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What do you mean, Here we are?

In April of 2011, Bidoun relocated to Cairo. Egypt had always played an outsized role in the life of the magazine, and in the wake of the epochal events of that winter, it seemed impossible not to respond in some way. The result was Issue 25, a definitively indefinite portrait of what turned out to be an all-too-brief moment in time. 25 was, without question, incredibly difficult to produce; it was also one of our best.

Eventually we had the issue translated into Arabic — back into Arabic, in many cases — and planned to distribute it widely in Egypt and elsewhere. Perhaps emblematically, this turned out not to be possible. A plan to launch the Arabic version in Cairo was mooted and scrapped. Times had changed.

Throughout the month of May, Bidoun will present a collection of pieces that touch on Egypt’s vexed and vexing present. It should be said that we originally imagined a group of essays that would have, in tandem, charted the psycho-geographic landscape of Egypt six years on. What we had not counted on was the reticence so many seemed to feel about the idea of participating, even obliquely, in “commemorations” of January 25; the reluctance or inability to dwell on what came afterward. It was too late or too early, too painful or embarrassing, bound up with disappointment, heartbreak, or betrayal. But for some, it was easier — possible — to talk about it. Here, then, a quartet of conversations with and among persons of interest:

• Townhouse Gallery director William Wells speaks with writer Yasmine El Rashidi about the gallery’s fortunes over six tumultuous years, as well as the ambiguities and anxieties of writing in a time of conformism.

• Activist-mathematician Laila Soueif talks to Lina Attalah, the publisher of the independent newspaper Mada Masr, about the wages of motherhood, her coming of age, and her family’s long history of activism and imprisonment.

• Egyptologist extraordinaire Salima Ikram talks with Negar Azimi about grave robbing, heritage, and the politics of Pharaonic fantasy, past and present.

• Novelist and journalist Youssef Rakha discourses with architect May al-Ibrashy about memory, form, and the muse of the city.

William Wells

Down at the end of Nabrawy and Hussein El Me’mar Pasha streets, just minutes from Tahrir Square, lies one of those improbable Cairo junctions that seem to suggest an entire world. The environs of this one include the grand abandoned ruins of the old Champollion Palace, several auto repair shops, an all-girls school, the precinct of one drug lord, and the Townhouse Gallery for Contemporary Art. Townhouse, as the place is better known, has been an epicenter for art and artists from Egypt (and elsewhere) for nearly two decades; it has even played a not-inconsiderable role in the history of Bidoun. But Townhouse, which was founded in 1998 in an elegant if decrepit nineteenth-century building, is today neither a town house nor a gallery.

In early 2016, just before the fifth anniversary of the January 25 revolution, Townhouse’s offices were raided by Egyptian authorities. Several months later, a quarter of its main building caved in on itself. It was, it seemed, the end of an era.

And yet Townhouse is if anything more active than ever, having morphed and moved into nearby spaces. If you pay a visit to “the lane,” as the area around Townhouse is known, you might find schoolchildren drawing, artists arguing, Syrian and other refugees attending workshops, and strollers-by drifting into what is now the main Townhouse edifice, known as “the Factory,” to browse its library of books. Visitors are treated to occasional film and video screenings, as well as the odd exhibition.

I’ve known William Wells, the director and cofounder of this independent space, for over ten years, and during that time we have spent hundreds of hours in conversation. He is a consummate and exuberant storyteller, if not the most reliable of narrators. The same question can elicit various answers from him, depending on time, day, altitude, temperature, and what is happening in the city.

Wells is generally to be found sitting on a plastic chair outside, in the lane, wearing a navy sweatshirt and jeans, holding meetings and court. Recently, he traded in his decades-old black Ray-Ban Wayfarers for a fancier pair with a narrow strip of gold (fake, he assures me) on the rim. Over several weeks in March and April, we passed yet more hours on those wobbly plastic chairs, six years after Bidoun first sat down with him to talk about the revolution. What follows is a partial accounting of what we discussed.

Yasmine El Rashidi: Here we are.

William Wells: What do you mean, here we are?

YER: I mean, just — here we are, finally having our conversation.

WW: But we’ve been talking every day for hours. I haven’t got any work done since you came back.

YER: I know. I don’t know why you were so hard to reach over these months I was away. I mean, we kept in touch and all, but every time I tried to have this conversation with you or talk about writing or Bidoun… well, you evaded it all so well. I assumed you were busy, that things were a little crazy for you post-collapse, but I’ve been here almost every day for ten days, and both you and your staff act like us spending six hours talking every day is the most normal thing.

WW: [Laughter] Well, since it’s you, they all assume it’s work. Even the new ones who don’t know you, they’ve heard of you.

YER: You’re so good at making up stories.

WW: But this is true!

[Mina Noshy, the long-time bookstore and education-program manager enters]

WW: Do you want something to drink?

YER: I would love a coffee.

Mina Noshy: What kind of coffee?

YER: Just one of those lane coffees, like William’s.

MN: With sugar?

YER: Yes, please. Exactly like William has his. It’s the best coffee ever.

WW: I’m so glad you say that.

YER: It’s true — I miss it when I’m away. No one makes coffee like this. Occasionally you can almost replicate it in a deli, but still, it’s just not the same, even if close.

[Noshy exits]

WW: Okay. So what are we going to do now?

YER: Well, I have some —

WW: We have nothing to say. I have nothing to say. The things you want me to talk about aren’t interesting to anyone.

YER: Well, I still wanted to ask you about the day the building collapsed. I was in New York but I lived it over phone calls and emails with people here. And as you know, I was devastated; it felt rather symbolic to me. I cried for days…

WW: It’s funny how so many people felt that way, but for me it was the opposite.

YER: You and Negar [Azimi].

WW: I know! [Laughter] She always said she felt unsafe on the balconies —

YER: Which are the only thing left intact…

WW: Exactly.

YER: I remember being in tears, uncontrollable tears, talking to her on the phone — and she, completely cool, saying, “Well, everything comes to an end. Even Townhouse…” [Laughter] I wrote it down. I laugh at it now, how ready she seemed to move on, even though we know that in her own quiet way Negar is the most sentimental person on earth when it comes to you and Townhouse and —

WW: Old people. [Laughter]

YER: Can you tell me about that day? And the days leading up to it? You knew that the building was unstable, right?

WW: Oh, yes. The surveyors had been in weeks earlier —

YER: So you knew there were problems.

WW: And even earlier — I mean, when we took over the space downstairs, it was clear there were problems.

YER: I remember going in with you that first day — those immense cracks and gaps in the walls. There was a whole corner of the floor above that seemed to be sunken into that downstairs, or something — I mean, it looked that way, anyway…

WW: Exactly. It hadn’t been occupied in decades. It had been a Masonic lodge, you know.

YER: Which everyone thought meant Jewish temple…

WW: [Laughs] We’d been in the building for years and never felt a thing. I mean, the stairs were worn and missing a few steps, and the floors were creaky, and there were wires everywhere… but everything really was in perfect working order. And the surveyors insisted that the building was sound, so even after we started hearing the rumbles, the residents didn’t want to leave.

YER: The surveyors said the building was sound?

WW: You know how it is…

YER: Like the government recently announcing it was going to address the overpopulation problem by moving millions of Egyptians to Mars by 2020.

WW: [Laughs] I read that article! So anyway, I spoke to everyone and we had already moved things out of that side of the building, and we were still working as normal. I was still at home the next morning when it really started to rumble again…

YER: Someone called you?

WW: Guys from the lane. Luckily it was early, before 10am, so none of my staff were in yet. You know how it is here — if you’re near a crime scene, they’re going to arrest you. They have to blame someone. So I called everyone and told them to come to my apartment, where we would decide what to do.

YER: Were you still on the ninth floor then?

WW: Yes, the duplex. So we all met downstairs. It became the operations room.

YER: What were you wearing, and what was the mood?

WW: My pajamas. [Laughter] Just kidding. But the mood was — everyone was emotional. Visibly upset. Like you, they felt it was the end of something.

YER: Of Townhouse?

WW: Of the world.

YER: Because Townhouse is the world.

WW: Their world.

YER: And yours…

WW: Well, I was just sitting there through it all. I remember exactly. Just sitting there. Not saying anything. It was Ayman’s [Ramadan] wedding the next day and we were all meant to go to the village — all of us, that evening. There had been so much excitement and preparation. And I knew we had to go. I knew. Don’t ask me how I knew, but my gut told me. And after listening to everyone go back and forth for a long time, there was this silence. And very calmly I told them to go home, get cleaned up, get the sound system and everything else they had prepared, and bring their suits and ties. That we were going to the village as planned, and we were going to have the best time of our lives. And one of them, I remember he looked at someone next to him, and he said, “He doesn’t care.” I’ll never forget that moment. “He doesn’t care.”

YER: They thought you were defeated? That you had given up?

WW: Exactly. That it was over for me.

YER: But did you feel defeated? I mean, you’d been through so much, it’s not like you needed more tragedy. I’ve spent more time in police stations and hospitals courtesy of Townhouse tragedies than I can count…

WW: I knew it wasn’t over. But I also knew that for that to be true, we had to go to that wedding and we had to have a great time.

YER: And you did.

WW: We had the best time ever. The guys danced all night, and everyone was in the best mood, and it broke something —

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YER: It punctured the momentum of the collapse, in a way? Which made it possible for people to not be weighed down or broken by this.

WW: I just knew that we had to come together and not allow the collapse of the building to be symbolic. It was just a building. We had other possibilities. Other spaces. Townhouse was more than that building.

YER: That’s an incredibly cogent thought or feeling for a moment like that.

WW: I couldn’t tell you how and why I knew that.

YER: A building is so charged. I understand that sense of collapse, not just as symbolic of a current moment or the state of things but… We hold onto spaces as containers of lives, of memories and histories. Like my mother and the house —

WW: Which is so real in many ways. But we had other spaces. Your mother has no other space.

YER: People described you as so determined to move forward. Nobody could talk to you about loss or sorrow because you were already moving forward, talking about exhibitions and programming and —

WW: I can’t remember anything except for that story I just told you.

YER: Which was two hours after the collapse.

WW: Exactly two hours. [Laughs] You see, I told you none of this is interesting.

YER: Well, I would still like to hear about what unfolded in the days after the collapse.

WW: I think Ayman’s wedding is the only moment that matters. That, and then when we got the building back. There was this battle back and forth for days between different entities of the government. Either it was going to be torn down or we would win — we would be able to get it back and restore it. We were in the lane when the final news came, and I swear to you, I was jumping up and down and hugging people —

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YER: I don’t know what’s harder to imagine, the jumping up and down or the hugging.

