Monday, November 7, 2011

Blood in the Streets

On Sunday morning, we took a walk around the neighborhood. Since 3 a.m. or so the night before, butchers all over the country had been busy. Every year at this time, the Holiday of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha), Muslim families who can afford to do so have a sheep or a cow slaughtered. They keep a third, give a third to family and neighbors, and give a third to the poor. This marks the end of the pilgrimage undertaken by over a million to Mecca each year.

A little after 7, the holiday prayers ended and the sacrifices proceeded. We woke up around 10 to total silence. For several days a sheep had been braying incessantly outside our window. “The Silence of the Lambs” was literal.

We stepped out of our apartment and walked towards a butcher shop down the street, just out on the main road. The twenty or thirty sheep crowded together the day before had disappeared, and a teenager was dismantling the makeshift wooden pen. We had to watch our feet carefully as we toed around the large pools of watered-down blood covering the tile. Two sheep remained. One had the family name "Ali" written on its side in red spray-paint. The same young boy led the two sheep over to a wall where several handprints had been made with blood, as if to mimic the set of a B-horror movie, or a children's art project. The wall was painted the colors of the Egyptian flag. Another boy emerged from the shop and proudly displayed a sheep's severed head.

A group of men were sitting around a shisha pipe. They saw Emily's camera and urged her to take their picture. "He's the king!" one shouted, pointing to a large, smiling man in a gallabiya who had the look of relaxation only possible after long hours of hard work. "The king of meat!"

Another man repeated it over and over again and everyone laughed a little too hard, doubling over, perhaps delirious from the lack of sleep.

Across the street and down an alley, where we usually buy vegetables, the same scene played on repeat. Men in white boots tirelessly carved the last sheep and cows, while women and children gathered around and watched. At first it seemed a little barbaric, and then I thought this may be preferable to the way we hide meat production in the U.S. Certainly this was cleaner, less nauseating; the slaughters were so fresh you hardly smelled anything.

Usually the adjective "surreal" feels like a cop out. Anything weird or hard to place about a mood is called "surreal." But this walk around the neighborhood merited the word: the smiles of kids on holiday next to the sheep scared out of their minds, the hazy exhaustion on everyone's faces combined with pure, momentary joy.

Egypt is nearing its first technically democratic election, but excitement is tempered with confusion. Some parliamentary seats are proportional and based on party lists, and others are directly elected. Some are appointed. Some must be reserved for "workers or farmers" (a holdover from Nasser's socialist leanings in the 1960's). The polling will happen over the course of several months, with initial results held (by who? how?) until all the votes are in. The whole thing is relentlessly complicated, and that is before you consider the parties, coalitions, ideologies, and demographics, religious and secular, liberal and conservative, old and young, revolutionary and cautious.

The juxtaposition of joy and fear and hope and apprehension and life and death that floods your senses on the streets during the holiday gave me a concrete way of thinking about the abstractions of politics. An American friend in Cairo asked me the other day, "How do you describe the 'situation' in Egypt to people back home? I don't know how to do it. It just feels like everyone is waiting."

About a month ago, clashes led to the deaths of over twenty protestors (I wrote about the coverage here and here). Human rights groups are still releasing reports and holding press conferences, hashing out the degree of the military's responsibility. Last week, a prisoner named Essam Atta was reportedly tortured to death. A blogger is on a hunger strike. Outrage is all over Twitter and blogs and the independent press, but protest numbers remain small. The same revolutionaries who toured the world as heroes after February are struggling to bring real numbers back to Tahrir. It has been explained to me numerous times that most Egyptians, which the Western press has been dubbing the "Silent Majority," are too apprehensive about what would happen if they really stopped trusting the military leadership to risk it, even as the atrocities build up.

In the meantime, many Egyptian intellectuals, older ones mostly, do believe the military wants to step out of power and hold elections. At a lecture I attended last week, a newspaper editor repeated over and over that he treats the military as a "caretaker government."

After the holiday, everyone will go back to work and the real campaigning for the elections will begin. Today, I saw little more than a hoof or a bit of wool around the streets. As I walked to dinner at a fancy hotel restaurant (many local places are closed) a donkey cart passed by heaped with lambskins. The driver had a devious smile on his face. When he saw that I was staring absentmindedly at the pile, he took his whip and smacked the ground. The crack was so loud that I jumped and he laughed at me.

At dinner, another friend, who curates at an art gallery, told me that during the Mubarak days, a government agent would call every month and ask for a description of all of the gallery's programming. The director would describe the month's exhibits, having taken care to excise anything politically controversial. "Then, after the revolution," she said, "he just disappeared." The gallery staff felt like they could program anything, and though an exhibit criticizing the military leadership might be taboo, there was certainly a sense of freedom. Then, last week, he called for the first time since February: the same man, with the same job in the same bureaucracy.

“So now the army is watching?” I asked. She shrugged.

Photos by Emily Smith

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