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Reflections on an Earlier Cairo

I remember landing early evening in Cairo on June 13, 1973 as though it were yesterday, the sun still shining, the air hot and dusty. I remember packed buses transporting us to the terminal. Entering, we passed by what seemed like an army of soldiers casually brandishing old rifles and flashing friendly smiles of welcome. I thought of Egypt’s former president, the firebrand Gamal Abdel Nasser, of my political science classes and wondered what he would have thought of his troops at that moment.

I was one of fifty American students who came to Egypt to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo. I remember the battalion of American University of Cairo officials who came to greet us. But, before we could reach them on the other side of the airport, we had to undergo initiation into the infamous sci-fi-esque labyrinth of Egyptian bureaucracy, procuring endless visas and clearing customs. Many entries into Egypt since that day convinced me how lucky we were to be met and assisted by the AUC expeditors who came with a welcoming hand.

Assembled at the exit after clearing customs and retrieving luggage, I noticed that the sun had set at last. The sky was a deep dark blue, but out to the horizon lay vast expanses of dark desert. We boarded a bus with no air conditioning. We sat in silence, exhausted but excited. Our decrepit bus reminded me of the lean, emaciated she-camels I read about in my Arabic literature classes which the ancient poets of Arabia elaborately described during their long night journeys through the desert.

In fact, most of what I knew and expected came from language, literature, religion, and government classes I took at Georgetown as an Arabic major. But what I came to encounter that next morning, and all those months that followed that first evening, bore little resemblance to the images in my textbooks. Of course, nothing was mentioned about the traffic, about donkey carts and old Peugeots bumping into each other on the main streets, or the flocks of sheep and even the occasional camel that stopped cars and pedestrians during rush hour. Nearly every corner of downtown Cairo had fruit and vegetable vendors selling produce brought in each morning from villages. Most Americans at that time weren’t ready for Cairo’s many aspects of life that could justifiably, but offensively, be termed “pre-modern.”  The small tin of Nescafe coffee was just about the only imported commodity in the market, and the newspapers and magazines sold at corner kiosks were local, with an occasional Time or Newsweek popping up here or there, frayed at the ages from being read and passed from hand to hand. Television and radio were local, and my months as a student during the Arab-Israeli 1973 War made me appreciate for the first time the joys of a free press.  We had read so much about Nasser, but everywhere we turned we saw photos of President Anwar Sadat, gracing the walls of government offices, restaurants, and cafes. We were never allowed to forget where we were and who was in change.  Life for us was uncomplicated in many ways, innocent, romantic, as long as we remained bitten by the Arabic bug, the metaphor we used at Georgetown for those of us who fell in love with Arabic and swooned over its language and culture. Orientalism à la Edward Said, perhaps, but we were gleefully smitten.

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My thoughts today turn to my students heading this summer to Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan, who will share the same excitement I felt when first landing in the real world of Arabic language and culture. But things have changed. Cairo over the past thirty-something years has witnessed massive urban sprawl, and once outside the airport, my students will immediately see hundreds of new blocks of high rise apartments, shops, cafes, and beauty salons. The vast expanses of desert have been pushed so far back that they will need to crane their necks and look far out into the distance to catch but a mere glimpse of them. When they take their first stroll through Maidan Tahrir, they will find copies of the New York Times, People Magazine, and perhaps a stray copy Wrestlers’ Digest. Above the rooftops they will see flocks of satellite dishes and locally made antennas. The street vendors and donkey carts are nowhere in sight. Gone are the days when Egyptians were restricted to local media to get their news of the world.  And most of all, those photos of Hosni Mubarak looking down in patriarchal severity at his “subjects” have been replaced with banners celebrating the revolution we now call the “Arab Spring.”

My students won’t savor that quaint, “pre-modern,” romantic Cairo I so affectionately recall of summer 1973.  Something really momentous happened this past January, as we all know.  The humpty-dumpty of the old world had its great fall and my students of Arabic will arrive in Cairo (Amman or Fez), and feel the excitement of the unknown, of new faces and images yet to be inscribed into textbooks, of a thriving, throbbing city, still noisy and polluted, but full of pride and hope.  How I, still smitten, envy them in so many, many ways.

William E. Granara is the Professor of the Practice of Arabic and Director of the Modern Languages Program.

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