WW: You hug me every time you come in here!

YER: I know. I realized that I’ve been doing that for years, and you’re clearly not comfortable, since you still stand a meter away and hug. [Laughter] I can stop. I can write you notes instead, if you prefer.

WW: You’re right, though. It really changed things between me and the others in the lane. I mean, the lane is great, but there’s politics, lots of politics. But after that moment, they would forgive me for anything. Anything. I can’t understand it.

YER: Well, you sort of just said it. You’re generally so guarded — as expressive as you can be in other ways, as generous as you are, when it comes to your own emotions, you’re so guarded. So that… exaltation. The jumping, the hugging — losing control of yourself — it’s like your emotions pouring out. Showing how much you care about this thing that they care about too…

WW: You’re exactly right. That’s it. Emotions pouring out.

YER: So now you’re going to rebuild?

WW: We’ll be in by December.

YER: December?! But it’s still an immense pile of rubble…?

WW: [Laughs] Well, maybe December isn’t realistic. But it’s amazing how the whole street has come together for this. Everyone has chipped in money. It’s like a beginning again.

YER: Have you ever felt like it was ending? Have you ever thought of leaving?

WW: Never.

YER: Not once, ever? What is it that keeps you going, day after day, with all you’ve been through. I have to be honest — at one point I thought for sure that Townhouse was cursed. It was just nonstop tragedy. So much drama! Nervous breakdowns, illnesses, police arrests, hospitalizations, the accident, and so on. I almost thought I should stay away… [Laughter].

WW: You didn’t! [Laughter]

YER: Huda [Lutfi] was over for dinner the other day and she said that you’re like a cat; you’ve had at least nine lives. I just imagine that anyone else would have left long ago.

WW: Where would I go? I can’t imagine any other life.

YER: [Laughter] Did you ever expect to be here so long?

WW: I didn’t really think about it, but I‘ve never thought of leaving.

YER: What about Los Angeles? When I saw you there, when you were at that residency for those few months, you seemed pretty settled. Happy, even. You were more social there than you’ve been in your whole life here. Do you remember all those years that you wouldn’t even go to Townhouse openings?

WW: [Laughter]. I am happy in LA. I love being there. So do you?

YER: I do. And I keep wondering about that. If it has to do with the sense of time, which feels expanded, like it does here. And also, density. LA has breathing space. There aren’t people everywhere, like in New York.

WW: People everywhere.

YER: Cairo is dense, but not in the same way as New York… Bruce [Ferguson] says it has to do with the desert — LA and the desert and Cairo and the desert. And we were talking about how Los Angeles and Cairo are almost on the same latitude. There’s only four degrees difference. So I wonder if there is some sort of relationship in terms of the tenor of these places, the sky and sounds and atmospheres, the light, the horizon. And, as I say that word, as well as the horizontal nature of these places, their geographies.

WW: I think that’s exactly it, all those things. But I can only be in LA because I have Cairo. You could never be in New York if you didn’t have Cairo.

YER: You’re probably right. You’ve been here for such a long time.

WW: Since 1984. I had that gallery in London before that, and since then…

YER: But didn’t you come here earlier, on a visit?

WW: Around 1976, yes. As an art student. In fact, let me show you — someone sent me drawings of mine the other day that he has had all these years, from the cafes. I had a studio at home, but I used to go out every evening and make these charcoal drawings… [Pulls out his computer]

YER: William!

WW: But you can’t show them to anyone.

YER: How would I show them to anyone? They’re on your computer. But I love them. Do you still draw?

WW: Never.

YER: Never?

WW: Well, let me think about that. I don’t know if I still draw.

YER: You either draw or you don’t?

WW: [Laughter]

YER: I’m going to take that to mean that you draw.

WW: We should really talk about what we’re going to tell Bidoun. They’re going to be extremely upset.

YER: About what?

WW: About why this didn’t work. Maybe we could write them a letter together. And explain that we tried to have a conversation, but it wasn’t of interest to anyone. Maybe you could write a piece for them instead.

YER: But that’s precisely the point: We are having this conversation because we were both supposed to write things…

WW: What were we supposed to write about?

YER: Yours was going to be called “Diary of a Collapse.”

WW: Oh, yes! I remember now.

YER: And I was going to write some sort of… psychohistory of the past six years. Revisiting that piece I wrote a few years ago.

WW: What piece?

YER: You know, that piece. The summer of Rabaa.

WW: The summer that nobody talks about.

YER: Exactly, which is why I haven’t yet been able to return to it.

WW: Well, you did what nobody else could do, which was brave. You wrote about it.

YER: I didn’t want to… I remember my —

WW: But you did.

YER: I did. My editor, Bob [Silvers], who just died (allah yerhamu), sent me an email the morning they cleared the square asking if I could write something, and I said I needed more time. He wrote back to say he could wait a week. I couldn’t say no to him.

WW: So what happened?

YER: Well, I had been reporting on the human-rights situation under the elected government, which, according to some human-rights organizations, had a terrible human-rights record. Even worse than Mubarak’s.

WW: Morsi’s government.

YER: Yes. So I had all this reporting from the previous nine months. And so when it happened — when the police cleared Rabaa — and I had been there that morning, remember? Well, I felt I had to weave it all into something that took into account the histories of both of these groups —

WW: The police and the Brotherhood.

YER: Exactly, and their records of brutality —

WW: Which they both had —

YER: — but everyone else just wrote about it as an army massacre of the people.

WW: Even though we knew it was much more complex than that.

YER: Do you remember that day? And the attacks in the police stations, and —

WW: On the Copts, yes. Mina was terrified.

YER: Yes, so my piece took all that into account too.

WW: Nobody will admit to being out on the streets that summer calling for Morsi’s ouster. I mean, everyone was there, but no one will admit it.

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YER: But for me, it was…

WW: You put it in writing.

YER: It was traumatic. The backlash, the criticism, the hate, the disdain. The idea that to be on the left meant supporting the underdog, regardless of who that underdog is.

WW: Regardless of who the underdog is.

YER: We all know that —

WW: Everyone wanted you to ignore… to pretend they didn’t support 2013. And ignore the millions who were on the streets that summer.

YER: Millions. I had never seen so many people out on the streets, in all the years of protest.

WW: I’ll never forget going out onto the balcony and looking out… This was nothing like 2011 — it was so much bigger. Multitudes bigger. I can’t even describe it. It didn’t matter to me what the BBC was saying, whether it was one million or ten or thirty-three — all I knew was that it was more people than ever before.

YER: People stopped talking to me. Others sent me nasty emails or Twitter messages. I felt like I was practically crucified on Facebook. Close friends were disdainfully silent. We would communicate about other things but I could feel their judgment. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

WW: Second-guessing yourself…

YER: Whether I took a position by trying to not take a position. Whether I should have had more sympathy or anger, one way or another — and if I didn’t, why I didn’t. I’ve been turning it over inside of me ever since, almost four years now, because it isn’t about politics really. Not just politics. It’s also about upbringing and values and judgment and fear and so many other things that go into the makeup of a person, which I’ve been trying to parse ever since, really scrutinizing, to try and understand. I guess that’s what I was meant to write about, but it’s still not entirely clear to me. All this… it’s why I haven’t written since. Really written, the way I had been. I’ve tried to write but haven’t written.

WW: You wrote a whole book!

YER: A novel. It’s so different.

WW: How is it different?

YER: Fiction affords you a measure of distance. It’s very intimate, in that you inhabit a character, but you inhabit a character who isn’t you. It’s not you and it’s not your life, no matter how many resemblances or resonances or borrowings there might be.

WW: It’s funny, because I’m sure people read your book and think it’s just your life. But I know how different your life is, even if there are parts of the book that are you. I mean, for one, I don’t think your mother is that way at all?

YER: Exactly. My character is so far from me in many ways. She’s much more a personification of a political state, or stasis, which affects us all. It was freeing, precisely because of that.

WW: I can’t write at all.

YER: You were writing in Los Angeles?

WW: But I can’t write here.

YER: Do you have a sense of why?

WW: My writing feels inconsequential when I have all this around me.

YER: But you write these amazing emails to people, letters really, about precisely that all this around you.

WW: [Silence]

YER: Can I read you something you wrote?

WW: Oh, no. Please don’t?

YER: Just this small excerpt of a letter, such a beautiful letter, I wish I had written it:

Dear Yasmine,

I meant to write you a long mail over the last weekend, but that fell through. I woke up this morning thinking I would write before I started work. Then I opened the shutters and I was hit by a bleak cold. We always talk about Cairo and the contradictory relationships we have with it, but on days like today it is underscored. To say the sky is gray has no meaning. Everything is gray: the walls of the buildings, balconies, windows, doorways, the trees, the street, the clothes of the people, the air we breathe. This is not the pollution of a city center or when a dark cloud passes over but the color of suffocation. I can’t help feeling we are drowning in a dry mud.

It is not just the impoverished that are diminished but a population.

Sitting in front of the Factory, they are trying to dislodge a large branch of a tree that was damaged when a large truck passed through the lane. An elderly man watching the scene moved over to my side and told me it is going to rain and everything will be better. We both pulled our jackets tighter around our bodies. More people gathered and the man moved in closer, bringing with him the smell of deprivation. Everyone was wrapped in layers of clothes. Fouad, who sells corn on Mahmoud Bassiouny with his son every night stood behind me. The stench of months of burnt charcoal and corn. More people moved in, and all the odors became one dense physical presence.

But to leave it at that would be deceiving. The conversation, flirtatious humor, laughter, bickering and loud, ever-so-loud color of life. The voices, sounds and people don’t level the gray but do offer us one reason for our relationship with this place.

And it goes on. Equally lyrically.

WW: I wrote that? That’s a pretty good letter. [Laughter]

YER: Okay then, just one more part of it, since I’ve read this email out loud to myself so many times. And, I have to admit, to others as well:

It is now a few hours later.

Gallery is full of activity. Two of the young men working for me had birthdays today so a cake in the library was in order with all the visitors invited. A young nine-year-old girl has brought in her own private collection to show Amgad, and he has given her a space in the exhibition to display it. A journalist from NPR is here; it’s her first visit. I convinced her to move downtown. She is Palestinian and so smart. Lara is here, as she is most days. Huda holding court after her opening at Gypsum on Thursday night. Uncertain why she would meet people here instead of there. Samir’s talk is tonight, and they are preparing chairs. It is hard to compete with an atmosphere like this, and despite the pending rain, the depression, and pessimism, life here really is fulfilling.

