The bridge

It is way too early to talk about the “results” of the revolution in Egypt. Some commentators worry about that everything will remain the way it was, but the Egyptian writer Somaya Ramadan sees a slow change of the life in the streets—not least in a blurring of the class borders. The very symbol of this is the construction of a new bridge across the Nile.

September 27 2012 Text: Somaya Ramadan

Between a rock and a hard place there is always a small crevice. A crevice to peek through. A miniscule crossroads where you make a choice when you reach it, and if you're lucky there will be a bridge. That was why I first hailed a taxi but then decided to walk. I had not walked over the bridge Kasr El Nil for more than six months. The crevice at the café where I had just been showed me a bit of Midan Tahrir and the mini-crossroads that was in my head. But I needed a bridge. I needed something with which to join the scene on the street with the undecided state of my being. I wanted to verify what I was hearing about the conditions on the bridge, and I wanted them to be both true and not true.

“It was scandalous,” they said, the tennis gang, sipping their Heinekens after their afternoon exertion. “The bridge has become an icon of bad taste and sloppy manners,” was the favourite one-upmanship topic in the tea garden at the sports club. What was I hoping to see and learn that was not in Midan Tahrir right in front of me, I wondered as I stepped out of Ali Baba—now called Café Al Tahrir—the coffee shop where Naguib Mahfouz for as long as anyone could remember sipped his morning coffee and read the papers. What view had he had that was different?—before the place changed its name and witnessed a world-acclaimed revolution. There were street vendors everywhere but I do not recall ever seeing the pavement without street vendors. The pavement, as I stepped out of the café, was generously littered with paper, used wrappings, cigarette butts, and every now and then a wet puddle that had seeped up as if from nowhere. As far back as I can remember, over the last twenty years or so, this particular pavement has looked exactly the same.

Yet on this day there was an almost imperceptible difference that I could not immediately define. As I reached Abdel Mon’em Riad’s statue, where, in his military uniform, he pointed proudly at some vague target in the distance, I carefully picked my way around and over the holes and bumps in the street. There I gazed out onto the right bank of the Nile. The river was sulking sadly under the garish lights, and the loud piercing music bellowed from the feluccas. “I have not polluted the water of the Nile,” the ancients had insisted assuredly at the trial of Osiris, in the presence of Maat, the great one who held everyone’s deeds in her balance, weighing each one’s integrity. As always the left bank appeared stately and unperturbed, distinguishing itself from the surrounding tackiness. But what would Maat have said if the light-hearted clientele had sworn that they “had not deprived the poor man from the proceeds of his fields?”

Soon the first makeshift café appeared and my heart beat wildly in reminiscence of the events that had taken place. This, I thought, is the aftermath of revolution. This is the immediate result. This is like the Midan and the pavement outside of Ali Baba. What struck me was not the scene nor the faces; not the dress nor the language. It was an attitude. A shift in mood where the sighing relief affected the air, where the vernacular cadences repainted the scenery. Pushcart behind pushcart; streets aloud with naked lights; drinks and snacks served (you could only get into the poorer quarters until quite recently)—everything lit up the dark pavement. Men, women, and children sat on plastic chairs enjoying the relative cool of the evening—simply reclaiming their river. There was a whiff of the months before when people who were total strangers mingled and talked without a moment's hesitation, and it filled my lungs. I caught myself smiling just as a beleela vendor invited me to take a chair, which I refused with a friendly gesture. Is this justice at last? Is this equity? My mind fled to the tea garden at the Gezira Club across the river and the six star riverboats with their posh gourmet restaurants. The next vendor, and the next, and the next did not notice me. I was used to sensing a slight tension in the street where I walked. I, an older woman—un-veiled—who wore jeans and sneakers but who was obviously Egyptian, did not often go un-approached. Usually there was a sweet, almost kind, tension in the air with a clear message: you do not belong here.

“This was a reversal of order,” the beer sippers said collecting their tennis rackets and remembering as an afterthought to tip the boy who retrieved their well-practiced shots. The reversal was long and slow in coming and those who sipped their beer and spoke condescendingly about the “masses” were not always of one unbroken line. The credentials needed in order to enter their club were a lot of cash and some power—no matter how insignificant. They passed on an illusory legacy of things they had never experienced first hand. A whole sixty years have gone by and still they have the patience to bemoan the beautiful old days when downtown Cairo was where expensive perfumes filled the air and where Groppi boasted the best ice cream soda and the tastiest French pastries in all the Middle East. No one longer bothered to try to emulate Mr Groppi the Italian immigrant. They just missed him terribly. This was before the revolution in 1952. But the tone remained and those who sought distinction did so after some Western model, sorely neglecting their own language and forgoing every aspect of the culture that supported them. With the very best of intentions, and behaving as models for imperial subalterns, they often unflinchingly flaunted their disrespect. These people are not mean. They are often philanthropists. They too both directly and indirectly support a hefty size of the population.

The riding courses at the sports club and the plastic chairs on the Nile are dependent on each other. Even as they stand face to face across the river they both innocently betray an unforgiveable ignorance of one another. This is what I perceived in the crevice that first nurtured my thoughts as I had begun to walk along the bridge. As I stood at the crossroads on Midan with Abdul Mon’em Riad pointing at some target in the distance, I was trying to make up my mind about something. There should be a bridge here that leads into a mutual park. The Westernized hedonists on one side, and the faithfully religious indigenously cultivated people on the other side are not just worlds apart—they are also undergoing the harrowing turmoil of rethinking their positions vis à vis each other. Right now they are each struggling for supremacy. The faithful have the power, but will they hold on to their authority unchallenged? The hedonists have lost their power, but will they give up their inherited privileges un-coerced? Who will stand up for those who are discriminated against? Who will fight for the rights of the politically deprived? Who will defend the individual's right to a free conviction? Who will help women break the shackles of male supremacy? Who will criminalize religious persecution and hate talk? Who will come to the rescue of those who belong to neither camp, but are in between? Who will make of their existence a bridge that leads a nation to a verdant, mutual park? Who, I ask, in their right mind would not try!