Illustration, Hany Hommos 2014
I donít know what I was most afraid of before coming to Cairo, but it wasnít for a lack of choices. Considering all the warnings that were heaped on us prior to our departure: ďDonít drink the water! Donít hold hands in public! Donít question Islam! Donít show your shoulders or knees! Donít mention Israel! Donít take pictures! Donít ask any questions about the government! Donít go to Alexandria! Donít go to Sinai! Donít go to the Pyramids! Always go with a guide! Beware of the guides! Donít buy anything without haggling! But donít haggle without buying something! Never eat raw vegetables! Donít tell anyone that youíre a feminist! Donít go running in the streets! Donít use the ATM! And above all donít open your mouth in the shower!Ē You could have forgiven us for fearing that we would somehow find a way to get ourselves stoned to death in the first 48 hours.
Iíd traveled enough to know that most of that fear-mongering is usually bullshit, that on some level people are people, and that a warm smile and an open mind will get you pretty far in most countries. But it was also my first time traveling to Africa, my first trip to the Middle East, my first visit to any Arab or predominantly Muslim country. So however much faith I had in the universal human goodness, I suppose I also had some understandable doubts about how I would be perceived. For thirteen years now, the US media has gone out of its way to caution me, in the broadest of terms, that the people in this part of the world generally hate us. And I have no doubt that some of them do. Why wouldnít they? What with all the political and economic leveraging stunts our nation has historically pulled in this region. Not to mention the USís vague and shady position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Iím sure hits pretty close to home for the Egyptians.
Of course, I also knew that there would be millions of Cairenes who knew perfectly well that not every American approves of their governmentís foreign policies anymore than every Egyptian approves of theirs. My only hesitation, as a first-time visitor in this part of the world, was whether or not I would be able to tell who was who. How would I be able to accurately discern which people I could safely open up to and which ones would despise me to the core of their guts? I didnít know who I was going to meet, or how I would decode their signals. I was nervous that I wouldnít be able to pick up the cues in their language, behavior, or clothing with the same level of fluency that I so relied on to keep me out of trouble back home.
This also made me aware of another fear I was carrying with me, a much darker and more cynical one: What if, in fact, I could read all the signals? What if, after all those years of learning to exoticize this part of the world in my imagination, I stepped off the airplane and was immediately greeted by a Starbucks, a MacDonaldís, a billboard for Coca-Cola or IKEA? What if the terrifying homogeny of Western Culture was racing ahead of me into every destination? What if I arrived in Egypt only to discover that it was really not that different at all? Fortunately, this last fear has been averted. Itís true that one can find a surprising number of KFC outlets, and that other western brands have made their inroads into the air-conditioned shopping malls of the posher districts. But Cairo still offers plenty of that completely unfamiliar, life-changing culture shock experience that our friends here were telling us about before we came.
If you would have asked me before this trip, I might have told you with a straight face that I knew a little something about the world. But after my first few days here, I began to feel like someone who had never left his house before. I found myself glimpsing a world that was so vast, and yet so unfamiliar, as to render all previous experience inadequate. Suddenly my biggest fear became whether or not I would be able to establish enough of a reference base in three short months to understand or explain any of what I was experiencing. As for the warnings weíd heard before we left, they proved to be a pretty mixed bag. One of the first things we learned is that situations and attitudes change so quickly here that hardly any piece of advice stays very good for very long. Anything that is frowned upon one week may be encouraged the next and vice versa. And itís not only the visitors from other countries who are destabilized by these fluctuations. We were surprised to discover on our arrival that the majority of the locals seem to be just as scared of the place, and of each other, as anyone back home had warned us to be. Theyíre not necessarily afraid of the same things, mind you, but theyíre certainly afraid.
From the time we got here, we were battered with a whole new litany of warnings: ďDonít go outside with your camera! People will think youíre a spy! Donít tell anyone you arenít married! Donít tell anyone you arenít religious! Donít say anything about the president! Donít go to Tahrir Square by yourselves! Donít mention gay rights! Donít go out to the desert! Donít distribute any printed materials! Donít try to mail anything! Donít tell the authorities that youíre an artist! Donít do any interviews with Al Jazeera! Donít talk to anyone from Qatar!Ē Plus they repeated a few of the ones that we already knew, like: ďDonít touch each otherĒ and ďDonít mention the JewsĒ and ďDonít let anyone see your shoulders.Ē
Many of the projects we initially proposed for our residency at the art space were met with lots of nail-biting, brow-furrowing, and eye-darting from the staff. In fact, many of the things I wanted to discuss in this book were only OKíd on the condition that I donít fully translate them or distribute them in Arabic in printed form. The staff is concerned that if our work is perceived as too political, or too questioning, or even just too weird, then someone in our conservative neighborhood might alert the authorities and have the space shut down completely. From what theyíve told us, it wouldnít really require much of a reason. Any allegation of impiousness or foreign influence is apparently enough for the regime to land on you with both feet. So weíve had to tread pretty softly here for the first few weeks.
The level of concern is understandable. In the last three years, Egypt has seen multiple coups, revolutions, and seizures of power carried out with varying degrees of violence and deceit. These people who are so worried about us have seen things that it would be difficult for us to imagine. Some of them have had to cower in their bedrooms, not understanding the words that were being shouted as their neighbors assembled in the street armed with machetes. Some have witnessed killings from their windows. We met a man who lost his eyesight fighting for the Square, and many whose friends, even now as we speak, are on hunger strike in the new governmentís prisons. Many of the people in Cairo are traumatized by what theyíve seen and been through, and their resulting fears for our safety come from a perfectly reasonable place even if they are hard for us to relate to in the settling dust of the post-revolutionary landscape.
So far, to us, Egypt has been a remarkably warm, safe, and peaceful place. After taking some time to get our bearings, we have gradually begun to feel very comfortable walking through any part of town, making almost any kind of art, eating and drinking whatever we are served, and sharing our most unguarded smiles with our neighbors. It seems that each person we meet is sincerely concerned for us. But that only helps me to understand the shock it must have been for these gentle people when their city so suddenly transformed into something so terrifyingly unrecognizable in the very recent past. Now, those people who are so sweetly concerned for our well-being donít trust anymore that the next person will be. And it is precisely this unexpected volatility that has scarred their psyches and become the continual refrain of their warnings to us. When we say, for example, that, ďThe Square was so tranquil this morning,Ē or that, ďEveryone here has been so sweet to us,Ē the locals always look off into the distance over our shoulders, unsure how to explain, and then finally they say quietly, as if disbelieving their own memories, ďBut things can change so quickly here.Ē