Azhar Mosque in Cairo is currently undergoing renovations. When I visited just before Friday evening prayers, the main plaza was full of people meeting and greeting each other, children played, people sat quietly around and reflected privately. Inside the main prayer hall one immediately notices the works underway. One cannot be sure, but it is likely that it is in part cleaning work; Cairo is an ancient city, but it is difficult to tell what is new, what is old, and what is really old. Between the cars and the sand and the building dust, Cairo is covered in a thick layer of dust and grime.
Its hard to imagine the circumstances under which the city could be cleaned up; occasionally when you walk in the streets you can see where the tenants of an apartment have cleaned the outside of their building: a white strip against the black grime, but that is the exception.
In some ways that has proved to be a useful way for me to think about Cairo and possibly Egypt more widely: a society where the individual, with no assistance from the state, attempts to clear things up and make things better. The analogy can be stretched further, because it is the State which is making it more difficult for individuals to work to make the changes which are necessary for people to flourish. I met people who told me that the only option, if one wants to try or to risk, is to leave the country. That is certainly the impression which I got while in Cairo: a system which is strangling the psychic life out of people.
Additional note: in my last post I wrote about my impressions of the Nile and the relationship of citizens to the river. Those initial reflections were half wrong and half right. Half wrong, because the following evening we took a boat ride out onto the Nile. Floating along the Nile it was possible to see how Egyptians do indeed use the river as a place for leisure and enjoyment. We saw people walking along the river bank, young people in groups (one group were playing charades! Who knew it was such a universal game!), and against this the background throb of music from riverside cafes and restaurants. Half right, because while we were bobbing along we were stopped by the river police, there to check the papers of the driver. The intervention shattering the illusion that Egypt was a nation of private citizens. Furthermore, it was later pointed out to me, that there is only a short stretch of the river in the city which people can access. That is in the Down Town area which is itself the preserve of tourists and wealthy Egyptians, in a city of over 20 million, that is a tiny minority.