Back in Egypt blues

I had plenty of time to reflect on things on the flight back. The plane was two thirds empty, probably an accurate reflection on the current state of tourism in Egypt. I read a National Geographic article speculating that genetics might explain why some people are compelled to seek out distant horizons. I cogitated on my restless genes as the golden light of a beatific sunset suffused the cabin.

A year ago I was also leaving England in a haze of emotion intensified by a hangover. The anticipation of the unknown was replaced this time by weariness and wariness.

Downtown Cairo

Last January I had spent a couple of blustery days in Dahab before busing to Cairo. I met an interesting Danish girl who introduced me to her friends in the city before leaving for home. The talk was of the one year anniversary of the revolution. Would it be a celebration or a protest? People were divided. Secularists and young revolutionaries felt their uprising had been usurped by Islamists. The military was in control of the country. There were yet to be convictions for members of the old regime.

The country was full of uncertainty but on the day 25 January was more celebratory than revolutionary. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians of different backgrounds packed Tahrir Square. Families posed for photographs, children and parents alike with faces painted. The smell of popcorn lent the square a carnival atmosphere. The country was optimistic.

This year the anniversary of the revolution was sure to be more bitter. Two years on and people were yet to see any improvement in their lives. The opposition had crystallised into a slightly more cohesive force in the second half of 2012, challenging President Morsy’s increasingly autocratic decrees.

It all came to a head in Heliopolis in December. It was the first time I saw Egyptians really fighting each other, rather than the security forces. It was a worrying development, but for the most part real homicidal intent was absent. The molotov cocktails had just a slosh of petrol in the bottom of the bottle and even the Muslim Brotherhood supporter with the shotgun was firing plastic pellets (were I to conjecture where he got the ammunition from I would guess the security forces themselves). They stung worse than BBs but would only kill at point-blank range. The scene had parallels with the daily disputes in the streets, where things never really escalate unless an audience is there to hold the belligerents apart. In Heliopolis that role fell to the security forces who stood by while the two hailed chunks of pavement at each other. Still, people were killed the night I was there. It was turning into a true winter of discontent.

Yes, the opposition was sure to challenge the ruling Muslim Brotherhood for control of Tahrir Square this 25 January. Tahrir is a symbol now, ground to be fought over, a prize. For controlling the square means owning the revolution, and with that comes the ability to shape national discourse.

Cairo was cold and sullen on arrival. A dusty wind scoured the tarmac as I stepped off the plane. It rained for the first time since I had lived here. A pathetic fallacy for the national mood.

Lost in contemplation I was shortchanged buying a visa. I realised too late to do anything; I was already at duty free.  At the checkout a man was asking for a bag without liqour branding to hold his purchases. “Because of the Ikhwan,” he explained to an understanding shop attendant.

Banners of world leaders praising Egyptians adorned the terminal. Advertisements for a local telecommunications company,one of them carried a quote by Barack Obama: “We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people.” When I looked for the source of the quote online later, I came up blank. Was it fabricated?

Having retrieved my dusty old Macpac from the carousel, the hassle of a taxi was unavoidable. Tired, I didn’t bother haggling with over the price the first driver demanded. It was a mistake. The driver obviously thought so too, regretting he hadn’t asked for more. Twice on the drive to Maadi he tried to renegotiate the fare on the pretence that he had misunderstood where we were going. It was much further than he had thought, he said. It wasn’t. I knew he was just struggling to make a living but I was annoyed by how naive he assumed me. A shouting match ensued, a familiar script, where I told him I wasn’t stupid and he took it to mean I was calling him stupid. It culminated with the driver slamming on his brakes, as if something serious would follow this piece of theatre. We lapsed into sullen silence and I left him without a tip.

It was a welcome arrival home. For the first half of last year I had dossed on a mattress on the floor  of someone else’s place, huddling under airline blankets through the winter then sweltering without AC a couple of months after that. Having a proper bed was a luxury I still appreciated.

I was exhausted but sleep was elusive. Waking in the night, I wondered, am I doing the right thing? People more successful than me marched through my head. They were more talented than me, more motivated and no doubt happier too. They were already years ahead because I had wasted so much time already. I had a list of New Year’s resolutions but a longer one of uncertainties and insecurities.

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