An Egyptian Notebook / Bygone days with great presence
CAIRO, February - In a small leather-bound notebook that I received on my 50th birthday, my companion on this journey to Egypt (hereafter: Dear Notebook), I jotted down a few sentences in Hebrew that I heard around me on the plane to Cairo.
CAIRO, February - In a small leather-bound notebook that I received on my 50th birthday, my companion on this journey to Egypt (hereafter: Dear Notebook), I jotted down a few sentences in Hebrew that I heard around me on the plane to Cairo. The sentences were: "Ariel, stop being a dickhead." "Ariel, do you want to be with Ma'ayan?" And also (from a young man named Chai, in an angry tone of voice, addressing a female): "Don't talk to me about that ... If I take out my nerves on you ... you'll be out of here."
The speakers were a group of six El Al security guards, well-built young men and doe-eyed young women, the types who, after their army service, work at grilling travelers to and from Israel. They were apparently arguing about their work arrangements, until the woman named Liat burst into tears and Ariel hugged her and told the responsible (female) official, "Liat is crying ... You're really out of line."
Finally, they made up, all these nice youngsters with the plastic names, who suddenly came across as representatives of a new, efficient, compact, feather-light Israel, that indeed felt like a "dickhead" with all those history-laden names and was therefore replacing them with monikers like Chai and Liat. The loveliest of all the names was Ma'ayan, which is suitable for a boy and a girl alike. Enough of that, though.
On my first visits to Egypt, in the 1980s, Haaretz still had a permanent correspondent here, by the name of Yoram Hamizrahi. I met with him one evening in Tahrid Square - this was after an unsuccessful attempt to enter the headquarters of the daily Al Ahram and interview Naguib Mahfouz, who had just won the Nobel Prize for literature - and we went to a small, popular restaurant on Qatsr el-Eini Street, across from the American University of Cairo. We ordered atayef, which is made of fried pastry dough on which are strewn ground nuts and powdered sugar.
We had just started to munch the hot pastry, when out of nowhere who should appear but Shalom Cohen. To me, Shalom Cohen was a living legend: the editor, with Uri Avnery, of the (now defunct) weekly Ha'olam Hazeh, a Knesset member and an activist in the "Black Panthers," the radical social movement of the early 1970s, Cohen made the headlines when he tore up his ID booklet on the Knesset rostrum. In those days you could still run into people like that who were just walking around the streets of Cairo.
Shalom Cohen was then working as a correspondent for the French paper Le Matin, and Egypt was his second homeland. He said that one of his ways of getting stories was to assume a different identity; once he dressed up as a sheikh and accompanied Haaretz correspondent Ze'ev Schiff so that he could approach the Arab delegations at an assembly of Communist youth organizations in Moscow. As I recall the ball of sugared pastry, I am flooded with longing for that man, whom I met in passing and to whom I immediately felt close, because he was a person of changing identities.
Shalom Cohen died ten years ago. The restaurant at which we had the sweet pastry is gone. In its place, across from the entry gate to the campus of the American University, is a McDonald's outlet, which has as its neighbor an outlet of Pizza Hut, while behind it is an outlet of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
At the American University an exhibition of photographs has just now opened, entitled "Palestine: Women and Children First." The opening was followed by a lecture in the Blue Room in the Social Sciences Building by Al Ahram's correspondent in Jerusalem, Graham Usher, on "At a Crossroads: The Al-Aqsa Intifada after Two Years." A large crowd of students gathered in the Blue Room to hear about Israel's deeds in the territories. It's a good thing I came in disguise, in a Bavarian sport jacket adorned with an edelweiss pin, so that with my fair-haired wife I am thought here to be an Egyptian who married a German woman. A perfectly acceptable cover story.
The lecture was excellent; I learned a great deal about the Palestinians and their various factions. They perceive the intifada as their own abject failure, with the only winner in it being Ariel Sharon, who was re-elected by a large majority as prime minister of Israel. Graham Usher described him as espousing a smart, calculated vision which has the goal of dismantling the Palestinian identity and returning the residents of the territories to the period of the local village leadership and their regional identification - an effort in which he is succeeding.
People in the audience asked questions. The young people were well-versed in the minutest details of Israeli politics, from Baruch Marzel to Azmi Bishara. Take a random Israeli student and ask him to name the parties in Egypt. Or, count the number of people who come to open lectures at Tel Aviv University, which are not obligatory for students. The majority of the audience consists of pensioners and residents of old-age homes in Ramat Aviv, situated across the road. Enough of that, too, though.
Sharon is an extraordinarily popular figure in Egypt. The next day, as we arrived at the 35th International Book Fair, which was held at the huge fairgrounds of Heliopolis - the gate was decorated with lotus-like pillars and dozens of flags flapped in the breeze - the big hit here was blasting from loudspeakers. It's called "Dracula," and the words of the chorus are "Sharon, Sharon." My wife translated one line for me: "You who took our land," etc., and again, rhythmically, "Sharon, Sharon."
