I left Egypt 40 years ago, finished my school, my military and my money, still no job, besides I haven’t found the women, that our lover guru, and singer Abed el Halim Hafez told us about; with her silky hair , with name like Angie. . 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, this was one of my visit after the Jan 25th revolution, it wasn’t easy after all these years. I was warned about political climates in Egypt, marshal law, forced disappearance, political prisoners, and treatment of journalists and media.
However, through all these years I have missed out on lots of families funerals. Before I left to avoid any suspicion , I needed to be on an EVR, status (Egypt Visit Ready), first, I suspended my social media, facebook, Twitter, Instagram, linkedIn , got another phone, another fbook/twitter account, dull one with a few political posts, more puppies, , food, traveling and Pyramids, , unfriended my political activists , and visited a few porno sites for a good measurements, The flight was long and tedious, nine hours layover at Paris Airport, most boring airport I have been. on same flight boarding a somali family of ten, great conversation and a father who never missed a prayer on the flight, After 24 hours flight , Landing at Egyptian airport and going through security with lots of trepidations and concerns. ” reason of your visit? ” the security officer asked, My brother passed away,. “I’m so sorry, Welcome home enjoy your stay” replied. once I got out of the airport, a young policeman with his new uniform and slowly approached me, his raw demeanor was of a villager lost in a big city. Ahlan Ahlan and welcome home Sir, he said with a childresh smile. I was worried not ready for a police confrontation. I setdown on a bench waiting for my ride. The young policeman came and set besides me and started a friendly conversation! ..coming from abroad, and how is your flight. he asked. How is the security here officer? I joked! It is Tamam!! (Ok) don’t worry Sir! he casually replied! ..as I was about to leave for my ride, the policeman looked at me and said are you leaving, we aren’t done yet!! his face said it all, “he needed a “Bakshish” a gratuity! ” my ride told me. I guess haven’t sharpen my egyptian satellites and intricacies. I tried to pull some Egyptian money that I keep all these years” He whispered not right here Ya Baih (sir), point to a nearby behind a fence for the friendly transaction! Driving from the airport through Cairo late at night after being away for some times, the fresh air, rarity, of empty street, blocked by billboards of international soccer player Mohamed Saleh, and Phones companies ads covering the landscape. different aesthetics and different logic all arounds you! police security everywhere, checkpoints; people have to surrender their private phones and passwords, monitor their social media life, police surrounding churches outside and Mukhabarats (private securities) embedded inside mosques.
Post revolution and under military rule, elsis is brining the worst of Egypt and Egyptians. People living in a social bobble protecting themselves from their harsh reality. Cab drivers aren’t as cheerful and eager to share their stories. GPS and Uber are killing the conversation. Egyptians who are known for giving their unsolicited opinions on wimps, and when you ask theme for direction you got an opinion, all disappeared under grime faces and suspicious looks, people in the street, escaping in their smartphones taking a refuge in virtual realities, making Egyptian street social life and spontaneity are dead. People lost their ability to trust each other, everyone is a suspect. Street noise, crowds, pollution and smogs suffocating the 1000 minarets of the old city , Cairo. Stray dogs and cats jostling competing with people and cars for a space. Shop Owners are uninterested, you don’t know if they’re open or close, losing hope of any transaction. As if the polluted air wasn’t enough, it seems that everybody in Egypt smokes, shopkeepers, traffic police, teachers in school, people on buses, waiters/es in restaurants and even doctors in hospitals, all smoke.