I have decided that since you’re coming so soon, then I won’t attempt to Skype as it is so unsatisfactory. Offering the sense of spending time with someone, then not really.

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WW: I don’t know why I can’t write when I write all the time, as you say. [Laughter]

YER: Is there a sense of duplicity? In the not-writing, the blockage when you’re here? I mean, in LA you have this bird’s-eye view and perspective and this distance, that same measure of distance that fiction affords… whereas I imagine it might feel strange to live this life and then go home at the end of the day and write about it all. It becomes this conscious act not of writing, but of taking in to write.

WW: I think that’s exactly it.

YER: Which is why I couldn’t write the nonfiction book on Egypt that I had set out to initially. It just felt like a deception of sorts, to have lived all these things and then be pouring them out into this document. Things I had been privy to. Including you.

WW: You wrote about me.

YER: Did that upset you?

WW: Not at all.

YER: I wrote about you because I remain haunted by that, all that, what happened. In the end the things you borrow are true to you, to who you are. Things you can’t shake off, which inform everything you make.

WW: [Hums]

YER: Alcohol might help you loosen up to write? [Laughter]

WW: Do you drink as you write?

YER: [Laughs] No. I mean, I hardly drink. Just socially, and not very much, and not always. Do you still drink, William?

WW: I think we might get arrested for this. [Laughs]

YER: For your alcoholism?

WW: [Gasps]

YER: I’m just kidding. But it is a thing about Townhouse, actually. We always used to drink wine openly here. Is that still the case? Is the neighborhood still open to that? There seems to be a current of conservatism one feels through everything in Cairo these days, which makes me wonder.

WW: Oh, nothing has changed in the lane in that way.

YER: Now that you say that, watching all these young people go by, they do seem so uninhibited. So many young lovers holding hands…

WW: You should see what happens after dark! [Laughter]

YER: It’s a completely new and different generation. Definitely to mine.

WW: Well, I think their parents know they have nothing to offer them. They can’t give them anything…

YER: You mean in terms of material security? No fridge or flat or washing machine…

WW: Exactly. So they’re completely independent.

YER: They’re not extensions of their parents in the way that my generation were.

WW: Yes. So they do and say and wear exactly what they please.

YER: That revolutionary Afro hair…

WW: Imagine what your mother would say if your brother came home with that hair! [Laughs]

YER: And he’s over forty! But it’s interesting. It does seem like this generation is coming from a much freer place, in a way. I feel like they’re dealing with all the social taboos that most members of my generation were never really able to. Not yet, at least.

WW: I think your generation has done just fine. But in any case, I just really admire writers who publish. Who write knowing that something is going to be made public, regardless of what it is. It’s so brave.

YER: It is scary. I’m always anxious when something is about to be published.

WW: You are? But you’ve been doing this for years.

YER: It never gets easier.

[An eight-year-old boy comes in to show William a drawing. William is extremely enthusiastic about how good the drawing is: It’s a black crayon rendering of the Cairo Tower set against a sunflower-yellow background. The boy leaves]

WW: I just love this boy. He started coming a few months ago. Every day after school he would just come in and start drawing. So I gave him paper and paints, and every day he makes new paintings. When he sells them, I give him money. There’s a whole group of them who pop in and out after school. Their parents work in the lane, or nearby. One of the fathers is so completely invested in his daughter. You know him — he runs the sandwich cart down the street. He personally brings her every day, and she sits in the library, looks through books, draws. Isn’t that fantastic?

YER: Did you ever want children, William?

WW: Never.

YER: Because you are surrounded by children. Of all ages.

WW: Of all ages. Even the thirty-five-year-olds are like adolescents.

YER: And yet… I was talking to someone earlier — Sarah Bahgat [the program manager at Townhouse], who is definitely not a child —

WW: Definitely not.

YER: And she was saying that one of the many things she appreciates in you is that she can talk to you about anything. Even politics.

WW: We have long talks about politics.

YER: Which is so rare now, isn’t it? Why do you think that is? Are people too scared to speak? Or is it just the sense of defeat, and the trauma? I mean, for a time it was the only thing we spoke about. And then 2013 happened.

WW: Exactly. Nobody talks politics now. Everyone has just put down this shield.

YER: So what do they talk about?

WW: The things they used to talk about before the revolution.

YER: Which I can’t even remember. I can’t remember life before. And I can’t quite seem to find my bearings or orientation since.

WW: I think everyone feels that way, but nobody will talk about that either.

YER: But there are significant political shifts, you see, unspoken ones. Like that guy in the lane you pointed out yesterday.

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WW: The one who looks like he’s either homeless or an artist?

YER: [Laughs] That one.

WW: That’s an amazing story. Do you remember him from before? From before the revolution? He was a plainclothes police informant, from the local police station.

YER: I have no memory of him as police.

WW: But he used to hang around here. He came to our exhibitions, milled around with the artists in the lane, spying all this time. And then, slowly, he started to dress slightly differently, more creatively — once he came with a yellow tie. And as things became more charged, during the revolution and then after it, he began, I think, to feel conflicted. He had a relationship with the lane, with all of us. And then he started growing his hair out and looked like — well, like he does, either a tramp or an artist. People, young filmmakers from the lane, asked him to act in their films. And so he did. He got more jobs, with bigger directors. And, finally, he left the police station.

YER: He became one of us, or you. Part of the life of the lane.

WW: Isn’t that incredible?

YER: It makes me think back to that photo, from 2011, of that woman kissing a young conscript, holding his face and kissing his cheek. Do you remember? He was so young, pretty. And she could have been his mother. And you could see in his face, his eyes, that he didn’t want to be there, in that outfit, on that side of the divide.

WW: It was a real conflict for so many during that time. All those people who defected.

YER: The army officers and police — you’re reminding me again. And those who felt torn too. It all feels incredibly far away. Makes me ache.

WW: That’s why nobody talks about it anymore.

YER: My problem is that I feel I’ve tried to move so far forward, but I’m still haunted by that old life, and I can’t seem to resolve, to reconcile, to let go. Maybe it’s the writer in me. Maybe it’s just grief. I mean, I can’t believe we lived all that — there was that moment where I thought I would forever be in Cairo, politically involved and a part of this incredible thing. That I would have a place, a role. I felt so free here.

WW: Everyone.

YER: We were talking, during a Bidoun meeting, about how so many of the texts we were considering revolved around dreams and sleep. Are people sleeping their way through this?

WW: Hours and hours of sleep.

YER: I’ve been sleeping about eleven hours a night since I got back here, can you believe?

WW: Oh, that’s nothing. [Laughter]

YER: I like this life.

WW: Isn’t it great?

YER: But will we ever wake up?

WW: I think things are happening. Look. [Stands up, peeks through the bookshelves onto the open Factory space beyond his office]

There are constantly people in and out of the space. At all times of day. People I’ve never seen before walking by and stopping to see what’s happening or what this place is. Some of them will go over to the library and pick a book off the bookshelf, or just look at the art. So many people coming in wanting to show their own work and see if they can sell it in the shop or exhibit.

YER: I’ve noticed that. There seems to be much more pedestrian traffic in and out of Townhouse.

WW: Much more.

YER: Why do you think that is? Is it because you’re all working down here on street level now, since the building collapsed? Where before the Factory was mostly just for exhibitions, when you had them. [Laughter]

WW: I think it’s definitely that, which is why I want to keep our offices down here.

YER: It makes a lot of sense, in terms of what Townhouse has become.

WW: [Laughs] What have we become?

YER: It’s different now. It feels different. Less like a contemporary art gallery, plugged into the international scene, and more like… a community center? An amazing one at that. And… maybe also an incubator for who knows what.

WW: An incubator for who knows what.

YER: You keep repeating things I say.

WW: I keep repeating things you say? [Laughter] It’s true, it’s true. I do.

Laila Soueif

For decades, Laila Soueif has been a familiar sight at protests across Cairo. From demonstrations calling for academic freedom at Cairo University to the earliest manifestations of the Kifaya movement to the uprising of 2011 and beyond, Soueif is a curiously iconic figure. With her graying and occasionally disheveled hair and lightly rumpled clothes, the celebrated professor of mathematics is difficult to miss in a crowd. She tends to be the oldest in the pack — but also the most persistent.

At sixty, Soueif is the matriarch of a family of storied activists. There’s Alaa, her eldest son, a software developer and pioneering figure in the Egyptian blogosphere, who is two years into a five-year prison sentence for violating the protest law. Mona, the middle child, is a cancer researcher who’s spent much of the past six years fighting against the use of military courts to try civilians. And there’s Sanaa, the youngest, currently at university, who, in November of 2016, was released after serving six months in Qanater Prison for organizing a protest against her brother’s sentence. The year before, she had spent nine months behind bars for violating the protest law. (Imprisonment is a recurring motif in the family’s story.) The entire clan — including Soueif’s sister Ahdaf, a renowned writer based in Cairo and London — has played an outsize role in Bidoun’s encounters with Egypt over the years (in Issue 25, among others).

2014 was an especially trying year. In August, her husband of thirty-six years, Seif al-Islam Abdel Fattah, lay unconscious in a university hospital bed. A human rights lawyer who had spent nearly six years in prison under both Sadat and Mubarak, A’mou Seif, as many called him, was in critical condition after open-heart surgery. In the days that followed, Laila and Mona maintained a constant bedside vigil. The authorities denied repeated requests to allow Alaa and Sanaa to visit their ailing father.

I’ve known Alaa and his family for years. The hospital where his father lay was across the Nile from the Garden City offices of Mada Masr, the newspaper where I work as an editor. Every day, I walked across the Manial Bridge with colleagues, a lunch box in tow for Laila and Mona. Laila would laugh at us as we handed it over, joking that it was a little like the e’asha, or care packages, she so often brought her own children in prison.

Despite her fatigue, her husband’s precarious state, and her ongoing separation from her children, Laila remained dignified and calm, even cracking the occasional joke. Meanwhile, extended family had gathered in the hospital: activists, lawyers, students, teachers, journalists, ex-prisoners and their loved ones, and motley others. There were few people in the human rights community whom Seif and Laila hadn’t had a relationship with, and soon, the corridors of the hospital became a sort of reenactment of the Tahrir Square sit-in three years previous. Our conversations hummed with bittersweet memories of the past and tales of the strange present. We hoped that A’mou Seif would soon be able to join us in these exchanges, but it was not to be. He passed away on August 24, 2014.

I spoke to Laila in March of this year, our meeting squeezed in amid her classes at Cairo University, where she continues to teach, and her ongoing activist commitments, most of which relate to the March 9 Movement, which fights for the independence of Egyptian universities. We met at her home in Dokki, a warm wood-paneled space full of books and bric-a-brac. On the couch, I spotted a dog-eared copy of Boris Pasternak’s Safe Conduct.

