A friend who moved to Egypt following the January 25 2011 uprising sent me his thoughts on life in Cairo over the past few months. He agreed to let me share them online so long as I don't disclose his name.
The past year has been of monumental significance in the Middle East. Dictators of various sorts have been shaken off the backs of their people and several more wait in line for their inevitable exits. In most countries where there have been uprisings there historically used to be far greater prosperity and progressive thinking. In the past few decades these nations have had a lethal combination of population explosion, without the systems in place to provide for such growth, and a degenerate political establishment that has suffocated human development. In hindsight, what is even more shocking than the revolutions is the tolerance for corruption and the erosion of the individual to its current undignified and broken form. The political revolution alone will not remedy these pains. It was just the tip of an iceberg for a massive social revolution needing to happen.
Living in Cairo for most of 2011, I discovered that the political revolution alone is cosmetic in significance relative to the underlying dysfunction within society. Walking through the streets of Cairo or sitting by its riverbanks one comes across a plethora of garbage. Littering has even infected the upper class. I saw a young man tossing his empty box of cigarettes into the Nile while on a yacht cruise. In allegedly upscale neighborhoods such as Zamalek you find no relief from the sea of accumulated trash on the street. Rubbish, dirt, broken poles, parked cars, trees, and fragmented bricks can be found obstructing almost every sidewalk. Pedestrians are forced to walk on the road alongside cars. Some of those roads fit four lanes but three are used for parking and abandoned vehicles, leaving only one lane for passage. Months will pass and not a single thing will change on the street, evidencing the sad complacency people have developed for living amidst the refuse. Crossing the country you notice the problem is not Cairo’s alone. Garbage is a permanent fixture in the landscapes of other cities and towns. Desensitization to uncleanliness is endemic across the country.
People have adjusted to a low quality of life. You don’t feel a strong enough fight for higher quality. Attention to detail is nonexistent. People are busy trying to get through the day and ill equipped with the skills needed to elevate the standards of their goods and services. Across downtown Cairo are cheap shoe and clothing stores peddling fake brands and low quality goods. Most are manufactured locally and represent the deteriorating production capabilities of the country. Most anything that is of reasonable value is shipped internationally. What remains for domestic consumption are the defected and second rate goods. Quality places to eat in are few. Restaurant owners are not solely to blame as there is a dearth of high quality ingredients that are consistently brought in or produced by the country. There are almost no gourmet grocery stores. Anything off-season is unavailable or inedible. Some restaurants can be found with the label “healthy food” or “natural” while mostly severing processed and deep fried chicken. I once ordered a plate of “fresh fruit,” as indicated on the menu, and received a plate of canned fruit.
Walking through Gazera Sporting Club, one of the most posh country clubs in Egypt, the picnic tables were filled with pizzas, processed meats and cheeses, burgers, fries, sugary drinks, and sodas. Their lives used to be built around fresh produce and foods with nutritional value, but this has been replaced with a culture of junk food. Almost all the snacks sold across the country are packaged and processed. If you look around you notice many people are overweight and almost none are fit. Between the various social classes the picture is tragic. The upper class lives in total isolation of the lower class. The wealthy desperately try to avoid interaction with the pedestrian layer of society. They place rules and price minimums on venues and restaurants to try and keep out undesirables. The typical attractive wealthy Egyptian girl doesn’t engage society in any meaningful way. She may spend her entire life between indoor locations and events and driven to them by a personal driver. Her time spent on the streets or integrated with society is minimal at best.
There is no urban planning. Roads are entirely ill equipped to deal with any kind of rain. Traffic is absurdly frustrating, largely stemming from insufficient public transportation alternatives and massive government subsidies for gasoline consumption. For a poor country, those gasoline subsidies come at an enormous cost and result in funds being diverted away from education, infrastructure and health, and into incentivizing everyone to own a car and discounting taxi fares for tourists and foreigners.