There are about 20 million people live in Cairo, as many mosques as cafes, they call for prayer every few hours, however, most people taking refuge on cafes, sipping tea, watching football games or playing backgammons, avoiding casual conversations and ignoring street peddlers calling for their products, vegetables sellers outlines the beauty of his Tomatoes, Potatoes, and watermelons. Street peddlers, their carts loaded with big stacks of watermelons, will go around chanting their admiring jingles describing the beauty of their watermelons. ‘Hamar we Halawah’ reddish and sweetness, 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. Now they have trucks, and megaphones. Egypt Sidewalks have always been vibrant places that reflect old culture and commerce, a place where you find people selling books, cheap cloth, Gums, Napkins, posters, watches, anything and everything are , a place where mummies and Coca Cola , (modern mummies) were once sold. The sidewalk has its own vibrant life and culture of its own, which millions of Egyptians use as an extended landscape of their own homes, a refuge from their own harsh realities. Watching women dressed in their traditional clothes and hijab buying lingerie in public is a confusing cultural experience for the untrained eye. On a sidewalk lingerie shop in a east of the city of Cairo. Carts were covered with colorful and fashionable Chinese-made bras and scanty underwear. Ironically, this lingerie sidewalk shop, like virtually all of them, was run by a man; women don’t sell underwear in public, but they buy them almost exclusively. Buying lingerie in public is a new phenomenon, a self-expression and a social experience. Naturally, flirting is a big part of the lingerie-buying bargaining game, where sexual euphemisms are not a social taboo. The lingerie carts were everywhere, surrounded by a few women in their long garments and hijab, sorting and holding up lingerie in their hands, confidently checking sizes and style, oblivious to the piercing public eyes since there is no privacy, no dressing room on the sidewalk lingerie shops. In this case, the salesman was very cool, respectable and helpful conversing with a slightly full-figured woman as he casually handed her a thong, as if he was handing her a Kleenex . “That is too small,” she shrugged. “Not at all. It is your size,” he assured her, as if he knew something! She smiled, steered his hands away, and continued her quest for the right-fitting undergarment. I approached the lingerie cart and curiously asked the charming salesman about his secret. “How do you know the sizes of your customers?” I queried. “I look at her waist and shoulder,” he replied in all sincerity as he demonstrated his technique on his own body. Contemporary lingerie can be whatever the modern woman wants it to be, and women have more choices now than at any time in history. The Western woman may still buy her undergarments in secret from Victoria’s Secret in a private moment inside a store in a mall, but at the sidewalk lingerie market in Egypt, the confident Egyptian woman is buying her lingerie under the gaze of public eye, which empowers and gives her the freedom to express her sexuality in such a conservative culture. At the sidewalk lingerie market, there was lingerie for all situations and intentions, including lingerie that was strapless and backless. Also offered were the sexy thong, teddy, as well as a plethora of everyday bras and panties. Egypt, with all its political turmoil and anxiety, now offers the woman an escape into a lingerie shopping journey to reward herself and feel good about her own body, something which has been ignored for a long time. Now in the era of the new Prince Charming Al Sisi, the Alpha man, the conqueror of the Muslim Brotherhood invaders, women may not be able to protest in the street, but at least they can escape freely in a lingerie magic world . Egyptian women who burned their hijabs in Tahrir square, to express their feminist MeToo moment, need to burn their bras first to liberate themselves from sexism and subjugation of women bodies.
In Egypt sidewalks where I found a glimpse of hope and a sniff of egyptian spirit. People trying to escape the madness and the neglect of the cold city, trying to hide from government hostile attitude draconian policies. Under el sisi’s iron fist military rule, a military man who believes that biggest problem Egypt is facing now, is the old capital Cairo, and Egyptians themselves.; building a utopia remote new capital that costs billions of dollars where nobody lives or can afford to live there, Building egomaniac projects for his own vanity, major bridges to nowhere, huge gigantic palaces for his wife and his ego, where offering no public services to speak of, people are left alone to fend for themselves, solving their own problems. Street Sidewalk where I live, police checkpoints are blocking it on both sides, no traffic going through, armed car guarding the street from imaginary intruders, the street inhabited by high security buildings, Parliament, Prime ministry, and the Turkish embassy, where policemen with machine guns are sitting ignored lost in street landscape.
You can find trash and cats comfortably resting undisturbed, walked by Mahmoud shoe repair shop, a dark old man with white beard and wrinkled face that showed his age, for more than 60th years is working in a dark narrow small room, Mahmoud sitting behind a 70 year old machine, surrounded by old shoes, and the smell old leathers, carving his own private space, a place he can call home. “Im the only one who left who can fix this machine” he proudly explained. Tell me about this street and changes you have seen through all these years, I asked him “The Sidewalk was six , seven meters wide, we used to play soccer on it, but they cut down all trees and make it narrower to widen the street” he explained in a sad voice. “ ministers and high government official used to come to My shop” he explained, now things are different, everything went downhill after the revolution. People don’t care anymore, no class”. he added. A stray skinny dog walking poise to get to the street coroner by the big electric box, ignoring the noise street, the dog stopped where five or sex poppies came from nowhere and rushed to their mother, grabbing her nipples, the dog serenaded her body, time to eat. Visiting Zainab Khatoon Cafe in old Cairo, Huessein province, located at the end of a dark crooked narrow alley that is lost in rich old history and memories, Looking at the faded graffitis on walls, washed away by time and excessive peeing. The cafe is sitting in middle of a courtyard surrounded by a 700 year old building with Mashrabiah (windows) looking over the court. where a servant turned princes, by name Zeinab Khatoun once lived, a cafe that reflects diversity where old and new, family and lovers, harmoniously coexist, you can see Arabs, gulf visitors in new BMW, , with their traditional garbs, women with burka mixing with women with short skirts, Nike T-shirts, people from all walks of life, enjoying themselves in a rare moment of magic, smoking hookahs, drinking, eating and listening to loud music, live bands goes by around playing by each table, don’t leave until they get their gratuities. I met owner Esam Khatoon,a young chunky man full of energy. I asked him about his relation with the cafe, “I used to work as “Shayal” a man who carry heavylift around . I can’t read or write, so I made this brochure telling the story, for people to read” he casually said , he ordered us some drinks and hookah, we talked, laughed the Khatoon moment.
