I was staying with friends in Maadi, a noisy, dusty suburb south of Cairo. One of the most striking features of this neighborhood — actually its own city — is that many of the expats who live there persevere in the spurious claim that it is quieter and greener than the neighborhoods of the city center. In any case, there is no dispute about this: Maadi is far away from the city center and, unlike Cairo, no one would travel hundreds of miles just to visit it. Despite my strong objections to the place, I was enjoying myself with my friends, sleeping late, staying up late on their terrace, smoking cigarettes and talking about how our lives were changing as we entered middle age. It helped that their beautiful child was often there to gleefully punctuate our conversation or to deflect it into gentler, brighter directions. It was not hard to forget that the country was in the midst of a revolution.
While I was staying there, I spent much of my time thinking about the past and comparing the present to before January 25. And then comparing everyone and everything — friendships, buildings, streets, music, food, air temperature — to how I remembered them to be 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, even 20 years before. I know it is wrong to judge current experiences by past ones. Invariably, the comparison is not generous and gets in the way of experiencing the present as it is. Yet, I found myself engaging in this behavior despite myself. I walked through city with a camera to record the changes. I talked with friends, and heard their stories about the revolution. I wrote these down and looked at the photographs and considered how malleable a city of concrete and flesh could be when time does its work. Though I considered some of these changes to be improvements, most seemed to be a loss: gone were the tram lines, one of the last urban links to the 1919 Revolution; gone was the Friday market in Imbaba with its incomparable displays and bargains; gone were some friends — this one emigrated to Spain (still owing me money), that one dead from lung cancer in his mid-40s. His death affected me more than I thought it would: I had no friend here who loved me more than him.
Still, I found many of my favorite bars and cafes just as they were, more or less unchanged in 20 years. I went in to each and was glad to know that the bartenders recognized me immediately. Thinking on these, however, was no consolation: I imagined myself returning in 20 more years and seeing them gone like other people, institutions and images. I took my camera with me wherever I went, taking pictures that others would rightfully consider banal, though for me they were a way of clinging to what I loved about this place and what was disappearing before my very eyes.
I have to say, with some pride, that this process was not just a prolonged indulgence in nostalgia. I did not look at everything and say that the past was better than the present. This was especially true of friends, most of whom I found myself marveling at. I’d liked them and respected them in the past, of course. But I was amazed at their capacity to adapt and grow — more thoughtful, more beautiful, more energetic even. Some fulfilled the promises they had shown years ago, back when I took them to be merely the human beings who they were. Now I knew them to be both: human beings and also promises that could come true or not. Others became new creatures altogether, though of course I knew where they’d come from and could see how they had been transformed. I thought about this often and took pictures to document my experiences.
One thing about taking pictures so indiscriminately in a large city is the number of children who approach you when your camera is in hand. I have no explanation for why this happens, whether here or elsewhere. I don’t remember myself as a child pursuing adults who held cameras in their hand, and so I cannot imagine what must be in their minds. Actually, I hated having my picture taken as a child — I still find it an odd request — and so I really cannot understand their madness. At the same time, it did not take me long to come to appreciate the fact that they wanted to have their picture taken and would make delightful noise and conversation. And so, as I was leaving the building in Maadi the other day with my camera, the doorman’s children asked me if I would take their pictures. I thought nothing of it and took a couple. These were children in the generic sense — I did not know their names, nor would I, since I was only a short-term guest on the top floor of the building in whose basement they lived. There was nothing connecting me to these children in any way when I took their photo. I now had another photo of “Children in Cairo.”
It was only later that night, when I looked at the image that I recalled a strong and sad memory about a similar little girl, the daughter of a poor Upper Egyptian doorman in Cairo. The memory, which is not my own, is about an event that took place in the early 1970s. An American family was living in the posh neighborhood of Zamalek. The father was a visiting professor at the American University and was busy with work and out of the house for most of the time, day and night. His wife and daughters, who knew no one in the city and spoke little Arabic, spent much of their time by themselves and with each other. Oftentimes, the father would not come home. The youngest daughter — and she is the one who told me this story twenty years after it took place — went downstairs to play with the doorman’s daughter who was the only other girl her age in the building.
The two played often, and the doorman’s daughter brought friendship into the girl’s lonely home. Of course, there was a vast linguistic and cultural divide between the two playmates. In some senses it was so great that they never noticed it was there in the first place. One day, after playing with dolls all morning, the American girl gave her friend a Barbie, to borrow or to keep. She and her mother went out to buy translated Russian books at the place on Hassan Sabry Street which has long since closed. When they came home, not long after, the doorman greeted them with exaggerated servility and then disappeared into their hovel under the stairs. He quickly emerged, grabbing his weeping daughter by the hair and cursing her. The American mother and daughter understood that this was a performance for their sake, but could not grasp its meaning. The doorman slapped his daughter violently, and they noticed then that the girl had been beaten more than once before they arrived.
Later that night, perhaps very late considering the strange hours the father kept during that year, the doorman came to the door of the Americans’ apartment. Since only the father spoke Arabic, the doorman had waited for his return to explain what had happened and how he had made things right. The rest of the family was asleep as the father and the doorman came to their understanding. The next morning the father gave back to his daughter the doll that everyone assumed had been stolen. Before leaving for work, he told his daughter to be more careful who she played with in the future.