Cairo Diary: Misr, a syncretic cream


It is pointless to resist participating in one gigantic bash, which is what Egypt is these days. The party has shifted from Tahrir Square to sidewalk cafes on the Nile corniche; individuals now have an extraordinary bounce in their tread, a bounce which is tempered with caution because the future is not yet clear. Even Amre Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, smiles ear to ear like a cat which has seen the cream.

Some of the good cheer he exudes obviously derives from the fact that his hat is in the ring for the presidential stakes. But nothing is settled because there are several hats in the ring, including that of Buthaina Kamil, wife of the minister of culture, who wears her cultural catholicism on a pendant around her neck—a mixed motif of a crescent and a cross.

Every itinerant journalist has, while covering situations of uncertainty, fallen back on the resourcefulness of the taxi driver. Emaad Towfik turns out to be my sole support structure on Easter Sunday when two members of the Muslim Brotherhood asked me to extend my stay in Cairo because it was difficult for them to find time during the Easter season. “What do the Muslim brothers have to do with Easter?” I ask. Emaad says: “Easter, Christmas, Id—in Egypt we celebrate all festivals.” Ironically, Emaad, my contact for the Muslim Brotherhood, is a Christian.

Cairo’s Easter festivities are incomplete without Prime Minister Essam Sharaf calling on Pope Shenouda III, head of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox church, at the Cathedral of St Mark in Cairo’s Abbassiyah district.

When we return to our room after the day’s chores, a large chocolate Easter egg with the hotel’s compliments decorates the centre table. All of this is in total contradiction to the speculative noise and din about Islamism lurking behind the Arab spring.

Admittedly, this is not the full story, but I was touched because it reminded me of so much togetherness we take for granted in India. The most vivid recollection I cherish is an occasion in the ’70s at the Kerala assembly in Thiruvananthapuram: I found myself in the midst of E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Baby John, Mohammed Koya, the Kerala Congress duet of Mani and Joseph, A.K. Antony and K. Karunakaran. In clothes, manners, humour and linguistic quips, one was indistinguishable from the others. Religious identity had been submerged beneath layers of culture. This is the way I see the 20 per cent of the Coptic Christians among shades of the Muslim faith who form 80 per cent of the population. Boutros Boutros Ghali, former foreign minister of Egypt and later secretary-general of the UN, is a Coptic, for instance. Boutros means Peter.

For He’s A Bad Cop

As if to pull me back from my reverie, the morning papers carry stories of Qena in Upper Egypt where Salafists have been agitating against the appointment of a Coptic governor. Demonstrators have blocked roads, disrupted rail tracks, causing prices to skyrocket. Just as visions of multiculturalism seemed to be evaporating, I called up a journalist to investigate the story. It turned out that the people were protesting because the governor was a former policeman. Mohammed Khalil, a Muslim cleric, said: “We are not protesting because of the governor’s religion, but because he is a former policeman with a record of brutality against the people.”

A Cairo Analogy

Buildings on both sides and cruise boats tastefully lit do add to the enchantment of the Nile from the balcony of my room. But what is even more magical is the crisp air, so invigorating that you need Mir Anis to describe it: “Sardi hawa mein, par na zyada bahut na kum (The coolness so measured that it was never a shade more or less than perfect).”

Majaz’s Song of Aligarh, the official anthem of the Aligarh Muslim University, has a line comparing evenings in Aligarh with those in Cairo. He says: “Har shaam hai Shaam-e-Misr yahan, Har shab hai Shab-e-Shiraz yahan.” He compares the evenings in Aligarh with those in Cairo and its nights with those in Shiraz. Majaz can be faulted for gross exaggeration under poetic license, but some of my Hindi purist friends fault him on another count: why can’t he incorporate mornings of Benares, evenings of Avadh rather than go abroad for images? The explanation is mundane. The next line in the Song of Aligarh ends with the word ‘saaz’ for which he chose ‘shiraz’ as a rhyming convenience. In any case, Perso-Urdu literature is replete with references to Misr (read Cairo) and Shiraz. Majaz broke out of the circular rhythmic cycle of Kathak and leapt out like a ballet dancer.

Professor Of Polls

It felt nice to see Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Qureshi getting so much press for his advice on the forthcoming September elections. Journalists, having gone through the embarrassment of having to change gears after Mubarak’s fall, have plenty of stories to keep their minds off their moral dilemma, transiting from ‘chamchagiri’ to journalism. Qureshi provided them with good copy.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

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