Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cairo: The Dust of Nations

Three days ago I arrived in Egypt. It's a place I grew up always hearing about, and I was eager to experience it for myself and see if it bore any resemblance to the place movies, Bible stories, comics and history classes painted it to be.

My first evening I dined out with a medical doctor from a well-to-do family––currently working as a middle school teacher in Cairo. Over creamy shrimp alfredo and shisha, he painted a rather bleak picture of the situation in the nation since the revolution: Excited idealism turned to disappointment, turned to terror, turned to pleading for a return of the order that had been revolted against.

I learned a lot from the doctor, and from others we met, but after a day and a half of sitting in posh caf├ęs and wandering around titanic shopping malls on the suburban outskirts of the city, I was eager this morning to get in a dirty taxi bound for what I'd heard was the throbbing heart of the nation: Inner-city Cairo and Tahrir Square.

Our official destination was the National Museum, and after an interminable amount of time stuck in a traffic jam in a poorly ventilated tunnel, we emerged, blinking, in front of the imposing neo-classical structure. Scuttling past rows of black masked special ops troops below burned out high rises with a heavy wind gusting dust into our teeth and eyes; the whole city had an eerie, almost apocalyptic feeling.

The museum, once we got inside, was spectacular. Ancient Egypt must've been everything the movies and comic books made it out to be. I was slightly disappointed to learn (from Google) after an hour long search on foot that the one Egyptian artifact I could have identified as a child and which even emblazoned the tickets we'd purchased to get in: King Tut's funeral mask, had, apparently, after millennia of careful preservation, been irreparably lost to history in a still somewhat unclear incident involving a clumsy curator and some misapplied epoxy shortly before my arrival. In the end, though, I think I found one I like better:

Even in the midst of the remains of the grandeur of ancient Egypt, though, it was hard for me to shake the feeling of present apocalypse. Priceless artifacts ornately decorated with delicate hieroglyphics were piled haphazardly in cases with descriptions that looked like they were printed in the 1950s. Crates were piled all over the floor and in some places it felt more like a massive antique warehouse than a museum. As we emerged from the mummy chamber––the only decently maintained corridor of the cavernous building––a stray cat ran across the floor and I could feel the sand driven into the building through the massive double doors of the entrance on a wind that had only strengthened since we entered a few hours before.

We emerged into a gale of grit that made it hard to breath and a crowed of men desperately hawking postcards and tours to us. It turns out, the city was that afternoon, being descended upon by a sandstorm the likes of which are only seen a few times a year.

Determined to see Tahrir square, the place I'd heard so much about on the news since my first time in the region almost four years ago, we pressed forward on foot past the gauntlet of special forces and into the choking, blinding grit. Wen we finally made it we spent an extremely uncomfortable minute gazing around. We then asked a passerby to take our photo––and immediately felt terrible about it––having someone take our smiling picture at the sight of their as yet unresolved national tragedy.

Then, feeling emotionally and respiratorilly exhausted, we piled in another cab. Naturally, we got stuck in traffic again, and the driver––an unemployed electrical engineer and member of the country's increasingly marginalized Christian minority––spent the 50 minute ride telling us his perspective on everything that was wrong with the country.

We arrived at dark and during a power cut. To cheer up we, we went out for pizza a few blocks from our flat and then started to walk back to watch The Mummy on a laptop. The dust storm had got worse still, to the point that trees, cars and sidewalks were all coated in the stuff and the night air illumnated by street lamps had a strange, hazy glow, almost like walking down an empty street back in Corning or Wellsboro on a night with gently falling snow. It would actually have been quite peaceful if it were snow, and not the tiny bits of a country disintegrating.


Andrea Manz said...

That sandstorm sounds insane! As does the King Tut fiasco...

On an unrelated note, I know the Arabic spoken in Egypt is apparently very different from the dialects spoken elsewhere. As someone who is learning the language, were you still able to understand (some of) it?

Andrew said...

Some of it for sure. Levantine Arabic (Lebanon and Syria) is close enough to Egyptian that native speakers can communicate without much problem. once you go as far West as Libya (or as Far East as Iraq) it becomes essentially a different language even though it's all called Arabic

Erin Huggins said...

The last line of this post is brilliant.

Bornko Adel said...

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