Sunday, January 1, 2012

The City Boys Take to the Country

Mustafa is twenty-one, tall, dark-skinned, and powerfully built. He hides his short, curly mound of hair under a black, tough-guy hoodie and a purple cap emblazoned with nonsensical English, a hallmark of budget Egyptian fashion (It reads “Monetarily No Fellowless”). He has a big black scar on his upper back that he credits to Central Security Forces and he laughs rarely, though he smiles often. He sleeps into the afternoon every day, stays up late every night, and appears both restless and like he has all the time in the world to sit in cafes, smoking cigarettes, drinking tea, and talking with his friends about soccer, marriage, where the good parties are (usually with the soccer hooligans, called Ultras), and where they might find girls to talk to (usually unsuccessful).

More recently, Mustafa talks about politics too. He goes to Tahrir and participates in the protests, though he does not belong to any official movement. During the revolution, he took to the streets, but, as our mutual friend Will told me, he insisted on finishing a test for one his business classes first.

His family lives near downtown, so since January he has been able to drift in and out of the political ferment of the square, taking leaflets to distribute back in his neighborhood and chanting “The People Want the Fall of the Regime” one minute, and getting riled up over soccer games the next. “Talking about politics is just like talking about soccer,” he told me one evening. “It’s all just about picking between sides and supporting one.”

This weekend, I went with Mustafa, Will (who blogs here), and two of Mustafa’s Cairo schoolmates to Tamiyah, a village an hour south of Cairo, past the pyramids, in the governorate of Fayoum. Mustafa’s family keeps a house there, which sits empty and dark most of the year. His mother’s family hails from the village, while his father’s origins are in Upper Egypt (the southern, more tribal areas sometimes  dubbed the Texas of Egypt). His father worked as a journalist for one of the opposition party newspapers, and was taken in by his maternal grandparents, while covering political events in Fayoum, in a random act of hospitality. It was there that he saw Mustafa’s mother, and asked the man who had offered him a place to sleep if he could marry his daughter.

There is only a lightly shaded streak of political activity in Mustafa's genealogy, but since the revolution, he has thrown himself in earnestly to the excitement and tumult of the downtown marches, cat and mouse battles with state security, and the bustling tent city culture of Tahrir.  As we arrived in Tamiyah, where Mustafa spent a lot of time as a young boy, he was recognized and greeted warmly by young kids and old men alike. While he studies business in the big city, many of his childhood friends now work as butchers and farmers. He told Will and I that he hoped to escape the endless political talk of Cairo for a little while, but it often felt throughout the evening like politics had followed him. 

In a small, bright red truck, we sat and waited to make the thirty-minute drive from Tamiyah to Fayoum. Generally, microbuses that can fit ten to fifteen passengers wait at the dusty station as the driver calls out the destination in a rapid staccato that makes the name sound like a snack or beverage (“Fayoum! Fayoum!, with a rising lilt on “youm”). This microbus could carry ten, and nine piled in quickly but the mysterious tenth was taking his time. Mustafa offered that we could all pay a small amount more (5 to 10 cents) to cover the empty seat. Somehow this led to a conversation about the prices of microbus trips, with an older man, unshaven and wearing a tired blue sweater, talking nostalgically about how it used to be so cheap in the old days, and how prices jumped in the Mubarak era.

Where the same conversation, a year ago, might have led to a collective wail of complaints, here it turned into a passionate conversation about the future of the country, with the older man offering broad, passionate possibilities for changing the political system, and a young police officer in training nodding and saying, “Yes, I agree, but it’s impossible to implement!” All the while, Mustafa leaned his head back and made eye contact with me to express annoyance. His friend Ahmed jokingly wrapped a scarf around his mouth and chin, pulled his hood over his ears, and posed for Mustafa’s camera as a young, tough terrorist or revolutionary.

After gobbling down a meal of fried chicken, tahina, and salad we stopped at a juice stand. The man behind the cash register noticed Mustafa and his friends’ accent and dress. “Where are you from?” he asked them. “Cairo,” Mustafa said. “No…Tahrir! We are from the square!” He raised his hand, and the man smiled and shook his head noncommittally.

We spent most of the evening in Fayoum and Tamiyah playing the part of listless Egyptian teenagers, talking about soccer endlessly (I was probably asked which team I supported twenty times, and never had an answer) and dancing through the streets to psychedelic sha’abi music. Sha’abi literally means popular, but refers more to the working-class connotation of that word (here’s a great example). It’s a blend of hip-hop, sufi music, and Egyptian wedding music, and Mustafa and his friends will jump and swing through the streets gregariously as the music bursts out of their cell phones.

The next morning, Mustafa chatted with an old family friend from Tamiyah about the elections. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the more conservative Salafi movement, as many predicted, swept these rural areas of Egypt. But under the image of a swing towards conservatism, Tamiyah is also a place of striking symbolism in terms of religious coexistence. Minarets rise up interspersed with the bell towers of a large Coptic church in the center of town, which is currently being renovated, and the Muslim and Christian populations freely mix without the tensions and flares that have recently overtaken similar towns and cities throughout the country.

On the way back to Cairo, the traffic bottlenecked and the driver hopped out to see why. He returned to the bus snickering, and when we finally passed the dusty choke-point of the cars, motorcycles, and buses, we saw why as well: a pick-up truck overfull with carts of vegetables had gone too fast over a speed bump, spilling tomatoes all over the side of the road. Men from other cars had stopped, in the middle of the road, to help the poor truck driver put what was salvageable of his lost cargo back into the bed, thereby turning four lanes into one. 

“All the older generation thinks we are lazy,” Mustafa had told me late in the evening, sitting in the long empty living room, as the sound of motorcycles quieted for a lone rooster and the crunch of occasional feet in the narrow, dark alleys. “They think we smoke this and that and drink and sit around and watch soccer, and we have to fight to get involved in politics." Ahmed nodded, adding: “What we have do is get rid of corruption and bribery and all the old problems, and change ourselves from within, and maybe we’ll get to rule the country someday.”

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