Mubarak in a way hoisted his own petard


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Category: International 06 Feb 11

On the outskirts of Cairo, desert sand blowing into my eyes, last winter I had a proposal of marriage from Abdul. He placed his Kafiyah around my head to protect me from the white glare and hoisted me screaming disproportionately with fear and dizzying delight astride on his unfolding camel giving me a blinding view of the wonders of the ancient world, the Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure while telling me firmly that I was to be his third wife. I actually considered it thinking of the proximity to the Great Sphinx ancient ruins of Memphis, Thebes and Karnak, lush vegetation growing on the banks of the Nile, its poetic contrast with the arid desert when my husband intervened, saying I couldn’t cook and would fight with the other wives. It was my first time in Egypt, but in my head, I had already lived a lifetime there; saw the pyramids from the sky, landed in the desert, negotiated a price with the chain smoking taxi driver in what felt like an undercover arms deal, and was driven along wide boulevards lined with thousands and thousands of armed policemen, some facing the walls, others facing out with machine guns.


The alarm bells should have gone off when the taxi driver complained that every time Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak, longest serving Egyptian ruler for 29 years travels it costs the country over a million dollars in security. What the taxi driver didn’t say but must have wanted to, was that Egypt was a semi presidential republic under emergency law where police powers are extended, constitutional rights suspended and censorship legalised. He didn’t say that Mubarak’s rule has been dogged by corruption; imprisonment and detainment without trial of some 17,000 political figures and activists in hidden detention facilities. A state where street demonstrations and non-governmental political activity is banned. I fell under the spell of Cairo with its high colonial walls, rose bushes, luxury hotels where men dress like Sheiks and everyone smokes.


On the streets I was absorbed by the minarets of the mosques, the five times call to prayer, narrow lanes with medieval delights, crowded streets with veiled women and girls in skinny jeans and headscarves carrying books; erratic traffic, barbers, butchers, sweet shops, young men and old lolling on carpets laid on the sidewalk, smoking hookahs, drinking strong sweet tea, mountains of pomegranates and, oranges, the sweet sounds of Arabic music. I amalgamated what I saw with the Egypt of my imagination through the heady, smoky candy floss of literature. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet gave me a road map of imagination and a richly textured life. For a girl of 14 living on an island off Tobago, the quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea) set pre and post-World War II was a treasure cove of all the possibility of life itself, telling the story of four elegant people who intensely loved betrayed and protected one another each with their separate points of view. The women are sensuous, whimsical, clever. The men, powerful, intellectual, worldly.


The Alexandrea Quartets characters are inextricably bound with the city, a seat of learning in the ancient world, the city of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, the city which generations of immigrants from Greece, Italy and the Levant made synonymous with commerce, cosmopolitanism and bohemian culture is baroque, resplendent, with white Alexandria “The Pearl of the Mediterranean” beaches, azure sea, canals, ruined temples, Coptic chapels, white heat, deep shades, bestowing on its inhabitants, endless marvel. The alarm bells should have gone off again as we plunged into 4,500 years of history, the ancient civilisation, the Egyptian Mummy’s, the pharoah Tutankhamun’s treasure, the remains of the Ottomans, French, British, Persians, Greek, Alexander, Romans. In the exquisite Coptic Church where the Biblical Mary and Joseph reportedly took refuge there was shooting the night before. “Its normal,” said our guide, “every three years Muslim fundamentalist blow up a hotel, or attack a religious site.” Add Nobel Laureate Nagoub Mahfouz to the rosy fog with which I saw Egypt. The novels of The Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz, traced three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with an iron hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence.


Palace Walk reveals his gentle, oppressed wife, Amina and cloistered daughters, Aisha and Khadija, and sons, idealistic Fahmy, hedonist Yasin, and intellectual Kamal. Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s children struggle against their fathers rule in Palace of Desire, as Egypt is transformed with modernity, alongside the political and domestic turmoil brought by the 1920s. Sugar Street brings Mahfouz’s evolving Egypt to a dramatic climax as the aging patriarch sees one grandson become a Communist, one a Muslim fundamentalist, and one the lover of a powerful politician. Thinking of Mahfouz I sat in a cafe overlooking Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, adjacent to the river Nile surrounded by luxury hotels, the headquarters of the League of Arab States, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where the Nobel Laureate breakfasted for 40 years and which he had seen change from a Nile-side preserve of the rich to the peoples square. I wonder what he would have thought knowing that over a million people flooding that square, thousands were injured and almost 100 have died for liberation from a repressive regime. 


He may have feared that fundamentalist opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood would take over. But Mahfouz knew massive change was inevitable. Unemployment among 15-24 year olds in the Middle East where two thirds of the population is below 24 is the highest of any region in the world. Mubarak in a way hoisted his own petard. Back in 1990 over 200,000 students were enrolled in Cairo University and the population is among the most educated in the Middle East. They are a people who value and understand their civilisation. Who read, write, think and contribute. These young people will restore Egypt to its past glory, and once again, show the people how to live. As for Abdul, I hope he, his camel, and his wives are safe, and that he didn’t accept the $100 to charge at protestors in Tahrir square from Mubarak’s supporters.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur