Cairo: A Museum of Ghosts

Cairo: A Museum of Ghosts

A visit to the Egyptian capital while government crackdowns are forcing many of its writers and artists to find a way out.


One evening last December, I strolled through the busy streets of the Cairo neighborhood known as Downtown to the new offices of the independent publishing house Merit. Just around the corner from the Café Riche, where young revolutionaries secretly printed pamphlets promoting the 1919 uprising against the British, and where the novelist Naguib Mahfouz held court in the 1960s, I turned onto Mohamed Sabri Abu Alam Street. Between the Armenian church and the Ministry of Religious Endowments, a striking neo-Islamic structure completed in 1929, I walked into a grand old apartment building that had seen better days.

I found several hundred young Egyptians spilling out of a renovated flat and down the building’s curved marble staircase. Inside the apartment, there were paintings on the walls, tables covered with Merit’s brightly designed, inexpensive paperbacks, and an atmosphere of joyful pandemonium. Vain attempts were being made to squeeze a few more chairs into the space. Greetings and exhortations filled the air. Mohamed Hashim, Merit’s publisher, lurked in the background in a straw hat, refusing to give a speech. But several authors spoke up, praising Merit for being “a model of freedom,” for “pushing the boundaries” and creating “a feeling of community in these very bad times,” and for being a place where one could still talk of “our oppressed revolution that…isn’t over.”

Merit’s old office had been at the end of Kasr al-Nil Street, just a stone’s throw from Tahrir Square. In January and February 2011, it served as a crowded, informal base camp for protesters during the 18 days it took to depose President Hosni Mubarak. Long before that momentous time, I had gotten into the habit of dropping by Merit. In the late afternoon, I’d join the company of friends and writers sitting on ragged couches in the office’s cramped quarters and bantering with Hashim, his voice hoarse from years of smoking and his thin face often creased by an impish smile. There was never any talk of business, and I often wondered how this ridiculously casual operation continued to publish books by some of Egypt’s most promising new talents.

Cairo has always had a lively literary scene, which since the early 20th century has been anchored in the bars, bookstores, offices, and smoke-filled cafés of Downtown. The district adjoins Tahrir Square, a belle epoque wonder created by Khedive Ismail Pasha in 1865 to rival the glory of Paris. Its elegant apartment buildings, old palaces, and passages have slipped into charming dilapidation, but it remains the city’s cultural epicenter. In the novel The Yacoubian Building, a best seller during Mubarak’s twilight years in power, Alaa Al Aswany indicts the regime’s corruption and describes its repercussions on the lives of the residents of a historic Downtown building. Merit published the first edition.

Two years after Mubarak’s downfall, Hashim and his friends were in the street again. In 2013, they backed the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood’s post-Mubarak government and the military intervention that ousted Mohamed Morsi from the presidency that July. Headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has since become president, the regime outlawed the Brotherhood and arrested thousands of its members. When security forces cleared Morsi supporters from Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in August 2013, they left at least 1,000 people dead.

As an Islamist insurgency grew in the Sinai Peninsula and the country’s economy faltered, the Sisi regime’s repression ex­panded in every direction, driving a generation of young activists into prison, exile, or silence. Egyptians are still dying regularly in police custody or being kidnapped and held for weeks or months on end in a secret, parallel prison system where torture is rampant. The authorities harass media outlets, human-rights groups, universities, civil-society organizations, and cultural institutions—­anywhere citizens might congregate, reflect, and express themselves.

In the entrance to Merit’s office hangs a tattered, framed gray sheet of paper covered in signatures. At the top is written i was in tahrir. So many waves of violence, fatigue, disappointment, and confusion have swept over Egypt since the uprising five years ago that these days, one almost forgets, or doubts, it ever took place. Sisi’s regime wants not only to rewrite the past—it insists the Arab Spring was a conspiracy hatched by the West and Islamists—but also to forbid any honest accounting of the present crisis and to disable the capacity to imagine alternatives. To the government, the motley spirit of defiance displayed by institutions like Merit is unacceptable.

