A Portrait of Egypt
A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam
By Mary Anne Weaver
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2000 Mary Anne Weaver
All rights reserved.
THE STREETS OF CAIRO ARE LIKE NO OTHER STREETS IN THE world. Every corner, every crevice, every alleyway seems to be inhabited. Crowds of pedestrians and traffic jostle for space, and noise is everywhere — a pervasive din of car horns tooting, street vendors hawking their wares, and muezzins, their voices shrilly amplified, calling the faithful to prayers. I imagine that there was a time when the streets of every great city resounded with hawkers' cries, but now they are to be found only in cities such as this. Here in Cairo, in the centuries-old Khan el-Khalili Bazaar, there are still itinerant sellers of roasted nuts, of discarded metal, of baskets and paraffin, of shawls, of trinkets, and of ornaments. The calls that have vanished from other great cities still echo here. This is one of my most vivid impressions of that first day, a bright June morning in 1977, when I first ventured into Cairo's alleyways. In dark basements, old men were ironing old clothes. In dark alleys, young men dressed in Islamic robes were selling cassettes of sermons delivered at "popular" — as opposed to official government — mosques. Yet it is perhaps a shy little boy from that first day in Cairo whom I remember the most.
I met him by chance in a corner coffeehouse, inside a covered market at the edge of the bazaar. It was, in fact, a rather strange coffeehouse, as I remember it now, with photographs of the Ayatollah Khomeini (who was still in exile near Paris) and PLO chairman Yasir Arafat competing for attention on its greasy walls. The smells were of freshly ground coffee, garlic, and dung; the loudest sound, coming through an open window, was the chant of a mullah — or interpreter of Islamic religious law — amplified by a loudspeaker attached to a nearby mosque. As I got up to leave, the little boy attached himself to me and offered to show me around. He wore a flat woolen cap of a style favored by Afghanistan's Pashtun tribe, and a black-and-white Palestinian kaffiyeh hung from his small shoulders like a shawl: it looked as though he were attempting to blend all the world's militant Islamic movements into one.
As we began walking through the narrow alleys, shambolic with their stalls, shallow recesses, and small dark shops, the colors were of yellow, gray, and ocher — the colors of dust. Cairo's alleys, along with its temples, its mosques and pyramids, continue to awe, as they have awed adventurers from Caesar to Napoleon, and have been immortalized by Flaubert and Melville, Florence Nightingale and Naguib Mahfouz. Various different pasts intruded into our present as we walked: Roman aqueducts, medieval mosques, and the famed al-Fishawi's, a Napoleonic-era coffeehouse. Fragments of old buildings poked out of the rubble, and we peered at them: wooden-latticed balconies, arabesque inscriptions, and gingerbread grilles. Cairo, more than any other capital city I have ever known, is overwhelmingly linked to its past.
It is difficult to be neutral about Cairo; at least, it has always been difficult for me. It is so old, so steeped in history, so diversified that when we lived there I always thought of it as four or five different places at once — a great, infuriating, ramshackle, remarkable city, set superbly on the Nile. For centuries, it had been the citadel of Islamic learning and thought — enlightened, civilized, yet secular and chic. It is also violent, vigorous, and vivid. It assaults you every day.
Egyptians love to talk about Egypt, and they confess that they often find it baffling themselves. It is a place where the Eastern, as well as the Western, mind frequently has to adjust. The paradoxes are palpable, like the poverty, the indifference and squalor, and the grotesque displays of wealth; the impression of a country with a civilization going back five thousand years but inchoate, formless, built insecurely upon the ruins of its past. Yet there is something immutable about it which is difficult to trap — that spirit of place which haunted me while I was there. I often asked Egyptian friends how they would explain that elusive yet seductive appeal which overshadows broken pavements, air filled with dust, poverty as debilitating as Calcutta's. It announced its presence in abundant form; its definition, however, proved far more inscrutable. Various answers have been attached to my question over the years, none particularly edifying, but then, Egypt has always been a place that provoked more questions than answers. That is part of its appeal.
I often wonder if anyone has ever been fully able to comprehend the enigmatic smiles of the Pharaonic sculptures, the colossal effigies of the tombs of Upper Egypt, which have always filled me with a sense of foreboding and unease. Or the spirit that is somehow entrapped in the feluccas, as they glide serenely down the Nile, as flirtatious as a courtesan in Cleopatra's time? How does one explain the magic of those moments that confront you in the desert, always at one's elbow here, as the sun is just beginning to rise or just beginning to set, or in the hundreds of villages and towns that stand in muted form, encased in a patina carried by the desert's wind?
