As we sat drinking knock-off, yoghurt-tasting whiskey (“Johnn Walke Red Label”) and smoked hashish cigarettes, it was hard to imagine things would ever be different for Mohey and Mahmoud, our Egyptian friends who lived their whole lives under President Hosni Mubarak’s iron fist.
Their rhetoric didn’t invite much room for change. They called the entire government “Mubarak.” Instead of the police, the green-shirted constables were known as “Mubarak’s Men.” They joked that Mubarak was a noun, adjective and verb.
Mubarak’s Men strolled past our small group, eying the square liquor bottles to be sure that no brown fingers gripped their forms. It is illegal for Egyptians to drink alcohol in public—we purchased the Egyptian-made bootleg in a part of town known affectionately as the Harami (forbidden).
This is a place where mosques abut the hottest nightclubs of Cairo. In Hebrew, Egypt is known as Mitzraim, or a “narrow place.” Inherent in the narrow is the combustible.
On that day in early 2010, Tahrir Square (actually a circle) was still the fragile lynchpin of Egypt’s ruling dictatorship.
Bound on all sides by government institutions, the common area has little in common with the rest of Cairo—a city too wild and kinetic to fall under the sway of government’s static inclinations.
University students sat on the base of the Statues of the Revolution discussing their coursework. The Mogamma rises over the entire scene, a bureaucratic menace whose minimalist façade evokes cell-block comparisons. The building is over 14 stories from street to crest—and wider than it is tall. The Mogamma casts shadows thousands of yards long across the Tahrir.
Had Napoleon marched to the base of this artificial monstrosity instead of the ordered perfection of the Pyramids, he would have marched straight back across the Atlas Mountains to his French-facing ports of call. Perfectly symmetrical, it hugs the circumference of Tahrir like a stationary, rusted centrifuge, alluding to its own origin: a gift from the Soviet Union in 1950.
Mohey’s friend Beko whistled at a passing university girl dressed in tight jeans and a colorful hijab (headscarf) tied to the side; the scarf more of a fashion piece than homage to the Quran—most of her tightly-curled hair spilled out onto her covered shoulders.
“Cos omak maafina,” she yelled in our direction (omak means “your mother” – infer the rest).
Mahmoud punched Beko hard in the shoulder. “Akhi, we must be respectful.” Placing his elbows on his knees like a professor holding class on the quad, he continued, “The Sura teaches us ’…Nor may you treat [women] harshly…live together with them correctly and courteously.’”
Today, Cairo burns. Three Americans, arrested for participating in the Tarhir demonstrations, recently caught planes out of Cairo. I can only imagine the suffering of Egyptian arrest, but they were lucky to garner only orders of deportation.
I thought of Mahmoud sitting in his illegal apartment (a bricked-over space between two registered dwellings), nursing his injuries (rubber bullets) at the same time dreaming of fleeing, and of a new page for his country.
A few months ago I spoke with Mohey and Mahmoud. They have a renewed pride in their country. As Mohey put it—well aware of his people’s recent migration to the area—“we have a reason to feel pride again, a pride not felt since ‘we’ built the Pyramids.” Once a hotel concierge (owing to proficient English skills), Mohey now works for a newly-formed NGO, The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
This irreverent (and yet intentioned) disregard for history adds a mythological patina to Egyptian life. After 28 years of Mubarak, and less-than-democratic government prior, Egyptians may need to focus less on the details past and more on possibility of the future.
Optimism may have to supplant the strict realism that supported Nasser, Sadat, and finally, Mubarak.
Said Mahmoud about his wife—whom he cannot afford to live with yet—“she is my future. I cannot speak of our future. Democracy, Islamism, the military; they are irrelevant to me. We are done with Mubarak.”
“And next,” I asked.
“The next step is to rebuild our families.”
Recently I learned Beko was jailed, beaten and tortured for leading a march demanding equal rights for women in the university system. Mohey, like Mahmoud, also received rubber bullet wounds. All three men have suffered dozens of tear-gassings.