Cairo may well be the greatest city in the world. The combination of deep history and thronging, chaotic modernity is special, perhaps unmatched. Of course, I’m not enough of a traveler or a historian to really say such things, but with the events of the past week, I’m moved to say that we’re seeing something special.
Compare this photo, taken last year:
With this photo, taken yesterday. That statue (of Anwar Sadat, I believe) lies on an island in the middle of the Nile. The Times photo is looking west, probably from the balcony of the Intercontinental Hotel. Kasr bridge is one of the major thoroughfares into downtown. When my mom and I walked across it last year on a warm weekday morning, businessmen in suits walked hurriedly to the government buildings on the east bank, talking on cell phones, and high school couples, the girls always in a hijab (but often a very colorful one), stood holding hands, talking and looking at the river.
Al-Tahrir square, early in the morning (jet lag). Follow the main road in the left of the frame and you’ll be on the aforementioned bridge in less than a kilometer. Al-Tahrir is the center of the city, with political and cultural monuments within sight. It’s also absolutely terrifying to cross on foot (at any time except 2-6am).
I was expecting to be shunned as an American, being at the vortex of Africa and the Middle East. This was not the case. Beyond learning that wearing collared shirts and scarves will get you mistaken for an Italian or a Frenchman, I learned that the average Egyptian is very much aware of Barack Obama, and a very big fan. “Hey American! Obama!!” was the second most common phrase I had said to me in country (second to trying to sell me something), and was almost always accompanied by a thumbs-up and huge grin. No one can say that Obama’s Cairo speech had anything to do with the past weeks events, but neither can anyone say the opposite. My experience certainly suggests that Obama has done a world of good for US-Egyptian relations.
I had several long conversations, with shop keepers and street vendors, about the government in Egypt. Everyone, but most especially guys in their twenties, expressed frustration. Where did all the money go? Why were there so few jobs to be had? Why did they, as young men, have no hope for prospects different than that of their fathers and grandfathers? A patriarchal society, to be sure (I never had a conversation with a younger women, and got the impression it would be a bad idea to try), but also one very much lacking in social mobility.
This is, as an American, hard to wrap one’s mind around.
I hope the revolutionaries succeed.