Archive for February, 2011

Culture Wheel

February 22, 2011

Tucked under the 26th of October overpass in Zamalek, the El Sawy Cultural Wheel was a place you’d go to hear oud masters or poets or a strummy cover band playing “Hotel California”. Lately, its auditorium has become a forum for the various protest movements to meet, share platforms, communicate with the press, etc. Today at El Sawy I attended a session of the Coordination Committee for the Masses of the 25 January Revolution, the largest umbrella organization of protest groups. Several movement leaders delivered speeches addressing the recent (inadequate) cabinet shuffle & the unacceptable composition of the transitional leadership. One orator made it known that any individual who accepted a post in the transitional regime would be discredited in the eyes of the revolutionary youth. A bizarre twist is that Mohamed el-Sawy–the owner & director of the El Sawy Culture Wheel–was named yesterday as the new Minister of Culture…

Today’s meeting was not as packed as previous gatherings because protesters were back on the streets en masse on various fronts for various causes. In Tahrir, protesters demonstrated against the “new” cabinet appointments. (Yes, the Ministers of Tourism / Higher Education / Commerce / etc. have been swapped out, but the Prime Minister, Minister of Interior, and Minister of Defense have been retained—whatever happened to dismantling the police state?) In front of the Television Building (former Ministry of Information), a large crowd gathered to protest the retention of notorious puppets in the apparatus of the state propaganda machine (state owned newspapers, TV stations, radio channels—ugh, there are fewer things slimier on earth than slick assholes on TV going the extra all night mile to tell str8 up lies to discredit & endanger the protesters—e.g. false interviews with blurred out “protesters” “confessing” that they are actually Israeli agents—then the day after Mubarak falls announcing “congratulations, youth! we supported you all along! the most true patriots!”). The TV Building is perhaps the most heavily guarded in the city–even more than the presidential palace—a wall of tanks is positioned behind a hedgerow of razor wire. (I passed through this intimidating cordon this morning on my way to apply for press credentials. In the office that deals with foreign press, two kind ladies with librarian-mom-style jangly necklaces sat at desks astride a massive machine gun installation pointing out from their window. “Is it strange to have a machine gun next to your desk?” “Oh, you get used to it. It makes you feel safe.” I couldn’t tell if either of these statements were jokes.) And lastly, many protesters gathered all afternoon at the Libyan embassy.

Though it goes without saying, Fuck Qaddafi. At a minimum, I support any capable airforce disabling the Libyan airforce &/or its airfields. As it is the dark hobby of the United States to intervene in Mid East affairs, you’d think now would be a good chance to lift a finger.

Some snapshots from outside the embassy: (p.s. can you spot the Bob Marley quote? lol)

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For fans of “Tom Buise & Weed Cruz”

February 22, 2011

From the marquee of a classy coiffure in Garden City. Actual updates coming sune!

For the work week

February 20, 2011

Thanks to Mr. Barbery for the deep cuts, as always.

Cairo After Curfew

February 18, 2011

It’s really something to be at a party with the young activists who just helped turn the revolution. The protest chants of Tahrir Square are now something like beloved pub songs—–every so often the stereo would cut out and the gathered would break into Al-Shaab / Yureed / Iskut Al-Nizam! (The People / Want / The Fall of The Regime!). And as the refrain repeated it became euphoric—the song was no longer an improbable demand, but an improbable victory lap.

Youtube is already bursting with a entire night’s worth of revolution bangers by Egyptian pop stars. I can’t find the smash hits at the moment… I’ll cruise that internet thing more tomorrow… when these drinks give up their grip. The party spot was decked out with mementos of the past few weeks, including a large portrait of Mubarak with a speech bubble of Arabic script coming from his mouth. (I asked a partygoer, What’s he saying? “Basically he is saying, ‘Fuck you, you citizen motherfuckers’.” –which reminded me of the funny/blunt protest sign: “You are a donkey, you donkey”.) In addition to funked out stencil art of Mubarak, Habib al-Adly, and that V for Vendetta character(?), thrown up on newsprint posters were dozens of stencil-art renditions of Colonel Sanders!!?! I am telling you—-and I’ve said it before—-there’s some wild shit going on in the Egypt psyche w/r/t KFC!!  —– A beautiful lightness filled the party; the state was no longer breathing down collars. Everyone quietly recognizes that now is the interregnum between regimes, and the next will inevitably be plagued by the old entrenched ills & villains…. but all that will be sorted out soon / in the morning.

