On breaking up and a bar named Freedom

horreya stella_fotor

 

It is a sign of growing up, I think, that when my relationship came to its predictable – but still quietly devastating – end last week, I didn’t turn to a vodka (or three) to wash away my broken-heart blues. Nor did I call on the army of hardy friends who used to commiserate with me in these things (partly because I now live in Cairo and said friends, such as I still have them, are inaccessible for reasons of sheer distance). Nor did I sit for hours in a slightly darkened room, chain-smoking cigarettes and listening to maudlin love songs (David Gray, anyone?) in some tragic parody of a lovesick teenager.

No. This time I chose to Keep Myself Busy in a bid for Germanic efficiency, rather than the Gallic grand gestures I used to favour. My logic is this: all the energy, time and mind-and-heart space I invested in the great love must be transferred elsewhere if I am to survive this. I’m not sure the logic-over-love scenario is one that works for everyone, but it’s applicable in my case, partly because our end – sad as it was – was always out there on the horizon, like those storm clouds that linger on a beautiful day. And as with all good dramas, we’d had several dress rehearsals along the way.

So I called every good friend I had and set up dates and activities that would keep me occupied for at least the next several days. I went shopping in City Stars with one and spent a glorious afternoon lunching and shopping (why does trying on a new pair of shoes seem to reach the parts of a female soul that other things can’t?). And I called another good friend for a more cultural evening Downtown – somewhere I rarely venture to these days from my cosy Zamalek bubble.

Thus it was that we spent a suitably intellectual – and very funny – evening catching up on life over mezze in one of Cairo’s oldest restaurants, venturing to the Townhouse Gallery afterwards for a spot of Culture, and finishing up in Horreya, or “Freedom” in Arabic – a Downtown institution and rare alcohol-serving ahwa that is the haunt of wannabe intellectuals, trendy expats and a surprising number of gay men – both foreign and, dare I say it, Egyptian.

It had become almost a rite-of-passage for me – this trip to Horreya – seeing as I’d lived in Cairo for more than a year and hadn’t yet ventured there. With dreams of domestic bliss and babies disintegrating faster than a cheap Downtown dress, and sad singledom furiously beckoning, a trip there seemed more important than ever. In other words, swapping faux Zamalek glamour for hard-core Downtown grunge – two harassed-looking waiters, grim fluorescent lighting that did nothing to hide the grimy ceilings and floors, ominously cracked mirrors, and a menu that seemed to consist entirely of Stellas – made infinite sense to me at this particular point in my life.

So we ventured in and found a table and had a Stella each and I tried surreptitiously to people-watch through the broken mirror opposite me. In places like this, obvious people-watching is not cool – a bit like getting your camera out at an exclusive dinner party. I was struck by the hideously bright lighting first, and then the men intently playing backgammon in a corner (in the non-alcoholic section, this being Egypt after all), and then the huge crowded table behind us, packed with people so disparate it was impossible not to wonder what could possibly have brought them all together.

It turned out that it was a very sociable gay Yemeni who was responsible for this. Determined to spread the party mood around, he insisted we be given a plate of food from his table. As he told us when he ambled across, he was celebrating, of all things, the acquisition of a British passport, which he’d gained by marrying an older Englishman three years ago.

I was surprised, given the Daily Mail-inspired Cretan maze of British immigration law, but happy for him. “Do you love him?” I asked, after he had told us for the third time about the three homes his husband had bought for him and the different countries he could now live in (with England being very low down on the list). His careful pause before the “yes” suggested that love – on his part, at least – may not have been the main motivation for this particular union.

Did Horreya live up to its hype? In many ways: yes. Would we have been invited into the celebrations of a gay Yemeni and his entourage in the generic coffee chains that I frequent in Zamalek? Never.

Here in the heart of downtown Cairo, all the contradictions of daily Egyptian life came together in one glorious tumble – like a washing machine in full spin. A gay man could celebrate his marriage and the fruits of it in a society where homosexuality does not exist, in a café that looked like a traditional Egyptian ahwa but served alcohol, and in a space where different nationalities and classes and age groups blended together happily, in a kind of Boho Benetton ad. But it is the curse of our post-modern age that I could never quite forget that I was in Horreya. A dive by any other name is surely still a dive.

And, no matter how much I may want to deny it, age catches up with you in the end. We stayed for a couple of hours or so, nursing our individual beers, enjoying our conversation and the food we had unexpectedly been given. I happened to catch sight of the time at around 10.30pm and asked whether my friend wanted to stay. Neither of us, it turned out, wanted another beer, and she was also in need of a toilet break. The toilets here are terrible, she said, so it might be easier to go home. I agreed, willingly. Our night had been eventful, funny and suitably satisfying and it led me on this occasion happily to my bed.

Once I was incapable of leaving a party early in case I missed a piece of the action. Is it wisdom or cynicism now that assures me there will always be a party going on somewhere and I will, in fact, miss very little I haven’t experienced already? It seems to me that, with age, a bite of the apple is now often as satisfactory – if not more so – than a whole one.

That’s got to be a good thing, somewhere down the line.

