Photography by Mohamed Farag
About an hour before I get to downtown Cairo, which is to say that I get to one of its outskirts, I am thirsty. And I never quench that thirst while I am there. I’ve always run from Cairo, only stayed there because that’s where the plane landed. The juxtaposition found in the streets is compelling: the cats eating the oranges from the garbage in front of some ornate façade, the man with the wagonload of chicks beside the semi and the big, nearly empty tourist bus, the old man on the bicycle pedaling as he balances a tray on his head with small bales of steel wool. For a time: the elaborate graffiti mocking the then president on the side of the delicately configured presidential palace walls. And, yes, the pyramids are there, just up the hill from the apartment buildings, always cropped out for the tourist photos. I had been going to Egypt for many years before I ever saw them except from a bus window poking up between the high rises and diesel smoke. Metro entrances are more important landmarks to most who live there. Gihan Omar and Mohamed Farag, two writers in this series, describe the city as a devouring witch, as a whirlpool that crushes, as a place that marks you for life. That’s the part I always experienced, though it did always surprise me how sitting on a boat in the middle of the Nile could be so calm and still, the endless mass of people and buildings and walls of honking car horns absorbed by the ancient river and reeds.
Alexandria, on the other hand, only two hours away, was another world—its tables beside the Mediterranean, the piles of fish on newspapers, lemon and salt and laughter, the hidden, drowned faces of Cleopatra’s palace with algae smooth in the eye creases of the doomed, the flecks of minnows darting between parted lips. Khaled Raouf and Maher Sherif describe it as a labyrinth, or as an old lady who smokes too much and sells flowers in the streets. Maher mentions the coffee shops there, the “literary icons of the city,” where “intellectuals . . . face the central official policy of the state.” This is where, in the years of my visits to Alexandria, we spent time trying to catch up on what had happened in the previous months. In more recent years, these dispatches became more intense— my friend Mosaad Salem with the birdshot still in his face, relating the street battles, everyone sad and tired but still putting on plays, films, readings, still trying to hope for hope.
I lived in Cairo the last two years with my husband, poet Khaled Hegazzi, and our two young children, making journeys as often as possible to breathe the moist, fresh air of Alexandria. When we were living in Egypt, the mood was decidedly bloodier, more exhausted, more despairing, than the early part of the revolution. But January 25 changed Cairo, and it definitely changed it for me. Gihan and Mohamed explain how the city opened up, how it came to resemble the people, at least for a time. And Alexandria, where I’d always, though a foreigner, felt welcomed as a part of the vibrant art and writers’ community, also came alive in a new way during these years of street protests and clashes between power and the people who challenged it.
Putting these responses together, first when I was living in Egypt, and now in New Orleans, where we have since moved, filled me with exhaustion while I was there, and nostalgia while I am here. Egypt has changed me. Though I am an alien there, here I am no longer completely at home.
I began writing this introduction on the day of the fourth anniversary of the revolution. Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a friend of ours from Alexandria and a member of that community I mentioned, was shot and killed in downtown Cairo the night before in broad daylight after laying flowers on the memorial in Tahrir Square for the martyrs of the January 25 revolution. The loss of one known to some as the revolution’s voice—she led chants in a voice belying her small frame—is devastating. And the message and symbolism—on the anniversary, a woman armed only with flowers—crushing. If there is a chance for hope, those like Maher, Gihan, Khaled and Mohamed, who continue to write and show us their world, are the ones who will give it.
—October “The City and the Writer” Guest Editor Andy Young