* * *

Not long after moving into its new Downtown offices, Merit was raided by the authorities. The official reason was the lack of a valid publishing license. But a young volunteer was taken into custody and questioned about the content of Merit’s books and seminars and of Hashim’s own political views. It was another heavy blow to Cairo’s beleaguered cultural milieu. Egyptian writers have always faced small readerships, scant pay, and occasional censorship. Today, though, the situation is at its worst.

When I spoke to him in February, the novelist Ahmed Naji said that, like many other writers and artists, he was “looking for any opportunity to get out of here.” He added: “What can you do in Egypt, as a young man or a writer or a human being?” At the time, Naji was on trial for obscenity and offending public morals. The charges stemmed from a literary magazine’s publication in August 2014 of a chapter from his latest novel Istikhdam al-Hayat, or “The Use of Life” (an English translation by Ben Koerber is forthcoming from University of Texas Press). The magazine is the historic, state-owned Akhbar al-Adab (Literary News), where Naji is a writer and editor. The charges carry a sentence of up to two years in jail. Naji was acquitted at a trial in January, but the prosecutor appealed and the case was moved to a higher court for retrial.

In December, I had met Naji at Estoril, a restaurant popular with Downtown bohemians, where the aged waiters wear their anachronistic turbans with practiced nonchalance. Naji is a baby-faced 30-year-old; his horseshoe mustache only seems to accentuate his youth. At age 16, he fled the provincial Egyptian city of Mansoura and a conservative family that expected him to become a doctor. He studied journalism at Akhbar al-Youm Academy and began working at Akhbar al-Adab.

Naji’s novel is a surreal tale of Cairo’s future obliteration and features illustrations by the cartoonist Ayman al-Zurqani. The narrator, speaking from the future, reminisces about the impossible city he lived in as a young man. In the chapter that landed Naji in court, the narrator recounts staying up all night smoking hashish and drinking with his friends; the next day, he meets his lover for brunch and mid-afternoon sex. Then two female friends pick him up and they drive through streets empty of the usual traffic, to drink a beer at sunset on cliffs overlooking the city:

Mona’s wearing a long skirt of some light fabric. I stick my head between the seats and see she’s bunched up her skirt in her lap and is rolling a joint. I’m distracted by the glow of her knees, and Samira’s turning up the music. Jimi Hendrix’s guitar shrieks like a hen laying its first egg. I open the window as we pass over the Azhar Bridge, and imagine I catch a whiff of cumin, pepper and spices. As we exit the bridge and enter the Husayn district, I smell some burnt coffee beans that, without being an expert, I can tell are of poor quality. The scent fills my nostrils. Among the tombs in the City of the Dead, the smell of liver fried in battery acid lingers like a rain cloud.

In describing the sex scene between the narrator and his lover, Naji uses the Arabic words for “cock” and “pussy.” In August of 2015, a middle-aged man from Cairo’s Bulaq neighborhood filed a claim against Naji. In his complaint, Hany Salah Tawfiq spun a lively tale himself, one designed to appeal to the most paternalistic and moralistic impulses of Egypt’s judicial system. He claimed that reading the story after his indignant wife pointed it out to him, and before his innocent daughters could be exposed to it, caused him such consternation that “his heartbeat fluctuated and his blood pressure dropped.” The prosecutor who took the case to trial that November seemed to treat the novel as a factual description of Naji’s own immoral behavior. To restrained titters from the author’s friends in the audience, the prosecutor delivered a long indictment tinged with religious rhetoric and mixed metaphors on the poisonous effect of such filth.

