Tel Aviv resident navigates Cairo during election

Reporter's Notebook: I realize how thrilled I am to be back in Egypt’s monstrous capital city.

First anniversary of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
First anniversary of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 Harb Street.
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 me down.
“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 in Cairo.
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 presidential elections.
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.
While 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 nearly empty.
Walking around near downtown’s Attaba Square on election day, no Cairenes I ask have any idea where the nearest polling stations is.
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.
When I 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 day.
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 Houla.
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.
Another taxi driver, also religious, pushes me to explain America’s “imperialistic obsession.”
“Why does America try and control everyone?” he asks.
“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 Helwan neighborhood.
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 me.
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 flourishes.
I am not sure anyone really knows what to expect, and so most people’s responses seem to conceal the unease of an unpredictable future.
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.
In the 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 particularly exciting.
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.
“The 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 laughs.