‘Welcome to the lions of Almaza’: Neighborhood patrols defend a Cairo in flux

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Before British Airways flight 155 landed at 3:05 in the afternoon at Cairo international Airport I had thought the problem was that the road to Tahrir was too long. It was a long way from that small flat with the quiet garden in London, and the fox who occasionally visited, and the pear tree bearing no pears because it is winter, to that square at the centre of Cairo. Planes circled endlessly between London and Tahrir, but never seemed to reach their destination. People have been trying to cover that distance since last Friday.

But walking finally through my home neighbourhood, through Almaza in Cairo, the distance to Tahrir seemed only to lengthen the closer I got. I began to suspect that perhaps it was not the distance between me and Tahrir but something else. This had happened once before when returning to Egypt some years ago; I was unable to find my way home to my father’s house, because the government had, during my brief vacation abroad, so transformed the topography of the neighbourhood – extending roads, building bridges, cutting off other roads, building car parks and redirecting traffic – that I didn’t know which of the roads led home. Later, I found out that Gamal Mubarak was going to be our neighbour. This time too, Almaza was the same and not the same; at every corner a barricade had been built, using the neighbourhood itself for raw material: bricks stacked four high and two lines deep from the construction site of new buildings, which now looked like the ruins of an aerial bombardment. The branches that fell from the trees due to the cold, the steel barricades of a police force which had disappeared, dissolved mysteriously into the society they were protecting; the sign of a kiosk that sold cigarettes and soda was linked to the cartons the soda came in and the tires of the car parked in front of it, to block the main road leading into the neighbourhood from downtown and Tahrir.

Mobinil, the mobile phone network, sent a message to my phone: “The enforcement of the curfew extends from 3 o’ clock this afternoon until 8 o’clock. The Armed Forces warned breakers of the curfew with the direst of consequences.”

The night before, the 29th of January, as I later found out from the young men of the neighbourhood, the news had reached them that there was a horde coming from the shanty towns and the popular quarters surrounding Almaza. All over the city, television reports told them, neighbourhoods were being overrun by the insane, the criminal and the violent: women were raped, homes were broken into, cars were smashed and set on fire. Pimps, drug dealers and those who were violent for money or pleasure. All that was held back by the Security Forces since the 7th of October 1981 has, they were told, been let loose upon the respectable citizens of the small middle-class neighbourhood of Almaza. And it seemed that something else had happened, and I thought perhaps it wasn’t distance that made Tahrir seem far away, but the fact that Almaza had changed. At the centre of the road, this twilight after I arrived, the old men of the neighbourhood had finished the prayer and were sitting in the middle of the road on couches they had brought down from their comfortable middle class apartments. Leather couches, bamboo couches with colourful cushions, cotton couches with flower motifs, which they placed in the middle of the road. They drank tea. Their faces were lit by something that I had never seen before and which I did not understand until later when we were walking towards those two armed forces tanks parked up the road at the junction on Tivoli square.

Around the old men in all four directions, the young men of the neighbourhood were patrolling the area. They were armed too with what they could gather from the houses, kitchens, sides of buildings, parked vehicles. They carried staffs – the shouma, that most old-fashioned and lower-class of weapons – with meat cleavers, bicycle chains. Old man Mahmoud who guards our building and won’t let his undergraduate son do manual labour, shoved a sawed-off lead pipe in my hand with a smile, instead of saying hello. One little boy held a staff in my face and asked me for the password, and then showed me his shouma which was studded with thumb tacks.

“Do you know why I have those arms there?” he asked me wanting to share an epiphany. “Why?” I said, enjoying the game. “Because,” said the little boy, “it hurts more”.

Occasionally, some fellow, aware of his privilege, carried a rifle, long and elegant from the belle epoch, which hadn’t been used since his father was a young man practising at the shooting club. Like everything else, I knew these boys and I didn’t know them. They used the same words they used before, and in this neighbourhood were sometimes unaware – as was I – when they were speaking English and when they were speaking Arabic. They talked about politics too, as always. But they walked differently. There was something different about the way they walked, and I didn’t quite know what that was. At two of the intersections, women were carrying staffs and standing guard. The old men on the floral couches with the expressions I couldn’t understand were sipping their tea, with neat little rows of molotov cocktails under the teapots. We hear that on Horreya street they had shooters on the roofs.

Nobody was allowed to enter Almaza who was not from Almaza. It took on that atmosphere that came upon it once during a partial eclipse, and once, years ago, after the earthquake. The street felt like the corridor between rooms; an elaborate scheme was devised: identity cards were checked, a white band was worn by the residents on their arms, cars were stopped at checkpoints – manned by the kids who usually stand and smoke joints, harass women, bully lone boys at those same blocked corners – and were allowed to pass or were turned back, messages relayed back and forth. In Madinet Nasr, I was told they whistled when they saw something they feared, and clapped when they felt that all was safe. The residents were torn between sleep and wakefulness, between the whistling and clapping, until dawn.

Yesterday, there was the sound of gunfire coming closer and drifting away, getting louder and softer all night. The Nozha police station had been sacked and looted and set on fire, and guns began to appear, selling for 700 Egyptian pounds a piece. Nobody knew exactly who these people were that were coming. It was clear when the first wave came, after they fought them off and caught some of them and checked their identity cards, that the first wave worked for the security forces themselves. Nobody was surprised, though they were disgusted. When the next wave came they were clearly not the same. Then the third came and again it had a character of its own. The police had opened the doors of the prison before they disappeared, that accounted for some, the residents of surrounding shanty towns accounts for others. A friend told me about a conversation he had with the maid. She told him her relative had just died, after he and his friends went out on a looting rampage: “They stole so much stuff, some of them died fighting over it when they got home”.

