In the latest instalment from Writing Revolution, Yasmine El Rashidi talks about her life before Egypt’s revolution and how it paved the way for her involvement in mass rebellion.
If you had asked me that December, just after Christmas, when I would be back, I probably, or most certainly, would have said never. In that month, when the walls seeped cold and the city felt tense from a winter of discomfort, I spent my days filtering through pictures and papers, and odd objects crammed in drawers; fragmented mementos, you could say, that collectively spanned a narrative that was meant to be my life. This was Cairo. My grandmother’s house. Some months after my university graduation. Three weeks before my departure. I was leaving Cairo for a fellowship in Washington DC, departing on what I thought was to be my final exit – my first and last goodbye to this city, al-Qahira, Om al-Dunia.*
I had grown up in this house that my grandmother built along the banks of the River Nile – the same one that my mother and aunts and uncle had grown up in – and in those few days after Christmas and before the New Year, I consumed its every corner. I roamed and paced, the bedrooms, the bathrooms, the sitting rooms, the kitchens – all 20-odd rooms, and even the basement. The search, it seemed, was for details – memories, stories, reminders – to store in my mind, somewhere, somehow, just in case, one day, I wanted to remember.
The house at 25a was the only one that still stood on the street, the others had been pulled down over the years and replaced by Soviet-style buildings. From the outside, my grandmother’s house, too, was relatively nondescript. Low-lying and linear, it had greyed over the years and been marked by time – scars, where falling trees had clawed as they fell to the ground; veins, of wires that accumulated over the years as technology advanced and new devices were installed; scabs, of dust that had etched itself into walls creating a sepia collage of spheres. There was one particularly large cement-coloured blotch by the bathroom window on the second floor that was visible even from across the street. Guests would sometimes remark on it, asking if there might be a leak.
Many of the rooms of the house were closed by the time I came to depart, shutters down, curtains drawn, furniture covered with sheets and plastic and an additional layer of dust. I opened doors and closed them quickly that winter, entering rooms long abandoned and rushing out, away from the decay, the loss, the sense of the irrevocable. In each of the many closed rooms the musky smell of trapped air left behind from a day long ago intoxicated me, and across the two floors and many rooms, I found myself gravitating to what remained: arrangements of family pictures, and then to the balconies. From the oval kitchen balcony, there was the view of the Chinese embassy and its colony next door; from the main terrace, the front garden; from my mother’s bedroom balcony, the neighbouring Russian press, who we were convinced were spies. From my brother’s balcony, I looked onto my uncle’s house next door; and from my own small bedroom window, the view that I had taken in for 19 consecutive years of my life. It was a view I knew well, and yet, it constantly took me by surprise: where the gentle grass slope once met the Nile, was now a rusty fence, red brick, barbed wire, and a filth-coated government emblem embossed on a steel plaque. Where there had been a mango tree, there were weeds and then white bougainvillea and then pink flowers and then orange ones, and now, just dry soil. Where there had been a lush lawn, many relatives, a menagerie of pets, and a stream of friends running, endlessly, breathlessly, through the day, doing cartwheels, making mud pies, playing games with the dogs, there was now a tired tapestry of woven grass – different shades of green, different shades of gold, different shades of ash. The dogs had gone, and there were seldom any guests. There was also no longer family. Many of them had died. Many more had left. My father even had fled, out of the country and away from the shackles of a system that seemed intent on destruction. I was young when he left, and the details of the story I never fully understood, but I knew, over the years, that they had crushed him. ‘He became a broken man,’ a relative had said.
This, all of it, what it represented, was the Cairo I was packing from. This was 1997.
Cairo, May 2011 ■
* ‘Mother of the World’
Yasmine El Rashidi is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, and a contributing editor to the Middle East arts and culture quarterly Bidoun. A collection of her writings on the Egyptian uprising, The Battle for Egypt, was published in 2011. She lives in Cairo.
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Image courtesy of Peter Gutierrez.