Laid-back and Spaced-out in Cairo

It's true that fundamentalism exists in Egypt, but there is also wildness and freedom and art.

A few days ago I returned unwillingly from Egypt, angry at myself because my Cairo vacation had ended too quickly, and even more because I had given in and flown El Al instead of taking the bus. The flight is short, yes, but all the security checks, the hazing and the idiotic questions asked by the Israeli security people, and the feeling that with your own money, you are financing this whole dubious security-obsessed empire, and in the end, being treated like an object that has to be moved from place to place and not like a human being - all of that is calculated to drive a person crazy. And then it turns out that the flight is delayed, meaning that in the time I spent waiting and for a tenth of the price, I could have long since traveled from Cairo to Taba and from there to Tel Aviv.

In Egypt, too, security has a monopoly. But because the way of life in general is so relaxed and deterministic and passive, the security obsession is also relaxed. Before we left the hotel for the airport, an armed security man arrived to escort us. But I told him affably that it wasn't necessary, and he was convinced. I wrote him a letter stating that I would forgo the escort, and he went home happy.


The feeling in Cairo is that most of the time, the people around you are totally spaced-out. Even more so on weekends. A random example: On a pleasant street across from the presidential palace in the Abdin Quarter - where most of the residents are Nubians who immigrated from Upper Egypt - a wedding is underway. It's a neighborhood affair, so the street has been closed to traffic without unnecessary questions being asked. You string electric cables with colored lightbulbs, set the tables, and the whole neighborhood and the invited guests sit and watch an energetic performance by a Nubian singing group called Rango. They are dressed in totally eccentric traditional garb, weighed down with beads, pearls, bangles and shiny bracelets. Bowls of fruit are served at the tables. But the main thing is small trays holding hashish. Free to all comers. Things get happy. How could they not!

Of course, using hashish and dealing in it are absolutely prohibited under the law. But that's exactly the point: The general laid-back atmosphere turns the law into a "recommendation," at best. Naturally, the police could raid the wedding anytime and arrest people. But no one cares. Being subversive is part of the fun.

So when people tell me about the fundamentalism and the religion and the growing strength of Islam in Egypt, I laugh. It's true that fundamentalism exists there, but there is also wildness and freedom. Still, anyone who hasn't seen it for himself can't understand how these contradictions operate together.

I despaired long ago of persuading Israelis to visit Egypt in order to get rid of their prejudices about Egypt and about Arabs. At a certain point I told myself that maybe it's better for the Israelis to remain ignorant and continue to see themselves as better than everyone, the most developed, the smartest. But gradually it became apparent to me that there are quite a few young people, and not only young people, who harkened to their inner voice and went to Egypt and even fell in love with it and got hooked on it, like me. We met one of them in the bookstore of the American University in Cairo. His name is Gal Ron and he is a doctoral student in history, a teacher of civics in a Haifa high school and generally a nice guy. He first visited Cairo as a high-school student and since then hasn't stopped visiting.

We met a few times in the city. He informed me about things in the culinary sphere that I hadn't known about, and suddenly, through his eyes, a few things I had treated cynically seemed to me worth reconsidering. For example, Cairo's art biennale, which had opened a few days earlier. He had been at the opening and even got to stand next to the reviled Egyptian minister of culture, Farouk Hosni. From the biennale catalog I discovered that the whole world of video art, which turns me off, can be interesting and challenging. With his camera, Gal photographed a section of a video work by a Moroccan artist showing Europeans putting a child savage through a kind of acculturation process. There was also a video by an Egyptian artist, a woman, which had apparently caused a furor. She took people to a main street in Cairo and had them crawl on all fours, like a herd of sheep. Passersby were shocked and attacked the artist while she was filming the bizarre procession, and she inserted the viewers' violent reactions in the installation.

Cairo is a city that's bursting with art. I met a young Egyptian man with an open mind who runs an Internet site devoted wholly to translations from Hebrew literature. The site is generating a large number of responses. I was amazed: "What's in it for you? You're only endangering yourself, you know." The young man shrugged his shoulders. Well, I should have known that the road to culture is long and hard, and to be considered something of value involves some sort of risk. That's something I had forgotten in our democratic - or supposedly democratic - country.

Dear young people: Backpacking in South America or India after the army will, in my opinion, get you nowhere in terms of understanding the essence of tolerance and of recognizing the other in our midst. The right place, the challenging place to visit is Egypt. Not just Sinai. That doesn't count. Go to Egypt proper. To Cairo. Go to Cairo instead of Poland, as a protest against the national brainwashing you get from the trip to Poland. In Cairo there is joy. There is also sadness, of course, but mainly joy at the little that Allah - the generic name for the Lord of Hosts - gave to mankind.