I arrived in Cairo on Wednesday, June 19, eleven days before the onset of nationwide protests that were to depose President Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. I moved into an apartment on 15 Bostan Street, a couple minutes walk from Tahrir Square. In true foreigner fashion, I found myself paying double-price for the taxi, dragging my suitcases into the lobby. Most apartment buildings in Cairo have a doorman—a bawab—and I spent our first conversation trying to explain that I was claustrophobic and was going to walk up eight flights of stairs to my apartment. He smiled and grabbed my suitcases as he stepped into the elevator. I started climbing.
The summer before, I had studied at Middlebury’s Arabic program with a friend who then recommended a language institute in Cairo. I took his advice, and this summer, I signed up for six weeks of an intensive language course and gave myself a week at the end to travel around the country.
In Egypt, like in every other Arabic-speaking country, people speak a local dialect of Arabic known as aamiyya. Aamiyya and fusha are like two languages that, while obviously related, are still noticeably different. I, like every other foreign language student, learned the latter—it is taught in schools, spoken in official capacities and used for all written Arabic. However, I soon learned that no one spoke it outside of a presidential address—ever. As I explored the streets near my apartment, I tried to pick up conversations with whoever was willing. Midway through one, the man I was speaking to paused, saying, “I can’t believe I’m speaking fusha right now”—obviously saying most of it in aamiyya. I was a Shakespearean character walking around twenty-first century London; all I was missing was the medieval outfit.
Yet even without a tunic and cloak, I learned quickly that I had to dress differently. Caireans do not wear shorts, they do not use backpacks, and they definitely do not mix the two together. My first days there I somehow had not worn either, and was greeted with apathy walking on the street. When I finally put on my shorts and placed my textbook in my backpack, the same man who hadn’t said a word to me the day before was now eyeing me, speaking in accented English: “yes sir, I can help you with something?” I went back to pants and a notebook.
At the same time though, I had arrived in a society where privilege was a different color. Gone was the image of the white Christian male that I had grown accustomed to, and in its place was a darker, more familiar picture—one that, for the first time, I fit: brown skin, black hair, and a Muslim name. With the right clothing, some took me for an Egyptian and most thought I was Syrian—either identity allowed me unrestricted access to exploring Cairo.
And yet, in the last year I’ve added another distinctive feature: a beard. It began mostly as a symbolic middle finger to the sometimes spoken, but oft-accepted, stereotype that pervades America: “brown with a beard? Terrorist!” When I got to Cairo, though, it became clear that this fear of the beard was not constrained by borders. Many of my Egyptian friends—first jokingly and then more seriously—told me that I looked ikhwani, like a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Apparently there are four levels of facial hair: clean-shaven, a stylishly light beard, ikhwani, and then activist. How activists get to level four without going through level three, I don’t know.
"A world of intoxication"
On Thursday June 27, four days into my studies, I stopped at Tahrir Square on my walk home from the Metro. The June 30 mass march was still a couple days away, but Morsi was scheduled to speak later that night—in part addressing the coming demonstrations—and so protesters had gathered to watch a projection of it in the square.
I sat down next to a bunch of older women, our eyes focusing on the scene that was unfolding. It was a world of intoxication, of mass appeal. Even in limited numbers, people packed themselves together, chanting and clapping, led by one man sitting on another’s shoulders. Ending a chant, he lit a flare and began swinging it around, as the sun faded in the background. It was like a potent mix of revolution, soccer stadia, and a shitty Newsweek cover. I felt at home.
After just a little while in Tahrir, I understood the addiction of revolution, of protest. Those who traditionally had little say on society’s direction were immediately granted the chance to speak, with the promise of an echo of thousands. Ideas of class and status were upturned, as men without means stood high on the shoulders of others, their voices loud. This new social solidarity was founded in a widespread opposition to all that the government had grown to represent—inefficiency, unjustness and sectarianism.
Yet, while many traditional social divisions fell, the barrier of gender remained. Although I saw many women at the protest, and at protests in the days ahead, they had to contend with the very real threat of sexual harassment and assault, especially at night. @OpAntiSH and @TahrirBG_DWB are two groups that strive to disrupt attempted assaults and are present at most major protests in the square, with the former reporting an average of dozens of assaults at the end of a night of protest. Enraged by the stories and statistics, I thought of volunteering only to come to the realization that the last thing Egyptians needed was a well-meaning foreigner’s assistance.
I headed back to the apartment after an hour. Earlier that day, my professor had urged me to watch Morsi’s speech. As I struggled to understand a presidential address, I turned to my Egyptian roommate for some translation. He laughed, saying he couldn’t understand it either, although we both knew that his issue was the political message while mine was the vocabulary. As his chuckle came to an end, he mentioned my beard again. Having watched the protest in which the ikhwan were denounced, I decided that it was probably time for a trim.
Changing Egypt, changing beard
That night, I went to the barbershop the next street over, telling the barber in my broken aamiyya that I wanted my beard to look like his, and while he was at it, to do the same with my hair. I felt like one of the countless brown-skinned citizens and residents of the United States who, in the weeks after September 11, traded in their beards for razors, their pagdis for dreads—except that by “War on Terror” standards, Egyptians on all sides of the conflict would have been suspect in America. Half an hour later, I emerged a fashionable Egyptian, with a light beard and a faux-hawk.