Lina Attalah: I wanted to start by asking about your job. So many of us know you as a lifelong activist and as the illustrious mother of illustrious children. But you have been a mathematician for over four decades now. How did that happen?

Laila Soueif: My interest in mathematics started when I was very young. I was always happiest when I was solving equations. It never felt like work to me! I remember my mother having to ask me to put it aside to do my other homework. When my father saw how much I enjoyed it, he encouraged me to study pure math.

LA: Your father was a psychoanalyst, right?

LS: He was an experimental psychologist — one of those who hated psychoanalysis. He was more of a scientist, whereas everyone else in the family was involved in literature for a living. My mother, Fatma Moussa, was a professor of English literature at Cairo University. And my sister Ahdaf, as you know, ended up becoming a famous writer. So it was good for me to have something that had nothing to do with any of them. Something of my own…

LA: A rogue mathematician in the family. Were you close to your sister growing up?

LS: My relationship with Ahdaf has been strong forever. Well, not forever. When I was much younger, I was jealous of her. She was the older, better-looking one. But by the end of high school, I got over it. We remain very close. Even after she went abroad, she would come back home regularly, and we would visit her in London.

LA: Do you like her writing?

LS: So much! I remember reading a draft of In the Eye of the Sun and not being able to put it down. But I would say that The Map of Love is my favorite of her books. It’s tighter. Better. You know, I’m the daughter of Fatma Moussa and I was raised on Jane Austen, so I am partial to texts in which every word is considered and nothing is superfluous.

LA: Have you always been a reader?

LS: I suppose. I read the giants of Arabic and English literature when I was in primary school. Again, as my mother’s daughter, it was inevitable. When I was eleven, I had typhoid and had to stay in bed for days. My mom gave me War and Peace to keep me busy.

LA: So it was just the two of you siblings growing up? Ahdaf and you?

LS: And Alaa! The original Alaa, after whom my Alaa was named.

LA: Oh! How could I forget him?

LS: We have a very strong bond, the three of us, though we’re very different. Less different than ever before, perhaps. The revolution made activists out of all of us. Before the revolution, I was the only systematic activist. Ahdaf was active on certain issues, like the Palestinian cause. But we’ve always been very close. Once, Seif was sitting with the three of us siblings and he said, “You know that you’ve been speaking for half an hour and not one of you has completed a single sentence—and yet you understand each other completely?” That’s how we are.

LA: How did you become an activist?

LS: I was definitely influenced by my parents, who had been politically active when they were younger and were always concerned with the question of injustice. It was very shocking for me to hear people speak badly about Christians or say classist things. And I was upset by stories about racial discrimination in America. As you know, the salient discourse under Nasser was egalitarian, defending the rights of the people, expressing sympathy for the revolution in Algeria and the black movements in the US and South Africa and so on. Because of the censorship at the time, you’d never hear bad news about Egypt — you’d only hear good things, regardless of the catastrophes happening behind the scenes. People would never talk politics in front of their children.

LA: But that changed…

LS: Yes, after 1967. The defeat came as a shock on so many levels. It was the end of the dream. People who’d always remained silent spoke out. I remember seeing family friends who had been close to the regime, officers in the army, sitting in our living room, crying: We betrayed the country! We lost it.

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LA: How old were you at the time?

LS: Eleven. It was a formative year. Remember that this was also the height of the Vietnam War. And then in 1968 the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. All of the masks were falling.

LA: You didn’t become politically active until you got to university, though, right?

LS: A bit before. I used to walk through Cairo University and I would see the sit-ins and the banners in the street. So when the protests passed by my high school, I joined.

LA: Those were the demonstrations that got Seif arrested? The hassm (“resolution”) protests?

LS: That’s right. He was one of hundreds of students who were imprisoned in January 1972. I started studying at Cairo University in the fall of 1973, which was also when he was released.

LA: So you met him through politics?

LS: Yes. Seif was involved with a group called Al-Matraqa. They had split off from the Egyptian Communist Party, disillusioned by the party’s reformism, including its renunciation of armed struggle. There were a number of such groups at the university at the time, working in secret and fighting endlessly with each other. I ended up finding his group the most convincing. I was lucky — or rather, I had good taste. I had inherited a certain skepticism toward leftist organizations from my parents. So I appreciated that they never tried to formally recruit me. Seif didn’t put a huge effort into recruiting people all the time. He liked to work slowly. So although I worked with them, I never really entered the group.

LA: Did your activism end up having a negative effect on your studies?

LS: Not at the time. I was taking classes in logic, set theory, meta-mathematics, and algebra, and I had great professors. In fact, my passion for mathematics probably kept me out of jail. I was too busy to attract attention. And I was never a fixture in the typical leftist haunts, like the Faculty of Economics and Political Science…

LA: And then at some point you went to do a PhD in France?

LS: Yes, later. I did an MA in algebra first, also at Cairo University. I had considered working on mathematical logic, but I liked the practical side of mathematics, too. Algebra was in between. There is the abstraction, the understanding of where things come from, and there is also the technical side, of creating mechanisms to solve equations. One day I presented a paper at a conference and one of the attendees was the person who had set up the algebra concentration at the University of Poitiers. At that time, there was a relationship between Poitiers and several of the Egyptian universities, and this man suggested to one of my professors that I do my PhD with him there. But he was a member of the Socialist Party and eventually got too busy with politics, so he passed me on to one of his students.

LA: This was after Alaa was born?

LS: Yes. My supervisor turned out to be great. She was reserved, but she liked me a lot. And she took no excuses. She’d done her PhD as a single mother with two children, and she worried that I wouldn’t focus, especially with my young son. I took a year off in the middle of my studies, when Seif was arrested, and I gave birth to Mona while I was in Cairo. So when I came back to Poitiers, I had two children. But my supervisor knew how to apply pressure, and she made me stay till I finished my thesis. Where it had taken me five years to do my MA, I got my PhD in two.

LA: After you came back to Egypt for good, you ended up joining the faculty at Cairo University, and you remained very politically active. But it seems like your politics had evolved? The March 9 movement, which you cofounded in 2004, seems very far removed from an organization like Al-Matraqa…

LS: It’s true. I came to realize that organizing in secret is useless; it’s the wrong tactic. And the idea of armed resistance — which was influenced by the struggles of the Latin Americans and the Palestinians in the 1970s and early 1980s — I’m not opposed to armed resistance in principle, but our experience of it in Egypt, in both Islamist and non-Islamist contexts, was destructive. It doesn’t lead to a popular movement.

LA: I know that March 9 has numerous aims, but it seems like it is committed, above all, to the idea of getting the politics of the state out of university life.

LA: What we need to be doing is creating de facto organizations, without seeking permission from the state. March 9 is one example; our struggle is to make the university a real university — a space for learning, research, respect, and freedom. Even before March 9, we were organizing to press for faculty independence and monitoring student detentions. In the faculty club, which had always been controlled by the state, we fought until there were free elections. It was like a dress rehearsal for the revolution — one of the demands that the revolution achieved in 2011 was making the leadership of universities an elected position. Though it was also a dress rehearsal for the counterrevolution. In both cases, we ended up with a leadership not so different from the old, appointed one, determined to break any sign of autonomy.

LA: I suppose the university will always be seen as a threat, in that it’s home to the most able bodies — the students.

LS: Of course. The university is an eternal source of nuisance.

LA: March 9 seemed like a way of combining your dual interests or preoccupations with academic inquiry and political engagement. You have worked to bring the struggle to the site of your professional practice. During the revolution, there were those who argued that one’s personal professional practice could itself be revolutionary.

LS: I think it can be. It definitely has been in the past. In the 1950s, the academic professions were some of the only open spaces. This was one of the perks of Nasser’s era — doing academic work was one of the only things you could do that could be radical and real. But that space is closed now, and not only because of politics. It’s also a function of the deterioration of Egypt’s public institutions. March 9 and others are working to reopen that space.

LA: Speaking of public spaces, were you in the square on January 25, 2011?

LS: I participated in the demonstration on January 25, and tried to participate on January 26 and 27, too, but without much success. The actions were too fast for me; I was turning into a liability, hindering those around me. On January 28, I was in Imbaba supporting those involved in the battle at the Imbaba police station. I made my way downtown to Tahrir later in the day, and barely left until Mubarak stepped down. I would leave for a couple of hours each morning to check on my father and update him as to what was happening, and at one point I went to the university to help organize a teachers’ march to Tahrir. But I spent almost all my time at the sit-in, until February 11.

LA: Did you see it coming at all?

LS: Definitely not! I remember joking with a friend on January 24 that if we wrapped things up early enough the next morning, I’d still be able to attend a conference at the American University in Cairo that afternoon. I did expect a big demonstration on January 25th, but nothing like what happened.

LA: Would you compare 2011 to any other political moment from the past — as an event, but also in terms of its enduring political consequences?

LS: The only comparable event would be the massive demonstrations in January 1977. But as massive and widespread as they were, they didn’t have the same deep political impact. 1977 was a spontaneous uprising with very immediate practical demands.

LA: These were the “bread riots,” after the government announced cuts to state subsidies for basic foods.

LS: Yes. And as soon as those demands were met, it was over. There was no sustained action to bring about radical political change.

LA: So where are we now, then, when it comes to “radical political change?”

LS: Well, some things have changed. What happened in 2011 has changed the country. Where we will go is a different story. Sometimes, I think my life has had three stages. There’s everything before 2000, everything between 2000 and 2011, and then the period after 2011. Before 2000, you were always part of a small group. It might have had a certain significance, but you were always aware that you were in the minority — not only in relation to the authorities, but in relation to the people, too. Those were the years of the Islamists’ ascent. Then from 2000 to 2011, we began to see a movement in the streets that was not Islamist. Of course, the Islamist movement was bigger and stronger, but there was a non-Islamist movement as well.

LA: The era of Kifaya, March 9, and the April 6 Youth Movement.

LS: Yes. And then 2011 expanded that into a real popular movement, which succeeded in bringing down Mubarak and then suffered major defeats. But it was a real popular movement. There’s a big difference between being part of a defeated movement and being part of a defeated popular movement.

LA: What does that difference mean for you? For us?

