Monthly Archives: January 2012

Socratic Meanderings

Walking and talking are great companions in learning. Socrates did a lot of wandering around, we understand, and he was reasonably smart, so there may be something in it.

On Sunday one of my discussions was entirely peripatetic, walking the hallways and stairways of a vast newspaper building with a young reporter. He was a philosophy student previously, so he also appreciated the Socratic course the conversation took.

On Monday, after a two hour sit-down interview with an old friend, I walked with another as he headed out on an assignment to cover a cultural event. A small and early khamaseen earlier in the day had done its usual trick of making the traffic even crazier than usual – I swear that fine dust blows into people’s brains just as effectively as it does into eyes, lungs, computers and underwear. So he decided against a taxi, and we retraced one of my earlier walking routes in the opposite direction, heading along 26th July Street towards Maspiro and over the bridge to Zamalek. Walking and talking (and navigating the crazy mess that is a busy Cairo street). Something about the movement helps the brain work, even if full of dust. A stimulating if gloomy conversation.

Among the fruits of the past couple of days’ talking and thinking, a brief definition that I posted on Twitter:

Self-censorship is a state of mind in which you don’t state your mind if the state would mind

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Die Manniken

Heard on my way home today, at 9.50pm, one street vendor to his neighbour who was making to pack up his wares: “It’s still early. Stay a while”

Late night shopping here is an all-family activity, babies through grannies, often. Kids are everywhere. Young children, and not just teenagers, are generally more visible in Egyptian public space than in the west at all times of day and night. Which may be part of why, it seems to me, more shop windows here have this kind of display, all kids, than most western high street shops of my experience do.

Why are they staring at me?

No out-of-sight out-of-mind for Egyptian children. Which is good. But some of the kid dummies are creepy. Windows with 20 copies of the same little girl model bring on all kinds of shivers, full on creepy-doll effect.

Creepy Dolls

Someone more qualified than I to do such a study should analyze downtown Cairo’s shop window displays. I mostly pay attention in case any of the many, many plastic people start to move, whether heading for the club, Kraftwerk-style, or bent on exterminating humans, Autons-style.

One of these is not like the others

Some of these are not like the others

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Public Radio International picked up one of my photos of the #Jan25 anniversary in #Tahrir for the online version of their story here.

The flickr set from which they took it is here.

Small dose of fame

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So many words have already been said and written about this place and these events: saying more risks banality. But I will keep trying to find good words for what it has been like to be here on the first anniversary of the start of a revolution that is still underway. Until I find those words, I offer some images from 25th and 27th January in and around Tahrir.

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Crosstown Traffic


Yesterday, Cairo traffic was its usual crazy self. The occasional demo had to swim through the middle of it.

Today, the streets are almost empty. It’s a holiday, but also a day of uncertainty. Hundreds of thousands are already in Tahrir or on their way there. Many more are staying home.

I’m going for a stroll to find some lunch.

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Meetings, chance and otherwise

Distance walked: Approx 6.5 km

Blisters: still 2

Sore feet: still 2

Time in meetings: 3.5 hours

Time walking to/from/between meetings: 1.5 hours

Bellies of Beasts entered: 2

Demonstrations encountered by chance: 2

Parliaments opened: 1

Well, I didn’t open the parliament, but it somehow managed to get itself opened without my help. You can tell it’s a real parliament with some power, unlike any in the past 60 years, because: 1) Egyptians actually watched the opening on television, in cafes and offices, interested for a change; 2) newly sworn-in MPs yelled at each other, quite a lot; 3) many 100s of people marched from at least four different meeting points toward parliament demanding that it do something about real issues.

I crossed the path of one such march en route to a meeting at the British Embassy:

Marching towards the People's Assembly

I passed another demo later on my way back from a meeting at Al-Ahram, home of Egypt’s largest official (government financed) newspaper. There were loud chants against the regime and the mushir (Field Marshall Tantawi).

So, about those beasts and their bellies. I didn’t really realize until I left diplomacy what being part of a large bureaucracy had been doing to my brain. I had some inkling, but getting out and doing something new, reading a lot of challenging new material, writing more creatively, all of this woke up parts of my mind that had been under-used or repressed. I don’t think that’s everybody’s experience, or inevitable, but that’s what it did to me. So I am wary of such organizations these days. Of course, being a visitor is a very different experience. I had interesting, productive meetings at the Embassy and at Al-Ahram’s Center for Political & Strategic Studies. A couple of my former colleagues among the Egyptian staff members of the Embassy remembered me, telling me I hadn’t changed much.

Well, they couldn’t see my post-bureaucratic brain.

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Walkin’ Blues

Due to budgetary constraints (i.e. I have no money) and a wish to get rapidly reacquainted with the city from street level, I’ve been walking a lot. There were places I liked to walk when I lived here, but it’s not really a walking city the way, say, Amsterdam is. Or even Philadelphia or Istanbul. Walking here means walking in the road 80% of the time, for instance. So when I had to get around for work, I drove myself or used taxis or Embassy vehicles. This last made life very efficient, since having an Embassy driver meant you didn’t have to learn how to get to places. On the other hand, it meant you didn’t have to learn how to get places. I should have walked around more than I did.

Courtesy of Google Maps, I estimate the following for the last two days, Saturday and Sunday:

Distance walked (approx): 21km

Nile crossings: 3 (1 under, 1 over, and two half crossings)

Districts visited, in approximate order: Downtown, Maspero, Zamalek, Gezira, Downtown, Doqqi, Mohandiseen, Agouza, Zamalek, Maspero, Shoubra (edges of), Downtown. All on foot, apart from one metro ride from Naguib to Bahooth.

