in which the drive-by political sociologist benefits from chance encounters with two of the excellent people of Shubra el-Khaima

It started off as one of those bad Cairo days. They happen.

The morning taxi driver’s meter mysteriously stopped working half-way to my destination, and he overcharged me, swearing at me when I was less than graceful about it. Then I arrived, after a 50 minute bus ride, at the American University [no longer] in Cairo, about which I will write soon. The gate security were very polite, but there was no permit on file for me to enter for my appointments. That took quite a few minutes of sitting around and phone calls to resolve, and I was late for my first meeting. There was no 2pm bus back to my part of town due to exams, but I was able to scramble onto the one bus running at that time, which dropped me some way down the metro line from anywhere I wanted to be. The metro worked fine, as it almost always does, but I was still running late. I checked in for my flight to Tunis, but the hostel’s printer would not produce my boarding card. An attempt to email it to a friend to be printed out didn’t work.

One of those days.

Then things began to look up.

I had to get another taxi to Zamalek to the office of my lovely friend Hind Wassef, co-founder of Diwan bookstore, who was going to save the day by printing the boarding pass and buying me coffee. Friends really are the only true wealth. Given the morning’s experience, I was not looking forward to the taxi ride, but I flagged down a big old Peugeot of the kind I knew wouldn’t even have a working meter. Payment would be a matter for me to estimate and the driver to accept or haggle about.

The driver complimented me on my Arabic, asked where I was from, and then asked for my honest opinion of Egypt. I said something non-commital about the times being confusing, but the country being fundamentally a wonderful place. I was in no mood for controversy. He responded with what turned out to be a quite detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the revolutionary process so far, proclaiming himself tired of all the ‘talkers’, whether they be revolutionaries, parliamentarians, or the military junta, but basically optimistic. I asked in turn where he was from, and he proudly told me he was from Shubra al Khaima.

Interlude: a few words on Shubra al Khaima

Flickr - Bakar 88 - Light Rain in Cairo, Egypt

By Andrew A. Shenouda from Cairo, Egypt (Light Rain in Cairo, Egypt) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Shubra al Khaima is a working class district of greater Cairo, swollen in recent years by mass immigration from rural areas. When it is discussed on television talk shows, as my new friend pointed out, it is always in terms of the `ashwaaiyaat, literally the ‘random’ or unplanned areas, i.e. slums or favelas. It is the crowded home of large numbers of Cairo’s working poor and unemployed. Government services are feeble to non-existent, and social services often fall to the charitable activities of religious organizations including the Muslim Brotherhood.

The driver dismissed talk-show characterizations of his home, saying he always felt completely safe there, at any time of day or night. People knew their neighbours and looked out for each other. It was a good place.

We discussed the political situation some more. He expressed a strong preference for a clear separation of powers. The judiciary were good, clean, and just, ‘best in the world’ but he had much less faith in the other branches of government. Parliamentarians were like kindergarteners at the moment, although they would grow up. Ministers should not also be members of the People’s Assembly – the latter had an important job to do in monitoring the former. He hoped to see Ahmed Shafik (Prime Minister for a while after the fall of Mubarak) become President, since Egypt needed a tough, practical man in charge.

The conversation was pleasant, fast-paced, sophisticated. The ride more than made up for the morning’s bad experience. I gladly overpaid, this time, without being prompted.

On my way back to the hostel later I stopped in at the excellent Nomad gallery, a favorite from my time living in Cairo 1994-9. The manager on duty was eager to talk politics as well, with no prompting from me, once he found out I could speak Arabic. Everyone in Egypt is talking politics, a stark difference between now and the stagnant 1990’s. The People’s Assembly was a mess, but they would learn. If they didn’t, a new one would be elected in due course, or “there is always Tahrir” – i.e. the population knows they can keep the rulers in line through public expressions of dissent. He would prefer a president from the middle class, who knows both the wealthy elite and the poor and can deal with everyone. A priority was someone who would not stir sectarian tension, but deal equitably with all citizens, and someone intelligent. He also turned out to be from Shubra al Khaima, and confirmed the taxi driver’s account of an area with strong social solidarity and mutual responsibility.

This was another satisfying conversation of the kind it is quite easy to come by in revolutionary Egypt. These are ordinary citizens, thoughtful about the political changes underway, concerned about the economy, hoping for the early return of tourists in large numbers, but upbeat about their country and its future. Come back in two years, said the manager, and you’ll see how well we’re doing.

I think I’d like to.

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