So I’ve been trying to process how i feel about Egypt, about being back after a decade in self-imposed exile. I have so many thoughts racing through my head but i’ll try to be coherent:
So, after a decade of absence, there’s a lot to account for. A lot has happened (like a revolution that is celebrating its 5th anniversary this week already). and i wasn’t here to witness any of that. But here are my impressions of the changes:
1. Physically, Maadi (the neighborhood where I live) looks like it went through menopause. It’s more rundown and ratchet-y than i recall. Initially i was perplexed, and then i learnt the gentry has moved to the new desert communities (new cairo, the fifth settlement, 6th of October city, etc) leaving Cairo to fall apart. In the absence of law enforcement during the revolutionary years, lots of villas were torn down to make room for more, hideous, apartment buildings. My own street used to be quite dusty, but now it just looks like nature has taken over: grass is growing on the sidelines and feral cats that once roamed the street have now moved on to colonize the building lobby. a monkey (a fucking MONKEY!!) climbed up my window on my third day here and stared at me from the other side of the glass, before continuing on its journey to the roof (my mother later assured me it was the neighbor’s escaped pet. nothing to worry about).
In the same vain, the agricultural land that used to line the back route to the pyramids has completely vanished under endless rows of horrendous brick buildings (it’s illegal to build on agricultural land. one of the most depressing footprints of the revolution is how people transformed the landscape in the absence of law enforcement) – most of these buildings are left unfinished to evade taxes (apparently the law states that you don’t pay property taxes on a house until it’s completed, so they leave the cement exposed to make it look like its a work-in-progress. the maryoutiya river stream was paved altogether and a dystopian brutalist bridge was built over it passing through all that. the whole scene reminded my of Will Smith’s movie I am Legend, when he wanders with a stray dog through a post-apokalypic Times Square.
2. I started with the negative, because ALL other effects of the revolution have been positive and heartwarming.
3. Culturally, what a SEA CHANGE. gone are the days of political apathy. now, it feels that everyone is politically engaged and at least somewhat informed, regardless of socioeconomic background. To give you but one of hundreds of examples i encountered: i was buying bananas from a street vendor and he noticed the book in my hand (on marxist theory) and we got into a fairly stimulating political conversation that i would have never imagined i’d be able to have with a middle-aged, semi-illiterate, fruit vendor. I had another political debate with the shisha guy at a street cafe and was equally impressed.
4. Socially, there’s been a sea change as well. again, this all anecdotal, but of the 30 or so high school friends, who were all firmly middle class, i came back and it was like alien body snatchers had impersonated them. Because they looked like the people i knew in high school, but had changed so much.
for starters, the same people that antagonized me in high school for being gay were now tripping over themselves trying to introduce me to their new gay best friends and sharing their precious stories of sexual exploration. this was particularly shocking to hear from the girls, many of whom would never even hold hands with their BFs in in high school, and were promptly veiled after puberty. now, whether they kept the veil or not (many have removed it, also an interesting phenomena) many have become so candid in discussing sex. One of my straight guy friends (a mutual friend of ours, actually) approached me about wanting to try sex with men for the first time. even though he is engaged to marry in a month and has never had sex with men, he was curious to try it. His general attitude was “why not?”. Also, when Juliette and Colleen came to visit, we accidentally ended up wandering around darb el 2a7mar, cairo’s notorious haven for drug-trafficking gangs (we were lost on way to the zaher beibars mosque). Normally, 2 chicks in tank tops and a gay guy wandering on foot around poverty-stricken alleyways of a dangerous neighborhood where no tourist had set foot, would have ended up with someone getting gang banged. But instead, only one teenager approached us to take a picture with us for his Instagram followers.
5. on the gay scene, it appears that everyone under 25 is now out and fiercely proud. I met my first gay person within a day of landing through my high school friends who were dying to introduce us, and he brazenly flirted with me in the presence of 40 straight people, made out with me in the corner at their house party, as if we were at a gay bar. And it was hardly an exception. I went to a straight night club with straight friends and there was a lesbian couple on the dance floor making out and no one tried to lynch them – and hardly anyone stared. in the bathroom line, 2 men came out of the stall together and not one guy in the line made a comment (which is the norm in NYC, but a7na fe masr sha3b 7ishari betab3oh so that was particularly unusual). And then the gay bar i went to had dance poles and men making out in corners, and the bar was right across the street from the ministry of interior.
I think this brazenness is partly due to revolution ethos and partly due to the internet penetration rate (internet penetration in egypt in 2004 was around 4%. it is now hovering around 60%). generally, the fact that everyone has internet available at their fingertips on their smartphones makes the culture a lot less parochial and more worldly than it used to be. And thanks to the revolution, people are a lot less afraid than they used to be. And so the LGBT community has blossomed in the process. SO many gay bars and parties and little social groups. There are thousands of men on Tinder sharing their real names and Facebook profiles and Instagram accounts. For the Instagram generation, anonymity and discretion just aren’t in their lexicon the way my peers were. the first day i arrived, a cute Syrian 21-year old boy (lots of Syrian refugees too, that’s another thing i noticed. i think they hover over half a million now according to gov stats) wanted to take me on a date, and insisted we should go to a tattoo parlor (tattoo parlors have become ubiquitous). He informed me that i can’t have a mustache like that without a hip tattoo to go with it. I didn’t think the day would come where i’d be too square for Cairo.
(This is him, below)
6. In the art world, lots of change as well. So many galleries have sprung up in downtown Cairo (which is having a renaissance of its own). i went to an exhibition by an artist, who among other things, took screenshots of his Grindr conversations (see below) with other gay men during the revolution juxtaposing the political and the sexual. and he’s showing at one of the biggest galleries in Cairo (on a side note, i got looped to help plan the first Cairo Art Week in November).
7. Spirituality has also experienced a renaissance of sorts. Atheist have become a visible force. Again, i don’t have any governmental statistics to back me up, but of the 30 or so high school friends, all of which were appalled when i first announced by disdain for allah 15 years ago – now 90% of them are agnostic. that’s a huge change. Also, i was in Abbasiya on christmas eve and i couldn’t even get to the cathedral like i wanted: there were thousands upon thousands of christian flooding the downtown streets. and when the president visited the cathedral and gave his speech, i was too far from the cathedral to even hear it, but the raucous and jubilant crowds on the street were cheering his arrival with such fervor, i felt the ground was shaking a bit – no ruler of Egypt has participated in christmas mass since the Arab invasion 1500 years ago, so for them its particularly symbolic that he’s there. Also, a general brazenness about copts that i felt in daily interactions (neighbors responding to islamic greetings from my aunt with “massa2 el nour”, or distributing nativity scene sweets to all their muslim neighbors for christmas, small gestures that were simply unheard of before). I think people are just generally a lot less afraid than they used to be, is my general assessment across the board. Every mall i entered had a christmas tree and a brown santa claus (and occasionally, midgets dressed as elves). Tahrir square erected a huge Hybrid Moulid-Christmas Tree (mohamed’s and jesus’s bdays fell on the same week this year).
8. Other cultural observations: there is an explosion in number of yoga and buddhist centers. Two acquaintances tried to recruit me to a Transcendental Meditation group(that american-based David Lynch cult that i love so much). Ras Sedr, where my mom has a beach house, used to be a sleepy little town on the way to sharm. Now, it is home to a huge annual burning-man-like festival where people consume psychedelic drugs and live in tents and make music and large art installations.
So much more to tell you. These past 3 weeks have been a whirlwind of new adventures. Overall, i love it here.