said, “Yes!”
On my first night out, I enjoyed an evening at my favorite coffee house with live music, seeing and greeting all the familiar regulars and, of course, the band and the singers. In the course of the evening, the owner invited me to do a “performance” to “Inta Omri”. Wow, what an experience,– like something out of an old black and white Egyptian movie in which a dancer performs to an enthusiastic coffee house crowd. The music of the band: keyboard, oud (ancestor to the lute), riq (tambourine), dohola (bass drum) and tabla (goblet-shaped drum) along with the beautiful voice of the female singer were inspirational!
Next day, I had lunch with Raqia Hassan, director of the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (at which I taught 2006-2009) and had a far-ranging talk with her. She’s looking forward to the festival, beginning on the 27th, and so am I. It will be smaller this year because of uncertainties following the revolution and the world wide economy, but I’m sure it will be great!
Another little tale is of “my” hall kitty; she’s a feral who had kittens outside my door last year, to whom I fed table scraps. She seemed to remember me the first time she saw me. She was the only one of the feral cats who make this building their home who didn’t bolt when I took a step or two toward them. I got some cheap luncheon meat, sort of like bologna, to feed to her. Last night when I got off the elevator, I went and looked down the stairwell and saw her. I called to her and she came running up the stairs! I went inside and got a slice of bologna, ripped it into little pieces and took it out to her. She meowed to have it and gobbled it down. I guess I have a little friend. A few days after this, I saw that she has 2 kittens about 2 months old so I’m now feeding all of them, including two other adults, one of which has loudest voice I’ve ever heard on a cat. In the photo, center cat is “my” kitty, left one of the kittens, right the loud kitty.
Coming up: Housekeeping, Costume Shopping and some changes observed over many years.
Ready for more?
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