My first visit to Cairo, as described in this post, was a memorable experience. Not being there for the uprising that toppled Mubarak was a painful one. The revolution is ongoing, though, and it’s an amazing story that I would love to write about for +972 Magazine. But ours is a self-financed media shop, staffed by volunteer writers. So in order to pay for my expenses and my labor, I thought of an experimental method of financing independent, freelance journalism – by turning directly to readers. So first the tale of my first trip to Cairo and then, at the end, a link that allows readers to make a donation and help make possible my reporting about post-Mubarak Egypt for +972.
On the first day of my first visit to Cairo, which happened to be the day after President Obama gave his speech at the university, a friend rescued me from the fortress-like luxury hotel I’d been booked into by an eccentric potential employer and took me to see the things she loved about her city. It was a fabulous day that made a big impression. Ever since, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to return to Cairo for a longer stay – especially since the revolution, which has kept me glued to Twitter and Facebook practically all my waking hours for more than a month.
On that June day, we started my introduction to the city with a coffee and a long chat at the Alain le Notre Café overlooking the Citadel. My eyes kept wandering back to the romantic view of old Cairo, its haze- shrouded mosques and minarets, even as I kept up a running conversation with my companion. After coffee, we strolled along the paths that wound through the meticulously maintained green spaces of Azhar Park. Young couples sat on the grass under trees, discreetly holding hands until a tongue-clicking uniformed guard admonished them against public displays of affection. The scene reminded me of a talk given to a small group at Tel Aviv University by a junior diplomat from Egypt. He spoke passionately about the social crisis caused by delayed marriage in Egypt – about young couples that could neither afford to get married and set up a household, because of the high unemployment and low salaries; nor find a place to be alone in a conservative, crowded city that offered little privacy. The visceral understanding of that speech came when I saw the embarrassed expressions on the faces of those young couples that were just looking for a place to sit quietly and hold hands.
Lunch was koshary at Abou Tarek’s – where I photographed the famous proprietor in the flesh, nonchalantly reading a magazine behind the cash register and oblivious to my camera. Like Hosni Mubarak, he looked considerably older in person than in his official photos.
After lunch, my friend showed me the new art gallery scene – edgy raw spaces in an industrial area crowded with auto repair shops. The gallery owners we met were like my friend – young and cosmopolitan, shifting easily between Arabic and English. In their dress-style and body language they were practically interchangeable with people their age – in their 20s and 30s – that you’d see hanging out at galleries and cafés in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district or Beirut’s Gemmayzeh. For all their sophistication and gloss, Paris, London and New York seemed tediously world-weary, pretentious and stagnant compared to the energetic creativity bubbling in the old-new cities of the Mediterranean region.
In the late afternoon we sat at the rooftop café of the Odeon Palace Hotel, with its faded old-world lobby and wood-paneled elevator. The waiter was a bit grumpy, but the view of the narrow downtown streets was very photogenic.
At the Diwan Bookstore I pocketed a postcard advertising ashtanga yoga classes in Zamalek. Whenever I visit a city I like, my default is to imagine living there; and for me, a livable city must have a good yoga studio. A couple of days later, at a casual meet up with some local bloggers at Le Grillon, I responded enthusiastically to one woman’s polite question about my impressions of Cairo, adding that wished I could stay longer. “That’s because you can leave,” she answered, smiling bitterly.
A few minutes later, the journalist sitting to my right engaged me on the subject of contemporary Hebrew fiction. “I am not so crazy about Amos Oz,” he said, “But I like that younger guy – Keret.” Etgar Keret, 43, is best known for writing short, sometimes surrealistic stories in idiomatic Hebrew. Nael Elthoukhy, an Egyptian who studied Hebrew at Cairo’s Ain Shams University, had translated a few of Keret’s stories into Arabic and posted them on his blog, which was all about contemporary Hebrew literature. Already thinking about my own blog post – the one I never did write about that trip – I asked the journalist at Le Grillon if I could mention his name as the person who introduced me to Eltoukhy’s Arabic blog about Hebrew fiction. He thought for a moment and answered, “Better not.”
As we left the restaurant, someone pointed out a couple of men loitering on a corner, at the edge of Tahrir Square, and identified them as police spies. During the revolution, I learned that they were more commonly called thugs, and that everyone was afraid of them. A year after my Cairo visit, a couple of them beat to death Khaled Said, a 28 year-old Alexandria man, because he refused to show his identity card when they barged into an internet café without a warrant.
Throughout my five days in Cairo, people that I knew only via their blogs and occasional email exchanges went to a lot of trouble to make sure I had a good time, and that I saw as many sides of the city as possible. They were proud of the good and never tried to hide or excuse the bad – like the thugs, the dirt, the corruption and the sexual harassment. They were smart and articulate and honest. They were also depressed and frustrated. Many were semi-employed, unable to find full-time jobs that matched their skills and education. Some lived with their parents, even though they were approaching 30. The fear factor was always there, in the knowledge that anyone could be arrested and jailed without charge. Even though that was unlikely to happen to them, just the knowledge that they would have little recourse if it did happen – that they could just disappear if someone from state security wanted to make them disappear – was always there. Which is what happened to Khaled Said, another well-educated, middle class, under-employed man in his late 20s. Between the fear, the unemployment and the corruption, their lives seemed to be on hold.
