Talisman Gate

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Egypt's Faded Elegance

September 21, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Egypt's Faded Elegance

September 21, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/20349

Across Cairo, from the Azbekkiya Gardens to the alleyways of the Azhar Mosque, I was snooping around for contraband. I wasn't looking for hashish, which is plentiful and available, but something even more dangerous in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt: free thought. I was looking for a book, one that was published in the Egyptian capital some 80 years ago. The bookstall dealers would size me up and dart discrete glances around for fear of the secret police.

The book in question was authored by Ali Abdel-Raziq at a time when Turkey's Kemal Ataturk had just abolished the caliphate in Istanbul and sent the last vestige of this 1,300-year-old Islamic institution packing into European exile with his paintbrushes and other worldly possessions in tow. Many contenders emerged to fill the vacuum, including the Sherifs of Mecca and the Egyptian royal family, but didn't get anywhere. Abdel-Raziq argued in his treatise that the institution had been defunct for some time and that it was useless in that cosmopolitan day and age of the roaring 1920s.

Nowadays, most of these wary booksellers would encourage the inquiring customer to "Just Say No" and then try to peddle an available published retort to Abdel-Raziq's book. Others were more helpful by suggesting the famed Madbouli publishing house and bookstore on Tala'at Harb Square as a place that might carry it. However, even there the guys in charge would shrug and simply say that the book is from another era, out-of-print and illegal. Yet, they were well stocked-up on Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

However, they did have another book entitled "The Liberal of Women" by Qasim Amin first published in 1899. It made quite a stir back then but today it is being sold encased with a diatribe written by Tala'at Harb himself - after whom the square was re-named in the 1960s - whereby he vehemently defends the Islamic headdress for women, the hijab, that Amin had subtly criticized.

What is even more interesting is that the square had been earlier named for Monsieur Jean Anthelme Seve, an ex-officer in the Napoleonic armies who had converted to Islam and "re-christened" Soliman Pasha el-Fransawi (the Frenchman) who found a new life in the service of the founder of the modern Egyptian state, Muhammad Ali. A great-granddaughter of Soliman Pasha married a great-grandson of Muhammad Ali, and their union produced Farouk, the last ruling king of Egypt, who was overthrown in the 1952 military coup.

Soliman Pasha's statue used to have a good vantage point of Cairo's "European" district: It could peer down on the Swiss-owned Groppi patisserie shop and the glitzy Cafe Riche. Around that area, one can still spot mementos of a different time, a time when Jewish refugees found refuge in easygoing Cairo: a rusting sign for the dental office of Dr. Victor Bromberg in English, Arabic, and Cyrillic script, and the name of the Weinstein department store engraved in stone in both English and Arabic. At some distance down the street is the art deco Metro cinema where the sophisticated movies of 1940s produced by the Egyptian movie industry used to be shown; mimicking western hits like "Casablanca" in their grace and charm. Now playing: a comedy with a silly, unrealistic plot that rants against normalization with Israel. The clientele no longer attend in their fezzes and best suits, but rather clap along with a catchy and popular ditty whose main chorus is "I Hate Israel."

Across the street from the cinema stands the faded Yacoubian Building at 36 Tala'at Harb Street; the setting and title for a best-selling novel published this year by Ala'a Aswani. This novel also created a stir by lamenting the end of the glorious and elegant days that Cairo had seen, which ended with the advent of the military officers into power including Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. It is a novel about the rural-mannered nouveau riche and newly-empowered elite taking up residence in the fashionable districts of old Cairo, and the urban and cultural degeneration that ensued.

During the glory years, refugees, adventurers, and entrepreneurs flocked to cosmopolitan hubs like Cairo and Alexandria from all over the Mediterranean basin: Greeks, Italians, Syrians, Lebanese, and all sorts of other nations. They found a booming economy brought about by a sound yet controversial British administration and a relative freedom to thrive and prosper. They also found vibrant anti-British politics and a clamorous constitutional and democratic experiment that the British at times, and the royal family at other times, tried to undermine. Those were heady years when ground-breaking books on Islamic reform and women's rights were published and eagerly read. These foreign-born nationals made their lives in Egypt and saw it as home; they bought-up communal burial plots with room for their loved ones and descendants.

Their headstones now lie forgotten and badly tended, with some crypts caving in to expose skeletons in well-tailored suits to the elements. The stray dogs loitering around seem startled by visitors; the descendants no longer visit and are long gone back to other hospitable hubs around the Mediterranean. Markers for the final resting place of the occasional White Russian colonel can be found, as well a disinherited Romanov prince, in the Greek Orthodox cemeteries of Cairo and Alexandria. These ghosts may find themselves haunting the same streets they knew, but nevertheless wander cities that are much changed.

It is useless to lament a bygone era swept away by revolutionary ideals. Revolution has a logic of their own and does not occur without pretext. Rural Egypt had re-asserted itself, arguably for the first time in 7,000 years. The military strongmen that officered the coup played to the conservatism and customs of rural Egypt and re-directed politics toward ambitious pan-Arab slogans and socialist economies, while quietly snuffing out personal freedoms.

Yet one cannot ignore the current malaise of Egypt: a stagnation of politics and culture in a place that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the stage for a brief and now-faded Middle Eastern renaissance. Politics have been reduced to theatrics, and the available cultural fare showcases books on magic and Zionist conspiracies.

Madbouli carries more books on Iraqi history, poetry, arts, and society than on Egypt itself. But oddly enough, cosmopolitan and liberal Egypt is astir again, this time seemingly inspired by the democratic experiment in Iraq: Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, some 10% of the population, is demanding to amend the 1973 constitution that stipulates Islam as the primary source of legislation. The Coptic communal press is loudly denouncing the bitterness of religious persecution. The Nubian ethnic minority is also beginning to seek some redress for past wrongs and more political enfranchisement.

The past can be resurrected to animate the present conditions of Egypt. Secretary of State Rice described this month's Egyptian elections as a small step forward, but Egypt needs a giant leap into the past. Egypt's dictators had orchestrated a decades-old plan for national amnesia to forget the cosmopolitanism and liberalism of the past. They have changed street names and forbidden books from that era. Egypt needs to re-discover its past and use that as a starting point toward an even better future to come.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer based in Washington D.C. who recently visited Egypt. He can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

September 21, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >