This is Tahrir Square, the very heart of the city, not to mention of the various revolutions and goings-on of the past five years or so. It looks so serene here, and that's not a word I would ever have associated with the place in the past. The current - regime? administration? junta? - whatever it is, has somehow anodized the space; what for more than a decade was a huge construction project in the center of the vast square has at last been finished, revealing an underground carpark topped with the bland, paved, half-heartedly landscaped space you see. The battered old Beaux Arts buildings around the edge of the square have been tarted up a little; even the monolithic Soviet-built hive for bureaucracy, the Mogamma, seen off on the right, has been cleaned up (amid rumors that at some point it will be privatized, its functions farmed off to satellite cities and e-government, and turned into, depending on whom you believe, luxury flats, a trade center, or yet another mall).
Out of frame on the right are two major changes to the cityscape: our beloved old Nile Hilton has at last, after years of dereliction, been turned into a Ritz Carlton, and its hulking neighbor, a concrete monstrosity that housed Mubarak's pseudo-party, which despite its name was neither National nor Democratic, has been razed. The Ritz, if you hadn't known its predecessor, is doubtless nice enough, luxurious and dull. The old pool garden (where the Mister and I so fatefully met all those years ago) has been paved with colored granite and dotted with fairy-lit palm trees, and the charmingly down-at-heel Ibis Café on the ground floor has been replaced with a faceless international brasserie-buffet. In the lobby, we ran into a familiar face from the old days, one of a handful of the former staff who waited out the delay and have returned. He recognized us, which was charming, and showed us around. Like several other of our acquaintances, he was particularly incensed over the disappearance of the Taverna, an opulently paneled and stained-glass decorated pub that had been brought in whole from Belgium once upon a time. The new Ritz Bar is a pale substitute, and no one quite knows what happened to the beautiful woodwork and glass (although rumor has it that it now graces one of the grand new villas in one of the almost surreal new gated complexes at the edge of town). Money gets you many things in Egypt (as elsewhere), even eccentric bits of the national patrimony (the Hilton, after all, was state property not all that long ago).
Behind us on the square is the stately Egyptian Museum, looking a good deal better than it had three years ago, clean and handsome. The disappearance of the party building has once again provided it with clear views of (and from) the Nile, and later we walked up the unchanged old Corniche, still dotted with courting couples and carts selling grilled corn and roasted chestnuts.
Against all odds, Egypt does go on.
Now we've left, and I'm writing this from a bustling coffee shop at Marble Arch, chilly London rather a shock after the Egyptian sun. We're taking a weekend minibreak (one of my favorite Bridget Jones words) here before heading back to what passes for reality. I'm racing from museum to museum, and we're seeing friends, one of whom had to be forcibly dissuaded last night from taking us to his favorite Egyptian joint, the explanation that we'd had almost nohing but for the last ten days proving surprisngly unpersuasive (Egyptians do love their national cusine).
I think, as is so often the case, that Mr. Cole Porter got things just about right: there really is no cure like travel.