Catherine Somzé returna to Tahir Square to enjoy Egypt after the people's revolution
I’m half Egyptian and for the last couple of years I have spent at least a month each summer in Cairo, learning classical Arabic and discovering my biological father’s cultural heritage. With between 15 and 20 million inhabitants throughout the total urban area, Cairo is a country within a country, but over the years I’ve got to know certain parts of the city intimately. I’ve done the tourist things just for the sake of it, I’ve met a few distant relatives and my Arabic is ever so slowly improving.
Throughout the Tahrir Square revolution last winter and the climactic moment when President Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, I watched the extraordinary events that shook Egypt from my home in Amsterdam with obsessive interest.
I tracked every tweet and spent hours on YouTube watching the images that are now a part of history. I couldn’t wait for my four-week summer holiday to finally come around again so I could experience it in person.
But how different is Egypt since the revolution? And would it be safe and pleasant for a woman to travel alone now that the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group, is likely to win the upcoming elections? Most of my friends had stopped being supportive about my plans to go to Cairo, and I received a concerned phone call from my mother who felt it would be a very bad idea. ‘You are everything Muslim extremists hate,’ she pleaded with me, ‘a liberated, economically independent woman.’
She pictured me facing a video camera holding a newspaper up to show the date. Judging by the many empty seats on my flight over, the city wasn’t exactly the favourite travel destination of Europeans this year. However my mixed feelings about the trip vanished the instant I arrived at Cairo airport.
Mohammed, a taxi driver (with only a few teeth) who brought me downtown, was all (toothless) smiles – perhaps because I had agreed to pay him EGP 90 [Dhs55]. The taxi fee was almost double what the 20km ride cost the last time I was here, but I was happy to give it to him as I’ve heard that food prices have increased dramatically over the past year – one of the main reasons behind the revolution. It didn’t take him long to ask me whether I ‘liked’ the revolution or not, and when I told him I supported the people of Egypt, he looked at me with what appeared to be intense pride.
As I arrived at the hotel where I was planning on staying for the month, Hostel Brothers (34 Talaat Harb St, www.hostelbrothers.com, +202 579 6946), I was surprised to find it almost empty. It’s situated in one of the downtown area’s most famous 19th-century buildings, made famous by anti-Mubarak author Alaa Al Aswany with his best-selling 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building. And despite its charming balconies above the busy commercial street Talaat Harb and its very affordable rates (from EGP 50 – about Dhs30 – per night, including breakfast), it seems to be particularly unpopular this year because of its proximity to Tahrir Square. Looking out the window of my clean and simple room, everything seemed to be business-as-usual on Talaat Harb, where plenty of people appeared to be having a shopping spree. I noticed that fewer women were wearing the Niqab (the black dress that covers the whole body, including the face, that often goes with matching gloves and socks), which had gained increasing popularity since my first visit to Egypt eight years ago.
My immediate desire was to head straight to Tahrir, right around the corner. A smiling woman wearing a head-scarf looked at my passport at the improvised security-check station organised by civilians around the square. Different grassroots organisations and political parties had set up tents and stages where speakers were giving passionate speeches. Men and women were selling revolution-inspired items such as wristbands, packs of tissues and T-shirts, all displaying the Egyptian flag. Several street vendors also offered to paint the Egyptian flag on my cheek for a pound (about 60 fils). Families with young children and couples in their best Friday dress were walking around in curious amazement.
A band started playing traditional Egyptian music and I stood there for a while, talking to people and eating corn on the cob that I had bought from one of the vendors for a pound (everything on Tahrir seemed to cost a pound). Boys would come up to me and ask whether I’d pose in a photo with them, others insisted I buy their revolution-inspired merchandise, which are the tourist trinkets that have apparently replaced glittering pyramids and plastic Sphinxes.
My next stop in the neighbourhood was Townhouse Gallery (Hussein El Me’mar Pasha St, off Mahmoud Basyouni St, www.thetownhousegallery.com, +202 2576 8086), one of the only ‘serious’ contemporary art centres in the whole of Cairo, by Western standards that is. I had discovered it through a Dutch artist friend who’d been invited to do an artist residency there. William Wells, its founder and director, was looking at graffiti on the gallery’s façade, depicting a young woman’s face. ‘Before the revolution, graffiti just as freedom of speech in public space would never have been possible,’ he said. ‘This is definitely something new, people are claiming the streets back.’
It’s clear everywhere that artists haven’t dallied in responding to the change. After an hour spent talking to Wells, I headed towards Diwan in Zamalek (159, 26th of July St, www.diwanegypt.com, +202 2735 1125), my favourite bookshop in Cairo, situated in Zamalek, a neighbourhood close to downtown that is home to most of the international embassies and as such is a popular expat hang-out – with upscale bars and restaurants which sell alcoholic drinks. Some particularly popular spots are La Bodega (157, 26th of July St, labodegaegypt.com, +202 2735 0543), Mojo Lounge and Bar on the Imperial boat (El Gezira St, +201 2926 9269) and Sequoia (53 Abu El Feda St, www.sequoiaonline.net, +202 2735 0014), a sprawling restaurant on the Nile.
Even in this upscale neighbourhood, wherever I looked I saw graffiti urging Mubarak to step down and commemorating those who had fallen during the days of the revolution. I found out that this was a project by Ganzeer, a Cairo-based Egyptian street artist whose graphic style and dry humour could easily be mistaken for Banksy. Ganzeer’s largest work to date is in Zamalek. It’s a silhouette of a delivery boy carelessly biking towards a tank: it’s reminiscent of the iconic photograph of the student standing in front of a tank during the Tiananmen protests of 1989.
Commercial advertising, too, has adopted revolutionary imagery in billboards that can be found on almost every corner of the city. Mobinil, the phone company from which I had bought a SIM card for my mobile (Dhs8), advertised itself with a quote by Austrian President Heinz Fischer: ‘The people of Egypt are the greatest on Earth; and they deserve the Nobel Prize for Peace,’ written in white across a photograph of a mass demonstration. Even the government has updated its ‘Support Tourism’ campaign and are now using the image of a raised fist mounted with pink sunglasses.
Four weeks later as I was once again on Tahrir Square, news broke that violence had erupted against demonstrators elsewhere in town. Despite the fact that the events were taking place in another neighbourhood (which means, in Cairo, effectively another town) many concerned passers-by came up to me and suggested I leave immediately. This is something I had never experienced before in Egypt: strangers concerned about my safety.
As I was leaving Tahrir, I went to Nola (www.nolabakery.com; +202 2736 6494), my favourite bakery in Zamalek, to indulge in a selection of nine mini-cupcakes (Dhs25). Sitting in this spot, where a ‘cupcake war’ takes place at the end of each month to establish the flavour of the month, everything seemed to be just fine. I stopped at the newly opened Café Mex on 26th of July street (number 130; +20185362780) and did my Arabic homework for the next day. I couldn’t believe I had to leave so soon and was already planning my next visit in the next few months. By then, Cairo will perhaps have changed dramatically once again.
Need to know
Getting there Fly from Dubai to Cairo with Emirates from Dhs2,170 return (www.emirates.com; 600 55 55 55).
Travel safe • In case of emergency call 122. • At times there are army-imposed curfews at night. Check for notice of these in the local media. • Carry identification at all times. • Women should dress modestly. • Ask the staff at your hotel for advice on areas to avoid. • Drink bottled water, avoid ice.