I sat in the dingy-walled lobby of Dina’s Hotel in Downtown Cairo, listening to music and staring at a Facebook feed—you know, immersing myself in local culture. I was slapping at the mosquitoes that’d swarmed around the glow of my laptop and the glow of my flesh, when a messy head poked in through the doorway and grinned.
“Hello! I’m your neighbor from down the hall!” He exclaimed it like that, like a joyous proclamation, the luck of which he didn’t quite understand.
I pulled the headphones out of my ears and the twangy SF garage rock faded. I tried to put on my least suspicious smile. “Hey.”
A pause, back-of-the-head scratch. “I’m playing a show in a couple hours, at a club called Makan. If you want to come.”
I blinked. The offer wasn’t what I’d expected. “Um, yeah, maybe. I mean,” I nodded at my computer, “I’m waiting to hear from a friend, but maybe.”
“Well, I’ll write it down for you.” The boy leaned over the coffee table. The guitar slung over his shoulder slid down. He didn’t bother to pull it back up and I watched it as he wrote, wondering if it would fall.
“Give this to a taxi driver,” he handed me a scrap of paper in abbreviated, sloppy swirls—boy Arabic. “If you want to come,” he added.
He gave a little wave and disappeared, down the skinny hallway and into the unlit landing. I heard rusty old gate of the elevator open; I heard the cage wheeze and rattle and clang him six stories down.
Then it was quiet—just the echoes of sirens through the light shaft, the tiny sting of guitar still coming through my headphones.
I hadn’t seen the boy before, but I’d heard him, through the walls, which were thinner than the mattresses in this cheap hotel.
Five months earlier, I’d been booking flights for a haphazard round-the-world trip. I’d found a flight between Rome and Bangkok that included a four-hour layover in Cairo. I had a friend living there—or so I thought—and decided it’d be a waste to touch down in the city without actually seeing it. So I’d impulsively extended the layover to last four days.
This was my chance to see it: Cairo, Tahrir Square. The place at the center of all the headlines and buzz and blog posts. The place that had existed all that year inside my laptop—in YouTube videos and live tweets and viral essays, in liking the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page. The place that had given me hope in my generation.
I hadn’t thought we’d had it in us. The fight. I’d thought my generation was lost, deadened by consumerism and hipsterdom and self-reflective oversharing. We were nothing like the stories my parents told of Vietnam War protests, of running from riot police, of the idealistic conviction that revolution was possible.
I’d grown up in the shadow of a failed revolution. My parents had been Maoists. They’d met in a meeting of the Communist Party, of which neither of them ended up becoming members—the Party wasn’t radical enough. They’d spent ten years fighting for a revolution in the United States. When the movement finally dissolved, they’d tossed in the towel and become a firefighter and a public school teacher.
I’d grown up with stories, with heated dinnertime debates, with my own visions of what those times must have felt like—smoke-stained meeting rooms and the sting of teargas in fervent eyes, bell bottoms and raised fists, the burn of fighting for something you believe in.
But I’d also grown up with the relics of their radicalism—a framed photo from my mother’s illegal trip to China; a weathered Little Red Book in a drawer in the desk; all 48 volumes of Lenin, faded blue spines on the bookshelf. These were real things; I could touch them.
“It didn’t seem that crazy at the time,” they’d told me. “It was all on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement; anything seemed possible in those days. And”—here they’d always sigh and look nostalgic—“we were young.”
I was young, too. But I hadn’t seen or felt anything like what my parents had described until Cairo. Throughout 2011, I’d watched the revolutionary notions of Tahrir Square spark and spread, into Syria and Tunisia. This was the time, I’d thought, this was the moment—now.
But it was far away, And it wasn’t mine. It was ensconced in layers of commentary and images and shaking cell phone videos. I couldn’t reach through the screen and touch it. I could barely understand it.
I left California on my trip in early October, just as Occupy Wall Street was taking off. It hadn’t attracted major media attention yet, but there was a low buzz on the internet, like mosquitoes around a bulb.
The night I touched down in New York, Occupy held its first big march on the Brooklyn Bridge. I watched the headlines roll in on my iPhone as I rode the Long Island Railroad into the city, old Delta blues moaning in my headphones.