Modern Cairo was built in the early twentieth century to house three million people; by 1977 it was bursting with more than five million exuberant Cairenes. Brightly painted carts of garbage collectors, herds of goats and sheep competed with the city's 250,000 private cars. Even then Cairo — the Islamic world's largest city — was one of the most congested in the Middle East, perhaps in the world. I was told that it was a difficult, if not impossible, place in which to live. There were recurrent power failures; food shortages were sometimes acute. I could often find imported cheese and caviar in the market, but not flour or local soap. It was often impossible to telephone an apartment downstairs. Cairo specializes in a state of total pandemonium.
Yet on the tony island of Zamalek, where we lived, there was a sense of the world that came before — old Edwardian mansions, now mostly in disrepair, and large, untended lawns shaded by cypresses and eucalyptus; broad avenues spoke of being traversed by carriage and horse. Life remained gracious on this side of the Nile. There were hostesses and soirees, afternoon teas, poetry readings. The conversation was often of politics, of Voltaire and Kant. There was the feeling that Egypt was drifting — no one knew where.
I remember those early evenings, when we sat on well-appointed terraces overhanging the Nile, and looked across the water at the slum of Imbaba; we speculated on its lifestyle. Its population density was 105,000 people per 2.2 square miles; an average of 3.7 people lived in every room. On our side of the Nile, the level of literacy was among the highest in the world; in Imbaba, the average income was thirty dollars a month. Here, four languages were normally spoken at dinner parties, served by candlelight; rooms were filled with books. There, hidden away in the alleys, far from our understanding or view, sheep, goats, and children drank from open sewers, and, after dark, some neighborhoods yielded to packs of wild dogs. I remember one evening in particular as I watched with friends the flickering lights of a funeral procession passing through Imbaba. The next morning, we read in the newspaper that two children had been eaten alive by rats.
What I had only begun to glimpse during those early years was that the real Egypt was two Egypts — at least two. There was our world in Zamalek and theirs in Imbaba, separated by the serpentine Nile. There was Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta hugging the Mediterranean Sea. There was the present and there was the past, but the future was indefinite and ill defined.
In much of the Middle East, the future has been buried by the past. Today's Egypt is a monument and also a hostage to its ancient past. It gave the world the Pharaonic dynasties, the Gezira Sporting Club, and the Pyramids, those most magnificent of all monuments. But it has a darker side as well, in which not only does its present battle its past but secularists battle Islamists, and Islamists battle Christian Copts; astonishing poverty coalesces uneasily with astonishing wealth. Egyptians — unlike Westerners, who sometimes romanticize their ancient land — are their own fiercest critics, railing against their repression and corruption, their apartheids, their lack of democracy, their prisons filled with forgotten men, and their barriers between their own people as unrelenting as India's system of caste.
Every morning, just after nine o'clock, Miss Pennypecker used to take her morning walk. She began rather slowly and a bit stiffly because of arthritis in her leg, but by the time she reached the Nile her gait had hastened and her dignity had swelled, since she had survived, miraculously, I always thought, the school buses that rattled down the narrow streets and the speeding cars, the hucksters selling fruits and vegetables, exotic essences of perfumes, hot cereals and cheeses and flat baladi bread. She clearly relished the high-speed game of defying the oncoming buses and cars and, at the same time, springing free of the morning merchants, dark-eyed women and men dressed in long, flowing galabiyas, who sat cross-legged on the sidewalks or squatted on the curbs. They fused with the traffic on both sides of the road.
Miss Pennypecker, in a sense, was my introduction to Cairo. Before I saw her, I heard her voice on an otherwise uneventful morning shortly after dawn. It was a high-pitched voice, not entirely on key, yet not altogether off, that was rising and falling to "God Save the King" outside our bedroom door. I stumbled out of bed and to the door and there she was, ironing linens in the narrow hallway of Saint Miriam's. It was a small Coptic monastery set in the heart of Zamalek, which rented out four or five rooms — a sober yet tasteful place, with high lofted ceilings, a flagstone courtyard, and windows framed by arabesque tiles. We lived there for a week or so after our arrival while our apartment was being prepared; Miss Pennypecker lived there because she had nowhere else to go.
She had spent fifty-three of her seventy-five years in Egypt, having "come out," as she said, as a missionary on a tramp steamer from England in 1924. She was tall and lanky and always reminded me a bit of a stork. She had sharp, well-chiseled features, a prominent beaklike nose, and spindly legs. Tufts of frizzy gray hair framed her aquiline face, and rimless spectacles balanced precariously on her nose. She was a no-nonsense woman who was governed by a few simple rules: a morning walk to assist her constitution; common sense to confront the unsettling changes in her life; and, above all, an abiding loyalty to the Crown. She believed that the British had behaved abominably when they quit Egypt and left another part of the Empire behind, including her.
But she was neither self-pitying nor self-indulgent about her fate. Miss Pennypecker was nothing if not matter-of-fact.
