Category Archives: Cairo

American University [no longer] in Cairo

As I mentioned in a previous post, my last full day in Cairo included meetings at the American University in Cairo (AUC). The University still owns its original downtown campus, just off Tahrir Square. That campus is quite beautiful, with architecture drawing on local Islamicate and other influences. The Mugamma3 (‘Complex’), the neo-Stalinist government behemoth nearby that overshadows Tahrir itself, looks even more alien when seen next to the AUC’s more harmonious buildings.

Recently, AUC has moved. It is no longer in Cairo.

AUC, new campus

As part of the Mubarak regime’s planned expansion of Cairo into the desert, in commercial and residential developments that have little to do with the lives of the vast majority of Cairenes, AUC moved out of town to a new campus. Before I visited, various people said to me things like “you might as well be in Dubai” or “you might as well be in Arizona” when speaking of the architecture. When speaking of the 50-60 minute bus ride, they tended to say things more like “you might as well be in Libya”.

AUC library, new campus

So far as I can tell, the new campus is quite functional. The offices I saw were fit for purpose. The library is of a suitable size and seemed to have plenty of natural light. There are paved areas and green areas for sitting and talking, which is really the main point of a university, after all. None of the buildings is too tall. None that I saw was terribly ugly and some were quite elegant.

It’s more or less inoffensive. Architecturally it could be, indeed, in Arizona or Dubai. It doesn’t much speak of Cairo, but has the aura rather of a franchise. It is a node in the network that is globalized higher education. Out there among the gated suburbs and half-finished high-rise commercial buildings, it fits in rather more comfortably than one might wish of a university.

And that’s a real shame, because there is talent on that campus, among faculty and students, and Cairo could benefit from having that talent integrated into the heart of the city. Not halfway to Libya.

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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 (], 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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Shway Shway, Chipsy Gayy!


You can't have any. I ate them all.

On the whole, Egyptian food is not as exciting as, say, Levantine food. In Turkey, one can eat something new every day and much of it will be delicious. There are good Egyptian dishes, of course, and very palatable (and cheap) street food. But in general it does not compete with the best national cuisines. (Feel free to argue in the comments – I’d love to read a passionate defence of Maloukhiya, although I doubt it will persuade me to actually enjoy the stuff).

But the Chipsy company has come up with a work of staggering genius. Chilli pepper and lemon flavoured potato crisps (or chips, for those of the US persuasion). They should start exporting these everywhere immediately. As I tweeted the first time I tasted them:

World domination in a foil package.

Get some if you can. You can’t have mine.

The title of this post is a riff on a famous old Schweppes commercial – approximately, “hold on, Chipsy’s coming”

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Hostel Life

I am staying in a hostel in downtown Cairo. It is reasonably priced, basic, clean, perfect for my needs.

I am, of course, among the oldest people staying here. The ever-shifting population is mostly made up of backpackers, who tend to be in their 20s. I was at a similar age last time I spent time in hostels anywhere. It’s pretty comfortable for me, though. Perhaps I am young at heart. Perhaps I am immature.

Interactions with my fellow hostel residents and the young staff provide interesting seasoning for my daily meals of discussions with old friends and new contacts among Cairo’s permanent population.

Some are irritating, of course. I marvel at the 18-year-old Canadian woman’s extraordinarily naive observations broadcast at high volume. Somehow she has managed to travel here through the Balkans and Turkey, often hitchhiking. She is planning on Iran next. I suspect she is learning next to nothing from her experiences, beyond a dislike of how men behave in patriarchal Mediterranean societies.

A group of art students from Braunschweig, where I once did some research on textbooks, led me to an art gallery and the promise of productive discussions there. Serendipity.

A Syrian student has arrived. This is a good time to have a Syrian to talk to.

John, the British computer programmer, leaves tomorrow, which will make me the sole Brit again. Until a new one turns up.

I dislike the sterility of big hotels. They are isolating, alienating spaces, without community. The hostel is more like a caravanserai, or a Chaucerian inn, perhaps. It would be possible to keep oneself to oneself, but where’s the fun in that? Travel is all about the people.

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Syria, seen from Cairo

Among the most striking things I have witnessed in the past few days was the commemoration, on 2 February, of the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Hama, Syria, of an estimated 10,000 Syrian citizens by forces of the Hafez al-Assad regime. Syrians gathered at the Syrian Revolution Tent in Tahrir near the Arab League building (from which besuited gentlemen observed the proceedings from time to time). They sang and chanted, danced, and held a mock funeral, carrying a young man on their shoulders.

Last night as I returned from a meal, drinks and long discussion with poets in Zamalek, I heard the first news of a new massacre in Homs. At that time the number of deaths was reported as at least 200, although since then it has become clear that their is some doubt as to the number.

There is no doubt at all about the strength of the reaction. Syrian embassies have been picketed and in some cases, including Cairo, stormed by protesters. Tunisia has expelled the Syrian ambassador. The UNSC met to debate a resolution supporting the Arab League’s initiative to resolve the crisis, essentially to provide a way for Bashar al-Assad to leave power in a managed transition. The veto of that resolution by China and Russia will no doubt inflame anger even more.

I know Syria somewhat, have loved my visits there, and can completely understand why most of its citizens would take significant risks to get out from under one the world’s most repressive regimes. But I’m not going to pretend to be an expert who can predict what is going to happen now. I’m not sure anybody can really know how things will go from here.

But I fear that the astonishing bravery of Syrians in standing up to a regime they surely do not deserve will continue to be tested for many months to come.

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Night City

At 1.30 in the morning, Cairo streets are quiet enough that traffic can actually speed. It makes them marginally more dangerous. The city snoozes, but like New York, it never sleeps.

At the all-night falafel joint, the television was tuned to a station following the Ahly team bus back from Port Said. The mood was subdued.

In the bar in Zamalek where I met an old friend this evening, all the discussion was about why the killings at Port Said had been planned. No-one really questioned that they were planned.

John, the fellow guest mentioned in my last post, made it back fine from the stadium where the Zamalek match was called off at half time. The mood there was apparently very strange. When they announced the cancellation, people did not leave the stadium. It was only when more riot police/central security forces arrived that families with children (and John) started to make their way out. At that moment the very suspicious fire flared up at the top of the stadium, with no apparent cause.

Ramses railway station is apparently full of angry Ahly fans, back from Port Said. A march on the Interior Ministry is planned for tomorrow. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF – ruling junta) has announced three days of mourning. No-one seems quite sure what that means in practice. On Twitter the (reasonable) question is why this didn’t happen after the deaths at Maspero, for example.

Tonight, Egypt sleeps uneasily.


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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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