Long Live the Revolution

A recent stroll in the streets of Cairo yielded a treasure trove of literary gems.

CAIRO (a few weeks ago ) - Tahrir Square is an ugly, ill-proportioned square by any standard. It's nothing more than a tangle of traffic islands and asphalt lanes that pour out into streets that merge in Wast al-Balad, the city center. This downtown area comprises streets that lead outward in the shape of a star from Talaat Harb Square, and secondary thoroughfares that in turn split off from them: Talaat Harb Street, Kasr Al Aini Street, Kasr Al Nile Street and Shambliuan Street.

"Kasr" means palace, although nothing remains of the royal abodes that gave the streets their names, because they were identified with colonial subjugation and the monarchy, and were therefore doomed to destruction during the revolution of the 1950s fomented by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Now, during the present revolution, another building on the other side of Tahrir Square was doomed to destruction, by arson: the ruling party's headquarters, whose sooty skeleton can be viewed by all those who pass by and even by those further afield, near the Nile bridges.

Egypt protest

On the outskirts of this square early on a recent Friday - a tough day, when there are usually demonstrations - a police unit dressed in white deployed in advance of the upcoming events. A commander decorated with gold emblems of rank walked about, wearing a stern expression and surveying his men. One was missing. It turned out he had fallen asleep inside the police van. Someone was sent to wake him and now he was coming, limping, head bowed, to receive his reprimand. The man explained that he had permission to stay behind because he had twisted his ankle. "What do we need lame people for here?" shouted the commander. The injured policeman bowed his head lower.

A curious crowd enjoyed the humiliating scene no less than they might have enjoyed watching a rousing pro-democracy demonstration: Both provide free entertainment. Together with the mob of onlookers had come the vendors of flags, pins, magnets and shirts printed with "The January 25 Revolution," to set up their stalls. But the furious commander pointed at them, shouting, "Get them out of here," and his men swooped down on the stall owners and chased them down the street.

I left the show and turned right off the square, to the library of the American University, the representative of latter-day colonialism, which the protesters leave alone and don't threaten to burn, and which doesn't arouse any hatred. There, in this temple of literary purity, are treasures: periodicals and magazines and books from the Arab world that a rank-and-file Israeli intellectual is not used to seeing. First and foremost my eye was caught by issue No. 40 of Banipal (named for the ancient Assyrian king who built a library that was no less important than the one built by the Ptolemies in Alexandria ) - a magazine of Arab literature in English translation. This issue is dedicated almost entirely to Libyan literature.

Libyan literature? I see eyebrows raised in surprise. Yes, there is Libyan literature, and it's even quite good. There are writers of short stories and novels. The most famous novelist in that country today is Ibrahim al-Koni, but there are also others, whose of works have even been translated into English, including Hisham Matar ("Anatomy of a Disappearance" ) or Mohammed Mesrati - a chapter of whose novel "Mama Pizza" is reprinted in Banipal.

Al-Koni's book "The Puppet" was published in an English translation by the University of Texas. One of his translators, Elliott Colla, has said that in order to translate the author's rich prose properly, he was forced to return to Herman Melville and "Moby Dick." There, Colla said, he found descriptions of the sea that were closest in spirit to al-Koni's descriptions of the desert.

In the meantime, in the still-deserted streets of Cairo in the morning, where the revolution of the adjacent square had not yet arrived, I observed an old prostitute with yellowish hair, who was wandering half-asleep, peering into the entrances of the houses as if to see from where her salvation would come. And a black cat waited in ambush for the employees of the Al-Abed pastry shop, who were bringing puffy baked goods from the delivery truck into the store. Maybe something would fall and the cat would be able to grab it? And there was the street sweeper, who used one hand to hold his broom and clean the sidewalk while holding and talking into a cell phone with the other. And there were also the Cairene alte zachen sellers, who passed by on a three-wheeled vehicle sporting the word "junk" in Arabic, and shouting the Italian word for the merchandise they are hawking: vecchie (old stuff ).

Oh, Cairo, the city of words that refuse to disappear. Next to the Ezbekiya Gardens in the city center; the used-book market, where I have fished out hidden treasures of French literature over the past 30 years, was still standing, and the well had not run dry. More and more literary "vecchie" keeps showing up there. I stopped in front of one stall and lingered over "Diaries of an Egyptian Princess" (2009 ) by Nevine Abbas Halim, a former princess with distinguished royal lineage, whose father was once persecuted by the British because of his affection for the Germans. Later the family was persecuted for belonging to the aristocracy that had collaborated with the British.

While I was still bent over a pile of books, a delicate hand touched my shoulder. It belonged to one of a group of female students in the communications department of Sinai University in El Arish, who had come to the market to make a film for their final project. I must have looked photogenic.

The girls asked if I would only be so kind as to talk into the microphone and explain what interest I had in the market. I'm an Israeli, I warned them, piquing their interest further. Their teacher shook my hand and urged the students to get to work. One put some makeup on my nose, another attached a little mike to my collar and a third interviewed me. I told them that there was nothing like this specific place, and like Cairo in general, for getting one's hands on vestiges of the past.

Thanks to the relatively frequent revolutions, people apparently rush to get rid of anything that was identified with the "old," which is how the antiques markets are repeatedly replenished. So, for my part, long live all the revolutions.