‘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 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.’