LS: While our movement is defeated, it has an audience of sympathizers in the hundreds of thousands, if not in millions. It is scattered and confused; it doesn’t know where it wants to go, it’s leaderless, it has every problem in the universe… but it exists. We’ve never lived anything like this before. As someone who lived what feels like an entire lifetime in which there was no movement at all, I wouldn’t call this a desperate place. I wouldn’t call this situation we’re in, where we’re discussing real issues of human rights, a desperate situation. It’s a very developed situation. We’re fighting for the equality of women, against torture, against homophobia. It is a problem that these are tools that were developed in the last stage, when we were a minority dealing with a more careful regime, as opposed to the current one that beats everyone with abandon. But the situation has changed, and it changed because we became dangerous. That’s the significance of being a popular movement, even in defeat. The regime is lashing out because the regime itself is desperate. So the fact that we haven’t been able to develop new tools for the new situation doesn’t mean we haven’t progressed.

LA: What would you point to as evidence of progress?

LS: I find it odd when I hear people say that conditions for women were better in the past. Maybe things looked nicer on the surface, but the situation of women on the ground today is deeply different from the 1960s and 1970s. Try to make women stay at home today. No way!

Or people are always saying that the youth are apolitical — they’re disrespectful, they won’t listen to grown-ups, they just do what they want. When you get on a toktok in Boulaq al-Dakrour [a low-income area], you will hear rebellious, political songs. And then there are the informal settlements, the so-called ashwa’iyat where so much of the population lives. People have been forced to deal with their own matters, by themselves. They’re effectively outside the authority of the state. It’s not ideal, but this is the better-case scenario.

LA: So people’s relationship to authority is changing?

LS: I would say that the authorities are losing their grip on power. We’ve witnessed the collapse of the legend of the glorious national army; that can’t be reversed. We have more possibilities today than ever. But also more opportunities for a complete breakdown.

LA: You say that the problem is that we need new conceptualizations, new tools. But tools to do what, exactly? What does it mean to be politically engaged? What’s the purpose? Is it to create autonomous institutions, outside the system? To take power? To build power? To cause discomfort to those in power?

LS: It depends on when we are talking about, but I think the least we can do is give the bad guys a hard time. If you have any kind of public profile, this is the very least you can do. I get so angry at people who have audiences who choose to remain silent. They tell you it’s pointless, but that’s just not true. If your words can have an echo for people, how can you be silent? I like to think that we are sitting like Banquo’s ghost for them. Even when we fail… like in the case of Tiran and Sanafir, the islands the government gave to Saudi Arabia last year — we mobilized, organized protests, filed lawsuits. And okay, so we may not have been able to screw the marriage, but we definitely screwed the wedding. It was not a political win for the authorities.

But real politics is not about this. It’s about giving people more control over their own lives, making people’s lives better. It’s about development — making it so that people aren’t dying from curable diseases. Of course, at that level, what can be done in power is much more significant than what can be done from the outside.

I used to think that our worst nightmare would be for our revolution to end up like the Iranian revolution, but I think it turned out even worse for us. In Iran, the Islamists were part of the fight that ended the old regime, and then they turned against their allies on the Left and took power. And of course, there is oppression, and it is a terrible regime that we have to keep fighting. But there was development, too. Iran today has less poverty, more and better universities, greater industrialization. In Egypt’s case, I honestly thought there was going to be a period of reform when the Brotherhood came to power. But they didn’t have any sort of plan for development. It just wasn’t a priority. So we experienced the worst.

LA: Did you ever find it difficult to square the demands of motherhood with your political engagement, or with your career? Especially in that you were effectively a single parent, with Seif in prison for so long.

LS: I don’t think children eat up your career. Your free time, but not your career. But I didn’t mind. When Alaa was born, he became my primary source of entertainment and relaxation. I would only go to social events if I could take him along. Otherwise, I just didn’t go. You lose some freedom, of course, but it’s worth it. If Alaa hadn’t been with me in France, I would have gone mad.

For me, children are a source of emotional satisfaction in the face of distress. I knew of that at the time — once it was clear that Seif would be going to prison again, during that year that I was away from my PhD, I made sure to get pregnant. I knew I wanted to have another child to keep me busy, emotionally.

LA: Alaa always talked about his unique relationship with you, something far deeper than the traditional mother-and-son relationship.

LS: The fact that Seif was in prison when Alaa was very young created a very special relationship between us. Alaa came with me to France when I did my PhD. I had to explain things that you should never have to explain to a child — why his father was in prison, that there are bad police and good police — the good ones, who catch thieves and organize traffic, and the bad ones, who arrest people who oppose the government. You don’t usually need to know these things when you’re four or five.

But Alaa was always sensitive to things. When we were in France, there was a wave of discrimination associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front. There were anti-immigrant ads with nooses, and it touched Alaa. He knew that the ad was addressing him somehow. Later, anytime someone said something negative about Christians, I told him that people who say bad things about Christians are like the ones who posted those ads. He became aware.

I think our relationship is also a function of Alaa’s character, though. I’ll never forget — one day, when Mona was a baby in France, I overslept. I’d had a cold. When I woke up I was frantic. It turned out that Alaa had taken Mona from her bed and made her breakfast. He just did this automatically. When Sanaa came along, it was the same. He took care of her, too. Of course Sanaa was extremely headstrong from the beginning. She still is. But when we fought with her, Alaa would take her aside and deal with her.

LA: All three of your children became political activists. Do you think that was inevitable?

LS: Each one of them was a surprise in their own way, although by the time we got to Sanaa, I think I understood that this is what happens. People walk their own paths and life makes them politically engaged. For me, the surprise with Sanaa was not that she joined the revolution but what came out of her at that time. She was only eighteen — so young, to handle so much horror. But she was so persistent! During the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes in 2011, ambulance men would call on her to help with serious cases at the hospital — she would make sure that victims got proper treatment. I’ve been impressed by her ability to manage complicated situations — the way she interacts with the different kinds of people you find in prison — criminals, officers, low-ranking policemen. Every single time she was arrested, someone would let us know immediately. She always manages to convince people to help her. But at the same time, she has remained unchanged in so many ways, even after prison. She was the same Sanaa who was unenthusiastic about school. The prison guards had to fight to wake her up for her exams.

LA: It’s an understatement to say that you’ve spent more than your fair share of time interacting with the prison system. How are things with Alaa, at the moment? How often do you get to see him?

LS: There are at least three visits per month, plus exceptional visits on feast days or Mother’s Day and so on. Each visit is one hour long. When both Sanaa and Alaa were in prison, it became a real complex problem. Like a mathematical equation… the kind of problem that would crash your computer. [Laughs]

LA: Can he receive letters?

LS: There are many restrictions on letters. They monitor all the letters, which is odd, because we’ll tell him everything during the visits anyway, which aren’t monitored. And it takes a very long time for them to make it to him. They’re obsolete by the time they arrive! The whole thing is a pointless process that just aims to ruin one’s mood.

LA: What are your visits like?

LS: It varies according to Alaa’s mood. The best kind of visit is when we have some news to talk about which then leads to the kind of extraordinary but real discussions we always used to have — as though we were sitting in the living room at home.

LA: Anyone who is close to Alaa feels his absence. It’s a pervasive sentiment. How are you dealing with it?

LS: I get busy. I keep busy so I don’t get a chance to feel. I had to deal with Alaa’s absence and Seif’s death almost at the same time. With the two of them, philosophical discussions about life, change, and the revolution. So there is a level of loneliness. But again, you get busy. You play Solitaire. You read Agatha Christie or Harry Potter for the fifth time.

LA: Does he have access to books?

LS: We’re still in the same stupid situation. Only a few books are allowed, even after the ban on books altogether was lifted following our campaign. There’s really no logic when it comes to what’s allowed and what isn’t. Every once in a while they allow something in.

LA: What sort of books make them nervous?

LS: I’ll give you a telling example. My father’s diaries were published by the Supreme Council for Culture and they wouldn’t allow them to enter. These are his grandfather’s diaries, published by the state! So perhaps there’s no sense in the world. They did, however, allow us to bring in some of his favorite comics — Tintin, Asterix, and Sandman, of course.

LA: Is he able to get much writing done?

LS: Some. There is the interview he gave to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. The last things he wrote were the three articles he did for you at Mada Masr, about Uber. I hope there will be something new soon. We make sure to publish anything he writes right away because there are a lot of restrictions on his ability to write and they’re liable to change. I love reading him — hearing his voice in this way, his analysis, his ability to capture what’s going on in politics, technology, the world. Everything. It makes me happy but it breaks my heart, because this is what I miss.

LA: Alaa used to speak a lot about politics as an emotional space, and the difference between traditional political organizing and organizing through a Facebook page, which may, he’d say, capture emotions and allow us to exchange in new ways that traditional organizing couldn’t. But I feel like things have gotten lost along the way. I’ve often thought that your generation was more selfless than ours. My generation seems to be so invested in understanding our emotions. It feels self-indulgent at times to me. Do you see this generational dynamic?

LS: I don’t know. I’ve seen the youth of the revolution working with the poor and the oppressed. This is selflessness, isn’t it? I’ve never really thought about your question, but now that you raise it — I think my generation as a whole simply wasn’t engaged. In the 1970s there was a minority of politically engaged youth and then a majority who became careless. I sympathize a lot when people lay the blame for the defeat today on my generation. Back then, schools and hospitals hadn’t deteriorated yet, but our generation still opted out. They put their children in private schools instead of fighting for good public schools. They sought treatment in private hospitals instead of fighting for public health. The generations that followed haven’t had much of a choice. So in a way, people who chose to be politically engaged today have to be selfless.

LA: Alaa also used to say that he saw so much energy for political engagement among the youth around the time of revolution, but the problem was the lack of vehicles or venues to host this energy. Is this deficit creating a sense of loss or disorientation?

LS: I’m not sure. You have the entire spectrum. There are some manifestations of continued political engagement. In the last Egyptian Student Union elections, the students fighting for campus freedom swept the vote. The Ministry of Higher Education responded by canceling the election results. It’s important to remember how when the university was targeted in 2013, when the big crackdown happened and the professors mostly lined up with one or the other political organization — pro-Islamist or pro-military — the students didn’t fall for it. For the most part, they refused to work against each other, even if they didn’t all agree. And many of them did not — the student movement was controlled by Islamists at the time! But these were the values of January 25…

Still, I think people are fragile. There are activists today who say that al-shaab (the people) don’t deserve their activism. Some young people join the Islamic State, others join the April 6 Youth Movement. Some would pursue drug dealing if offered the chance. I’m sure there’s a portion of the youth who have developed affinities for violence. And there’s a high percentage who see the situation as completely hopeless and who want to leave the country. But so long as they’re here, they will struggle. They will resist. But it’s a resistance with no horizon in sight.

It’s very difficult to assess the situation. All these dimensions are new.

