December 16, 2004

From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Two: Are You a Muslim?

Read Part One.

The aspects of Cairo that most visitors find most offensive are the ones I found most charming. The medieval quarter, which apart from a jewelry or carpet shop is hardly visited at all by most tourists, provides hours of enchanted exploration to the traveler looking to be personally and culturally challenged. The dirt, the crowds, the squalor, and the livestock mingling amongst the vendor stalls, and even the incessant sales pitches from an endless stream of shady touts: all were part of its exotic charm and otherworldliness, together with the easy smiles of the Cairene children and men (never adult women, of course), whose lips were always ready with a sincere hello.

Cairo is pervasively religious as well, which those of us conditioned by secularism and an amorphous war on terrorism can find very unsettling. For me, however, the prevalence of religion there was precisely what made the city such a marvel and a joy. For example, conversations tend to begin abruptly on the street with a succinct 'Are you Muslim?' or, in the case of Christian Copts, with story after story of recent miraculous apparitions of the Virgin Mary. In this regard, Cairo seems to have retained a dimension hard to find in the West, where reminders of heaven's prerogatives are far fewer and more easily ignored. Not so in Cairo (and in most Muslim metropolises), where both the pious and impious are routinely confronted with the claims of conscience each time the call to prayer rings out from the city's fabled thousand minarets – even if the muezzin’s cry now comes from an audio cassette, and most residents respond with another bubbly hookah drag.

What had disturbed and ultimately exhausted me about Cairo, and which made me long for the monastery at Sinai, was far less obvious than smog or crowds. The city is tense; the whole civilization is tense – tense with the encounter between those two familiar and hackneyed poles of cultural opposition, variously labeled East and West, new and old, traditional and modern, nationalist and globalizing. Cairo's main physical divisions manifest this radical opposition, as if she were wearing it like a garment. To pass from globalizing Cairo, the part of the city built up along the east bank of the Nile, to what is called Islamic Cairo a bit further inland, is to go from night to day. The first was designed during the colonialist nineteenth century (and greatly expanded in the nationalist twentieth century), the second built by Saladin in the twelfth. The opposite journey is even more affecting, once the experience of the age and poverty of the medieval quarter has worked its magic and, however one interprets it, forced a change of perspective. As for the fully fledged globalized Cairo, where suburban compounds wall off from the rest of the city those Cairenes who are now integrated into the worldwide economy and culture, where flashy wealth and vulgar consumption reign – well, it hardly begs or deserves comment.

Islamic Cairo has captured the imagination of orientalists for over two centuries. Ever since Napoleon launched his Near Eastern adventure, when what had once been the world's most glorious medieval city re-entered the consciousness of a Europe poised for global empire, the old city has furnished a mental backdrop to the dreams of romantics seduced by sultry stories of oriental luxury and intrigue. The souks and crumbling madrasas, exquisite mosques and ornate Mamluk tombs, but also and more acutely the humble living spaces of the ordinary people and the vitality of their communities: for me, never before had an environment captured the ambience of the Middle Ages. As far as it is possible to imagine, life as it is lived today between Saladin's citadel and the northern necropolis must be as close to the life of a medieval city as one is likely to encounter. And it is precisely this life which sets old Cairo apart from the well-preserved medieval bits of Europe, whose old buildings might be better maintained, but only on the outside. The exterior of a Siena, a Vézelay or a Durham may look medieval, but its inner life is no longer so. Western Europe hasn't breathed the medieval spirit for many centuries, and someone looking for a window on to the Europe of powerful popes and chivalrous princes is likelier to find it in Egypt than in Italy or France.

So many features which must have been common sights in European cities but are unthinkable for them today are still present in old Cairo, which even now barely has internal plumbing or electricity. Decaying Ottoman sabils dwarf their modern equivalents, the small fountains that still supply water to a large segment of the population and which are paid for by the government in accordance with Islamic law. Whole neighborhoods of men and boys will crowd into a local shanty-café to gaze in rapt attention at a single television set, powered by illegally tapped electricity. One small cul-de-sac might contain a blacksmith's workshop in one basement, a stable for goats in another, and a small greengrocer in another, with the one-room flats above playing host to extended families of ten and even twenty, and the street below filled with clucking chickens and tray-loads of pita carried on the veiled heads of peasant women. Garbage trucks cannot squeeze down the narrow streets, so a scorned but invaluable underclass of rubbish collectors pushing dustcarts go from corner to corner gathering however much of the unbagged trash they can. The smell is often unbearable, but a thousand years ago it must have been a familiar one to travelers from the now-sanitized West.