On sidewalks where people quietly planting a tree, growing some flowers in front of their, homes, shops or buildings, feeding a stray dog or a cat with little left they had. A late night I found myself walking in downtown Cairo, I was alone, enjoying my anonymity in the big city, aimlessly trying to lose the sorrows of the day. When you don’t care where you are going you never get lost. In Cairo, the city that never sleeps was nervously quite, after spending the most of the night walking in the dark allies, no particular place to go, nobody to speak with, suddenly found myself passing by Tahrir square, that a few years ago, had just witnessed the most significant event in Egyptian history, This revolution for dignity started from this square, Tahrir Square (Liberation Square). The famous square is a major public focal point in Downtown Cairo. It combines all the contrasts in Egypt, from the Egyptian Museum, to the Hilton Hotel, and is surrounded by elegant buildings that were modelled as the Paris of the Nile. It also has the biggest public bus station, where thousands of Egyptians congregate every day to go to work or return home. It gained its prominence in the 19th century when another Mubarak – Ali Pasha – was commissioned by Egypt’s ruler at the time. Ismail Pasha, and charged with remodelling Cairo. And so it was named Ismailia Square. The square’s name was changed to Midan Tahrir (or Liberation Square) after the first Egyptian Revolution of 1952.
18 glorious days toppled a 30-year of dictatorship, where millions of Egyptians went to the streets, took over liberty Square and made it their own. The echo of their chanting still resonate in my head filling the empty square. Standing alone surrounded by those old architect buildings, for years have been watching over the famous Tahrir square, that has been an eyewitness of major events and turmoil for generations. Now, trapped by huge security concrete walls, blocking views and access to traffics to AMerican Embassy, it isn’t just an assault on people’s right of movement, but it is an assault on public aesthetic. The streetlights were tired and blurred, trash freely flying in the air, performing the last dance of the night, oblivion with no one to watch or to admire their dance.The sidewalk finally rested after a long day of pedestrian’s abuse, stores finally retired their doors are locked shut, cats and dogs playfully running across the street unafraid. Growing out in Egypt, as a youngster, walking aimlessly in Cairo street was therapeutic, it cleanses your soul. I crossed the empty square, reached the Nile river that cut through the heart of the city. The fresh air, the reflection of the stars on the river surface, telling story of broken love tails, left behind on the river bank –Quorneesh-.In Egypt wherever happened on Nile Qurnaish stay on the Qurnaish!! .
A short distance, in the dark I spotted a street cart by an old tree, tucked away next to a damaged sidewalk, a pile of prickly pear Cactus –Teen Shooky- on the top of the cart, fresh, colorful, and inviting, its piercing sharp pricks seems as if they are 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, wondering if it is worth to wake him up. I slowly approached the cart and stood quietly looking at the fresh prickly pears, without uttering a word, or ask of him anything, the man got up and started, peeling the fresh cactus with his bare hands, one by one started coming out of its shill, like a naked newborn. He quietly handed them to me, miraculously avoiding its sharp pricks, then the conversation, with a stranger. I kept eating as many fresh Cactus as his stories lasted. His families, his daughter first year in college, and of course some Egyptian bragging rights… , Egyptian soccer player, Mohamed Salah glorious goals in Liverpool, and “My wife makes the best Molokhia in Masr” the conversation went well avoiding politics and Egypt current state of affairs … Eventually I realized that my stomach is full and this eating fest must end. I tried in vain telling him “Kefayah” enough, then there was always one last story to tell, and one Cactus to peel . You want to keep the evening alive, but he ran out of stories and my stomach ran out of room, for any more Cactus! He quietly counted the peels that indicate how many cactus I ate. I paid him well enough to stopped counting, and walked away leaving my new friend alone, wondering if I will ever see him again.
Host and producer of an Arab American TV show in the state, BelAhdan with Ahmed.. writes for local and international publications; StarTribune, Slate, Salon, appears on Public Radio, and PBS TV, FoxNew, a public speaker trying to tell hyphenated Americans stories… working on my film documentary “The Coptic Grave”..
Ahmed Tharwat …. in the middle
Ahmed Tharwat Im a host and producer of the Arab-Muslim Americans TV show BelAhdan with Ahmed (with open arms), a weekly TV show that airs on public TV Mondays at 1030PM. As a regular speaker and contributor on Public Radio show All Thing Considered, I have shared my unique view of world and American political and social events. As a regular contributor to StarTribune, the Pioneer Press, and Twin City Planet , also he has written to national and international magazines, such Slate, Diversify Inc and Al Jazeera English. I won the Pioneer Press community columnist award in 2000. In all my work, I have been Trying to bring Arab/Muslims to mainstream Americans..
. I believe that when it comes to politics
“Nobody has a monopoly on stupidity”
In The Middle ...
Ahmed Tharwat/ Host
BelAhdan TV show
Freelance Writer, Public Speaker, International Media Fixer