That was the strangest thing – in 20 years of living here I have never felt safer in Almaza. There wasn’t less violence, or the threat of it, than before. In fact, stories were reaching us from the nearby areas, that our neighbours had killed people who came to rob or hurt them and had taken the bodies and any prisoners they took and tidily deposited them at the base of tanks for the armed forces soldiers at strategic areas all over the city.

I went home to see if anyone on TV had understood what had changed about Almaza, hoping to see why it felt so far away at the moment. A retired Major Bassyouni was saying, he was amazed at the almost formal military understanding and organisation of the Egyptian citizens, especially the youth. He sounded impressed at what he saw in the neighbourhoods. He talked about how they understood communication relays, the importance of intelligence gathering and tactical positioning. He thought that was the change we were seeing. He sounded like a nightmare. But I don’t know why he thought that was strange. For 30 years at least, children have grown up hearing, among their first words, the word amn, security, li’asbab amniya, for security reasons. That was the reason for being stopped on the road, for being made to write something, for not writing something, for the way we speak to each other; a generation which felt warm and comfortable in the paranoiac fantasies of the security apparatus and understood masculinity only in the tactical advantage provided by the threat of violence: numbers, rank, or the violence of always being the one who asks the questions around here or of simply being a man.

They brought the psychiatrist, Ahmed Okasha, on Egypt’s Channel One and he explained that “people’s neuroses are temporarily resolved in a situation of crisis”. I do not understand that. The politicisation of an entire population’s psychology after 30 years of the language of emergency law seemed to me like a crisis, or at least like it had produced many small crises: the number of people beaten half to death, sometimes for picking pockets, and only some of them were beaten in police stations; the number of Sudanese killed at sit-ins in public squares, in front of Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque that New Year’s day, which was watched by us Egyptians and approved of with clapping; the number of middle- and upper-class teenagers fighting in front of sporting clubs with knives, chains, belts, because that is the only language of strength they understand. These things are difficult to explain if you haven’t lived here, but there are two things everyone knows: that this is the psychological state for which the security forces are responsible by their very existence, and that it is a crisis.

Cab driver on television: “We have closed down the area. Anyone who doesn’t belong here, we take him, or send him on his way. We search him for contraband, check his ID card, make sure he never comes back or we hold him prisoner.” We deal with each other the way that security forces have dealt with us; we have never known anything else. There is nothing strange in that.

I took my 15-year old brother, and went down to see what was happening in other streets connected to ours. He was carrying a knife and my grandfather’s old walking stick, propped over his shoulder, and in his bag an aerosol can and a lighter. We walked past the checkpoints with the usual greetings. My brother looks even younger than he is and the men raise their voices occasionally in encouragement: “Welcome to the lions of Almaza”. I glance at him. He was looking around with his usual curiosity. I don’t think he realised they were talking to him.

He was asking what the bottles with the rags were that the old men had ready while they played cards. “What’s that bottle there”, he asked. “That’s a molotov cocktail”, I responded. Then he asked me how they were made and I told him. “That sounds easy”, he said. I laughed and nodded. We kept walking, and passed groups of men around fires wearing leather jackets over their galabiyyas and carving spears. Next to ‘Ammu Muhammed’s kiosk a group of young men were getting rowdy and a man barked a command at them.

Vodafone sent a message to my little brother’s mobile: “The Armed Forces calls out to the loyal men of Egypt to face off the traitors and criminals and to protect our families and our honour and our precious Egypt.”

We thought of the two tanks parked at a strategic position in Tivoli Square in front of Burger King. It was the middle of the night and as walked some men we didn’t know from the neighbourhood, trailed along with us, carrying their arms. As we approached the square, one of the soldiers – a young man, stiffened. He called out: “You! Where are you going?!” Everyone smiled calmly and kept walking that walk which was not the way they usually walked and the old men looked on with that expression I had not seen before, but with the same good humour they had always shown. When we were close enough to talk without yelling I said to the solider, “We came to hang out with you”. He relaxed visibly and spoke to me with a rebuke like you hear sometimes between lovers: “Why are you guys doing this? You are really tiring us out” he said. And I answered him with that mock concern with which lovers always answer rebukes, “Why are you saying these things?,” I said “we came to see if you needed anything”. His friend looked at me and adjusted his machine gun on his shoulder. He was a quiet young man and said thoughtfully, “We are afraid you see, because you are all gathered in one place: we don’t know who belongs here and who doesn’t.”

I understood something then that I had been feeling about this perhaps momentarily new Almaza as we walked up the road to the tanks. It wasn’t a strong passionate feeling, it didn’t well up, it didn’t blaze, and it did not come on suddenly like inspiration; it settled, and settled slowly like something very old, or the recollection of something very old, or maybe as though something very old were finally decaying and falling off us like a second skin. All that was left was something akin to that feeling that people have sometimes when they are offering food to guests who are in their home on quiet afternoons. And then it became clear that I should find a way to get to Tahrir tomorrow or the day after. It is only half an hour away by taxi I thought. We will just have to leave before the curfew.

The one standing next to me laughed at the solider with genuine good humour as though he were appreciating a good joke and waved his hand in a circle that was very, very wide. “We all belong here”, he said.

This post was dictated over the phone from Cairo.

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