Although these echoes of the past appeal to romantics and reactionaries, still all is not well in old Cairo. Desperation haunts its miles of winding streets and alleyways. It emanates from every hookah parlor, every porch, and every storefront. Collapsing reminders of a glorious traditional past contrast with recent efforts to salvage old buildings in the interests of tourism. These small islands of clean and calm amidst an ocean of deteriorating chaos only serve to reinforce the despair felt by the old city's residents, who still incline towards religion and tradition but whose ability to put them into practice is being undermined and made obsolete. Mosques which have been prayed in for centuries are out of bounds now as construction projects financed by foreign investors transform the old city into the fairy-land tourists from abroad want it to be. What was a thriving Sufi monastery two centuries ago is now scrubbed down and dolled up to provide commercial space for sellers of mass-produced Egyptian knick-knacks. A seventeenth-century mansion that would have once been a whole social organism in its own right is now a place for middle-class displays of Egyptian modern art. And everywhere throughout the old city, monuments and buildings are being renovated and reopened as fee-charging museums, which are a building's death-knell as far as genuinely lived-in architecture is concerned. Cairenes from the more prosperous parts of the city and foreign tourists can afford the ticket price and so their mania for an objectified past is satisfied. As for the people who live there, such places until recently and despite their decrepitude were still resonant with the spirit in which they were made, and provided Cairenes with their only links to a past that many still look to as a living source of inspiration, yet which is becoming harder and harder for them actually to feel or see. The onward march of progress transforms their neighborhoods, but not for their benefit. They are left behind to grow increasingly frustrated, desperate, and angry as they watch the things their ancestors bequeathed to them – both material and spiritual – being perverted beyond recognition.

Globalizing Cairo is also desperate, but its desperation is more familiar. It is the kind of desperation Westerners can see at home in any inner-city area where people try to scrape and claw their way up the socio-economic ladder. In fact, what would be the inner city in, say, New York, is simply downtown in Cairo (in terms of economics, not crime, which is hardly in evidence anywhere in Egypt). If it weren't for the remains of Egypt's Islamic past which are still very visible even in the modern city and which must be dealt with both personally and socially, there would be little to distinguish Midan Talaat Harb from Brick Lane. People there want the acceptance they think comes with cultural conformity to the West, both in terms of their nation as a whole and themselves as its citizens. And since the Egyptians are still Egyptians and thus forced to grapple with an ancient but still living historical tradition, the transition to the present is much more difficult, and gives rise to the exhausting tension which sped me on my way to Sinai. There are little hypocrisies everywhere, like a wife in a burka walking behind a clean-shaven husband in a trendy T-shirt and baggy jeans – where is the genuine tradition in such an arrangement, where the spirit behind the letter of the past?

Their nationalist sentiments require the globalizers to pretend that they are remaining truly Egyptian, yet the writing is everywhere on the wall. The modern city's youth betray the irreverence and cynicism common to globalized teens the world round. They think that to taunt a passing American with ‘Bush no good!’ is enough, as if such a simplistic political slogan can adequately purge the guilt, shame, and confusion which must result from their being caught in a cultural and psychological tug-of-war. In a way, I can see and admire the brave face they are putting on in their confrontation with the mysterious and powerful revolutionary forces that are steadily changing their world and their very selves. Yet they also betray a basic ignorance of the broad trends and ultimate destination; and ignorance can easily turn into acceptance and even complicity. For example, I was sitting and reading the best-selling celebration of the globalized world, Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, when I noticed the young Egyptian beside me, dressed in suit and tie and looking very much the well-oiled up-and-comer, reading the Arabic translation. I imagine that what I found disturbing and even horrifying in the book was for him a stirring rallying cry for future progress and prosperity.

Perhaps I have been overly simplistic. There aren’t really two kinds of Cairene, one religious and yearning for tradition and the other modern and striving for material prosperity. It is convenient to make hasty classifications, but someone in only one or the other of the two camps is very rare. In fact, the tension between Islamic and modern Cairo serves to illustrate a reality that is occurring inside the hearts and minds of every Egyptian. It is probably true than an old Cairene leans more towards tradition, but you’d be hard pressed to find one who doesn’t envy his prosperous neighbors downtown, regardless of what they sacrificed of true Muslim values to get there. Likewise, although that young man reading Friedman dreams of the day when Egypt takes its place alongside Western Europe as a country deserving economic respect (and of the money, the cars, the luxury, and the convenience that come with it), yet in his more thoughtful moments he surely wonders if it is worth the erosion of values, the sexual promiscuity, pornography, and general moral laxity which it also brings. If they have not already arrived, they are just around the corner, yet somewhere they make him doubt.

Part Three: Oriental Street Urchin and Gangsta Rapper in One

Posted by djsmall at December 16, 2004 09:35 PM