The people I spent time with in Cairo were privileged, although not from the super-rich elite. Most of them had gone to the best schools and spoke fluent English, but they were not rich. They were internet savvy, well-informed and outward looking – much more so than Israelis, who seem increasingly to look inward. These young Egyptian bloggers had been born in a country that was once, not so long ago, the intellectual and cultural center of the Arab world; now they lived in a country that was poor, corrupt and stagnating, and they were depressed because they didn’t feel they had the power to effect change, or even to control their own lives. There was no meritocracy, no democracy and no freedom of speech. The only country that did not require Egyptian nationals to apply in advance for an entry visa was Iran. Many talked about leaving, although few knew how or to where. “I can’t think of any reason to be proud of being Arab,” said one.
Just over eighteen months later, just a few days after the revolution began, I listened as that same friend told a radio interviewer exultantly about his pride in being Egyptian. I watched video clips showing people I knew demonstrating on the streets of Cairo, clapping rhythmically and shouting, “Masr!” (Egypt), as they faced rows of black-clad, baton-wielding riot control forces. On January 25, pride suddenly became the new theme amongst the Egyptian bloggers I’d been following for more than five years. I was amazed that they had overcome all those psychological barriers – the fear, the passivity, the helplessness and the depression – and taken control of their lives, just like that. Where did they find the inspiration and the courage?
Over the following three weeks I watched – via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube and Aljazeera – as those disheartened people I’d met in Cairo went to the streets and led a popular revolution that was informed by remarkably democratic principles. They organized that revolution intelligently, and without a charismatic leader. They left the fear barrier far behind and faced down some pretty terrifying state-sponsored violence. Someone I knew and cared about was beaten and detained, and there was nothing I could do about that except lose sleep (he is fine now). And then I watched as Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak’s resignation, and I read the exultant tweets from the internet-savvy young activists in Tahrir, and that was the most amazing, exhilarating thing I ever experienced.
Even as I tweeted and facebooked the revolution obsessively from my desk in Jaffa, I mourned not being in Egypt to experience it first-hand. Two months earlier, the idea of positive change in the Middle East had seemed too remote even to contemplate. The whole region was stagnating – or, in the case of Israel, taking huge strides backward. Suddenly, everything seemed possible. Optimism was possible. This was something amazing, and I wanted to experience it and write about it.
I was not the only freelance journalist who watched the revolution from afar. It’s not news that the news business is in a financial crisis, and there was no way to put together enough commissions to pay my expenses – let alone pay for my work. Quite a few of my colleagues found themselves in the same position. I love writing and I am optimistic that it will become a means of making a decent living again soon, but for now I do my most interesting work for free. +972 Magazine is a volunteer project that we bloggers maintain with our own funds. Writing an opinion piece for the New York Times was an honor (especially when it was picked up by Andrew Sullivan on his blog, the Daily Dish), but not a paid one. The same goes for having my interview with “Ali,” a friend in Tripoli, picked up and re-posted on the Reuters site after I published it on +972 Magazine. Lots of credit, but little-to-no (mostly no) remuneration, is all too common in the world of contemporary freelance journalism.
The Egyptian revolution is far from over. There are all sorts of things going on – like the protestors’ raid on state security headquarters this past Saturday, and the ongoing Friday demonstrations at Tahrir. Mubarak may be gone, but much of the old regime is still in place; will the protesters succeed in pushing for system-wide change?
Then there’s the changing definition of the role of women, who figured so prominently in planning and leading the protests. There are the workers’ strikes, which the army has forbidden. There is the uncertain relationship between the army and the protesters. What happened to the national museum after it was damaged in late January, allegedly by thugs? How are the very poor – the ones who live on less than two dollars per day – managing these days?
I would like to spend about three weeks in Egypt, staying with friends in Cairo and reporting from there, but also going beyond the capital – to the small towns in the south, to Alexandria and Port Said and other cities. I would like to publish my reports here, on +972 Magazine, while I am in Egypt.
So I am going to try an experiment. I am turning directly to readers to fund the trip and pay for my work, via donations to my PayPal account. To participate in my experiment – and I hope it’s obvious that a relatively small amount, like the cost of a magazine ($2, $3 or $5), is more than welcome – just click on the ‘donate’ button below.
*** Since I am having problems embedding the code for the PayPal link on this page, I have cross-posted this article on my old personal blog, where it does work. So to make a donation just click here to get to my old blog, scroll down to the bottom of the post and click on the yellow ‘donate’ button there. Many thanks, Lisa