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The Colosseum: Returning from Empty.

Later on someone will tell me "Stop trying to make sense of it, just write about what little you see" In that spirit:

For what feels like the first time in months, I am in a blue sky with the sun above my head. 

Berlin Solidarity demonstration against harassment in Egypt, 25.02.2013 
A wish everyone in Berlin is currently expressing is an escape from what has been said to be the grayest winter since winters began being recorded and documented. Having suffered that greyness long enough, and business leading me to Cairo, I am glad to report that the sky remains blue and wide above the cover of clouds. The sun is still hanging in the sky, the clouds, so grey form below, turn into an endless white carpet covering and hiding Germany, until it disappears from sight.

This carpet seems to be covering all of Europe- a mountain peak here, a lake there, a hole in the clouds that looks like a floating island… We don't see any land until we're over Africa, and an ever-expanding network of lights tells us the ground below us is Alexandria, Damietta, and finally a field of lights tells us we are over Cairo. As we approach, laser scopes are aimed at our plane from rooftops. I can't help think "No-one is going to be able to shoot out my eye at this range."

I have an unusually quiet, pious and young cab driver who does not seem to want to engage in conversation tonight. The airport staff cheer him jokingly as he carries my duffel bag to the cab. Inside, he turns on a blaring recital of the Qu'ran, the reverb drowning out any hope of conversation. He honks at cars with "Nour" stickers in the window, while telling me that demonstrations broken out again and caused massive congestion on the bridges. We make it downtown in half an hour, which is, by Cairo standards, fast. The fare has doubled since last year- or the avarice. 

We will impose the Shari'a, even if that means disobeying it!
Graffiti near Mohammad Mahmoud. 
An air of tiredness hangs over the city, the dusty smell of exhaustion after two years of civil uprising. After the euphopric optimism of the past two years, attempts to realise the demands of the revolution quickly, reality has begun to sink in. Politics has once again become a convoluted, mono-polised topic which no-one can agree on- polarised is a word I often hear in relation to the current state of Egypt. Polarised against who, is the question this begs. The liberal revolutionaries hate the MB, the Salafis and the Army- remnants of a conflict from the past. The MB hate everyone who isn't like them. The Salafis hate the MB and the Revolutionaries. The Army seems to hate everyone in equal parts, while professing to be the peoples servant

The streets are empty at night. Walking from home, I wonder if there is a curfew in effect, then realise that the current climate is not conductive to Cairos night-life. The economic situation of Egypt feels dire- a friendly shopkeeper tells me there is no tourism and the foreigners, who are usually very abundant in this part of town, have left, unless they have a specific mandate to stay. The cafés, usually filled with life day and night, are empty. 

The next morning, the town still feels empty. The din of traffic feels fainter, less overpowering. While this may be good for the environment, it is not good for morale. Many of the smaller workshops have closed, barricades have been erected in most parts of the city to protect properties, embassies or ministries. The police is back on the streets, except where it is needed- attempting to regulate the traffic, still a constant stream of cars, uncrossable by the uninitiated. In stead, they, and the Central Security Forces engage in almost daily clashes with the occupiers of Tahrir. "Oh, they were only light clashes today", someone comments, as if talking about the weather. 

"Dysfunction and abberation have become our normality- we have grown so used to it that we don't shrug when someone steals cows from our set." "It's the Brothers, then the Salafis will take over, or the army will stage a coup". "Things were better under Mubarak" "The Black Block has set police cars on fire" "The army i waiting for enough blood to flow to take over again" "We need to gut the country and rebuild it from scratch" "The Jews are better than the Muslim Brotherhood."


Painted Statue of Ismail Pasha in front of the 
Moggma' on Tahrir Square
"We have seen millions on the street, we have seen two millions- we need to try something new" for some reason, many conversations of effective forms of resistance turn into talk of naked dancing in the streets. I would like to suggest Tango on Tahrir, painting the Mogammaa', the archive of all civil life in Egypt since Nassers times, in Rainbow colours with polka dots of happy, naked Salafis and paint-bombing downtown Cairo. Alternatively pornography screenings in public space. 








"Howa fee?" (Is there) I ask "Laa', mafeesh" (No, there is not), they mostly answer. I write that answer, mafeesh "There is nothing" on the walls, in four colours: Red for blood, gold for money, silver for culture and black for law. I forgot to bring a green pen. And I would very much like to write "Fee" which means there is, but the only thing abundant at the moment would require the green pen. The complaining is wearying, yet everyone seems to understand my complaint.

Breakfast is served! And it comes in the shape of mini foul and macrobiotic, yet microform taameyya. Here, there definitley "fee". Except for croissants "In an hour.". We order food and an endless, lavishly served and arranged series of meals and teas. We talk of  sunshine and international projects- most of which are based on an interest in exploring historical and decentral culture. It is a surreal scene, with dancers and opera singers, after walking home, nostrils filled with tear gas the past few days.

Watching "The Secret Capital", a film on the revolutions in the countryside, the aryaf, brings to the collective attention that these very places are curently in active revolt- beyond football tournaments during curfew hours, the revolution is currently taking place outside of Cairo. The chants in the film remind the audience of their duty to change the county- hearing it from those who are, in Cairo, considered the "simple country people" reenforces that message. Mustamirra, ongoing, as they say. 