Blisters: two

Sore feet: two

Freaky stares experienced from creepy shop-window child mannequins: too many

These past two days, in contrast to my wanderings through Sayyida Zaynab, took me in to the territory of the 1%. Zamalek is the zone of over-priced everything – $4 coffee in a country where so many live on under $2 a day. It is also now home to a Harley Davidson dealership (above). Sunday’s stroll through Dokki and Mohandiseen, more 5% than 1% districts, perhaps, revealed another such dealership on Arab League St. Among the vehicles parked in Zamalek was a bright yellow Hummer. Other popular U.S. exports visible at street level include, of course, fast food. The chains here charge more than most Cairenes can afford, so they have a bizarre class location very different from their role in US society. Almost chic.

It’s a whole other country on the East bank side of 26th July St, where I walked back through the evening crowds. In Zamalek, 26th July boasts long-established Europeanized eateries like Simonds and Maison Thomas, as well as newcomers selling the aforementioned overpriced coffee etc. Once it crosses from the island to the Cairo mainland, it runs between Maspero – home to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Egyptian TV building, scene of the massacre of mainly Coptic demonstrators last year, as well as workshops and modest housing – and Shoubra, one of Cairo’s poorest and most crowded areas, and a stronghold of the Salafists. The worlds of Zamalek and Shoubra don’t seem to overlap much.

It’s still freakishly cold here. Happily, the world contains lentil soup and kofta sandwiches.

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Shock of the Old

I left Cairo in early 1999 and have not been able to come back since. The nearest I got was south Sinai last summer as part of Across Borders. So I was excited and a little apprehensive to be arriving on the late flight from London and driving downtown in the early hours of yesterday morning.

I am not sure precisely what I expected, but I know it included change. Not simply driven by closely following the events of the past year, but also by the passage of 13 years and some significant changes I had heard about – AUC moving out of town, the arrival of British supermarket chains, an ever-increasing wealth gap leading to ever-fancier cars on the road, mobile telephones everywhere.

In fact, arriving at Cairo International most resembled my first ever arrival here, in 1991. Same basic procedures, same contained chaos, same sounds and smells. The drive downtown was paradoxically comforting in its excessive speed and near misses. The tang of pollution quickly settled in at the back of my throat.

It felt like home.

I spent my first day here doing logistical things – changing money, getting a local SIM for the phone – and walking around. Getting lost on foot is my preferred way of getting into a new city, or reacquainted with an old friend like Cairo. I walked a very rambling route down to Sayyida Zeinab (in a ‘popular’ i.e. poorer district) – mosques are often the best landmarks, and I love to see them. Then I got the Metro back to Tahrir.

It was unsettling to be in Tahrir, after watching it so intensely from afar this time last year. The burned-out NDP building and the walls the military threw up between Tahrir and the parliament etc are obvious physical signs of that history. Otherwise, the most notable change for me was the former Nile Hilton now under wraps as Arab Contractors and others change it into a Ritz-Carlton, slowly. But mostly it felt, to evoke Talking Heads, same as it ever was. The souvenir sellers do a nice line in revolutionary t-shirts, but the Nefertiti heads are still there.

Window shoppers were out in force last night and this evening on Talaat Harb and the other shopping streets of downtown. The street vendors seemed to be doing more business than the shops, which also looked very similar to how I remember them in the 1990s, down to the adventurous and uncomfortable-looking underwear and nightwear for women which make so many of those downtown shop windows interestingly colourful with just an edge of seedy. Shops staying open late could be a sign of economic health. But most seemed to be overstaffed with bored and underemployed young men and women. Same as it ever was, on the surface.

Then this evening I saw a small demonstration march up and down Talaat Harb. Few of the shoppers paid much attention as it passed in either direction. And here was a big difference. One might be disheartened that the vanguard were not appearing to attract much active support from the downtown crowds this close to the anniversary of the revolution. But the very ordinariness of citizens protesting and the lack of police interest in a group holding up the traffic with revolutionary slogans can be taken as good signs.

In the 1990s there were next to no real politics. Street politics, certainly, met swift repression. The openings made since then by strikers, by the Kefaya and April 6th movements, by football supporters (‘ultras’), and then ultimately by the masses of all of them together last year, have made it unremarkable that citizens who have something to say about how the country is run get out there in public space and do it. That is remarkable.

I spent a few minutes at Tahrir this evening (after a bowl of koshary with lots of hot sauce to keep out the cold – yes, Cairo is cold this January). There was a stage with musicians, a decent-size crowd of all ages, general good spirits. A separate, smaller crowd was listening to speeches. The square was definitely a public space. That’s revolutionary.

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Observations from my travels

New year, new travels, new blog.

This will be a place to record observations of what I notice day-to-day in my travels in Egypt & Tunisia in spring 2012. It may continue after that, it may not.

This will not be a place for deep, worked-out political analysis. But there will no doubt be the odd act of drive-by explanation of the Tom Friedman type (in which a conversation with a taxi driver explains the direction of change of the GINI coefficient in country x over the past 20 years). If so, forgive me – it’s sometimes too tempting to resist.

Otherwise, this is mainly a repository for story, anecdote, colour. A field journal of a kind, then. I hope you find something worth reading.

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