Then again, I’m sixty years old, and I admit that I’m often confused. With age, you become distant, whether you like or not.

LA: Does it bother you at all, being a public figure?

LS: There are things that drive me crazy, of course — like being photographed in public. The upside is that I have had the privilege of detecting the onset of a certain mood on the street against Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. I have access. My face is known. So people stop me in the street and call, Um Alaa, say hi to him! People know us and love us, and we can do something with this.

I can also confirm the theory that once you’re sixty, state security wants nothing to do with you. They don’t want to beat me or arrest me or even see my face! They try their best to ignore me. I’ve become invisible.

Salima Ikram

In the early 2000s, I spent a year working in the musty basement of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library of the American University in Cairo. The library was in an old Khedival villa at the corner of Sheikh Rihan and Mansour streets, downtown; its most prized possession was a copy of Napoleon’s Description de l’Égypte, one of a handful of complete sets left in the world. In the afternoons I would sit at the library’s front desk, logging book requests and making sure that no one walked out with anything more than a few hundred years old. Those days were dull and monotonous, but they were occasionally brightened by the appearance of a handsome woman of small stature, draped in elaborate scarves of indeterminate origin and exuberant color, who taught a class on ancient Egypt on the second floor. Her name, I discovered, was Salima Ikram, a popular professor of Egyptology and Archaeology of Pakistani origin and extravagant British-inflected English. I would hear stories about her classes — the lengths she would go to transport her charges, imaginatively, to the Bronze Age, or to instruct them in the art of mummifying small animals. “These rabbits were destined to die, but now they will live for eternity,” she consoled her more squeamish students.

Ikram continues to teach courses on ancient Egypt — on its art and architecture, culture and society, and especially its practices of death and burial. While she is legendarily charming, Ikram is also known as a fearless and indefatigable researcher. At any given time, she is involved in investigations at over a dozen archaeological sites across the country, and is the co-founder and co-director of the Animal Mummy Project at the Egyptian Museum. Her list of accolades is long; the equally long list of her publications includes The Tomb in Ancient Egypt, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt, and Divine Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt. With Eden Unger Bowditch, she wrote the children’s book, Fun Things to Do with Dead Animals.

Negar Azimi: Where are you now? And what are you wearing, so I can summon up an image?

Salima Ikram: At this very moment I’m in a car on the West Bank of Luxor. We’ve just dropped off some team members at the ferry and we’re driving back to our hotel via a bookshop, or maktaba, where we’ll buy some plastic sleeves in which I can place my notes on KV10 and KV63. It’s getting late — the palm trees are looking very delightful, very festive, with colored lights wrapped around them, teeny-weeny blinking blue lights. As for what I’m wearing [laughs], I’m sporting a very grubby pair of trousers which are covered in tomb dust and also a sort of drab olive green shirt and my jacket with lots of pockets which has my tape measure, torch, magnifying glass, camera, pens, and all of that stuff. Oh, and my good luck scarf, which is yellow! You need a scarf in this line of work. It can be worn around the neck, on the head — all over really.

NA: How is Luxor these days? It must be a little deserted?

SI: For a very long time tourism completely vanished, but lately we’ve had a great number of Chinese visitors — that’s helped a bit. After the Russian event, the thing with the plane…

NA: I appreciate the euphemism. You mean the Russian passenger plane that went down in the Sinai in 2015?

SI: That one. Things became quite grim. Now things are much, much better. There are proper foreign tourists. Not so many Russians but a bunch of Chinese, as I said, bless them. A few Americans. Germans, Italians, and Swiss, too. People are coming back, so there’s a slight sense of restrained optimism in Luxor and on the West Bank.

NA: So for the uninitiated — what are KV10 and KV63? These are not robots, alas?

SI: KV10 and KV63 are tomb sites in the Valley of the Kings — hence KV. They were directed by the American Egyptologist Dr. Otto Schaden until his death in 2015, and I was his field director. This is the first year I’ve been completely in charge. KV10 — I think you’ll like this story — was built for the Nineteenth Dynasty ruler Amenmesse, who was not a particularly snazzy guy. But no one knows where he is, as there’s no evidence that he ever actually occupied his tomb. During the Twentieth Dynasty, two royal ladies named Takhat and Baketwernel moved in, hacked out his decoration, and painted their own beautiful faces all over the walls. We think those two are buried in there — we’ve found parts of their granite sarcophagi as well as the jars that hold their internal organs. But no trace of Amenmesse himself!

NA: What do we know about this ill-fated Amenmesse?

SI: We don’t know much. He was an inconsequential king who ruled for only three or four years. His name crops up in some texts, and a few images of him exist, but not much else. We aren’t even sure of his parentage. Some have argued that he was a usurper. We were hoping that his tomb would shed some light on all this, but no luck so far.

NA: What kind of style did the ladies bring to the tomb?

SI: Well, their decorations are painted in bright colors. It’s quite beautiful — the women are wearing their sheer linen garments, their cheeks are pink, they’re holding scepters and crowns and you can see little bits of images of gods and texts related to how one gets from this world to the next. Oh, and there’s a representation of the journey of the Sun God and his ultimate triumph over darkness — a parable of death and rebirth.

NA: Who were these ladies, anyway? Was this sort of… occupation… business as usual?

SI: Well, it’s unusual for the Valley of the Kings, to have two women totally take over a tomb and be so completely in charge. But there’s much that remains to be discovered. We know that Takhat was a royal wife and a royal daughter, but not much more about her or her partner in crime, Baketwernel. We’re struggling. There are at least four people with the name Takhat that we know of. I mean, Will the real Tahkat please stand up?

NA: So… were they buried together? Were they friends? Coup-plotters? Lovers?

SI: The speculation is endless. They could have been mother and daughter, sisters, wives of the same king. We have some evidence here and there, but as ever, each bit of evidence raises more questions.

NA: So not lovers. [Laughs] What about KV63?

SI: Well, KV63 was the first tomb to be found in the Valley of the Kings after Tutankhamun, which as you probably know was discovered in 1922 by the English archaeologist Howard Carter. KV63 was discovered in 2006. Except it didn’t turn out to be a burial site, after all. It looked like one — it was built like one. But no one was home…

NA: I read somewhere that a coffin found in KV63 was opened as cameras were rolling. But—

SI: Alas, no one was inside. I think many people were expecting an intact royal burial along the lines of Tutankhamun. You must remember that for almost eighty-five years nothing new had been found there, so there was this great drumroll. When you looked in the doorway, you could just smell the incense — it was an incredibly strong scent — and then you saw all these coffins and you couldn’t help but be struck by the enormity of it all. Oh my God, this is a group burial. But once we managed to get the coffins open all we found were embalming materials.

NA: So it was sort of a… storage unit?

SI: Exactly. We only wish we knew whose it was! Some evidence points to Tutankhamun. But it might also be the mysterious and enigmatic body buried in KV55. We really don’t know. It’s a beautiful mystery. We have 90 percent of the evidence. But the 10 percent we need to solve it is missing.

NA: Like the name of the king.

Si: Like the name of the king! People always ask Egyptologists why we keep digging. Isn’t everything found? Well, no, not at all. Every time you dip into the earth you find something new and amazing. With a turn of the trowel and a flick of the brush, suddenly all our ideas about ancient Egypt can be overturned.

NA: Salima, you seem to be at the center of so many recent discoveries in Egyptology. A cursory Google search of your name finds you equally at home in dense scholarly journals and… British tabloids. So naturally Bidoun’s enquiring mind wants to know about your revisionist theory about King Tut’s penis?

SI: Everyone likes that one because the modern mind is salacious — which tells you about the pathetic nature of the modern mind.

NA: [Blushes] Oh, yes. So… Tutankhamun was mummified with his penis at a ninety-degree angle, right? Can you tell me more about your take on the royal penis?

SI: Penises for the ancient Egyptians were important symbols of fertility. And fertility was literally the difference between life and death — if your land wasn’t fertile, you’d die. King Tut’s father, Akhenaten, had abandoned Egypt’s traditional polytheism in favor of the sun god Aten.

NA: See: Moses and Monotheism.

SI: Well, my theory was that Tutankhamun’s mummification was part of a complex symbolic effort to bring back the old gods. While Tut was alive, he was viewed as the manifestation of the god Horus; when he died, he — like all the other kings of Egypt — turned himself into Osiris. So he was mummified the way Osiris would be mummified. His body was probably blackened, like the black earth, the color of the silt when the Nile floods, and his penis was mummified in the erect position, which is how Osiris was shown — highly potent — the better to impregnate Isis. So Tut’s erect penis did double duty, ensuring the fertility of the Kingdom and restoring Egypt’s traditional mix of deities.

NA: Old school. You were also involved in the unearthing of a three-thousand-year-old statue of Ramses II in Cairo, right?

SI: Yes, in Matariya. Except after a bit of cleaning up it seems not to be Ramses after all.

NA: Oh no?

SI: Yes. We think it is King Psamtik of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. Which would be extraordinary, as we don’t have that many statues of that king, though we have bits of buildings dedicated by him.

NA: What was happening during the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty?

SI: Egypt had gone through a terrible time; there had been violent incursions by the Assyrians and Egypt was more or less a vassal of that empire. Then in 612 BC Nineveh fell, and with it the Assyrian Empire. So this was a period of transition and consolidation, amid harassment from traditional enemies like the Libyans and the Nubians. King Psamtik was keen on reviving the ancient cults and older forms of artistic expression, linking them to things that had happened two thousand years before, to generate national pride.

NA: Sounds familiar…

SI: Yes, we see this today. In fact, we see it all the time. Countries harking back to their ancient past. You know, in 2011, during the revolution, amid all the graffiti art, you’d find images drawn from ancient Egypt, like that one of Tutankhamun and Che Guevara. There was a mural in Tahrir which filled an entire wall with mourners in ancient Egyptian garb.

NA: So how did Psamtik end up in Matariya?

SI: Well, that area is built on the ruins of ancient site of Heliopolis, one of the most important cult centers in Egypt, if not the world. Heliopolis is where the world was created, the so-called mound of creation, where the Earth emerged from the ocean of Nun. The sun god Atum-Re dwells there. It’s quite an extraordinary place …

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NA: How did they find the statue?

SI: The normal way. An Egyptian-German team directed by Ayman Ashmawy and Dietrich Raue had been excavating there for some years and they were clearing some stuff away one day and someone said, Look, doctor, the earth seems a bit different here! It was a chunk of quartzite, which turned out to be part of the statue. And they wound up with this extraordinary piece of Egyptian monumental sculpture. The conditions were very difficult but they successfully removed it from this glutinous, goopy, muddy matrix and managed to convey it to the Cairo Museum, where it’s on display. It goes to show how much is still buried — under the sands, in the mud, and so on.