The prosecutor spoke entirely in fusha. Traditionally, there has been a divide between fusha—formal Arabic—and amiya, colloquial Arabic. Although they’re derived from the same sources, the first is closer to the Arabic of the Koran; different forms of it are used in religious and official discourse, the media, and literature. Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s 1988 Nobel laureate, wrote his dialogues in fusha even though amiya is what everyone actually speaks. Ahmed Naji is part of a generation of younger Egyptian writers whose work increasingly includes dialect, allusions to pop culture, profanity, and the funny neologisms created by the Arabicization of foreign words. The spread of this new, young, colloquial, “vulgar” Arabic is a democratic phenomenon linked, in part, to the online world, where people tend to write as they speak. Using slang is a way to puncture the disingenuousness of official discourse. The use of profanity can also be deeply political. For many of the online activists writing in the years before Mubarak fell, it was a purposeful choice to insult his regime in the foulest terms possible—to deny figures of authority the linguistic deference that, no matter how unpopular they may be, they expect to be shown in public forums.

Naji argues that the terms he uses for the male and female anatomy not only can be heard on every street corner in Cairo, but also appear in classical Arabic literature. It was only in the 19th century, he says, that “middle-class Egyptian intellectuals,” fresh from visits to Victorian England, popularized the euphemisms that became common in literature. Nasser Amin, Naji’s lawyer, argued the point in his trial, presenting the judge with books of classical Arabic literature and Islamic exegesis containing the vulgar terms in question.

The head of the Egyptian writers’ union testified in Naji’s defense. So did Sonallah Ibrahim, whose novel That Smell—the story of a recently released political prisoner trying to adapt to life on the outside, and finding the Egypt of the 1960s a larger prison—was censored 50 years ago largely due to a matter-of-fact masturbation scene. Ibrahim is one of the country’s most original literary talents, instantly recognizable from his mop of frizzy gray hair and his thick-rimmed black spectacles. He was visibly angered when the prosecutor challenged the defense witnesses to read the offending chapter in question out loud in court. They answered that a literary text should not be read in court, out of context. But the prosecutor had scored a point; many Egyptians would agree that the passage in questions was shockingly offensive, not art.

* * *

Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Egyptian Constitution and vouchsafed by the president in interviews with foreign media. But the rule of law is in tatters, and in daily life the principle of free speech has been hemmed in by a thicket of qualifications and conditions. Of Naji’s case, the novelist Youssef Rakha says: “I don’t think it actually is an issue of freedom of expression. It’s a deeper issue of society’s view of itself and its duplicity.” Artists are under threat in Egypt, he adds, “not because of laws but attitudes and assumptions and general zeitgeist.”

Rakha, who is 39, writes ambitious, dark experimental novels whose uneven surfaces glint with sharp aphorisms and passages of lyrical beauty. The Crocodiles (translated into English by Robin Moger for Seven Stories Press) is about a group of poets and artists navigating relationships and ambitions, from the late 1990s through the uprising; it also features several graphic sex scenes. Writers take risks, Rakha says, in part because they are protected by the modest size of their readership. “As writers, we’ve operated on the assumption it’s unlikely your novel will spread beyond a circle,” he says, “and as long as it doesn’t, you’re safe.” Particularly today, “if you’re going to make art about Egypt, how are you going to be polite?” he adds. “It’s almost like denying reality as opposed to dealing with it.”

Rakha’s question reminded me of something I had seen a little over five years ago, on the morning of January 29, 2011: a man in Tahrir Square screaming in protest against Mubarak with such ferocity that the veins in his neck bulged and he gasped for air. The ground was sparkling with shattered glass, and behind him smoke was still rising from the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling party. Bystanders gently tried to calm the man down, not because they objected to his anger but because they seemed concerned for his health.

What I remember most clearly about that time in the capital is the overflowing talk. Cairo has always been a garrulous city, but in the days and weeks and months that followed Mubarak’s ouster, the chatter was suddenly urgent. People questioned and argued and shouted. Every other day there was a demonstration on a street corner, with students or employees chanting their demands. Every errand and every taxi ride turned into a political conversation. Every night, the TV talk shows crackled with electrifying exchanges. Graffiti, outdoor cinemas and concerts, art festivals in the street—all exploded with talk. People said that, no matter what happened, the walls of fear would never rise again.

Nowadays, TV talk shows offer stultifying three-hour-long harangues on the threats that Egypt faces, delivered by a cast of agitated sycophants whose purpose seems to be to suck up all the air in which any genuine thought might live. Downtown has been cleaned up, the graffiti painted over, and many of the street-side cafés favored by young people have closed. The shouting has stopped. People lower their voices to talk politics in public, if they talk about them at all.

