In the most recent release of Writing Revolution, Yasmine El Rashidi discusses her life before the revolution in Egypt and how it led to her participation in the mass uprising.
Reflections On Departure From Cairo
If you had inquired about my return in December, just after Christmas, I likely, or almost certainly, would have answered with “never.” During that chilly month, as the walls exuded cold and the city brimmed with tension from a discomforting winter, I spent my days sorting through photographs, papers, and miscellaneous items crammed into drawers.
These fragmented mementoes collectively formed a narrative meant to encapsulate my life. This was Cairo. My grandmother’s home. Several months following my university graduation. Three weeks prior to my departure. I was preparing to leave Cairo for a fellowship in Washington DC, believing it would mark my final departure – my initial and ultimate farewell to this city, al-Qahira, Om al-Dunia.*
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Rediscovering Memories In The Family Home
I had spent my childhood in the house constructed by my grandmother along the banks of the River Nile – the same house where my mother, aunts, and uncle had also grown up. During those fleeting days between Christmas and New Year’s, I explored every nook and cranny of the house.
I wandered through the bedrooms, bathrooms, sitting rooms, kitchens, and even the basement, all twenty or so rooms. It felt like I was searching for intricate details – memories, stories, reminders – to etch into my mind in case I wished to recall them someday.
The Last Standing House On The Block
Amongst the demolished structures that were gradually replaced by Soviet-style buildings over the years, the sole survivor on the street was the house at 25a. Even my grandmother’s residence appeared unremarkable from the exterior.
Its modest stature stretched out and weathered by time, displayed signs of wear – scars left by fallen trees, traces of wires that accumulated with advancing technology, and layers of dust creating a sepia-toned collage on the walls.
A conspicuous cement-coloured blemish near the bathroom window on the second floor was particularly prominent, visible even from a distance. Occasionally, visitors would inquire about it, speculating about potential leaks.
Bittersweet Farewell To A Once Vibrant Home
As my departure neared, many rooms of the house lay closed, with shutters down, curtains drawn, and furniture shrouded in sheets, plastic, and layers of dust. Throughout that winter, I hurriedly opened and closed doors, venturing into rooms long abandoned, only to quickly retreat from the decay, the sense of loss, and the feeling of irreversibility.
Each closed room exuded a musty aroma of trapped air from days long gone, drawing me in. Across the two floors and numerous rooms, I found myself drawn to remnants of the past: family photographs arranged meticulously and the balconies.
From the oval kitchen balcony, I gazed at the Chinese embassy and its adjacent colony; from the main terrace, I surveyed the front garden; from my mother’s bedroom balcony, I suspiciously eyed the neighbouring Russian press, whom we believed to be spies.
My brother’s balcony offered a view of my uncle’s house next door, while from my small bedroom window, I beheld the familiar sight that had been a part of my life for 19 years.
The Disintegration Of Home and Family
It was a view I knew intimately, yet it constantly surprised me: where once the gentle slope met the Nile, now stood a rusty fence, red brick, barbed wire, and a government emblem coated in filth.
The mango tree had been replaced by weeds and sparse vegetation, and the lush lawn had exchanged for a patchy tapestry of grass. The joyous chaos of relatives, pets, and friends had faded into silence, with only memories remaining.
Many family members had passed away or moved away, and even my father had fled the country, escaping the oppressive system that had taken its toll on him.
Though I was young when he left, I understood that the experience had broken him, leaving him a shell of his former self, as one relative had lamented.
This encapsulated everything Cairo meant to me as I prepared to leave in 1997.
Cairo, May 2011
* ‘Mother of the World’
Yasmine El Rashidi regularly contributes to the New York Review of Books and serves as a contributing editor for the Middle East Arts and Culture quarterly Bidoun. In 2011, she published a collection of her writings focusing on the Egyptian uprising titled “The Battle for Egypt.” She currently resides in Cairo.
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