I visited Zuccotti Park the next day. The small wedge of park had been filed with dread-locked kids who looked as though they’d driven straight from the Playa at Burning Man. Tourists ringed the edges, snapping photos of protestors’ signs; a Korean pair posed and flashed the ubiquitous peace sign. Gutterpunks emerged from sleeping bags, groggy-eyed in the afternoon sun, and an old timey band played banjos. I felt more of a kinship to the passerbys—to the delivery boys, beat cops and office workers on their lunch breaks—than the protestors.
I snapped a photo of a man holding a sign that read, “Class Warfare: Wall Street Drew Blood First.”
I posted it to my mom’s Facebook page.
I followed along online, as Occupy spread across the US. In my next stop, I inadvertently wandered through protests in Rome. Young people—who didn’t look so different from American Occupiers—shouted into megaphones as police helicopters panted in the air above those black-stone streets.
I couldn’t understand any of what they were saying. I only vaguely grasped the severity of the burgeoning European debt crisis. But I’d felt something on Via Nazionale that night—a kind of déjà vu, a kind of connection. The kind of thing I was looking for in Cairo.
I continued to watch online as the fervor spread. And in late October, it came to my own hometown of Oakland. I’d learned about it first on Facebook—friends’ updates of riots and protests and police brutality. By then I was in southern Albania. I stood outside a bar late into the night, pirating their free wi-fi and watching the reports on my newsfeed while my headphones blared 90s hip-hop. I felt both terribly far away and a part of something that was bigger than just my city or my country—a kind of international movement.
A few days later, a friend posted a picture of young boys in Cairo, marching with solidarity signs against police brutality in Oakland.
There was a connection, I thought, beneath all the static—a kind of global connection made possible by technology that was shrinking the planet to the size of a computer screen.
And more than anything, I realized, that’s what I’d come to Cairo looking for—a connection as palpable as a pulse.
I came through the gates at the Cairo airport and was met by a sea of men in cheap clothes holding cardboard signs, uncertain lettering of passengers’ names. For the first time in my life, my name was on one of those signs—the hotel I’d booked had included a free transfer from the airport.
The driver was young and not particularly smiley, but he helped me with my bags and opened my door for me.
The dingy old car swerved and careened through endless miles of highway and tunnels, the city a streak of neon and crumbling buildings, the faces of young boys on motorbikes passing by. The driver looked at me in the rearview mirror and, yelling over the thumping pop music that shook the car’s tinny speakers, asked, “Your first time in Cairo?”
I answered yes. He smiled slyly, in a way that was almost a smirk. I didn’t know what it meant.
I arrived at Dina’s Hotel dizzy and reeling from the ride. I rattled up the old elevator; I checked in; I dropped my bags and yanked open the wooden doors to the terrace and stared down at the street.
Cars and motorbikes swerved. Horns honked and headlights cast sharp streaks of light. Fireworks boomed and popped, for the three-day holiday of Eid. Celebratory shouts ricocheted off the sides of ornate old buildings and rose up, punctuating the roar of traffic. Even from six stories up, it was overwhelming.
I tried to jam the doors shut, but they were warped and half-hinged and looked about as old and tired as the colonial building. They didn’t do anything to keep the noise out.
And that’s when I’d heard them—boy voices, low laughs, the strum of guitar strings. Singing and talking and the sharp distortion of music through laptop speakers.
There’s nothing lonelier than hearing someone else’s party through the wall.
I slid in earplugs, plugged in an incense dispenser filled with yellowed Raid and fell into a fitful sleep.
“Be careful,” Dina from the hotel told me on my first morning. “There’s less tourists here now, so the touts are more aggressive.” She paused, looked me in the eye. “They’re desperate,” she added with a kind of seriousness that took me off-guard.
She continued to give me a rundown of how to act on the street and what to expect, which basically amounted to: anyone talking to you is trying to hustle you.
I’d thought I’d be getting off easy. The Arab Spring, I’d read, had hammered tourism in Cairo. I had visions of wandering the streets hassle-free, not quite blending in per se but not eliciting much attention either.
The friend I was supposed to be meeting had sent an email that morning saying he had work that day. In fact, he had work every day I was to be in Cairo. But maybe we could meet for dinner some night.
I spent the day wandering through Downtown. The shops were shuttered for the holiday and the streets were deserted in a way that felt sketchy. Touts and hustlers lurked on street corners, followed me and called out in a dripping English, “Welcome to Egypt.” I felt out of place, lonely and restless.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
I made it to Tahrir Square; it wasn’t far. At first it struck me the way all places of notoriety have initially struck me—as just a place. It was massive—not a square at all, really, more of a rectangle, framed with highrises and spotted with asthmatic palm trees.
