Monday, September 19, 2011

"Are you an Israeli Spy or something?"

Before Emily and I have even found our hotel, everyone is chipping in a couple of thoughts about the revolution. “Egyptians think that with the revolution, everything will change right away,” offers Ali, as he grabs our bags from the whirring luggage belt. “They need to be patient.” I nod, still woozy from the twelve hours of flying. Ali is as frustrated as anyone with the slow pace of change. His industry, tourism, has been one of the more affected by the revolution. I look around the new airport terminal, less than a year old and still sparkling, and see hardly any other foreigners.
Ali hands us off to a driver, who takes us downtown through a long, dark tunnel that feels endless and is our first taste of the cacophonous-school-of-fish style of Cairo traffic. We emerge into the daylight and he cheerfully points out the jail where Mubarak is being held, a large concrete structure that I would have hardly noticed otherwise.
At first glance, the revolution is mostly seen in the details. Two years ago, when I last lived here, police officers stood aloof on every corner, gazing eerily at every passerby. Although not Syria, it was still a little tense. Now, they offer friendlier smiles to Egyptians and foreigners alike.
After checking into the hotel, we hop into a subway car and I survey the list of stations for the first time in two years. One name is scratched out. I can’t remember it, so I look across and see the same space on another list. Here, the slight impression of the station name “Mubarak” is still visible. Someone has neatly written above the new name in Arabic: “Al Shuhada,” or “The Martyrs.”
Still, an uneasiness lingers beneath the layer of post-revolution joy. Sitting at a small, dusty café a few blocks from Tahrir Square, Emily and I are lured into conversation by Muhammad, an office clerk whose brother runs an electronics store across the alley. “Why are you in Egypt?” he asks directly.
I stumble through the usual; studying Arabic, researching, writing. Maybe too much caution, but I don’t mention the American government grant. And then, I make the mistake of saying I’m curious about the revolution. “Why do you want to know?” he prods. “Are you an Israeli spy or something?”
“Oh no!” I say quickly. It seems to placate him. We return to chatting about his family and joking about how little shisha smoke I can pull. Outside, downtown Cairo is in its usual frenzy. Men and women buy clothing and eat ice cream. Tahrir square is empty, though in two days, when another Friday comes, it will again be crowded.

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