A Trini in Egypt - Curfew shutdown
By Natalie Williams in Cairo
Life in my new adopted homeland of Egypt remains tough, but profoundly interesting.
We live in exciting times. Friends and family overseas will still attest to my continuing jolly outlook and positive attitude to this move to the capital, Cairo, which remains in turmoil and in a state of flux.
For nearly two months, we have been living under a state of emergency and a curfew which restricts movement considerably and which, for a while, sucked the life out of Africa’s oldest city.
Life on the ground in Cairo changed drastically when Egypt’s military leaders imposed a strict curfew and state of emergency after months of mass demonstrations which ground Cairo, Alexandria and many districts to a complete halt.
And this city was already fraught with long-standing historic problems: a fledging economy, deep socio-economic problems, rising unemployment and poverty levels and deep religious divisions.
Closed for the foreseeable future
In my own neighbourhood of Zamalek, most activity on the River Nile has ceased.
Fisher-folk on the banks of this beautiful, inspiring conduit to Egyptian life have pulled away, families have abandoned evening walks along the water and houseboats have been boarded up.
The strict curfew has meant that tourist boats are in dry dock and their hypnotic neon lights extinguished for the foreseeable future.
Cairo’s infamous traffic gridlock eased (closer to the bewitching curfew hour), vibrant street markets disappeared, tea vendors remained indoors, and noisy streets became quiet by 7pm.
No one wants to feel the might of the all-powerful military personnel, who are now a regular fixture all over the city with their arms and tanks.
Tourists, meanwhile, are staying away.
When we ventured out to see the Great Pyramids of Giza – a place I have wanted to see all my life – we were but a handful of visitors that day, enjoying the antiquities and greatness of the pharaohs. All to ourselves, yes, but the area felt like a ghost town.
Egyptians were cooped up indoors, while the scene in village after village leading to the pyramids seemed like an Arabian desert landscape straight out of Laurence of Arabia.
The air-conditioning units in the main museum were turned off (many museums across Cairo now do this) to save dwindling revenues and declining funding after tourist arrivals fell.
So visiting these great Egyptian institutions has become a slight chore and I know many a fickle friend who will say “Forget it” to a blazing hot day exploring the desert without the respite of a cool museum or café.
On the day we visited the great pyramids, it was clear that our personal tour guide was expecting an extra big tip, as the elephant in the room was the fact that we had been his only clients for months.
All the while that I marvelled at the pyramids and museums that day, I was worried whether we were seeing them at the beginning of the end, so to speak. After all, the tourist dollars are needed to keep staff and maintenance costs running.
Not long ago, everyday life for Egyptians and foreign nationals alike took on the semblance of a war zone, as hundreds of Egyptians demanded a better standard of living and a better deal from the people they voted into power in 2011.
Even now, the country’s deposed leader, the first democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, remains under house arrest at an undisclosed location and a military-backed government is in charge in Egypt.
But life is slowly returning to Cairo and the mighty Nile, albeit in a rather tense atmosphere.
There has been a massive crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the oldest Islamic organisation in Egypt and the group whose leader was ousted from power after a mere year in office.
Dozens of its key people have been arrested and their assets seized.
Those leaders, too, lost loved ones in the bloody uprisings, with two top MB figures burying a daughter and son following days of violence between the protesters and the army.
Islamist leaders and thinkers have had their voice silenced, after the closure of MB media houses.
And so the curfew remains in effect, although loosened a little.
Living under a veil of fear
But if fears of retaliation by the MB are real, this heavily regulated way of living will remain the order of the day for quite some time in Egypt, which remains a tinderbox.
Many say that things can easily take a turn for the worse. Recently, hand grenades were thrown at a local police station and on another occasion, the interior minister survived an assassination attempt outside his home, near a busy district close to downtown Cairo.
These were high-profile targets, so ordinary people, it is safe to say, are living under a veil of fear.
As a result, they have to squeeze everyday activity into a few hours in the day.
Any routine you can think about – office meetings, crisis management, supermarket shopping, romantic dinners out (eat quick, honey) – have been fast- forwarded and the pace of life quickened in a surreal way.
Trinidad curfew experience
But the Wise One and I have lived under a state of emergency and curfew before – and as far as I am concerned, we expected better of the Egyptian people.
Or should I say, more versatility, creativity and genuine frivolity, as result of cutting the working day short and being holed up in your neighbourhood.
OK, I am talking here of the curfew parties, barbeques and limes which went into instant play when my own homeland of Trinidad and Tobago survived a violent Muslim-led attempted coup back in July 1990.
In comparison, what was happening in Cairo? How were people coping with the extra long evenings?
I know there might be the odd pedantic Caribbean Intelligence reader who says, “Typical Trini in Africa, thinking about fun and parties at a time of civil unrest in the people country.”
But believe me when I say this innate Caribbean love of fun and joie de vivre has stood me in good stead in many a hostile environment.
Even now, as the “new kid on my street”, when I speak to random strangers in nearby cafés and shops, I see their faces light up when they discover that I am from the Caribbean.
I confess that they frequently draw a blank when it comes to locating the region on the world map (I am very cool with this), but the word “Caribbean” makes faces soften as they deduce that it is not hostile (territory) to the Arab world.
It is at this point that I embrace the stereotypes of reggae music, palm trees and pina coladas, as there are worse things your home region can be famous for.
Help in brightening up
And there’s no arguing against Egyptians needing reasons to lighten and brighten up.
The country remains polarised.
Both sides want their men in power.
My driver on loan is adamant that the military generals have the country’s best interests at heart. They staged the popular coup back in July because “the people wanted the Muslim Brotherhood out”, he tells me every time we talk politics.
My hairstylist – a young man no older than 25 years old – is fearful of life under the Egyptian generals, declaring that there is a generation of Egyptians who simply will not tolerate any military rulers or shades of the Mubarak era.
Hosni Mubarak was the president they overthrew in the first Tahrir Square revolution.
And, believe me, these innocent conversations, these routine chats with hotel staff, food vendors, taxi drivers and the like can become heated, with this Trini in Africa happy to remain quiet most of the time, as it is so clear to me that my Egyptian friends need to vent the decades of pent-up frustrations.
They appreciate this compliant ear, which is there simply to listen to ordinary Egyptians of all generations, ready to converge on the streets of Cairo with missiles and placards, who just want to be heard.
And their fiery ideology – whatever their views – is so refreshing.
How many people in this world are prepared to put their passionate social beliefs into practice?
How many of us are truly prepared to put our money where our mouths are when “vex” about politicians not doing enough for the poor and downtrodden in this world?
Within days of my relocating to Cairo and living the history of the revolutions, as it were, it became clear to me that the Egyptians who came out in their millions waving their red, white and black national flags were a special civilisation and that this was a race prepared to die for their cause.
And because it is Egyptians who make up the political and military hierarchy of the country, those people, too, are inspired by passionate ideology.
And so therein lies the dilemma for the well-meaning diplomats and Western leaders eager for their version of democracy to roll out across Egypt.
In the Caribbean, we say: “Two man-rat can’t live in one hole.”
The inner worry for me is that both sides have been painfully slow to show any sign of a compromise thus far.
HAVE YOU READ IT YET?