* * *

For several years, Alaa Al Aswany hosted a monthly seminar. It had evolved from a small salon that started late in the Mubarak era into standing-room-only events, where the novelist discussed current affairs with other cultural and political celebrities. In December, security officials shut it down. Aswany had already been barred from writing his weekly column in the newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm and from appearing on state TV. “Freedom of expression does not exist, the situation is worse than under Mubarak,” he told The Guardian that month.

Aswany was stating the obvious, something he has a gift for. He is a large man with a warm, booming voice who writes fast-moving, confidently plotted novels, and whose every pronouncement has a natural forcefulness. He was already famous in 2011, but thereafter he became one of the country’s preeminent public commentators and one of the uprising’s most eloquent advocates. In a memorable TV exchange that year, he gave a tongue-lashing to Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, previously Mubarak’s minister for civil aviation, for his complicity with the old regime. Shafik was forced to resign the next day.

Back then, the catchphrase of Al Aswany’s popular newspaper column was “Democracy is the solution,” a rebuke to the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto “Islam is the solution.” Like the overwhelming majority of the country’s writers, artists, and intellectuals, Al Aswany supported the army’s ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013 and defended the killing of hundreds of his supporters. “We are in a state of war,” he said at the time. The Muslim Brothers “are not the peaceful, democratic force that they said they were for 40 years. They are a group of terrorists and fascists.”

The sentiment was widespread. In the fall of 2013, a few months after the massacre of Brotherhood supporters at Rabaa el-Adawiya Square, I visited Sonallah Ibrahim in his home. I was shocked when this gentle man, a lifelong dissident who was jailed by Gamal Abdel Nasser from 1959 to 1964, defended the police’s actions. “The fundamental thing now is, if the police officer who used to insult me and kick me and beat me under Mubarak, if now he is fighting against terrorism, I am with him,” Ibrahim told me. Like many leftists of his generation, he views a strong state that can act as a bulwark against foreign imperialism and Islamism as more important than the rights of individual citizens.

Ibrahim and the rest of Egypt’s literati had reason to loathe and fear the Brotherhood. For years, Islamists have attacked artists—in the courts, on the airwaves, and in the streets—for producing art that they considered to be blasphemous or immoral. In 1994, Naguib Mahfouz barely survived being assaulted by a young zealot who had been told Mahfouz’s novel The Children of the Alley, which features allegorical portraits of the prophets, including Muhammad, was sacrilegious. Islamists have assailed sculptures and inveighed against ballet; they often led campaigns to ban books they considered offensive, including a version of The Thousand and One Nights that was published by a state-owned press.

The fears of Egypt’s cultural elite were confirmed in 2012, when the Brotherhood won the parliamentary majority and presi­dency, and Islamists tried to monopolize power within public institutions. As the Brotherhood encountered opposition, it became increasingly strident and paranoid. It betrayed its secular allies to pursue a divisive sectarian agenda, enshrining sharia in the Constitution. When a Brotherhood appointee became the head of the Ministry of Culture and tried to bring the institution into line, firing several key figures, artists staged an open-ended sit-in at its offices. If the Brotherhood had remained in power, Youssef Rakha believes, “it would have been a hundred times worse. The conflict could have been a real conflict. Political Islam is a civil-war project.”

Egypt has paid an extremely high price for the removal of the Brotherhood from power: the scuttling of a democratic experiment, the return of the military to the political forefront, and an ongoing crackdown under Sisi that is the worst the country has witnessed in decades. All of this makes it almost necessary for Egypt’s writers and intellectuals to believe that the Islamist group posed an existential threat.

Yet it’s an ironic, incontrovertible fact that during the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief time in power, free speech flourished in Egypt. The Islamists, try as they might, couldn’t stamp out criticism and mockery. They were eager but ineffective censors, unable to contain the many forces allied against them: the security apparatus and the army; the businessmen who own Egypt’s private media; the artists and activists who didn’t trust them.