مفيش \ There is not. Pen on Poster on Wall in Mahmoud Bassiouny
Discussions on the state of the country, apart from a general disdain for Mr. Morsi, revolve around what will happen after him. Comparisons are being made with the last days of the Mubarak regime, a bunker mentality disconnected from the people. He and his staff have not done very much for the country, despite promises being made. People seem to be wary of another hasty mass uprising to topple their newest president. He has, according to most of my (non-Islamist) interlocutors, lost the respect of all Egyptians. He has become the national clown, in stead of the president the country needs. Many theories describe him as someones puppet- it is unclear who the puppeteer is. 

Events of last year come full circle as the verdict is read on the perpetrators of the Port Said violence. It will be fair or there will be violence. Small demonstrations have erupted all over Alexandria, Cairo. Port Said has been in violent revolt for weeks. A cab driver takes us on a tour of buildings that have burnt down in recent events. He describes the events in a friendly way, as if talking about the pyramids. It's true- I have become jaded. Frieke, the intern accompanying me on this trip, is constantly and happily excited- I'm glad she's there as a sounding board. 

On the last evening, after arriving very late (always the traffic- oh and the walls) a boat is taken to the middle of a quiet Nile- laughter, talk and a James Bond moment, afterwards, a birthday. The world is all right for a moment. I am finally tired. 

Writing a few weeks later, under two blankets in Berlin, a different topic, and context, leads me to thinking that many of the conversations I have had were about the Egyptian Identity- a parallel discussion is happening in Tunis- is it or is it not  Islamic? Does the identity of the individual Egyptian predate the invasion of the country by the Arabs 1400 years earlier? What role does the Coptic, the Byzantine, the Pharaonic play? Is Egypt a whole, or separated into regions of different ethnicities? Does it have a sense of humour?

Many are now musing on very essential questions of "Who am I" and "Where do I come from?" "Who are my people?" in their personal politics. Current events are once again an indicator of an extreme this can take- if proven true, on an international level.

One of my favourite quotes from this trip: 
"Here is the museum of Egyptian Civilisation. It's abandoned."
Sarcasm has been the refuge and release valve for the Egyptian people for a long time- making fun of politics behind closed doors, occasionally of religious figures. Dirty humour about daily occurrences is rooted in every Egyptian. It branches out into subgenres, but the basic flavour remains the same. The recent trial of satire, as embodied by Bassem Youssef, Egypt's Jon Stewart . The valid standpoint, standing up for intellectual and moral content on television, does not allow you to curtail another's freedom of expression. 





Bassem, as everyone refers to the TV host whom at least two of my cab drivers have attributed a benign comedic ginan,  craziness, to. He is universally loved or universally switched off, but is an occasionally hilarious vent for the current tensions and often-mentioned polarisation in the country. It is watched in bars, cafés and many million homes in an hour of reverent communal laughter on Friday nights. His brand of sharp, political satire, adapted to the Egyptian sarcasm and flavour, has more media impact than most political events and addresses combined. 


Someone, several ones, once remarked to me that he continues in his practice as a doctor- where does he find the time to research for his  programme? On the last episode, the team of El-Barnameg thanked Mr. Morsi for putting such effort into the show. The hearing has since taken place, Bassem has been released on Bail. The charges of insulting the president an Islam are adjourned. Americas Jon Stewart (who should start opening real regional offices, or at least trademarking his name), the model and once host of Bassem, has added his voice to the conversation, playing clips of Mr. Morsi comparing Zionists to pigs and monkeys. These were played beforehand on German TV, and commented on "We cannot think of a context in which this is not offensive." In context, the clips are almost terrorist rethoric about Israel, Zionism and the Palestinian peace process.

The accusers, and the hoax of an arrest warrant being issued against Jon (the one that is not Bassem) Stewart, show that in the divided Egyptian society, people are willing to go to extremes to keep up appearances. Appearances already being bad enough, with Egypt being classified as a country more dangerous to visit than the Yemen, the economy at a low point and sexual harassment in Egypt on autocomplete during web searches, it is difficult to imagine what the trial of a comedian providing a useful, though showy service 
to his country, will say to the world. However,it is this, the more light-hearted part of the ongoing revolution, that is under attack, as the Islamists seem to be in the process of establishing a serious and sombre monoculture, scaring many into leaving the country. 

The idea of the trial is reminiscent of the Mubarak era, in that no-one was allowed to make fun of religion, politics or much else on television in his era. One was not even allowed to request the Prodigy in the nineties (Yes, Hala Hashish, I mean you). One of the hard- gained freedoms after the uprising is the liberty to express your thoughts, as you think them and without the need for self- censorship. This includes political satire on television. Apparently someone is of the opinion that this is un- Egyptian, or that Egyptians cannot be exposed to this for fear of corruption. One wonders if that side-track is the contemporary version of bread and games. In stead of gladiators, lawyers and defendants. In stead of Caesars thumbs, the judge. In stead of a roaring crowd cheering or ranting in the colosseum, on the streets, the city feels the repercussions of every verdict. 


Background is what has made the show popular- a shared life and reality with those the programme is aimed at, allthough the distance to real life seems to be currently increased by 150 bodyguards, according to some reports. They watched clips of the show during the trial. Maybe the prosecutor and the satirist had a laugh together in high court. Nevertheless, Bassems summoning there is a mark of the changes that have come to Egypt- the fashion of hiding your crookery behind a beard. The presidency, that chief contributor to the show, is apparently not connected in any way. But it is bearing the full burnt of a comedic backlash- from comedians and news medians alike.

Meanwhile, a new wave of repression has spread in Egypt. Bassem may be in the docket, but he is the exception to the rule of prominent activists getting arrested anonymously, sometimes from their homes. Again, the word diversion springs to mind, yet in this charge political atmosphere, it is the kind of diversion that may bring the already heated sentiments to boiling over. 

What will April bring?

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