Cairo Without End

In his quiet film "In the Last Days of the City", Tamer El Said brilliantly captures a struggle I’ve had for years: how to pin down what it is about Cairo that leaves us feeling as if we exist in a no man’s land.

Yasmine El Rashidi in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_2537 Jan. 24 20.58Last winter and spring, I was away from my native Cairo for the longest stretch in my life—nearly five months—and with each piece of news about home from friends and family, or even via Twitter, my feelings were conflicted. Little of what was reaching me was good. A journalist friend arrested on a trumped up charge. Someone else I knew barred from leaving the country. Another’s assets frozen. A young activist, feeling defeated, turning herself in, no longer able to fight a venal system intent on manufacturing charges to keep her behind bars. A TV show, a publishing house, shut down. With each passing week, the number of arrests, crackdowns, censorship cases, seemed only to increase. My impulse was at once return home, to be present, to witness and write and support those I knew as best I can, but at the same time, I knew it would be futile.

Then one morning last April, I woke to an email with the subject line, “Townhouse Fell Today.” The somewhat dilapidated nineteenth-century building in downtown Cairo that housed the country’s leading art gallery and cultural foundation had partially collapsed, after cracks had emerged in its walls. I had spent years in it writing and passing time with friends (it was there that a gathering of us watched the results of the 2012 presidential election that Morsi won come in). The building’s collapse seemed to capture the general state of things. A state security entity immediately ordered its complete demolition. A group of us who had been associated with the gallery attempted, by way of emails and phone calls to contacts with sway, to fight to keep the remainder of the building standing. The governor’s office and a local heritage entity seemed persuaded, issuing an order to immediately assess the condition of the building, and consider listing it as a part of the “heritage” of the city to be restored and conserved. But what was deduced to be an arm of the state’s security apparatus, seemingly adamant on erasing this cultural space, which they had earlier raided and shut down for a month (on charges of “administrative irregularities”), sent in a make-shift demolition team the next day at the crack of dawn. They hammered at walls and through floors, tearing down windows, balconies, breaking tiles, pulling wiring out of walls, edging the building to precariousness. This back and forth of intent ensued for days. I set up a Kayak price alert for flights to Cairo, and searched almost compulsively for tickets home.

More here.