(Full disclosure – I wrote this piece around six years ago now, when my last relationship was coming to an end and as I was approaching my 40th birthday, but never got around to publishing it. I have not been back to Horreya since. )   

A Tale of Two Revolutions: Tahrir Then and Now

 

We’re walking along the Corniche El Nil towards Tahrir – a journey I made several times before during what will soon be called Egypt’s ‘first’ revolution, two and a half years ago. I am with my Egyptian boyfriend and we are going to celebrate the ‘coup d’un peuple’ that has just unseated President Mohamed Morsi, after four days of massive protests. Or rather, I am there to accompany him as he celebrates; as a foreigner, this is neither my battle nor my victory, despite my love for this country.

The noise is deafening. Car horns honk frantically – the familiar five-note beat that provides the soundtrack to most celebrations here. Drumbeats echo in the distance. Fireworks explode randomly around us – occasionally I hear gunshots too. Every other person seems to have a vuvuzela and all of them seem to be going off in my ear. Teenagers hang out of car windows, waving flags and shouting anti-Morsi and pro-Egypt slogans. Every now and then, a motorbike revs up behind us on the pavement and we scramble for cover.

I made a similar journey when Mubarak fell, back in February 2011, with a motley group, mostly expats, all of us in love with Egypt and determined to show our solidarity with our Egyptian friends and colleagues.  Back then, the women among us weren’t afraid of being mob raped or violently assaulted. Tonight, it is about all I can think of.

Gang rapes and sexual assaults in Tahrir have come to the forefront again over this latest protest, thanks to a vigorous campaign by groups like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard. They monitor the teeming square, and provide regular, depressing updates. Sixty-eight women have been the victims of such assaults over the last couple of days (that figure is much higher now). I hear of one case on Friday, two days before the main protests are due to begin – a young European girl, stripped naked by around 100 men, groped, fingered and probed until she bled, finally taken to hospital where she required stitches.

I am a woman who values my independence and my freedom but tonight I cling to Sherif’s hand like my life depends on it. I am sure the other women were also accompanied by friends, probably even male friends, before they found themselves separated in the melee and set upon like prey. Everywhere, there are groups of young men – these too-thin, slightly feral, lithe, boy-men that congregate in Tahrir, waving flags, blowing their vuvuzelas, occasionally ripping off their T-shirts and breaking into sensual, impromptu dances.

We walk past Maspero and around the Egyptian Museum, dodging motorcycles and errant flags, trying to carve a path amongst the crowds. I can feel eyes flickering over me and I sense how easily things can change – how mob celebrations can turn into mob carnage in an instant. In the midst of it all, I see a couple holding a baby who is – miraculously – sleeping peacefully through this din. Only in Egypt, I think. I see the crowds surging ahead of me as the square comes into view.

On TV, Tahrir’s power is transcendent. You see a vast homogenous crowd, seemingly moving together in harmony, occasionally lit up by flickering lasers and random fireworks, shrouded in Cairo’s iconic skyline. Up close, it’s a disparate, teeming mess – a cacophony of voices, fireworks, music, traffic – of people moving in different directions, hawkers selling popcorn, mahalabiya, tameya, cotton candy. At this time of night too, it is overwhelmingly young and male.

There’s a frantic edge to the celebrations that I don’t recall in 2011. Despite aberrations like the Battle of the Camel, Tahrir then had become a sacred space – the symbolic heartland of an impossible revolution. The majority of us moved around freely (until, ironically, the night that Mubarak fell, when Cairo’s pandemic of sexual harassment returned to the square). Amid those celebrations, there was wonder, a sense of incredulity and an exuberant, unfettered joy – as if we had all stumbled into the same dream by mistake. Anything and everything seemed possible.

In the two and a half years since, however, Tahrir has borne witness to terror:  bloody battles and tragic deaths magnified by teargas and thugs, horrific gang rapes and assaults, terrible army intransigence, and an exclusive, rather than inclusive, government, at a time when the country desperately needed unity.  From being the heartland of hope, it became a place of no hope, tinged with darkness, where the city’s poor and disenfranchised flocked, littered with rubbish, street hawkers and a million shattered dreams.

Some of that darkness haunts the square still and it is present tonight – the square is dirtier, the people inside poorer, the dancing more frantic. The mood is part blood-letting, part celebration and part sheer relief.  The lumbering, charisma-free (former) president, sheltering under his notions of shariya (legitimacy), has left a country in worse condition than before – plagued by inflation, a faltering currency, power cuts, fuel shortages, sectarian strife and rising crime rates. Egypt has learned that revolutions, glorious though they may be, are only the beginning and the concept of democracy is flawed and fallible. And while millions may agree on removing an unpopular leader, agreeing on what comes next is much, much harder.

The last two years laid bare the fault lines that thirty years of dictatorship tried desperately to conceal – a poorly educated populace with no jobs and fewer opportunities, endemic harassment, institutionalized sexism and sectarianism, entrenched economic and political divides, and a crippling lack of leaders with the experience and moral authority to unite the country and lead it into the future. In Egypt’s favour are its people: pragmatic, resilient – and unwilling to suffer fools gladly. Few countries get a second chance at a revolution. If  a fraction of the energy that drew millions to Tahrir the first time round can be properly harnessed this time, there may just be a light at the end of this tunnel. Once again, we watch, we wait and we hope.