One morning as she loped alongside the Nile and I struggled behind, I asked her what the high point of her years in Egypt had been.
"The Revolution of 1919," she replied.
"But you weren't yet here."
She then taught me a lesson that I would not forget.
Imagination, she told me, was demanded here.
She went on to say that the "Revolution" — not a stunning revolution, as revolutions go — was, in a way, still going on. For although the original might have been ambivalent and highly flawed — and consisted largely of a series of anti-British demonstrations, which were provoked by Britain's refusal to negotiate Egypt's independence after World War I — it had ushered in the Liberal Age, as it is called. "So, you see," she said with emphatic dismissal, "it was a revolution, after all."
After spending nearly ten years coming to and going from Egypt, I would eventually agree. Then, however, I was not at all convinced, and I persisted with Miss Pennypecker, with as much persistence as good manners would permit.
She looked at me with exasperation, as I remember a favored grammar-school teacher once had done, and finally replied, "It was a revolution because, for the first time in two thousand three hundred years, the Egyptians finally said, 'We want to rule ourselves.'"
I was startled but, as always, Miss Pennypecker was right. For 2,284 years, to be precise — from the arrival of Alexander the Great, in 332 B.C., until the abdication of King Farouk, in 1952 — Egyptians, in spite of their deep-seated sense of nationhood, had been ruled, without interruption, by foreigners.
"What was it like when the British left?" I asked Miss Pennypecker as we settled into wicker chairs at an elevated tea shop that overhung the Nile. Before responding, she pulled out a set of diaries, which she had squirreled away in the recesses of a large straw handbag, a product, like Miss Pennypecker, of an earlier age.
"Ignominious," she answered, and her voice trailed off as she seemed to be studying life on the Nile. Boats skirted across the water: speedboats; paddleboats; boats filled with produce, straining under its weight; boats filled with tourists, some bikini-clad. And, as always, the feluccas were there. Just beyond them, on the other side of the Nile, downtown Cairo continued to define itself: a hazy skyline of five-star hotels, soaring apartment buildings, squat mustard-colored villas and other forgotten nineteenth-century forms; bridges and flyovers; sulfurous smog, and the towering domes and minarets of a dozen or so mosques.
Miss Pennypecker finally turned back to me and said, "But the departure of the English was long overdue. Such innocents abroad we were: clumsy, noisy, waving the Union Jack. If I were a gambler, I would wager to say that not more than a handful of our colonial officials even spoke Arabic." Miss Pennypecker, needless to say, spoke it flawlessly.
Nostalgia seemed to guide her as she leafed through a diary, now yellowed with age, until she found the entry from June 1956. She had taken the train from Upper Egypt to Port Said to attend the final Trooping of the Colors, when the last of the Empire's eighty thousand troops, who had been guarding the Suez Canal zone, left. She was wearing — as she was wearing now — a wide-brimmed straw hat and a long cotton dress. She also wore the silver cross that always hung from her neck. Inside her picnic hamper, a touch romantic, she said, among the bottles of water, bread, and cheese, she had packed a small Union Jack. The two-day train trip had been arduous: sweltering hot, the second-class compartment was rancid with cigarette smoke, and grit, and squalls of dust. But it would be worth it in the end, so Miss Pennypecker endured, frequently wetting a lace handkerchief and holding it to her head. She arrived in Port Said around lunchtime, she recalled, and immediately went in search of the honor guard, the bagpipes and brass bands. She anticipated that moment in history when, after seventy-four years, the red, white, and black colors of Egypt would replace the Union Jack.
It was the first time she had felt betrayed by Empire and Crown. For there would be no Trooping of the Colors, no bagpipes or brass bands. The Second Battalion of the Grenadier Guards and the D Squadron of the Life Guards had departed quietly before dawn. No confetti, no streamers, nothing was left behind.
Standing alone on the empty dock, Miss Pennypecker called out, "Where are the English?"
"They left early," an old man who now approached her replied. "They didn't want an Egyptian brass band seeing them off."
Miss Pennypecker took her Union Jack out of her picnic hamper and dropped it into the sea. As she watched it float away, she realized how much she didn't understand.
I wondered how much the British understood, or the Americans now, who had begun to arrive in Cairo in early 1979, scores and scores of them, like an army of ants. They had come to shore up Anwar Sadat and his authoritarian regime, a reward of sorts for Sadat's bold initiative in securing Middle Eastern — or at least an Egyptian-Israeli — peace. By the time of our arrival, Egypt was assuming immense strategic importance to U.S. interests in the Middle East; by the time of our departure, at the end of 1979, it had been transformed into the hub of Washington's Middle Eastern policy. The United States has an enormous stake in its Army-backed regime. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Portrait of Egypt by Mary Anne Weaver. Copyright © 2000 Mary Anne Weaver. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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