I could deal with the occasional “nice terrorist beard” remark from a drunk prep-school graduate at a College House party, but the threat of exploding anger from hundreds of thousands of protesters was a different matter. I realized I was flaunting my stubbornness, not my activism, anymore. Yet even after my trim, the reasons for having a beard still remained. My beard was a rebuttal to the narrow associations that it carried both in America and Egypt. Singularity, and the simplicity of its conclusions, is always dangerous.
The Egyptian conflict is not one of two sides, instead it encompasses many: from tamarod (the group that organized the protests and reflects much of the Egyptian left’s concerns) to the resurgent feloul (the remnants of former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime), the ever-present army, and the ikwhan (Muslim Brotherhood), amongst others. The confusion lies in that other than the ikhwan, these groups increasingly speak with one voice, and so give off the impression of a true political alliance. Yet their united front is built first and foremost on a rejection of the ikhwan, and so they are united only in opposition—a dangerous basis for any partnership.
But this is not just a “made-in-Egypt” conflict. Among other backers, American taxpayers are continuing to fund the Egyptian army to the tune of $1.3 billion a year, and it was this army that I was now watching depose a president, becoming the de-facto head of a nation—not a democratic process as most Americans would see it.
While the battles to label, define and control Egypt continued to rage, my roommates and I hovered between the pressure of apocalyptic scenarios and normal daily life. We stocked up on canned food and instant noodles and stayed inside during particularly intense protest days. Yet at the same time, I still went to class, and my roommates to work, after June 30. While most of my American friends prepared to leave as the American Embassy in Egypt advised departure for American nationals, I still didn’t see the tense atmosphere that news reports described. As the picture of Egyptian privilege, I found the streets the same, people just as willing to talk, and the Metro just as crowded as it was before. I could find the difference only if I walked towards Tahrir, where I would encounter a checkpoint for patting down protestors, with hundreds of thousands of people in the distance.
The masses got their wish on July 3, when General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian army, announced that Morsi was no longer the president, the constitution was suspended, and fresh elections were to take place in the near future.
While I was engulfed in the euphoria of the anti-Morsi protestors in my neighborhood, my parents’ worry intensified with each day. I left Cairo in the early hours of Friday, July 5, finally giving in to their requests to come home to Kampala, Uganda. I stayed with my family for two weeks, spending my time reapplying for my Egyptian visa and attempting to convince my parents to let me return to Cairo. My parents relented, and on Sunday, July 21, I was back. I met my roommates with smiles and hugs, spoke my aamiyya excitedly, and unpacked my bags for my last three weeks in Cairo.
The whole time I had been at home in Kampala I was sure that my parents had been hasty in evacuating me. While there was violence in Cairo, it was localized, and I could steer clear of it entirely. But when I walked into class on Monday, July 22, I lost my certainty. There had been two things I could count on for every class: that my professor would provide his perspective as an ikhwan supporter during our debates and that he would do so while bearded. Although we continued our discussions, he had replaced his beard with a moustache, robbing his facial hair of its politics and leaving it only with aesthetics. He brushed off my questions as to why, playing down his new look. We moved on to grammar, leaving reality behind.
My professor had always asked me to walk with him to the Metro after class and I had always declined, wanting to call my girlfriend or walk the streets on my own. That day, I was so excited to be back in Cairo, in class, living in Arabic, that I asked him if we could walk together. As we left the language institute, he brought up his beard. He told me that his mother asked him to shave it because of all the anti-ikwhan rhetoric on the streets. He looked up at me and said that as her only son, he had to listen.
We continued walking and I noticed that he kept his words to a minimum, a contrast from the classroom. It was then that I remembered something he had said earlier. When I had mentioned the rise in xenophobic rhetoric towards Palestinians and Syrians as part of the army’s ploy to associate the ikhwan with forces outside of Egypt, my professor advised me to stop speaking Arabic. He wanted me to speak only in English, so that no one could mistake me for a Syrian. While I was shaken by his words, I didn’t understand their ramifications until we were en-route to the Metro: outside of the classroom our conversations were short, abrupt, and soft-spoken, all because of his fear. As we got on the train, I had lost the joy of walking from place to place and speaking with whoever was alongside me; instead I resolved to put my head down and walk briskly, treating every journey as a means as opposed to an end.
From Cairo to Brunswick
On Wednesday, July 24, Sisi announced that he wanted Egyptians to pour out onto the streets in two days to give him a popular mandate to “confront terrorism.” Substitute ikhwan for “terrorists” and the message was clear. My problem was that the substitution went further; with beard for ikwhan, Syrian for ikwhan, and foreign for ikwhan. Singularity struck again, and even though I had shaved the night before—opting for a (creepy) goatee—I still fit two of the descriptions. On Wednesday night my parents told me to leave, and this time I agreed with them. By Thursday morning, I was on a plane to New York. By Friday night, I was in a bed in Brunswick.
I complain of my fractured plans to my friends, but my comfortable existence does not compare with that of ordinary Egyptians. Like them, my last two months have been spent witnessing stages of turmoil, yet while I stood by watching, they were swept up. My dependence on Egypt’s future ended when my feet touched land at JFK; their dependence is forever. And it is for them that we must hope there will be a resolution.
With such a complex situation, where do the answers lie? They reside in the border between the traditional pillars of current affairs and the insights of the Twittersphere, with @sharifkouddous, @PatrickKingsley, @sarahcarr and @Moftasa offering the most insightful information. It is there that I would advise the interested to go, and it is now the only place I can go, as the streets of Cairo fade into memory.