If you are looking for Egyptian antiques in Cairo – and by antique I mean something from around fifty or one hundred years ago, not something from King Ramses’ bedstand in 1292 B.C. – you can find some among the shops like the one above at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar.
Egypt has experienced dramatic change in 2011, change that has been well documented and seen around the world. But a peek into a Cairo antique shop is a reminder that at every moment less dramatic change occurs too, in Cairo and every other city. How we make phone calls, how we play music, the way companies advertise their products – these things change. And so sometimes do the kinds of people who walk the streets. If Cairo in 2011 is not the same as Cairo in 2010, imagine what Cairo eighty years ago would have been like. For help in imagining this, here is a paragraph from Max Rodenbeck’s book Cairo: The City Victorious:
Cairo no longer aspired to be cosmopolitan; it already was. According to the 1927 census a fifth of its people belonged to minorities: there were 95,000 Copts, 35,000 Jews, 20,000 Greeks, 19,000 Italians, 11,000 British, 9,000 French, and uncounted numbers of White Russians, Parsees, Montenegrins, and other exotica. (By contrast, all colonial India in 1930 was home to just 115,000 people classified as “whites.”) The city’s population surged past 1 million in the 1930s as landless peasants began to arrive in significant numbers, along with a rich clutter of Europeans fleeing Hitler. Thirty thousand cars jammed streets where sleek apartment buildings pushed ever higher. Billboards touted a range of Cairo-made goods: “Shelltox—The Insect Executioner”; “Exigez les Eaux Gazeuses N. Spathis!”; Dr. Boustani’s Cigarettes; Bata shoes; and movies shot in Cairo studios, such as Layla, Girl of the Desert, a costume drama starring Bahiga Hafiz.
On Wednesday I sat in the Milligan College dining hall in spring-time Tennessee and, while munching salad, scrolled through headlines on my laptop. Clicking one that said "photojournalists killed in Libya" I read the first paragraph, which made my food lose its taste. By the time I reached the bottom of the article the world itself felt different, like a chunk had just been hacked out of it, violently and irrevocably, and knocked into oblivion. Chris Hondros was dead.
Funny thing is, I didn't know Chris personally, and the only words I had spoken to him were kind of dumb. In the chaos of Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 2, I saw a photographer crouched by a curb who i think was Chris. He was photographing a weary man who had just been bandaged up after having a rock slam into his face. "Good idea," I told the quiet photographer as I waited to also photograph the man. As Chris got up and I got down, our eyes met for a second. And that, I think, is the extent of my encounter with a man whose work I had appreciated for years and who was now dead in the Libyan city of Misrata, his body to be loaded onto a ship bound for Benghazi and then eventually shipped back home.
About an hour before Friday prayers began, while walking through Cairo’s crowded Tahrir Square, a man named Mahdy grabbed the sleeve of my shirt and said, “Hey, where you from?” He had a beard (that’s him in the center), a strong, confident voice, and when I said “America” he said, “Oh, which state, I used to live in Texas, in Dallas.” Come to find out, Mahdy had even spent three days in Tennessee. “A nice state,” he said.
Like many other people I had met in Tahrir over the previous ten days, Mahdy quickly left me dumbfounded by his passion, articulateness, and courage. Cairo was in the midst of historic upheaval and Tahrir Square was the epicenter. Mahdy was one of hundreds of thousands who at some point had stood in this square since January 25, demanding change in Egypt.
He told me many things in the 15 minutes we were together, a righteous anger burning in his eyes, and at times I imagined I was listening to Patrick Henry at the Virginia Convention. Here’s a sample of what he said:
We are eating ful and tamaya; Mubarak and his people are eating shrimp!”
“I’m not one of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are my brothers.”
“Fear is dead. Nobody is going to back down even if they die.”
“I wasn’t in the square yesterday…my health isn’t good and I needed to rest. But I definitely was coming today. I came prepared to die if I must.”
“In the U.S. I’ve been questioned by the FBI but they treated me with respect – I even get emails from them sometimes asking me how I am doing. Here the police never treat you with respect. Sometimes when I arrive in the US the immigration official stamps my [American] passport and says, 'Welcome Home.' In Egypt they look at my beard and pull me aside for questioning. And they're not even sensible questions!”
“My wife is American and my children have U.S. passports. Whenever they go out I make them take their passports. That way if the police stop them they won’t abuse them. But from now on, in this new Egypt, my children will leave their passports at home.”
As he spoke, another Egyptian in the crowd, a stranger, wiped the sweat from Mahdy’s brow. Sometimes Mahdy paused our conversation to translate what he was saying to those around us. The crowd nodded their approval or, in the case of his joke comparing U.S. and Egyptian FBIs, laughed. There was fire in Hamdy's voice. Like so many others in Tahrir he had a vision for his country and his children, a vision for which I am certain he would have given his life this day if indeed it had been required.
But several hours later, in an announcement that sent a deafening roar through Tahrir and all of downtown Cairo, we learned that Mubarak had resigned. Mahdy would return home to his wife and children, a proud Egyptian.