Like Scopophobia I keep thinking about my time in Tahrir.
I lived in Cairo for a year a few years ago, and again for four months more recently; the first time around, I rode a cab into Tahrir every morning to go to AUC. Last time, with graduate studies at new AUC in New Cairo, that ride became an hour or more in an air-conditioned coach bus: the worst part of AUC’s move, not only the bus ride to the periphery, but depriving you of a daily ride into Tahrir, unless you already lived downtown and could walk, stopping for a juice near Midan Falaki.
Not being able to be in Cairo, to talk to people and write stories, I’m supplementing news reading with a literary hunt. It’s not hard yet; Samia Mehrez’s The Literary Atlas of Cairo is on my desk, a collection of snippets of writers on Cairo, many translated from the Arabic by her. The other day I posted an excerpt from Sonallah Ibrahim’s Cairo from Edge to Edge. Today it’s the young novelist May Khaled’s The Last Seat in Ewart Hall, appropriately enough.
When she drives through Tahrir Square, everything is dwarfed when compared to that building, that lofty edifice that inhabits her completely. The Mugama, the gardens of the square, the former Astra Coffee Shop which has been transformed into a number of glittering fast-food restaurants that cater to her building, Qasr al-Aini Street with all the important national institutions. All of these places derive their very being from surrounding her temple–it’s structure which she still refuses to believe she has not belonged to for the past fifteen years. In fact, the longer her time away from it, the more she clings to it, is proud of it and of her sense of belonging to it. That Islamic architectural style that has towered over the heart of the city since the twenties of the past century and witnessed a series of events that have shaped the modern history of her country. Here it is, boasting the very best of Islamic architecture and the finest of human resources, with the American flag flying alongside her country’s flag. She never really noticed this or that flag. Only one phrase continues to enchant her as if it contained the best that was ever produced by poets, artists, and musicians: “The American University in Cairo.” It dominated the facade in Arabic and in English, sitting in an ornamented border that is repainted yearly, along with the renovations of the premises, in bright white so it remains forever young and fresh.
Unrelated, has Sonallah Ibrahim commented on the revolution?
Vintage photo from Kodak Agfa’s photos via Getty Images.