The sun glared down. A man pushed a giant cart of pink balloons. Street vendors had set up souvenirs stands, t-shirts that said ‘January 25’ flapping in the hot-breath breeze. People walked to and from Metro stops, talking on cell phones. There was a KFC, the windows of which looked out prominently onto to the square.
I wandered around, snapping photos of the stencil graffiti and the silent, neon faces of bloggers who had been jailed or killed.
Squinting against the sharp sun, I spotted a scrap of shade and stood back in it, against a wall and out of the stream of foot traffic.
A group of young boys passed. They had gelled hair and smug grins, and whistled low at me. “You want sex!” one cried out.
I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a declaration. His friends laughed. Their faces were sneering masks. One of them reached forward, his fingertips brushing my sweaty t-shirt.
I spent the rest of the afternoon with my headphones on, blasting electro-riot-grrl-punk. I was determined not to retreat back to the hotel. At dusk the crowds came out, the streets filled—families and old men and more groups of teenage boys. I tried to find dinner; I didn’t speak enough Arabic to order at the stalls, where elbowing throngs waved little receipts—I couldn’t even figure out where the registers were.
I kept passing groups of boys. They hung around lampposts, their faces lit in gaudy, angular shadows. They threw trash at me, grabbed at my breasts; one sprayed me in the face with a repugnant cologne as he passed by. “You fuck me!” he called out and laughed.
I thought of the Facebook photo of the boys with Oakland solidarity signs.
Where were those boys now? It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The next morning I went to the Pyramids. I took the Metro, then a taxi. I tried to ignore the tour guides, the touts, the begging children, the hustlers offering camel rides. Again, I put in my headphones, cranked up doom metal. I kept my eyes down and marched straight towards the monumental pile of stone before me.
The wind whipped up and blew dust everywhere. I stared up at the great crumbled masses. Urban sprawl stretched out endlessly behind them under a blanket of smog. I thought of an essay I’d read, of a man who’d lived in Las Vegas; when he’d finally visited the Pyramids, his first thought had been, “They’re smaller than the Luxor.”
I blinked the dirt from my contacts, eyes welling up. I tromped around, squinting, until I felt like I’d earned my entrance fee. A boy called out to me, trying to sell me postcards; when I ignored him, he shoved the book of postcards in my face. When I ignored that, he grabbed my arm; I felt his fingernails dig through my long sleeves.
I whipped around, stared him in the eye. “Don’t touch me,” I snapped.
He scrunched his face and mimicked me in a high voice, “Don’t touch me!” Then he laughed and followed me around, shouting, “Don’t touch me!” until he apparently grew tired of it and wandered away.
None of it was supposed to be this way.
In the faded lobby, the mosquitoes were still feasting on my legs. The receptionist was walking around the room, spraying Raid as zealously as air freshener. It wasn’t doing much good.
I looked down at the scrap of paper with its sloppy Arabic. I picked it up, squinted at it, as though that would help me read it.
Suddenly, sitting on thin cushions in the hotel lobby, the weight of those four days snapped into focus—the frustration, the disappointment, the alienation and the humiliation.
I slammed my laptop shut and grabbed my purse.
Down on the neon street, I hailed a taxi. I handed the paper to the driver. He looked at it, nodded, then veered sharply into the traffic.
The club Makan wasn’t far from Tahrir Square, down a long street stained by pools of jaundiced streetlights. A few sleeping bodies laid curled up beside bags and debris; stray dogs sniffed the gutter. Egyptian pop rattled out of the stereo speakers.
There was a modest crowd on the sidewalk in front of the club. They looked young and hip—sneakers and iPhones and women not wearing headscarves. As I got out of the cab, I heard a mix of English and Arabic being spoken.
I peeked inside. Arty black-and-white photographs lined the walls. The room was near empty. I was early.
I went back outside. I crossed my arms and leaned against the wall, not sure what to do with myself. I lit a cigarette, just to have something to do. I flicked it anxiously.
“Who are you here to see?”
I looked over at the girl who’d spoken. She had on jeans and a hoodie; her hair was long and thick and uncovered; stray strands blew in the evening breeze.
“I’m not really sure, to be honest.” I shrugged and smiled. “This guy I met.”
She laughed. “We’re here to see our friend Deeb; he’s performing.”