NA: You were there for the exhumation. What was it like?

SI: There were so many people — too many people. I know the media needs to be there, but it was really like vultures descending. It’s very stressful for the archaeologists to do these things with a degree of professionalism. We were dealing with eleven meters of garbage, rising groundwater around one’s ankles — the stench was very strong. The stuff is embedded in this muddy matrix with not very salubrious items buried inside. And then to have all these people clamoring and shouting is not helpful. So there’s the smell, the heat, the flies, the muck, the sound of heavy machinery, the crowds of people. And the Egyptologists getting very stressed out. And you have to remember that this is happening in the middle of a densely populated residential neighborhood. Real people are living there, so there’s that familiar tension between the living and the dead.

NA: How do you mean?

SI: It’s everywhere. The pyramids are encircled by habitations now — completely encircled! Temples are being encircled — and the ground water is rising. The city of Aswan is growing in size and the sites are in danger. Elsewhere, people have been working in ancient quarries and we’re losing precious inscriptions.

NA: It’s interesting, this tension between the past and the present. It’s constitutive of your profession. I imagine it was particularly intense during the revolution, with all the looting…

SI: So much!

NA: Were you in Egypt at the time?

SI: I was. I was working with a Spanish team in Luxor, actually. Friends called and said, We’re going out onto the streets and we didn’t expect so many people to be out here! As things started to heat up, some of my colleagues left the country. I thought, Oh my God, I have to fly back to Cairo to protect my white husband! And it took a while to get back.

NA: You were afraid he might get looted?

SI: [Laughs] Or worse! But then of course the Egyptian Museum came under threat, too. I should say that before I flew back I noticed that ordinary people in Luxor were doing an extraordinary job of protecting the antiquities there. They created village patrols and so on, warned off potential looters. I finally managed to get back to Cairo a few days later.

NA: What was the scene at the museum like? Had the looting begun?

SI: Yeah. This was after the famous break-in. By the time I arrived, the army had managed to encircle the place. I still can’t believe that the break-in was anything but a staged event. I don’t see how protesters in the square would just happen to have had the necessary gear to be able to break in through the roof.

NA: You think it was an inside job?

SI: I don’t know what it was, but I don’t believe it was just random looters, out of control. It must have been a planned attack. Maybe people associated with dealers, or connected to the Powers That Be — you know, Let’s make the protesters look really bad. Or both…

NA: What do we know?

SI: As usual, the story is garbled and reports are contradictory, but… What seems to have happened is that people broke into the museum grounds and then used a back stairway to gain access to the roof. Then they broke through the skylights, lowering themselves using ropes or electrical cables.

NA: Like Spider Man?

SI: Like spider men. I mean, it’s all very weird. It’s 8-10 meters from the skylight to the floor — who has that much rope? Then the looters raced through the museum, sometimes smashing vitrines and at other times removed things only to leave them, intact, right next to the vitrine!

NA: Did they do a lot of damage?

SI: The most dramatic losses were on the lower floor. Mostly related to Akhenaten, Tut’s dad again, who is usually hailed as the first monotheist although that’s technically not true — he was more of a henotheist.

NA: Right. Wait, what?

SI: Henotheism. The worship of one god as more supreme than others.

NA: Akhenaten was sort of a hermaphrodite, too, right? He is so interesting-looking…

SI: And that is a whole other discussion. [Laughs] So anyway, there was one particularly iconic limestone statue of Akhenaten with his blue crown, holding an offering, which went missing. Though it was returned to the museum eventually, under slightly mysterious circumstances.

NA: Like, left at the door in swaddling clothes?

SI: You heard different things — that it turned up in a garbage can in Tahrir, or next to a lamp post.

NA: So they went after the henotheist. But weren’t there other things? The reporting at the time made it sound like a lot went missing.

SI: You know, the encasements the looters seem to have enjoyed the most were in the cafeteria — the ones with the ice cream.

NA: No!

SI: Yes. Mövenpick. I read somewhere that they yelled, Hey, have you tried this Mövenpick ice cream! It’s amazing!

NA: Having tried most of the ice cream in Cairo, I will confirm that Mövenpick is very good.

SI: It is very good, but not nearly as good as Mandarine Koueider’s zabadi wa toot!

NA: Yes! So wait, has a lot of the looted material been recovered?

SI: Quite a lot of it. But some pieces from the case featuring the Amarna period have vanished completely. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in a private collector’s house in the Gulf or wherever. The Amarna period is very popular, you know.

NA: I did not.

SI: So, yes. During and after the revolution we were spending a lot of time trying to protect dig sites and feeling completely ineffectual, especially at Abusir and Saqqara. Looters would go into storerooms and just break things, looking for treasure. They were expecting to find gold. All of those ancient tropes — literally thousands of years old, the gold of the Pharaohs and all that — are still alive. People don’t understand that archaeological treasures are pots and pans and glue and garbage. They destroyed things because they didn’t know what they were looking at. It was heartbreaking.

NA: Are we living in a new golden age of looting? It seems like it, given all the strife and disintegration in the region in the past decade or so — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Egypt…

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SI: Yes, and Egypt is unfortunately a good staging post for illegal antiquities. There are places along the Mediterranean and the Red Sea that can be used to ferry objects to bigger boats. So you’ll find fragments of reliefs from Syria and Iraq and so on — cylinder seals, clay tablets, texts, figurines. Smaller items, which are easier to smuggle. But as for Egyptian antiquities, things are much better now. For a couple of years — from say 2011 to 2013, 2014 — things were just pouring out of the country. There was a huge flow of objects to Europe and North America. It was a dark moment. But I would say that the tide has been stemmed. After the Mallawi Museum was looted in Upper Egypt in 2013, the Sisi government really got on top of the situation and has made significant inroads in stopping this plague. Touch wood, yanni, but I think this current government has made a solid effort.

NA: Has Sisi regime’s been supportive of Egyptology more generally?

SI: Very much so. Sisi’s been pushing the agenda a great deal. Sometimes I think he’s pushing a little too hard, trying to get too much done too quickly. It’s interesting. The situation is not unlike the reign of Psamtik — hearkening back to the great past, emphasizing technological and artistic achievements. And it should be said, kicking out foreigners… After centuries of foreign domination by the Assyrians, the Nubians, and others, they were trying to reconstruct a fragmented country. Hence the appeal of the glorious past — a past that demonstrates that Egypt was once great and potent and strong, nationally and internationally. Sisi is doing what Egyptian rulers have done time and again. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years. It’s all the same …

NA: Make Egypt great again! But what do you mean when you say that Sisi’s been pushing too hard?

SI: It’s like, Let’s make a new Suez Canal! Let’s build a new capital! Let’s build a new Egyptian Museum and move everything into it! They’re noble endeavors, but they take time to do correctly. I worry that if one goes too fast, things will be sacrificed. And in regard to the antiquities — these objects are too precious, to all of us. They need to be treated with care. What Sisi ought to be saying is, We can do it, and we could do it quickly, but we choose not to rush and to do it very well.

NA: So how does Sisi’s enthusiasm for things Egyptological manifest? Is there a vogue for gaudy Pharaonic-inflected contemporary architecture? Or…?

SI: Well, it’s always been gaudy — nothing new there. But a lot of the resonances are metaphorical or analogical. Large-scale building projects, for example. The cult of the leader, is another. There are photos of Sisi everywhere. This apotheosis of the ruler is an ancient phenomenon that has continued to the present day, particularly with military dictators of the Middle East. I guess it’s what works? In the 20th century you have printed images, billboards, and so on, showing respect and love for the ruler who might as well be a divinity.

NA: The Romans, too. I was just reading about the historical Jesus, and how the claim for Christ’s divinity is made at the same time that the Roman Empire is deifying Caesar Augustus. Anyway—

SI: Part of what’s interesting about the Pharaonic era is that it’s expressly non-denominational. The Pharaonic past can be invoked to justify and promote a secular Egyptian national identity. Historically, very different religious groups have flourished here — it’s a big part of why Egypt has been so successful over the millennia, because of this cocktail of humankind, bursting with ideas and creativity, not stultified by religion. All kinds of people were culturally welcome if they could adapt to the Egyptian way — Greeks and Persians, Assyrians, Nubians, Syrians, all living in Egypt and all being acculturated. Members of each group could rise in government, rise in society, intermarry…

NA: So I take it you would agree that ancient Egypt has lessons for Egypt today?

SI: So many! There’s definitely the celebration of the non-denominational — the ability to absorb people from all cultures and religions and to work to make Egypt stronger and better as a result of all this cross-pollination. And… perhaps we could be slightly more elegant? Have a better aesthetic, I mean.

NA: You don’t like the Egyptian fashion sense?

SI: One more thing! Very important! The ancient Egyptians didn’t believe in the word “impossible,” at least when it came to their ambitions. You want to create a mountain? No problem! There was no whingeing about how impossible things might be in ancient Egypt (well, maybe a bit!). There also a sense of social responsibility based on the idea of Maat, or balance. Each individual had a personal duty to contribute to maintaining the balance of the cosmos. When the balance is right, when the world is morally correct, the land will prosper. This was the most important thing, I think. It’s that sense of individual responsibility we’re missing so much today.

NA: And who is Sisi? I mean, who does he remind you of, historically speaking?

SI: All of them, I think — Mubarak and Sisi and so on, are a little bit Ramses II. Sisi might be even be Khufu, in the epic scale of his nationalistic agenda — projects that will showcase Egypt’s greatness to the world.

NA: So if Sisi is Everypharoah… who was Morsi? How did the Brotherhood deal with Egyptology? You’d think that they might have issues with the discipline for all the reasons you were talking about just now — especially its secular subtext or just, text? And which deploys the old gods against God or whatever…

SI: There wasn’t a backlash during the Morsi years. It’s odd. I mean, they had no special interest in it, unlike now, but no bias against it. You might have thought the Brotherhood would have had a special interest in Egypt’s Islamic past — that they would have shifted funding to Islamic antiquities, since there’s an abundance of those, as well. But no. It seemed like they just didn’t care. Though to be fair, they had a lot on their plate at the time…

NA: What is the national mood when it comes to Egyptology today?

