Sunday, June 2, 2013

Hey, Old Friend...


Have you ever met up with an old friend, after too many years apart, and had to spend a while renegotiating your acquaintance?  It's awkward, initially, a false start or two (was his nose always like that, his voice always so insistent?), but then you'll move together, fall into a stride or mirror each others' gestures, just as you used to do, and you know that while time changes things, sometimes unalterably, some things remain.  It's been just a day, but even so, I think Cairo and I recognize each other.  It's a relief.

Things got off with a bang, of sorts, just after lunch when for the second time this year I was roused from an afternoon nap by the gentlest of earthquakes.  I was on the sofa, just installed, in our slowly-falling-into-place living room and opened my eyes to see the just-hung light swaying from its battered plaster medallion (Cairo flats being all brutalist concrete outside and a sort of permanent 1926 once you come inside).  A curious feeling - not strong enough to be unpleasant, but a reminder of sorts, of what I'm not quite sure.

In the evening, we went out with friends to a very trendy new (to us) place, an assemblage of cafés and restaurants and fast-food joints arranged around an open garden square.  As with so much in this city, it takes the familiar - it has an Outback Steak House, for pete's sake - and mixes it up with the local into something entirely Cairene, large families out for a meal and groups of young people (men and women mixing!  Heavens, we're not in the Sandlands any more...) laughing together.  All signs of revolution seem rather distant here, not to mention the economic crisis that looms in international headlines.

Then, with the defeated, mechanical sigh so familiar to us from our days in West Africa, the lights go out.  A hundred cell phones glimmer into life, a chorus of groans and imprecations goes up, the name of the president taken very creatively in vain.  Even the Tivoli Dome isn't entirely immune to whatever it is, all that it is, that ails the country.

We are in, or at least on the dusty fringes of, Heliopolis, once Cairo's garden suburb for expats and the summer palaces of the old aristocracy.  Today it's just another heaving neighborhood, the Palace hotel long ago coopted by the presidency, which found itself more willing to be identified, it seems, with the glory days of tourism than than the gilded houses of the Farouk family (although it seized those, too).  Today I hope to explore the neighborhood, start to figure out which of the grubby little bodegas we will make our own (make a friend of a Cairo shopkeeper and you have a friend, if not for life, at least for those moments at midnight when you need four eggs or a box of biscuits delivered, stat).  It's only for a few days, but it already feels like home.

* * *

- Sad to hear that Jean Stapleton's returned to Fabulon.  I met her once, a memorable night.  She must have had to have great patience, in the years in which she was such a figure in the national consciousness, because she was in person the very opposite of her great creation - graceful, composed, witty, and elegant, the epitome of an accomplished character lady.  She wore, I remember, a tailored, sophisticated trouser suit, a flowing scarf, discreetly excellent jewelry.  She had a way of listening with her head very slightly to one side, and a laugh of boundless appreciation.  She will be missed.

- It's odd to sit in one city that's become a byword for political upheaval and watch another, especially one that is to an extent also rather familiar, become one.  Part of me hopes that whatever it is that's unfolding in Taksim Square really is the start of a pushback against the creeping - no, galloping - politicization of religion in the Muslim world, but another part knows that it is far too soon to tell.  A few thousand secularists drinking beer in the streets of Istanbul is a world away from Heliopolis (where, for the moment, the nice man down the block still obligingly delivers excellent local beer), let alone the tens of millions who think that since man has so consistently failed them (and few have failed the poor so spectacularly as Egypt's overlords), they might as give God the chance to rule.


  1. An adventure with an old friend. Sounds like a good reunion! Jx

  2. it all sounds too lovely for words. My own 'old friend' has seen quite an uprising these past few days, perhaps as a pushback against the creeping forces of religion. Time will tell....

  3. Your notes from Cairo have inspired me to finally crack open my Naguib Mahfouz anthology that has sat, cruelly neglected, since my Survey of African Literature days.

    Only a few chapters into Midaq Alley I was struck by how, with a change of religion and narcotic of choice, it could easily be a recording of Mexican street life. A little googling shows someone beat me to the punch and that a film version called El Callejón de los Milagros(Alley of Miracles) came out in 1994 with Mexico City in place of Cairo.