A Year in Cairo
Having spent 364 days in Cairo, Nathan Anderith left a day before everything changed...again. In his last article for CairoScene (for now), he tells us how he really feels about the city, from the people to the protests.
You can fit a lot of living in a year, if you’re in the right place and the right mind. I arrived in Cairo on June 30th, 2012, the day President Morsi was sworn in, and I left July 1st, 2013, the day before he was kicked out. It will be my dying regret that I didn’t stay that extra day to see him get the boot - just about the only thing I regret about my year in Cairo. I would’ve stayed another year if I could.
I love this city. This filthy, lovely, angry old city. I’ve loved this town like a boy loves his crush, like a junky loves his fix, like a beaten dog loves its master. This city has been friend and lover and tormentor and teacher, so instead of doing the whole economics/analogy thing again, for my last article I’m going to get a little misty-eyed and tell you what I’m going to miss about my life in Cairo the most (Hint: it’s not the food).
Of course Cairenes are friendly. Every goddamn tourist that snaps a picture air-kissing the Sphinx comes back babbling about how hospitable you all are, you don’t need to hear that crap again (Although it is worth noting the ridiculous number of times I’ve been invited to eat at someone’s house after knowing them for 10 minutes).
But while there are plenty of places where you can easily get to know a stranger, and plenty where you can run into anyone from any walk of life, there aren’t many where you can do both as well as in Cairo. I’ve never had as strange and bizarre an array of friends as I have here, from street vendors to economists to expats to revolutionaries. Many have become some of the closest friends I’ve ever had, and all it’s ever taken to start a relationship is shaking a hand.
What really amazes me about you crazy bastards is how complex you are. The top layers are peeled off of humanity here, the nerve endings exposed. You show the best and the worst our sad little species has to offer, nestled on top of each other like cross-traffic blood vessels.
Example: Last November a group of young revolutionaries celebrated the one-year anniversary of a great protest outside the Ministry of Interior - by reenacting it. They chanted slogans, threw molotovs, smashed windows, the whole nine yards. This was right outside my apartment, which made getting to work interesting. I stopped one kid who was pulling up pieces of sidewalk and asked him what he was trying to accomplish; he stared back like the question had never occurred to him. That night a friend and I went to see the protests, and somehow our backgammon board got stolen by security forces. We argued with the guards for an hour and managed to move up through the ranks until we were discussing the matter with the commander of the forces defending the Ministry. While firebombs were raining down on his besieged complex, the commander took the time to hunt down our backgammon board and personally return it to us. Shocked and elated at our success, my friend and I went to my apartment, where he slept on my couch. I woke up the next morning to find him gone and 2,000 pounds missing (about $300). Later that day, a stranger in the street thought I looked sad, so he bought me a mango juice.
I could live in Cairo another century and still not understand you people.
Protests have become Egypt’s national pastime, and you crazy bastards have gotten pretty good at them. I don’t mean they’re organised or efficient (Ha! Could you imagine?), but damn, they’re potent. The energy is intoxicating - it yanks you from the sidelines into the heart of the crowd, roots around inside you, finds the revolution hiding in your belly and yanks it out your throat in a roar. Irhal!
Seriously, I could not stay away from these things. Me living a stone’s throw from Tahrir Square was like an alcoholic living next to a 24-hour liquor store.
The funny thing is, I would always hear how dangerous the protests were, how I’d be targeted for being an American. Not one time did I have a problem. Remember the hospitality I was talking about? That counts double when you’re resisting tyranny and dodging tear gas together. Folks look out for you. Once I even went to a protest against my own embassy, partly to see how far I could get. When I told the people there where I was from, two huge men lurched over, and I wondered if I’d finally pushed my luck. One of them leaned close to me: “Stay by us. We’re gonna protect you.”
About the closest I ever got to real danger at a protest was outside the Semiramis, when the cops were firing tear gas at us. I saw kids no older than fifteen grab gas canisters as they spewed miasmic poison into the street and chuck them into the Nile. Feeling secure in my bandana and my 3 LE goggles, I tried to pull the same trick, only to find that those little canisters are hot after they get shot out of a cannon, and the escaping gas makes them jump around a lot. I spent a few pathetic seconds chasing the damn thing like an exasperated parent as it vomited its choking payload into my face. Finally a nearby fifteen-year-old took pity on me and threw it into the river.
I came to Egypt because I’d wanted to play a part in its growth after the revolution; instead I bore vocal witness to its decline. After learning some Arabic, I got a job with a think tank, which gave me a front-seat view to all the bad decisions and terrible luck that robbed the country of the happily-ever-after it deserved. Rather than helping foreigners find the best investments in Egypt, I had to warn them away. It was interesting work, and I learned a lot, but after a while I started to feel like an announcer at a one-sided boxing match, chattering away while the poor bastard in the ring took hit after hit.
Still, I could not have asked for a better education about the relationship between politics and economics. Every time Egypt’s rulers made some freshly batshit decision I got to watch the stock market twitch like a coke addict’s heart monitor. The country is utterly predictable in its unpredictability as it delivers fresh insanities faithfully every week, so it’s impossible to be bored here, and nearly as impossible to keep up. You’ve spoiled me - everywhere else in the world is going to seem slow and sane by comparison.
That, of course, is why I started In For a Pound; so I could show you some of the insanity behind the headline insanity you already knew. I was worried you weren’t freaking out enough. I got started when the biggest company on the Egyptian stock market was leaving the country, and the baa-ing media herd was painting it as a great victory for Egypt. I thought that was both funny and depressing (my signature style), so I wrote a little article making fun of the whole thing and sent it to CS, hoping they’d post it between nightclub reviews and op-eds by shampoo bottles. Couple days later they asked me to do a weekly economics column.
The best thing about writing In For a Pound was how much it forced me to stretch myself. Don’t know if you all could tell, but most of the things I wrote about was stuff I’d just started studying myself; I learned far more writing this column than anyone ever did reading it. Each week I would dive headfirst into a completely new topic, find out it was way more complicated than I’d thought, drown in all the information for a while, miss my deadline (love you, Dalia!), come up with an inane analogy to explain it, then try to cram the entire thing into a thousand words. It was exhausting and stressful and one of the best things I’ve done. I appreciate CairoScene giving me the space to spout my nonsense, and I appreciate all of you for giving up a little of your time each week for my ramblings.