***

I’ve been interviewing old friends about the ferocious battle that took place in Imbaba Jan 28-29. Of course, the recent episode was not the first time the state had laid siege to the neighborhood: in 1992 the government rolled tanks into Imbaba backed by 12,000 soldiers to root out “terrorists”. But I was reminded today about a much earlier episode. Imbaba was the site where Mameluke soldiers met Napoleon’s army as that brat advanced on Cairo.

As Napoleon sailed for Egypt aboard his flagship L’Orient he composed leaflets announcing that he, the Great Sultan Bunabart, came in the service of Allah & the Ottoman sultan to liberate Egypt from Mameluke rule. These bonkerz leaflets reached Cairo along with ominous news that a vast infidel army had taken Alexandria.

headlong across fields of clover. Today it is hard to imagine Imbaba–populated as dense as Manhattan five times over–carpeted with fields of clover. But even as recently as the films of Egypt’s silver screen, over the shoulder of row boat romeos on the Nile we would see Imbaba as a pastoral expanse. In fact Imbaba was not developed until after the 1967 war, and done so illegally. Technically Imbaba is still zoned as agricultural land; thus the government does not recognize the neighborhood; thus the neighborhood receives scant public resources/services. This neighborhood of several hundred thousand people does not appear on many official maps. In this setup, we begin to see the schism with the state and seeds of antagonism.

Needless to say, when Tristan finds out what the cops did in Imbaba he will not be pleased!

[On a completely different note…]

Great Paintings

February 16, 2011

As many have noted, the pivotal moment of the revolution came Jan 28th in a stunning event on Kasr el-Nil Bridge. After hours of struggle, 20,000 determined protesters pushing toward downtown overpowered a brigade of riot police armed with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. The protesters reclaimed Tahrir Square for the people and held it tenaciously for fifteen days until their revolutionary aims were achieved.

Strolling across a bustling, jubilant Kasr al-Nil Bridge Monday night it was incredibly moving to see a row of citizens repainting the signature green railings of the bridge. Not workers, just normal proud Egyptians—and Egyptians of every stripe, Islamists, university preps, young rascals, dads holding babies, everyone. Someone might paint for 15 minutes then hand off the brush to the next passerby, who would gladly continue her revelry through doing her part for the city. I told a teenage painter I’d be very happy if he would autograph my book.*

Despite the vain efforts of the Mubarak regime to paint the protests as destructive, what has shone through most brilliantly is the genuinely constructive aim of the revolution. Amidst great motion, there was incredible focus. The fury was governed by a sense of purpose and pride and love of Egypt that moved millions to the street. It succeeded because it was beautiful.

 

* An elderly woman in niqab painting next to him overheard our conversation and said something to the effect of “write something about Egypt also”, so I handed him my pen. I can’t make out his handwriting very well except for “25 January”. Maybe Francesca or Neil can clue us in better…

Eye, Heart

February 16, 2011

In an NYT article on Imbaba that discusses the retreat of religion in youth politics, Anthony Shadid remarks on a few seeming incongruities in Egypt’s religious culture:

Egypt is deeply devout, and imposing labels often does more to confuse than illuminate. Amal Salih, who joined the protests against her parents’ wishes, dons an orange scarf over her head but calls herself secular. “Egypt is religious, regrettably,” she said. Mr. Mitwalli wears a beard but calls himself liberal, “within the confines of religion.” A driver, Osama Ramadan, despises the Muslim Brotherhood but has jury-rigged his car to blare a prayer when he turns on the ignition.

I think the example he’s searching for is at a shop down the block from Neil’s apartment that advertises two bumper stickers side-by-side in the storefront:

I ALLAH

I BOXED WINE

I guess this is my way of telling Neil that there’s now an “I heart boxed wine” sticker on the new speaker system.

Arkadia Fire

February 16, 2011

When I first talked with Neil during the uprising in Egypt he spoke of the intensifying street battles between protesters & the riot police (that would soon culminate in the protesters’ occupation of Tahrir Square). But the enormity of the fast-developing situation hit home when he related the fate of one of our old haunts, Arkadia Mall. “…and Arkadia …Arkadia is gone”. Gone? “Totally fucked. Burned to the ground. I could see it burn from the balcony.”

