Sphinx - Eran Wolkowski - December 2011
Photo by Eran Wolkowski
Text size

My love story with Egypt went on for 27 consecutive years. It ended last week. The official in the visa department at the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv gave me back my passport and informed me dryly that my application for a visa had been refused. It's not personal, I was told, because they were rejecting the applications of all Israeli Jews, aside from some businessmen.

But I was hurt, personally. Me? To refuse me? After all I have done for you, you're giving me the cold shoulder and aligning yourselves with the guys who are promising you a better future. What future do you think is awaiting you, you ungrateful country, you!

With the slamming of this gate, exactly as in Franz Kafka's story "Before the Law," I received a concentrated make-up lesson in everything I never got to know, or never wanted to know, about Egypt during all of those 27 good years. And this in itself is something for which I should be immensely grateful to the land of the Nile, which has opened my eyes to the huge falsification on which our relationship was based.

A good friend of mine, a Turkish poet who thought the cafes and the bordellos of Cairo would forever serve him as a source of inspiration for his poems until it was almost too late, wrote me when it ended that our city would never again be what it was. I didn't believe him, and I went to Cairo shortly after the fall of the old regime, to see for myself. I roamed the streets, the squares and the markets. From the uprising of January 25 in Tahrir Square there remained at that time mostly vendors of "revolution" souvenirs, who chased after me in an effort to persuade me to buy their stickers, their little flags, their shirts and their posters. Meanwhile the police chased after them and after their temporary stands to expel them.

The "revolution" looked like a big production of an Egyptian dramatic TV series, which was still in the process of being written. This huge popular spectacle does not at all intend to change reality, but rather merely to entertain its participants, and to distract them from the concrete, prosaic problems to which only Allah knows the solutions. The eternal shoeshiner at the entrance to my hotel - one of three who fought every morning over the right to polish my two shoes - said to me like a dreamer, as with his brush he mimed the slitting of his throat, that he had been waiting for the moment all his life, and it should come quickly, when they would hang Hosni Mubarak.

I listened to his words patiently, and said to myself: "My dear engineer (according to him, he was an engineer by profession, but because of Mubarak had never found a suitable job ): If the former president is hung, how is that going to help you advance? If this is how you err in dreams of vengeance, you will remain a shoeshiner until the day you die."

The belief in redemption though impressive pictures and spectacles is an Egyptian invention. Thousands of years before cinema was invented in the West, tomb paintings provided a kind of cinema for those who had passed away. They spent their long hours of doing nothing after death watching, again and again, those moving pictures of their lives and the lives of their gods that were painted on the walls of their final residence.

I too, little me, played a role in this whole story: For here I am, in the procession of Canaanites - accompanied by a donkey - going down to Egypt, just as it is painted on the wall of the tomb at Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt. In the history books of our youth, this frieze was described as "the Children of Israel going down to Egypt," and it has been copied over and over again in Passover Haggadahs. This is because we wanted (I wanted ) to be a part of the splendid spectacle that is the history of Egypt, and not be cast as asylum seekers or slaves.

For in contrast to abstract and demanding Jewish eternity, Egypt offered a light-hearted eternity that enjoys itself and doesn't require any effort. You just sit there and watch the eternal, unstoppable cycle of life and death and resurrection. And in this world, too: A regime lives until it withers and dies, or is put to death, and after a chaotic interim, it is resurrected in a new body that is nothing but the old one in a new guise, and round and round we go.

And I, donkey that I am, was stuck in one of those transitional phases, and in my shortsightedness I thought it was eternal. Like the Children of Israel were stuck in their day in Egypt in the time of Joseph, and forgot that the Egyptian version of eternity requires a change of scenery, because if there isn't one, it will be boring.

The Mubarak scenery has been replaced by the Tantawi scenery and the Tantawi scenery will be replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood scenery. And thus Egypt remains eternal.

A few years ago, in a suburb of Alexandria, a passerby greeted me with a straight-arm salute and a shout of "Heil Hitler! Hitler good," because he thought I was a German and everyone knows the Germans are crazy about Hitler. That same night, in the center of town, another passerby swore his devotion to me and declared with full conviction "I lubba you," because he thought I was a Frenchman and everyone knows the French are crazy about love.

On January 25 of this year, several million natural actors like them gathered in Tahrir Square and cried "Democracy," because everyone knows the world is crazy about democracy.

Without recognizing this national propensity for play-acting - i.e., pretending in a completely convincing way - it is impossible to understand the Egyptians at all. Anyone who doesn't want to learn the easy way gets taught the hard way by Egypt. It mimes the slitting of his throat and hisses "scat" at him.

But don't take it personally - because that too is a part of the show.