I left Egypt 40 years ago. They say you can take an Egyptian out of Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of an Egyptian. I still visit Egypt every now and then. I recently made my first visit since the January 25 Revolution of 2011.
It wasn’t easy after all these years. I was warned about the political climate in Egypt now under military rule. The martial law, the mistreatment of journalists and media. But I’ve missed lots of family funerals through the years, and my beloved brother just passed away. I needed to be there.
Egypt is a different place now. Security police are everywhere; so are checkpoints. People are living in a social bubble, protecting themselves from their harsh reality.
Cab drivers aren’t as cheerful and eager to share their stories. Egyptians, who are known for giving their unsolicited opinions, have become fearful. Once, when you asked an Egyptian for directions, you got an opinion. Now when you ask for directions, they give you directions, with grim faces and suspicious looks.
People in the street are lost in their smartphones, taking a refuge in virtual realities. Egyptian street life and spontaneity are dead. People have lost their ability to trust one another. Everyone is suspect.
Noise, pollution and trash are suffocating the old city, Cairo. Stray dogs and cats compete with people and cars for space. Shop owners sit depressed, not interested, without hope of any transaction. You can’t tell if they’re open or closed.
As if the polluted air wasn’t enough, it seems that everybody in Egypt smokes — shopkeepers, traffic police, schoolteachers, people on buses, waiters in restaurants, even doctors in hospitals, all smoke.
People take refuge at sidewalk cafes, watching football games or playing backgammon, avoiding casual conversations and ignoring street peddlers hawking their tomatoes, potatoes and watermelons.
The street peddlers, donkey carts loaded with watermelons, still go around chanting their jingles describing the beauty of their watermelons. “Hamar we Halawah” — red and sweet. Or “Ya Gammr, ya Gamer” — oh embers, like embers. And the confident watermelon peddler will chant “Ala Elskinah Ya Helwah,” challenging anyone to cut his watermelons and taste them.
Egyptian sidewalks have always been vibrant places that blend the old culture and commerce, a place where mummies and Coca-Cola are both sold. It was on the sidewalks where I found a remaining glimpse of hope, a whiff of humanity. People trying to escape the madness of the neglect of the old city and the government’s hostile policies. With no public services to speak of, people are left alone to fend for themselves and solve their own problems.
On one broken sidewalk where trash and cats comfortably rested undisturbed, I walked by Mahmoud the shoemaker, who for more than 60 years has worked in a dark, narrow shop, surrounded by old shoes and leather, carving out his own private space, a place he can call home. “Ministers and high government officials used to come to my shop,” he explained. “Now things are different, everything is going down,” he added.
A skinny stray dog walked with purpose to the street corner by the big electric box. Six or seven puppies suddenly emerged from nowhere and rushed to their mother, grabbing her nipples. She serenaded her puppies: time to eat.
On sidewalks, people quietly plant a tree; grow some flowers in front of their homes and shops; feed a stray dog or a cat out of the little they have left. I found myself walking in downtown Cairo, aimlessly trying to capture what has taken place here. I was alone, trying to shed the sorrows of the day. When you don’t care where you are going, you never get lost.
Cairo, a city that never sleeps, was quiet. After spending most of the night walking in the dark alleys, no particular place to go, nobody to speak with, I suddenly found myself passing by Tahrir Square. Only a few years ago, it had witnessed the most significant event in Egyptian history, when 18 glorious days of protest toppled a 30-year dictatorship, when millions of Egyptians went to the streets, took over Liberty Square and made it their own. The echo of their chanting still resonates in my head, filling the empty square.
The streetlights were tired and blurred, trash freely flying in the air, performing the last dance of the night, oblivious with no one to watch. The sidewalks finally rested after a long day of pedestrian abuse; stores finally locked their doors; cats and dogs ran back and forth across the streets.
Growing up in Egypt, walking aimlessly in the Cairo streets was therapeutic; it cleansed the soul. I crossed the empty square, reached the Nile, which runs through the heart of the city. The fresh air, the reflection of the stars on the river surface, tells a story of lost loves left behind on the riverbank.
A short distance away, in the dark, I spotted a street cart tucked away next to a damaged sidewalk, a pile of prickly pear cactus on top. Fresh, colorful and inviting, their piercing sharp needles seemed as if they were protecting themselves from late night intruders. The sleepy owner was not in a selling mood, lying down by the cart, next to him a sleepy dog, both oblivious to life around them.
I wasn’t sure if I should start a conversation. I slowly approached the cart and stood quietly looking at the prickly pears. Without uttering a word, the man got up and started peeling the fresh cactus with his bare hands, miraculously avoiding its sharp pricks. One by one, they started coming out of their shells, like naked newborns. He quietly handed them to me. Then the conversation, with a stranger.
I kept eating fresh cactus as his stories continued. Eventually I realized that my stomach was full and this feast must end. I tried in vain, telling him “Kefayah,” enough, but there was always one last story to tell, and one more cactus to peel. We both wanted to keep the evening alive, but he ran out of stories and my stomach couldn’t take any more cactus.
He quietly counted the peels. I paid and walked away, leaving my new friend alone, wondering if I would ever see him again.
Ahmed Tharwat, host and producer of the local Arab American TV show “BelAhdan with Ahmed,” writes for local and international publications. He blogs at Notes From America: www.Ahmediatv.com. Follow him on Twitter @ahmediaTV.