Bassem Youssef, who hosted a comedy show inspired by Jon Stewart’s that became a national phenomenon, relentlessly ridiculed the Brotherhood and Morsi personally. When Youssef was sued for insulting the president and Islam, his predicament garnered international media attention and was decried by the US State Department. But after the army toppled Morsi, the comedian canceled his show under increasing political pressure and left the country.

Sisi’s “secular” military regime has quashed dissent much more ruthlessly than the Brother­hood could have ever dreamed of, in the name of defending public order and public morality. Sisi views culture as little more than propaganda, and journalism that diverges from the state-sanctioned narrative as treason. Cases of individuals being detained for “denigrating religion”—such as three Christian teenagers recently sentenced to five years in prison for producing a video poking fun at ISIS—continue apace. But the repression today is more unpredictable, indiscriminate, and perverse. A researcher who criticized the army’s military campaign in the Sinai was questioned at the airport on his return to Egypt and then deported. A law was passed prohibiting journalists from reporting facts that contradict army statements. A Facebook user who photoshopped Mickey Mouse ears onto a picture of Sisi was convicted of “trying to overthrow the regime” and sentenced to three years in prison. In November, the owner of one of Egypt’s top private newspapers was arrested in the most public and humiliating manner possible: His house was raided in the early hours of the morning. The rumor at Cairo dinner parties is that only days before, the man had made the mistake of saying that Sisi might not last more than another six months in the presidency.

When I was in Cairo, it seemed that in the circles I traveled in, bad news came on a daily if not hourly basis. The indomitable Egyptian wit kept up with it, but just barely. A friend of a friend wrote on Facebook: “Remember the good old days, when we were staring into the abyss?”

Sonallah Ibrahim and others blame the Muslim Brotherhood for all that has gone awry, but by throwing their lot in with the army, they have become accomplices in their own misfortune. Their belief that the outcome of the last five years was inevitable can shade into cynicism or hopelessness.

I witnessed both these reactions in conversations with writers about how the country had reached its current low point. On one afternoon in Cairo, I had tea with two Merit authors, Hamdi Abu Golayyel and Ahmed Sabry Aboul-Fotouh. Golayyel has written novels about his Bedouin background and his experience as a construction worker. Aboul-Fotouh has written a widely praised novel about the uprising, centered on the hired thugs who often assaulted demonstrators. Inhaling with gusto on a shisha pipe, Aboul-Fotouh dismissed the young activists whom he believed were funded and trained abroad, and said the Muslim Brotherhood had “kidnapped” the revolution from the start: “We screamed for the army to intervene.”

“It was a revolution against the army, too,” put in Golayyel. “If not for the Brotherhood, we would have held them accountable.”

“We would never have held them accountable,” said Aboul-Fotouh, waving the idea away with his hand.

Youssef Rakha grew disillusioned with the uprising, as Islamist parties reaped the benefits of a more open political field, while young demonstrators engaged in bloody and seemingly pointless clashes with the army and police. Rakha says he grieves for Egypt’s younger generation, which “has been fucked over in the most comprehensive way.” He explains: “My role as an intellectual is to fight for and perpetrate what I believe in.” But having weighed the alternatives, he adds, “tell me—what could I wish for other than what we have now?”

Yet the Egyptian authorities, despite their grip on the political arena and their widespread regional and international support, remain unsettled by the events of five years ago and the specter of mass mobilization. No level of control satisfies them. In the lead-up to the uprising’s fifth anniversary in January, police inspected thousands of Downtown apartments; they were particularly interested in young people, forcing many of them to share their social-media accounts. The police have also targeted cultural venues where young Egyptians frequently meet. An art and photography center was raided in November and closed after unlicensed software was found on some computers. At the end of December, police from the arts-censorship bureau raided Townhouse, a beloved gallery and bookstore that has played a crucial role in the development of Cairo’s arts scene, and confiscated books, notebooks, CDs, flash drives, the gallery’s main desktop computer, and a staff member’s personal laptop. Police questioned employees for several hours but didn’t say what they were investigating. The gallery was sealed; the reason given was a lack of adequate fire exits.