Yesterday I visited with our friend Mohammad, the gatekeeper for our old houseboat in Imbaba. From across the river he had watched smoke rising from the mall for two days. They burned it? I asked. It didn’t burn, he said; it exploded. Attackers made use of the tall propane tanks found in most Egyptian kitchens. They tied kerosene-soaked rags to the tank valves, and rolled them, lit, into the mall.

*

Arkadia Mall is (was) a peculiar landmark on the Nile waterfront. In an enclave carved from the old working class neighborhood of Bulaq, it was a multi-story glistening monument of modernity. Five floors of fancy shops facing in toward a large atrium; well-lit, air-conditioned, and designed with all the usual trappings of mall layout including escalators running in mismatched directions to make shoppers cruise more storefronts. Within Egypt’s emergent consumer culture, Arkadia seemed to offer a crash course on the basics of capitalist leisure: the mall’s atrium was outfitted with a massive banner expounding the mantra “shopping and comparing… shopping and comparing… shopping and comparing” printed over clip-art ladies with purses strolling the hallways of a clip-art mall.

But the mall is no more. This afternoon I crossed the Imbaba Bridge, approaching the mall through the back alley that separates the new economy from the industrial yards and old scrap shops of northern Bulaq. As you approach the building you meet the smell of a campsite the morning after a bonfire. The north side and back of the building are marked by flame. The blown-out window frames all wear charcoal dunce caps—triangles of soot rising up the walls where flames tried to find a chimney. The same security guards still sit on white plastic chairs sipping tea, though their job is made redundant by new reinforcements: the rear entrance where there once twirled a glass revolving door is now blocked by eight gigantic steel plates welded together in a most forbidding industrial gray quilt. It surely wasn’t too little, but judging from all available evidence, it was too late.

Walking around to the front of the mall the damage is more obvious. Everything combustible is combusted, everything breakable is busted. Exterior windows and walls are smashed, revealing charred staircases, sales cases, mannequins, etc. The marquee now reads RKAD A. The polished stone front stairs are spangled with glass bits. The doorway of the grand entrance is now plugged by a hastily constructed brick wall.

*

My hunch says this wasn’t merely a rampage—nor was it simply rage directed at a monument of new wealth. As with many, I have been amazed at the exactness of the material damage of the protests (an extension of the focused aims of the protesters). The demonstrations did not devolve into frenzy. Downtown, protesters destroyed the headquarters of the ruling party, but when fighting & flames threatened the Egyptian Museum they formed a chain around the venerated building. North of Tahrir, the McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut were totally stomped & gutted but the glass-fronted travel agencies next door didn’t suffer a single crack. [Don’t let this lead you to believe that Egyptians don’t have a soft spot for al-Kentucky!] And even at Arkadia, restraint is visible: amid the wreckage stands untouched a gilt bas-relief of Pharaonic scenes (seated goddesses fanned by palm fronds, etc.) I asked an Egyptian friend who had explored the wreckage at Arkadia if he had also noticed this sole undisturbed item. He smiled. “Of course. Because this one, it is ours.” Just three steps to the side of the unmarred Pharaonic bas-relief is the smashed ash-covered chrome sign for the former LA ROSE boutique.

Rather than undirected rage, my hunch is that the attack on Arkadia Mall has deeper roots. Arkadia was built upon land annexed from Bulaq during the tenure of former President Sadat as part of plans to modernize Cairo. Old, winding, dusty, neighborhoods like Bulaq are aggravatingly un-modern to urban planners and aggravatingly impenetrable to the state. Thus, some of the best real estate of the neighborhood was seized & razed to make way for Modern Things and the displaced residents were relocated to apartment blocks down the river. I think the residents have not forgotten the injustice of that episode, and have waited patiently to even the score. (I’ll look into this theory further in the next few days…) Alternatively, the destruction could have been a targeted attack amongst elite rivals, as some have suggested about the torching of CarreFour. Or, maybe this was an incident of looting by folks who, like me, always hoped to win that contest where you’re allowed 30minutes to storm through Kay Bee Toys and keep anything you manage to throw in your shopping cart. After all, through the mall’s rear revolving door—through which the local residents were not welcome—locals could see the gleaming, over-stuffed Toys “R” Us. And I did see a little rocker back in the neighborhood with a shrink-wrapped neon Back-to-the-Future-II-hover-board-style skateboard…. Or maybe the explanation lies in a combination of all three…

***

Post-Script: I don’t mean to sound a dirge for Arkadia per se. When I say above that the enormity of the protests hit home only when I heard of the mall’s destruction, that was owed to the audacity of the act rather than the loss of a favorite playground. That being said… at least two features of the ex-mall deserve a eulogy.