Eighteen days: A Tribute to Tahrir

In the future, when someone asks me where I was when I heard the news that Mubarak had finally stepped down, I will have to be honest and say this: I was putting away our shopping. That’s the way life goes – after 18 days when our world consisted of either going to Tahrir or watching it on TV, all seven of us were somehow away from the TV at just that moment when Suleiman finally conceded defeat. In 30 seconds, as someone pointed out, 30 years of this country’s history was irrevocably changed forever.

We hugged, we danced around our living room and then we grabbed our coats and headed straight out to the place where it all began: Tahrir.  We had made this journey so often over the last 18 days, always with different emotions. I remembered the first Friday of this revolt – the day of rage – when our internet and phone services were cut and police and security men manned each street corner.  Somehow we’d made our way to Kasr-El-Nil Bridge where we watched the battle of the bridge unfold, amazed at the courage of the men and women on the frontlines as they pushed their way through the tear gas and bullets, in silent shock later as  we watched the city burn.

I remembered wandering around Tahrir the next morning as buildings still burned and tanks took over the streets and wondering where we went from here. Cairo was at war, but no one was entirely sure who, or where, the enemy was. The police had disappeared and looters raided the streets at night. But the city re-grouped and re-discovered itself and volunteers came out in their thousands to protect the streets.  Soon after, there was that wonderful second Tuesday in Tahrir, the first million man march, when the sun shone down and it seemed like nothing could still the voices of hundreds and thousands of people who wanted – for the first time in their lives – to be heard.

Then there were the terrible days after – an aberration in this overwhelmingly peaceful revolt – when hired thugs roamed the streets and Tahrir became a bloody battleground. Civil war loomed and Cairo, for the first time, became a dangerous city to venture out in.  Yet somehow, the men and women in Tahrir remained and thousands flocked there again the following Friday, unsure what the future held but knowing that, in Tahrir at least, there was still hope.

When I went on Monday last week, I doubted, for the first time. Tahrir had become a carnival, a revolution theme park, as I dubbed it. Hawkers sold everything from roasted sweet potatoes to popcorn, there was a trendy music band in one corner and all urgency seemed to have been lost. The celebrations seemed to me premature – Mubarak remained in power and the old guard, seemed, if anything, to be tightening its grip.  Tahrir was intoxicating, as always – in there, it seemed impossible that the revolution could fail. Outside, on the surface at least, the country was returning to normal.

But when I went again last Tuesday and I could barely move because of the number of people there, I realised that Tahrir had simply gained a new kind of power. Ordinary Egyptians – people who had never dreamt of change – were flocking there in droves to experience it for themselves. We bumped into a friend’s colleague from out in Haram, a working class area near the pyramids, who said he had been too scared to come to it before. He had only seen a few images on State TV, but he’d been told how wonderful it was by his friends. He was overwhelmed now – by the crowds, the sense of freedom, the music, the impromptu chants and the ability to say out loud what people had only said before in the privacy of their own homes – we want the end of this regime.    

It was this sort of momentum that in the end Mubarak was unable to control. The spirit of Tahrir and what it came to symbolise was simply too powerful to tame. It was a microcosm of the very best of Egypt, distilled into the symbolic heartland of this city. In Tahrir, class, creed, gender and age meant nothing – Muslims and Copts protected each other as they prayed, women moved freely without harassment, there was new respect for the young and the urban elite stood shoulder to shoulder with the city’s poor. I met my old professors from the American University in Cairo there and I met the man who parks cars on my street. The spirit of co-operation, of freedom and most of all, of pride was overwhelming. For the first time, Egyptians were doing it for themselves – from cleaning the streets to producing their own Tahrir newspaper.

In the end, this was a very Egyptian revolution, characterised by the warmth, good humour and tolerance that you find daily on these streets. It often struck me that, even in the darkest days of the revolt, there was little appetite for bloodshed or violence – amongst the plethora of signs I would see in Tahrir, I never saw one that called for Mubarak’s blood. For a Western-educated outsider like me, the lack of organisation and leadership often confounded me – how could a revolution possibly succeed when there was no formal opposition, no official spokesman or spin doctor to voice its demands? But here again was its strength – because the opposition was everywhere, from every stratum of Egyptian society, it was impossible to divide and impossible to fight.  It was absolutely a revolution of the people, by the people and for the people.

Today, Tahrir has been cleared and Downtown is returning to normal though the after effects are still reverberating around the world. But for eighteen days, it was the centre of the world and the effects of that will remain for some time. There may be cynicism in some quarters, especially internationally, about the future plans of the military leadership but here in Egypt, overwhelmingly, there is hope. Egyptians – driven by the men and women of Tahrir – have shown the world that anything, and everything, is now possible. The fruits of their labour will not be given up easily, despite the struggles ahead.  

When people told me before that Egypt, after January 25, would never be the same again, I was cynical.  Now I believe. To the men and women of Tahrir – I salute you.