It was the following night that the police raided Merit’s new offices. At the time, Mohamed Hashim refused to close shop. But when I visited him again at the end of January, he was despondent. The previous day, he had received a tax bill for over 2 million Egyptian pounds (about $260,000). He sat at his desk in the near-empty office holding the crumpled piece of paper. “This is long-term revenge,” he said. “We were with the revolution. We were against the Brothers and the army…. They are pressuring me to leave the country or close or go to jail. They want to close down the public domain.”

“This is the new Downtown,” Ahmed Naji wrote in an article published on the website Huna Sotak on January 7. It’s “an open air museum for ghosts”—

life has ebbed out of the heart of Cairo, the city they say never sleeps. To the mind of the Egyptian security state, this is the greatest success. Nothing troubles the serenity of their imaginary safety, not demonstrations nor gatherings for a literary salon or an art exhibition…. The problem has become, not that the regime pursues its opponents but that it hunts down all signs of life; culture and art are forbidden.

Naji himself has become the latest victim of the ongoing criminalization of youth, creativity, and outspokenness. To everyone’s shock, at the conclusion of his retrial on February 20, he received the full two-year sentence. It is a harsh and unprecedented verdict against a novelist in Egypt. Naji was taken straight into custody.

* * *

During my time in Cairo, a popular young cartoonist, Islam Gawish, whose Facebook page has nearly 2 million followers, was detained by state security—possibly for political satire, possibly for operating a Facebook page without a license, something that until then no one had known was a crime. Two nights later, young soccer fans rioted over the lack of prosecutions in a bloody stadium clash a few years ago. President Sisi called in to a TV talk show and delivered a rambling speech on his favorite topic: the dangers that face Egypt and his efforts to save the country.

The president is always soft-spoken, his voice inflected with saccharine, faux-humble tones. He claimed, “I’m not upset at Gawish or anyone…. No one can speak on my behalf and say that I get upset from criticism.” He went on to take responsibility for the government’s failure to reach Egypt’s angry young people, saying, “It’s us who are unable to communicate with” them. (In April 2014, he had said rather clearly that “Egypt’s youth should not be thinking about when they will ‘live.’”) Half of all Egyptians are 25 or younger. Sisi spoke without interruption for half an hour, sounding like a put-upon dad, but I got the distinct impression that he isn’t really interested in what the kids have to say. He thinks the problem is that they won’t listen.

It could be they have other things on their minds. Naji’s view of Cairo in Istikhdam al-Hayat is caustic but true to life. He dwells on the traffic, the crowding, the aggression and hypocrisy, the sexual frustration of men, and the endless harassment of women. His narrator says: “Wherever you live or go in Cairo, you’re constantly under assault. Fate’s got you by the balls. All the combined forces on earth cannot change this fate. You may be fucked over at any moment, from above or below, left or right.” The city’s destruction in the novel—it is submerged by an epic, man-made sandstorm—speaks to the desire for radical change that I have heard expressed more than once in Egypt in apocalyptic terms. People dream of starting over without rulers, and then try to revolt. Rulers dream of starting over without the people: Last year, Sisi’s government unveiled a wildly unrealistic plan for a “New Cairo,” a satellite city with skyscrapers and its own airport and amusement park, to be built in the desert far from the existing capital’s density and disorder.

Yet there are glimpses in Istikhdam al-Hayat of a redeeming tenderness. For Naji, the very chapter that has landed him in prison is “an attempt to describe what a happy day would look like for a young man in Cairo.” While most of the novel depicts life in the city as both restless and oppressive, the chapter is a brief moment of freedom and ease, and a celebration of camaraderie. As the narrator says, “In exchange for everything it does to its residents, Cairo grants only irrevocable friendships, contracted not by free choice but according to the necessities of fate. The saying goes, ‘Go to Cairo and you will find those like you.’” That may be what Egypt’s rulers fear the most.

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