Eulogy the First: The second floor food court—unremarkable in its edible offerings—was adorned with the most magnificent fast-food themed mosaics imaginable. Surely the finest art schools in the country were tapped. I remember especially an exquisite multicolor mosaic of Colonel Sanders rendered in gleaming tiny tiles. His avuncular mug floating atop some celestial scene reminiscent of Wenzel Hablik.

Eulogy the Second. The ground floors of the mall were stocked with the usual lineup of clothiers, sunglasses merchants, and trinket peddlers. But—improbably and without advertisement—the top two floors held a secret & surreal indoor amusement park. If you happened to be lazily shuffling through the halls, enjoying the AC and probably an ice-cream cone and, without design or expectation, rode the fourth floor escalator heavenward, you would alight amidst a trove of treats. It was as if a Japanese funhouse had gone bankrupt in 1993, got packed into freights, and reassembled in the weird attic of Arkadia. The place had entertainments of yore—a ball pit, skeet ball, whack-a-mole, a wacky fun-timez photo booth—alongside new-fangled amusements like arcade video games where you sat on jet-skis to launch off wicked ramps and outwit sharks. The funhouse also had two large-scale attractions: a powerful, seemingly unsafe ride that twirl’d a yellow bench of fifteen shrieking fifteen year-olds in a twenty-foot vertical circle at space shuttle G-forces. The other large attraction was a laser tag arena. Nuff said! RIP!

Where Jordan

February 13, 2011

Where’s Black Cherry Brown?

 

[Of course, as the photo of T uploaded, “What Difference Does it Make?” came blaring through the Vienna Airport intercom. Your reputation precedes you, sir!]

 

Photo Hunt

February 13, 2011

Point / Counter-Point:  Mid-East Edition

The Life Aquatic w/ Eric Naiman

February 9, 2011

Critics gone wyld. From an review of an new Nabokov book penned by some ponce called Eric Naiman:

[Nabokov] mocked and celebrated… elephantine pedantry… in his novel Pale Fire, which is composed of a 999-line poem by an imaginary poet, John Shade, and a textual apparatus written by a crazed scholar, Kinbote…. Like most recent critics, Naiman belongs to the Kinbote school…. Every time Nabokov uses the words “associate” or “banal” in Bend Sinister, Naiman finds in them “ass” and “anal”, the clues to a homosexual sub-theme of the book. Every time in Lolita a word appears with “con” in it, from “constructed” through “connûmes” to “Conrad”, it contains a sexual equivocation on the French con…. In Pnin, a professor called Konstantin Chateau illicitly harbours not only con, of course, but also chat, and therefore pussy—a key to “Pnin‘s theme of aquatic pussy”.

What. Lit Crit.

Read it & weep

February 8, 2011

“around” the first anniversary…

More

February 4, 2011

The post from the other day offered a mini soundtrack for reading the news from Egypt–but I suspect you can’t cover much news during a three minute pop nugget… This longer composition, from the classy heartthrob Abdel Halim Hafez, allows more time to cruise yr fav mid east blogs.

An Egyptian professor once told me that this song, “Habibati Man Takoon?“, was one of the last Hafez recorded–and never performed live–and so carries a certain mystique among Egyptian music fans. It’s about thirty minutes long. Let it develop. Johnny Greenwood told me it was better than Radiohead.

Take it to the bridge

February 1, 2011

A soundtrack while you follow Al Jazeera updates all day: Leila Mourad, the voice of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, singing her famous “Life is a Song”.

(Remember when there was no need to qualify “Egyptian Revolution” with “1952” because it was clear to what you referring? An old story, from long ago, remembered in black & white, when Cairo had spacious gardens and beautiful people spoke always in song.)