Jessie introduced herself with a firm American handshake. She was Egyptian-American, had grown up in Southern California but had spent summers in Cairo. She came back often, and this time had brought her American boyfriend.
I asked them what they’d done during their visit. I thought they’d say they’d gone to protests; I expected their eyes to light up as they shared stories of inspiring encounters.
But Jessie just shrugged. “Hung out with family mostly. We’ve seen friends and gone to some shows too though.”
Then she asked me what I’d done. “The Museum, the Pyramids, just the usual I guess.” I looked away, embarrassed I didn’t have anything more exciting to report.
“So,” she leaned in, “it’s your first time in Cairo—what do you think?”
I paused, tried to think of something neutral and noncommittal.
I gave up. “It’s been hard.”
She paused, seemed to consider it. “It’s an intense place,” she conceded.
We went inside and found seats. The room was dimly lit, pillows and folding chairs circling a threadbare stage. Photographs and paintings hung on the wall, and it struck me as familiar—an independent art space that could have been in Brooklyn or Berlin or Buenos Aires.
I took a chair by the wall. In the spotlight, the boy from the hotel was sound checking. He looked up, smiled, and waved.
A tap into the microphone and a hush came over the crowd—he said a few words in Arabic and began his set.
It was good. The sound was intriguing —a kind of folk/hip-hop hybrid I’d never heard before. I leaned forward. I watched his fingers strum his acoustic guitar; I watched his eyes close when he sang, them open when he rapped, them look down as he whistled. The sound was familiar enough that I recognized it, but new enough that I was engaged.
A few songs in, another MC joined the stage—“That’s our friend Deeb,” Jessie leaned over and whispered—and he looked like he could be straight out of New York: thick-rimmed glasses and a Shepard Fairey shirt.
He took the mic, and the tone became decidedly more hip-hop. The boys flowed back and forth, rhyming in Arabic. I couldn’t understand the words, but at one point they lowered their heads and raised their fists, and the crowd clapped, and I could understand that. At another point, they closed their eyes and rocked their heads to the beat and I could understand that, too.
I felt the music in my chest like a pulse.
On the sidewalk after the set, I approached the boy from the hotel. “Hey, that was really good.”
“Thank you, thank you.” A puff of smoke and a nod. “It’s cool you came.”
His name was Tareq and he wasn’t Egyptian, he was from Jordan. “Well, actually, I’m not from Jordan either. I’m from Palestine, but…”
He’d come out to Cairo for a music festival that had happened the previous weekend, the first all-Arab hip-hop festival. It had been three days of massive shows, tons of people—“the first time we’d all come together, as a real movement.”
“That sounds amazing,” I said. “I wish I’d been here.”
The words sat there a moment, in the air between us. I realized how much I meant them.
“You should have seen it,” interjected a guy with a gap-toothed grin. “It was crazy!” He introduced himself as Leif. “We took over the hotel, partying every night—it was great!”
“Are you at Dina’s too?” I asked.
“Yeah. We’ve seen you.” He leaned in, “I hope we haven’t been too loud.”
“No worries.” I smiled. Then, with a wink, “That’s what earplugs are for.”
We stood on the breezy sidewalk outside Makan and chatted while the crowd dissipated. They told me about the Arab hip-hop scene—“It’s exciting; since the Arab Spring, there’s been a lot more interest from the West. The world is really paying attention.”
They told me how it’d started: Arab youth living in diaspora bringing back urban, hip-hop culture. They told me how it’d spread through the internet and social media, and how local Arabs had started making their own beats and writing their own rhymes. They told me about the albums and documentaries they were now working on, the European tour they were planning.
“Now’s the time,” Leif said, pointing down to the sidewalk beneath our feet. “Now’s our moment.”
I thought about it. Maybe I’d gotten it wrong—maybe there was a connection, but it wasn’t to the thing at the center, the “real” thing. Maybe the connection was to the nimbus—those layers of discourse and YouTube videos and status updates, to the social media and file sharing that made youth culture global, inescapable, equalizing.
Because I didn’t know Cairo. I didn’t know Egyptian culture and I certainly didn’t know Arabic. But I knew music.
It was different from what my parents had. But was it any less real?
“Hey,” Tareq raised his eyebrows, “do you want to come to the after party?”
We hailed a taxi. I crawled into the back seat, wedged myself against the door. We careened through the neon streets, Tareq’s guitar case bouncing on my knees.
Pop beats rattled the tinny speakers.