CAIRO – I am pretending to neither speak nor understand Egyptian Arabic, inventing my profession, religious
background and current place of residence when I realize how thrilled I am to be
back in Egypt’s monstrous capital city.
Before arriving, I was told that
one of my closest friends from my year abroad that I spent in Cairo in 2007-2008
refused to meet up with me because I have chosen to live in Tel Aviv. It is the
first time I have experienced a personal boycott against me because I have
decided to experience the Jewish state.
The first night I sleep in my
downtown Cairo hostel, which sits four stories above the dauntingly busy Talaat
I wake in a cold sweat as a glass shatters on the lobby’s
marble floor, hallucinating that the Egyptian authorities have come to arrest me
and cast me in a cell like Israeli journalist Yotam Feldman, who was arrested on
the Sinai/Israeli border in March and sat in jail for seven days before the
Egyptian military prosecutor decided to release him.
Switching on the
florescent bulb that lights my narrow hostel room, I compare Israel’s peace with
Egypt to that cold sweat which sits in beads on my forehead.
I have come
to Cairo to report on the country’s fledgling democracy, which has begun more
than half a century after the last king of Egypt was overthrown by a military
coup which installed a presidential system in 1952. Sixteen months ago,
Egyptians rose up and battled security forces and thugs riding camels, horses
and armored vehicles through massive and buzzing crowds, using their people’s
infamous potential for collective force to topple a government that had remained
in power for over three decades.
And, indeed, the Egypt that I knew from
my year living in the capital four years ago is today distinctly shaken, as
angry graffiti displaying haunting images of detained and martyred protesters
and slogans of revolution and freedom can attest.
On Talaat Harb Square,
a bearded professor is surrounded by teenagers in T-shirts and jeans, talking
about democracy, elections and individual freedoms. His tone is as urgent
as his streetside pupils are attentive.
Tahrir Square has never been easy
to navigate, and on my trip back to the flashpoint meeting place of the city’s
larger thoroughfares, just minutes from the Nile River, it looks like it has
been turned upside down and then thrown back into place.
Calling it a
square is a fundamental misunderstanding of geometry. A few scattered tents
still sit as a relic of the uprising in a sandy pit at the foot of the Mogamma –
a famously obnoxious government complex in Tahrir that was once besieged in the
1992 Egyptian film Terrorism and Kebab.
As I make my way down to the
world’s most famous river, a grizzled man with leathery skin stops me and stares
“Egyptian?” he asks. “You’re Egyptian?”
I give him the thumbs
up, and he kind of laughs and wishes me well as I make my way to the Nile:
“Welcome to Egypt.”
By the time the afternoon arrives, and the concrete
metropolis is exceedingly hot, I walk back into my hostel coughing up black
phlegm from the pollution and wash my baked feet, and it feels good to be back
A friend of mine who is living and teaching “princesses” in
Saudi Arabia is visiting and tells me over a cup of Mowz bil- Laban (Banana with
Milk), puffing on a water pipe in the Arabesque Cafe minutes away from where
both of us used to live, that she always enjoys spending time in a “liberal
city” like Cairo.
I didn’t come to Cairo, however, to enjoy the city’s
inexpensive hedonistic offerings. I came to cover the country’s first free
I try to ignore my paranoid inclination to avoid
political talk with the locals – an activity that would have been all the more
dangerous during Hosni Mubarak’s long tenure – and strike up conversations in
Arabic or English with anyone who will give me the time of day.
four years ago it was difficult to get even a taxi driver in a closed cab to
speak about the man some of us called “Big M,” this time most people are eager
to complain about the government’s inability to provide security, improve the
unstable and unforgiving economy and draw back tourists to one of the most
famous tourist destinations worldwide.
