I had a brief sojourn in Beirut recently visiting lovely friend Hadeel. I was only there for four days so didn’t really get a chance to sit down with it and ask it about its hobbies and future ambitions in any depth. I also had some mystery stomach turbulence and at the airport saw a woman and her young daughter in matching t-shirts reading “love you baby” above a picture of said baby, a hairy, non-descript man wearing sunglasses looking smug. This made the stomach turbulence worse. So all in all I was glad to board the plane back to the motherland, despite Egypt mostly being an overflowing vat of never ending heartbreak at the moment.
The plane was really badly behaved upon landing, the worst I have ever witnessed. Egyptians are in my personal experience genetically programmed to stand up while aircrafts are still in motion in order to frantically retrieve hand luggage. This was the longest taxiing ever and the harried air hostesses spent the entire time bombing up and down the aisle demanding that passengers do el ma3roof and park their fucking arses until the plane actually stops. One woman sitting right at the back actually half-heartedly attempted to fake passing out in an attempt to jump the queue and get off first! The air hostesses were wise to her game.
My heart was warmed immediately at the airport by the familiar sound of loud Egyptian invectives, and the glorious spectacle of two middle-aged men half-arsed fighting by the suitcase carousel. You know that loose limbed pawing at each other men in street altercations do while they wait for someone to intervene, like small kittens rearing up at their own reflections. All very infra dig. Eventually someone materialised and wrestled them apart very easily and one of the men stormed off with his trolley re-adjusting his combover.
Then a sour faced policeman of a not very high rank took umbrage about something a colleague of a slightly lower rank said.
BAS YABN EL METNAKA he shouted, one foot on the seat of a chair, elbow resting on knee, fingers cradling a cigarette, other finger pointed into his seated colleague’s face in a threatening and unpleasant manner. All in all it was the perfect welcome back and I mean that sincerely.
Every year we say this is the worst that Egypt has ever been or a variant on that and then the next year we are always proved liars. I remember standing on Qasr el Nil Bridge with Sharshar and other friends (two of whom subsequently migrated abroad in the early days of the revolution, ahead of the curve) in 2010 and we remarked how everything felt stale and stagnant and shit. It was around the same time of the year as now, and the air was thick with the putrid stench of the burning rice fields that floats down from the Delta and assaults Cairo, marking the start of winter, just as it is now. There was a sense of resignation to things never changing, at least within my circles, even though 2010 had been relatively tumultuous politically.
Four months later protesters waged an epic battle with the police on that very bridge. The battle when people performed the afternoon prayer while being sprayed with water canon, and were shot and teargassed and run over. So we were wrong, things did change wonderfully and briefly. And now the dust has settled again on a status quo that is grimmer than anything we could ever have imagined in 2010.
The inevitable, painful, question is whether it was worth it, whether those lives shattered and destroyed have laid the groundwork for something or are just gone. This isn’t a question we (people who lived through it and supported it) can answer – not only because we perhaps don’t (yet) know but because of the impossibility of answering objectively. Wishing for a world where it never happened would re-animate the dead, return sight to lost eyes, unbreak shattered bones. It would free thousands of political detainees. But it would mean the death of those fleeting moments of untrammelled hope and happiness, of friendships, even love, found during the battle of Mohamed Mahmoud and then lost, of the possibility of a future we are now trying to un-see, of that tomorrow that never came but of which we got a glimpse. How can we wish for that never to have happened, when it has become part of those that lived it – even if today it is a hidden scar. That time we jumped off a cliff reaching for the moon.
During the recent Eid holidays I went downtown. Throngs of young men pulsated through the streets in their Eid best clothes. The street lights in Talat Harb square were not working. Car headlamps cut through the gloom, briefly illuminating the packs of strutting youths in their multicoloured finery and preposterous haircuts. The crowds and the darkness combined with the incessant fog horning of the vuvuzelas made for something of a nightmarish scene, and the atmosphere was fleetingly reminiscent of the protests of 2011 at their most animated. In Tahrir Square families picnicked on the grass watched by bored soldiers in armed personnel carriers parked at the entrance to the square. Parents do not hold up infants to be photographed with them anymore, nobody poses in front of them. They are just more street furniture.
Overall it felt like the celebrations when Egypt wins the African Cup. That same brand of joyous, neutral, overwhelmingly masculine energy. The ghosts of January 25 are all still there, the faces painted on the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street staring out accusingly at all their work undone. But there are times when the events of 2011 - 2013 seem almost apocryphal. It is only the regime’s revenge-driven torment of individuals associated with it that keep its memory alive. But that will stop eventually and then the embers will die out completely and the real revolution will live only in our heads, where perhaps it always was anyway.