There was a time when Egypt conjured up three stereotypical images: the Pyramids, the Great Sphinx and Mummies. But that was before the country jumped out of textbooks and was thrust on to news (and new) media that have succeeded in pushing back those enduring images and replacing them with those of angry young men confronting a strangely silent army on the streets of Cairo. Strong, soundless monuments have given way to volatile, vocal and violent mobs. And to vulture-like vicarious newsmen who wait for that defining moment of either a fall or a photo-opp that will turn a lensman into a legend. Suddenly, there is no sign of ancient Egypt: almost as though history has been shrouded by present-day flags and banners of protestors.
Clearly, a country known for its history stands at the threshold of a new, albeit uncertain, future. The problem with “a million mutinies” (as Sanjay quipped on Facebook) is that it has no single, unifying leader. So, while there is unanimity in demanding President Mubarak’s resignation and exile, there appears to be no one who is popular – or capable enough – to take charge of a country of 80 million people. It may be good to rebel and have a goal in mind but once that is achieved, what next? After the fall, a country needs someone to rise and take charge before anarchy takes over. The longest-serving president of Egypt brought, if nothing else, stability.
The dissent against him, however, is not new. It’s just that the manner and speed at which it has exploded that defies all logic at one level. In October last year, on a vacation, Egypt came across as a placid but simmering nation. People were, by and large, unhurried and our local tour operator, Mahmood, attributed it to the heat. Though with the kind of crowds one saw in Cairo and with petrol being cheaper than bottled water, there is no way that a car can hurry on its streets any way. Besides, the ubiquitous sheesha with its intoxicating agents, added to the languidness of the locals. I have tried calling Mahmood to check if he, his young wife and two children are well but his phone goes unanswered: I can only hope that he is busy (though there are no tourists around) and not part of the madness that seems to have swept Cairo. It was Mahmood who first let on that Mubarak had allowed things to slip (by that, he alluded to inflation) and that the forthcoming elections were sure to be a sham. He even joked about the President being a modern-day Pharoah, though far less benevolent. The Pharoahs were actually extremely forward thinking and had created a Nilometer that measured the level of water in the river that is Egypt’s lifeline (even today) before determining the rate of taxation on their people. Very high or very low levels of water indicated floods or famines and led to lower taxes that year – incredibly simple, incredibly people-friendly and way ahead of its time like so much else the ancient Egyptians did.
And so, Egypt was all about long, lazy, liquidy cruises on the Nile; treks around and into the Pyramids, crawling into empty tombs in the Valley of Kings, coffee at Khan-el-Khalili and the Mediterranean allure of Alexandria. In the course of covering geographical milestones, history was being experienced just as it should be on any voyage. A long time ago, in another avatar, working on a documentary film script for the Indian tea industry (with the ever-suave Kabir Bedi as the protagonist) I had written “Khazana toh khoj mein hai” i.e. in the journey lies the treasure. Egypt was just that.
Except for one niggling feeling that persisted: as a tourist, you never experienced the same sense of awe and pride from the locals in their historical treasures as we would perhaps do with our Taj Mahal and Red Fort and Gateway of India (Pinku-loves-Tinku graffiti, spitting and public urination being ignored for the moment). The locals who depended on tourism for a living were out to take you for a ride (there is no standard pricing for anything that one buys – including water or juice or colas) and were there to literally cash in on tourists. (Yes, yes, I can hear friends like RP Kumar and Vikas Mehta who have lived in Cairo exclaim “Just as we do in India!”) Even the museum in Tahrir Square, now the epicentre of dissent, was unkempt and disorderly and, having seen Nefertiti’s bust in Berlin and many Mummies in the museums of Paris and London, one didn’t want to pay extra for the Mummy Room here. Every ancient temple you visit will have a horde of shops and street-hawkers at the exit so that you are assaulted with cheap, unlikely-to-last souvenirs that kill the grandeur of long-standing edifices.
Why is it that the temptation of the transient takes precedence over more permanent things? Why is there such a hullaballoo about the banning of the Internet in Cairo when we should be worrying about where Egyptians are getting their food? Why gloat about the role of Twitter when schools and offices are shut and the entire country has ground to a halt? Have real priorities given way to the virtual? Is the medium taking over the message itself?
Perhaps this is the way it is meant to be. Perhaps Egypt has stood still for far too long and is now trying to rush ahead to meet an uncertain future. The dust – and there is plenty of it blowing in from the Sahara – will take time to settle and its chronicles will probably be written, and rewritten, several times in the next few weeks. But as long as its people realise that their tomorrow lies not in looking back and merely cheering about today’s face-off with an army that refuses to fight back (strange yet sane)…
History, as the cliché goes, will never be the same. Nor will Egypt.
Perhaps a leader will emerge from the marching millions and the Pyramids and Sphinx will come back on to your television screens soon.
Perhaps history will find its future again.