Instead of rejuvenating downtown and its classical French styled buildings, rent control laws, remnants of Egypt’s socialist era, are destroying the city core. Landlords collect only a few dollars a month for rent in highly desirable locations and properties. With no incentive to invest in upkeep, those buildings are left in total disrepair. Population overgrowth was supposed to be eased with low-income housing built outside the city, but that initial vision was mutated into the construction of lavish compounds in the suburbs for the rich. The contracting work for those developments was high jacked by government insiders and their cronies who pocketed handsome profits. Those compounds are draining the wealthy out of the city core, disconnecting them entirely from the city life, furthering the fragmentation in society and the gap between classes, and helping Cairo become more like Detroit. In these artificially built California styled neighborhoods, Egyptian architecture and design has been lost and replaced with cookie cut subdivision plots. Developers have taken a land with thousands of years of rich history and turned it into an American suburb with malls.
The level of religiosity is surreal. Virtually the entire population possesses an unshakable conviction and belief in supernatural powers. There is no conversation around whether an alternative perspective may exist. The average citizen has never met an atheist or a Jew, and most have never had someone meaningfully press them on their beliefs or suggest that their beliefs might be wrong or contain fallacies. This goes for all segments of society. The most progressive try to develop liberal interpretations of religion that make life more manageable, but none are able to shed themselves entirely of religious belief. In fact, religious ideas are so engrained that it is virtually impossible for anyone to view them as a burden.
Even when you look at the Christian communities, where you might expect to find more relaxed or diverse views, you discover the same fierce religiosity and unequivocal belief in the supernatural. The unchecked conviction has little to do with the underlying content of the ideas but with the unquestioned way by which religious ideas are formulated.
There is a clear intolerance to Jews, atheists, homosexuals, or anyone who stars as an antagonist in the various vivid conspiracy theories that most buy into. Belief in devils, jin, and spiritual powers are unquestionably true. There is plenty of discrepancy between conviction and behavior. While watching a man drink a glass of whisky he told me that he refuses to traffic hashish into the country because it is not permissible by God. I came across another man who claimed to have deep religious beliefs, but went on to tell me about various trysts he was having with a married woman who comes into his shop. Oddly enough, he was married too.
Endless numbers of men possess an intentionally created piety spot on their foreheads called a zabiba. The mark is allegedly from the incredible amount of prostrating they perform, but more likely from intentionally and aggressively rubbing their forehead on the ground. Females who presumably pray just as much don’t possess any such spot. The spot ranges from a light brown dot to a grotesque pus filled infection on one’s forehead. The irony is the religion they deeply believe in promotes modesty and anonymity in one’s good acts yet they go out of their way to make it known how often they prostrate. Women are not immune from religious fads. The headscarf has turned into a fashion item that comes and goes depending on the seasons of the country’s mood. At the moment it’s in vogue and sported by almost every woman. The pressure to wear it is a cultural current that is hard to swim against and effectively leaves girls only an illusionary sense of choice as to whether they will wear it.
Sexual frustration among the youth is palpable. Packs of young males with poor hygiene and excessive amounts of hair product wander around aimlessly trying to hustle a dollar and make the day pass. The worst of them will harass women on the street and may even help themselves to a grope. Since sexual relations outside of marriage are entirely unacceptable and because females try to retain their virginity for religious chastity, society’s sexual frustration expresses itself in warped and perverse ways. The expressions include females preferring to be sodomized than conventional approaches and males settling for experiences with other males.
Marriage is so far from reach because of the absurd requirements placed on getting married. Bachelors who are educated and work as professionals make only one or two hundred dollars a week. Despite their lack of funds, they are expected to obtain a furnished apartment, car, gold offerings, dowry, and funds for the cost of an engagement and wedding party, before approaching their prospective father in laws.
Broken souls wither away in the useless drag of another day. Bored chain smokers can be found in every corner and in almost every taxi. Semiemployed men linger in alleyways playing backgammon and drinking tea. Too many people on the street seem ready and willing to sell you anything you might be looking for, regardless of the product or service, and regardless of whether they possess what you need themselves or will just broker a deal with someone they know who can supply. Merchants will try to swindle outsiders by not setting prices but rather waiting to see what they can get away with. Pricing battles can lead to lengthy and exhausting exchanges for even simple purchases.
I don’t think all of this can be fixed by a political revolution alone. We can celebrate the political revolutions all we want, but they are just the beginning of a long conversation. There is a social revolution lingering in the horizon wishing for a place in our history. Until we give it the chance to manifest, the average person will continue to have a broken spirit and an empty wallet. It is about time we spring clean the collapse of the individual and set the eruption of that volcano free.