The pyramids, I hear, are still
Walking around near downtown’s Attaba Square on election
day, no Cairenes I ask have any idea where the nearest polling stations
I stroll for a couple of hours in the morning, asking Egyptian after
Egyptian, including military officers, where voting is taking place. They either
tell me they have no idea, or point me in a random direction.
finally find a polling station the lines, broken down into male and female, are
long but not as long as I would have expected for the middle of the
When I ask Egyptians elsewhere when they will vote, I usually get
the response: “Today, or tomorrow, God willing.” Voter turnout never
exceeded 45 percent.
There are many surprises when talking to Cairenes
about the revolution and the burgeoning Egyptian democracy.
One man, who
runs a tourist car rental business, tells me he hates the “punks” who pushed the
ex-president from his throne, and that he has thrown his support behind Syrian
President Bashar Assad, wishing him well as he continues in his yearplus- long
battle against militant Islamists and anti-government protesters, at the same
time more than 100 people are being massacred in the Syrian town of
That headline barely makes the Egyptian papers, which are from
front to back mostly concerning themselves with the 11 candidates, and any last
minute news surrounding the elections.
A bearded and religious man –
probably the most optimistic I meet during my week in Egypt – tells me that
should the Muslim Brotherhood control both parliament and the presidency, it
will ensure the revitalization of the nation through Islam, and will put “Egypt
on top of America.” He voted for Mohamed Mursi, the Brotherhood’s
candidate, who will head to the runoff vote on June 16-17.
driver, also religious, pushes me to explain America’s “imperialistic
“Why does America try and control everyone?” he
“Egyptian people don’t want to work too hard. They just want to eat
and sleep, that’s all,” he tells me. “What more do you want?”
I try not to give
too much of an opinion, and he wishes me well as he leaves me in the southern
As the nighttime scene begins to mobilize around 11,
I go and sit in a packed cafeteria called Freedom (“Horreya” in Arabic) and sip
a local beer, trying under the blaze of familiar florescent lights to synthesize
all the unfamiliar talk of revolution that Egyptians have been confiding in
The owner of the place, a 58- year-old Coptic Christian, later tells
me he is confident that even if the Brotherhood wins, the government will never
be able to implement strict Islamic law that would ban alcohol. Any such
move would inspire a second revolution, he says.
Though he seems genuine,
his responses seem as though they are being read from a script that I hear so
many recite during my stay downtown, where much of Egypt’s more liberal side
I am not sure anyone really knows what to expect, and so most
people’s responses seem to conceal the unease of an unpredictable
While I finish my drink, and perhaps in a sign of where I have
been living for the past few years, I nervously eye the entrance to the bar,
hoping no one rushes in a with a short beard and a long jacket.
morning I visit the Sha’ar Hashamayyim Synagogue, which was supposedly built in
the architectural style of an ancient Egyptian temple, after bribing a police
officer to let us in and allow me to take photographs. The shul is barely in
use, and during my year in Cairo was never open to the public, so the prospect
of seeing one of the remnants of Cairo’s once prosperous Jewish community is
Today there are fewer than 60 Jews in Egypt,
according to the Joint Distribution Committee, 30 of whom live in Cairo. I have
heard according to various sources – some more official than others – that Cairo
is home to between 8 and 24 million people, leaving a margin of error of more
than double the population of Israel. Regardless, 30 Jews in a city like
Al-Qahira is an impressive minority.
I never met an Egyptian Jew in
Cairo, and if I had, I would most likely never have known it.
synagogue will open to the public after the elections,” our tour guide, happily
bribed, tells me.
“What do you do?” he asks me.
“I’m a writer,” I
say. “Journalism?” he responds.
“No, I write literature, short stories
and such,” I fumble. “I understand, I get it,” he winks.
I pay him
another dollar on the way out of the peaceful and empty sanctuary back to the
police station where I have left my passport, where now instead of police,
military officers sit.
The officer hands me my US passport, but before I
can leave, he calls out: “You need to clean this passport.”
I turn back
to face him, and he is grinning swarthy cheek to cheek. “It’s very dirty,” he