So, I’m in Cairo. I lived here for over five years around the millennium shift so everything is very familiar. Yet I’m finding it difficult to orientate myself in this new post-January 25 Egypt.
When I arrived on Wednesday, I sat in the same familiar traffic jam between the airport and Garden City. Later on, I took the Metro to Hadayek El Zeitoun to visit friends there, and I saw exactly the same kind of courtesy as I used to see ten years ago: people offering their seats to others who needed them more, or people sharing water bottles as the Ramadan fast ended between two metro stops. And the hospitality offered by my friends in Zeitoun is pretty difficult to match – even though starting to eat a huge meal at 1.30AM is not something I do very often. Or ever.
Yet this morning, I’m reading that a 15-year old boy was killed during demonstrations in Zeitoun yesterday. For me, this creates this feeling of unreality. I was happily I chatting to two boys selling sweets by the Hadayek El Zeitoun Metro station (and who very well could have been 15) while waiting for my friends there just three days ago.
Are we talking about the same Zeitoun?
I also read in the news about the planned Friday of Rage yesterday, on the anniversary of the ousting of President Morsi, and I must admit I was a bit tense walking past Tahrir Square and crossing the Kasr El Nil bridge. Yet everything was completely quiet and peaceful. Tahrir was empty. I spent the day in Zamalek, shopping at the best bookshop in a Cairo – Diwan – and having breakfast at Beano’s and lunch in the garden of the Marriott Hotel. There were lots of Westerners out and about in Zamalek. Taxis honking their horns like crazy. And parts of Zamalek are just as green as leafy as they used to be when I lived here in 1996.
I walked back to Garden City at sunset and an Egyptian man in galabeyia offered to share his Iftar meal with me as I walked along the Nile, passing El Borg Street. So once again, everything seemed so very normal and familiar. And yet, around midnight there were tweets with people asking why the Kasr El Nil bridge has been closed off, and some people tweeting back saying that a bomb was being defused in El Borg Street. Which I had walked past just a few hours earlier.
Are we talking about the same Zamalek?
I know I can’t lock myself into my hotel room for seven days, but all these conflicting impressions make me uncertain of what attitude to take to personal safety. The fabric of Egyptian society seems very sturdy and resilient and above all unchanged when it comes to what I’m seeing with my own eyes. But then I’m reading all this stuff online at the same time. Like five Metro stations being bombed the week before last. Or pictures on Twitter showing large demonstrations around Cairo yesterday (though not at Tahrir).
Many of my Egyptian friends here say things like, “I won’t let these things stop me from going anywhere. I’m not afraid.” And then I see this picture on Twitter that has been retweeted 56 times since yesterday.
However much I admire the I’m-not-afraid stance, walking past this, I’m sure I’d walked as far away from this bomb disposal attempt as I possibly could. And rather quickly, too.
In addition to seeing my friends here, there is just so much to see in this wonderful, bustling city. But should I avoid the Metro at all cost after the bombings? Well, I don’t want to get stuck in a taxi that is suddenly caught up in a demonstration somewhere either. And most places I want to see are too far for walking. Should I just stay near my hotel? Or go about my business as usual?