In fact, the rhythm of "Sharon, Sharon" seemed to be encouraging visitors to the fair to buy: People snapped up books, which were piled in heaps on makeshift tables or on the ground, because during the fair the price of the books drops to an Egyptian pound or two. I snapped them up, too, purchasing, at the French stand, for two Egyptian pounds (about two shekels) a volume of the collected verse of Paul Valery and a collection of poems by Robert Desnos, but I restrained myself from buying more, because there is no end to it. However, I retraced my steps and bought something, and then I did it again.
At the English stand I found the last novel by WG Sebald, "Austerlitz," and the novel "I Saw Ramallah," by Mourid Barghouti, the Palestinian poet and writer - the brother of the person being held in detention by Sharon - who emigrated to Egypt in 1966 and returned to Ramallah 30 years later, disappointed in married life and in everything else (he married an Egyptian literary researcher and they had a son, and he left them). I longed to plunge into the book, though I was a bit afraid of what I would find in it about us.
Then I went back to the French stand and bought - one last thing, and that's all - a rare book of photographs with a text in Armenian, Arabic and French. The book is called "Portraits of Cairo," and it sums up the endeavors of three Armenian photographers who had studios in Cairo: Van Leo, Arman and Alban. Without artistic pretensions and with perfect technique, they perpetuated the life of the glitterati of the city in the waning days of colonialism, before the Officers Revolt of Gamal Abdel Nasser, when Egypt was still ruled by a king.
A splendid photograph by Alban - his studio was on Qatsr al-Nil Street and he was a special favorite of King Farouk and his court - shows the king in a beautifully ironed military uniform, the ends of his mustache suitably erect, leaning on a long sword, his eyes veiled with the look of an adulterer. In the adjacent photograph is his second wife, the wretched Nariman, as betrayed as her predecessor, Farida.
Among the photographs by Arman I found Laila Mourad, the Jewish actress and rival of the legendary singer Om Kalsoum, embracing the actor Anwar Wagadi, in 1950. Arman also photographed the French actor Jean Marais in silk pajamas, bending over an exotic beauty in Cairo, 1950. And Faisal II, the king of Iraq, a prince of delight, who would soon be dethroned. That photograph is from the mid-1950s. In 1951, he photographed Hassan Abd al-Rahim, world champion in swimming the English Channel that year, standing in front of a row of championship cups in a bathing suit.
The greatest and most sophisticated of the photographic trio is Van Leo, whose real name was Leon Boyadjian. The world is in his debt for one of the most wonderful photographs of the Egyptian - later, French - diva, Dalida. However, his masterpiece is the 1945 photograph "Egyptian Athlete," in which he captured every muscle in the small, straining body of an unknown athlete who for one moment of eternity was transformed into Rodin's sculpture of the thinker. Van Leo's self-portraits are arrogant and bursting with masculinity. It was like a dream.
As I was leaving the fair I snapped up one more thing: an issue from a series of pamphlets in Arabic called "Egyptian Times," signed by Imro Ibrahim, which is devoted to documents about the day-to-day life of Jews in Egypt during the 20th century: documents of the commercial firm of David Aadas and his son, a letter to a bank, a document signed by attorney Rudolf Shalom, and another by Shalom Baruch Halevi. Why in the world is a pamphlet like this being published here? Because it's nostalgia.
The truth is, Dear Notebook, that we have fallen ill with a disease that has no cure. The first signs were apparent already in Israel, before the trip, when I read in Al Ahram's English edition about the death of King Farouk's young daughter, Fadia, two months ago, in Switzerland, and about her funeral in Cairo. She was 59 at the time of her death. Her husband, the Russian prince Orloff, who converted to Islam and is now known as Said, accompanied the body to Cairo for burial, together with his half-brother, Prince Ahmed Fouad, the legal successor to the Egyptian crown. Fadia was buried next to her father in Al-Rifai Mosque.
The mosque is located in the old part of Cairo, alongside the largest of Cairo's mosques, Sultan Hassan, a glorious example of Mamluk architecture. The shah of Iran is also buried in Al-Rifai, and most of the tourists who visit the site encounter his grave.
The graves of the Egyptian royal family lie in a less magnificent side hall. An officer of the Tourist Police wearing a black wool uniform took us first to Farouk's monument. Then, in the back room, he lifted the carpet and shone a flashlight on the opening, now sealed with concrete, through which Fadia's body was inserted beneath the floor so that she could lie, at her request, by her grandmother and by her grandfather, King Fouad. That was the end of the tour. The policeman asked for a tip. Five Egyptian pounds was too little, because he has two buddies with him on the shift. We gave him three more pounds. Any further question about the princess would have raised the price.
Fadia was eight years old when her father went into exile; she returned only once, for her mother's funeral, in 1988. However, "she never forget her language and always missed the scent of the jasmine and the Egyptian soil." Her older sister, Ferial, was married and divorced several times; her last husband committed suicide. The middle sister, Fawziya, is crippled and suffers from Alzheimer's. I stood at Fadia's grave and in my heart saluted all the royal families in the world, without which where would nostalgia come from, and without the nostalgia for the people who are buried there beneath the floor, what point would our lives have here, above the floor?
(First in a series)