SI: What’s really gratifying now, several years after the revolution, is that there’s been a surge in local interest in antiquities. More Egyptians are becoming genuinely interested in their history. It’s as if they suddenly realized that the past matters! These past few months I’ve watched Egyptian tourists come to Luxor and they say, Oh my God, we didn’t realize we had these amazing things. The Egyptians are trying to understand what astonishing people they’ve always been. It might even grow into a real understanding and appreciation of heritage. That’s one of the best things that could happen, because there’s been a disconnect. This interest could link contemporary Egypt in a coherent chain to its own past, and strengthen the country in ways we’re only beginning to imagine.

NA: Why do you think this is happening?

SI: It’s a middle class thing, I think. The wealthy will still go abroad. I have wealthy students who’ve been to the Louvre and the British Museum but have never seen any of the Egyptian sites! Of course when I meet a student who hasn’t been to the Egyptian Museum or the pyramids I drag them there immediately. At any rate, the government is promoting local tourism now. There are all kinds of deals. There’s also more television programs in Arabic — you know, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic — which sensitize people to heritage in general. And I suppose the events of the uprising also highlighted those issues, as well. At any rate, it’s a fabulous development.

NA: I was recently reading about the famous mummy unwrapping parties of Victorian times, which were part of a larger phenomenon of Egyptomania that eventually seeped into literature, visual arts, architecture, politics, and so on. The fascination people had! And continue to have…

SA: Completely. Of course, we have much gentler ways of unwrapping these days, by doing CT scans.

NA: What would one actually see, if one were to unwrap a mummy?

SI: A body! Modern CT machines can pass through each different layer of bandages, undressing the mummy a little at a time, noting amulets, linen packages, and what have you, till you get to the body. And if you want to keep going, you can see through the flesh down to the bone.

NA: Like a striptease. The least sexy striptease imaginable… But this is sort of a game-changer, no? I was reading about that Spanish company Factum Arte, who are working to prepare 3D facsimiles of iconic Egyptological sites, like the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb. A recent New Yorker piece on their work referred to their eerily precise scans as “hypnotically detailed.”

SI: You know I was one of Factum Arte’s Egyptologists eleven years ago — I have a long history with them. One of my former students is in charge of doing the scanning for them — I’m so proud of her! I think if Factum Arte’s technology can be broadly integrated into heritage practices, it could change everything. Don’t forget that a lot of these tombs will be sealed off eventually — the human presence is endangering them. Look at Lascaux or Alta Mira, both of which are closed off now. Visitors can engage with facsimiles. I’ve heard of a new program that allows you to take a picture of something in a museum, bring it to a 3D printer, and make you a copy! Not sure how good it is, yet, but…

NA: Your own private animal mummy!

SI: Coming soon…

NA: So could these new technologies finally resolve the postcolonial debates about heritage and cultural patrimony? If the British Museum could print very good facsimiles of the Elgin Marbles, couldn’t they just get it over with already and send the originals back to Athens?

SI: Well, the question is, do we really need them back? I mean obviously people want them for nationalistic purposes, but you can place facsimiles in their original contexts — temples or tombs and so on. Sometimes, given the kind of world we live in, I think it might be better to spread everybody’s cultural heritage around. With our Egyptian antiquities, in any case, you can make the case that these objects have been our best ambassadors, inspiring people to come here as tourists. Or even to devote their lives to studying them… [Laughs]

NA: Okay… but isn’t there anything you’d really like to see come back to Egypt?

SI: Well, I wouldn’t mind Nefertiti. [Laughs]

NA: How did you come to devote your life to ancient Egypt? Is there a primal scene, a moment that set you on the path to becoming a leading Egyptologist? From Pakistan, no less.

SI: I am the leading Egyptologist from Pakistan. I say that with all modesty, because I am the only Egyptologist from Pakistan. I’m an anomaly. It started with my parents. When I was seven I fell in love with the Minoans. I’d read about Theseus and the Minotaur in a book of ancient Greek tales, and I was very taken by them. Then, for my eighth birthday, I got a Time-Life book on ancient Egypt. I was mesmerized. I still liked the Minoans, but the Egyptians really took hold of my imagination.

NA: And then?

SI: My father was got a job at the World Bank in Washington DC and he said, Where do you want to go, on the way to America — Greece or Egypt? Of course I said, Egypt!

NA: How old were you?

SI: I was nine and a half. Or nine and three quarters, to be exact. So we went to the pyramids and my father and I went inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu. I remember the smell as we entered the grand gallery. No matter how many times I’ve gone since, all those images are superseded in my brain by my nine-year-old memory. It smelled of disinfectant. It’s slightly creepy, and then suddenly the gallery opens up and there’s this extraordinary, awesome, soaring shaft and this big room with this big sarcophagus and we’re in the middle of a pyramid! A great king used to be buried here! It’s one of the most magical experiences. It still gives me shivers.

NA: Did you go to the Egyptian Museum on that trip?

SI: Yes we did. That’s where I met my best friends.

NA: Your best friends?

SI: I was going around the museum with my mouth hanging open and I almost bumped into these statues of a man and a woman. They didn’t have a glass case around them at the time, though there was a balustrade. Anyway he was painted reddish and she was painted whitish. I was in shock. In my mind, they were real ancient Egyptians who were still alive, and I apologized for almost running them down. I know! My mother was laughing. That was the moment that sealed my fate. I realized that this was where I wanted to be. This is who I want to be with.

NA: Who were the red and white figures?

SI: They are called Rahotep and Nofret and they’re from Meydum. He was probably the son of King Sneferu and she was not royal but elite. They’re just fantastic. They have these inlaid eyes that shine and look back at you, as if you’re sitting across from each other at a dinner party. They’re behind glass now, but they’re still my favorite people in the world.

NA: And then?

SI: [Laughs] Well, then there was Tutankhamun, upstairs. My parents told me he had been nine and a half when he became King and I was nine and three quarters and I thought we could have been best friends. He had this little chair and sandals and underwear from when he was a little boy. I mean, these are real people. They had lives and good things and bad things about them — there’s something so intimate about studying the ancient Egyptians.

NA: So then you studied Egyptology at university?

SI: Then I applied to colleges. I was interested in Bryn Mawr because they had a very good archaeological program. So I went, and my parents said, What will you major in? I said Egyptology and that’s when they said, No, no, no! We didn’t mean it. Can’t you be a doctor or a lawyer or study economics or something? My father kept saying, You’re Pakistani, you’ll have to be better than anyone else. No one will help you.

NA: You seem to have done all right for yourself! You did your graduate work at Cambridge in the UK, right? What was your dissertation about?

SI: Well, the title of my dissertation was, “Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt.”

NA: No! [Laughs] Although come to think of it, you did seem extra gleeful — and perhaps disturbingly knowledgeable — in one of your YouTube videos. The one where you demonstrate how to disembowel a sheep…?

SI: Oh yes. I mean, if all else fails, I’ll always have butchery. Or I guess I could work in a funeral home.

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NA: Speaking of which, would you want to be mummified, yourself?

SI: Not particularly, although some of my students have graciously offered to do it for me. But if I were to be mummified, I would want a nice funerary stele, and I’d like to go down with my teddy bear, my stuffed bunny rabbit, lots of things to read, and possibly a good chunk of jewelry.

NA: When you say “stuffed bunny rabbit,” are you referring to a bunny mummy? You are the queen of the animal mummies, after all. I love that plaque in the Egyptian Museum — The Animal Mummies Would Like to Thank […] Salima Ikram.

SI: Not just me!

NA: But it’s fair to say that you have a special place in their hearts. Aren’t you a pioneering figure in animal-mummy studies?

SI: Well, I kind of had the field to myself. The last time anyone paid serious attention to animal mummies was 1902! So I guess you could say that I have lavished attention on them.

NA: Didn’t you also launch an international adoption agency for animal mummies?

SI: [Laughs] Yes. I mean, it was a fundraising and awareness campaign. Elementary school classes from all over the world adopted mummies.

NA: How did it work?

SI: When someone adopted one of our friends, we would send a certificate with a picture of their mummy and information about it. And a thank you card! The students got to learn about Egypt and death and mummification, and we used the money on conservation and study.

NA: So it’s like adopting penguins. Or impoverished children. But different, too. Do you think the ancient Egyptians had more respect for animals than we do now?

SI: That’s impossible to say, I think. I mean, look at the way some Americans treat their pets — the pooch is so spoiled. And the cat! Don’t get me started about the cat. The Egyptians were similar, to an extent, but they were also pragmatic people.

NA: What were animal mummies used for? Did they have a religious significance?

SI: Yes. For example, dogs often served as votive offerings. Instead of lighting a candle at a church, you would offer a dog mummy. Not just dogs. But this was typical of a particular moment in Egyptian history — say, 600 BC to around 200, 300 AD, into the Roman period — when common people had greater access to the divine and there was a sort of democratization of religion. There was greater intimacy between humans and gods, and animals acted as intermediaries between the two. This was also the time that the gods took on the forms of animals. It was a way of connecting the two worlds.

NA: Do you like live animals? Did you have pets growing up?

SI: I love looking at live animals. I had a pet snake in my youth …

NA: A snake!

SI: It was in college. I kept saying I would like to have a snake as a pet, and, I think during my sophomore year, my friend Ken said I have a present for you. He handed me this empty Tropicana juice bottle with a little mesh top and there was this snake inside. It was an Eastern Ribbon Garter snake. I named her Djet after the hieroglyph of a snake, meaning eternity, and my mother suggested Adolpha, after a snake in a Cary Grant film. She was so adorable; she had two red stripes along her side. She used to come with me to class — I would wrap her around my wrist and we would go to Greek Vase Painting.

NA: Would you say that snakes are your favorite animal?

SI: One of them! The other animal I really, really love is the elephant. I’m a big fan. During my senior year, on May Day, a friend and I hired a young elephant from New Jersey and rode into the parade on its back. It was as if I were at home, back in Pakistan…

NA: This was all at Bryn Mawr?

SI: Yeah. We were all a bit mad. Oh! I very much like crocodiles. As you might have noticed from my flat, I have a slight crocodile fetish. Baboons and monkeys of all kinds are also fascinating because they’re so close to humans, and yet at the same time they’re not. I found a baboon finger in the Valley of the Kings recently. I’ve found parts of another baboon since, so I think there might be more baboons buried in the Valley of the Kings yet to be found. I am thrilled! I think animals are extraordinary creatures.

NA: Are there snake mummies?

SI: Oh yes. I have to tell you about one of the nicest things that happened this year, at the end of the season. I was working with my Spanish colleagues in Luxor — this is the Proyecto Djehuty, directed by José Galán. It’s this huge complex of tombs from earlier periods that were repurposed in the Ptolemaic era. And there are all these different kinds of animals — raptors and other birds of prey, ibises. And among them were fifty-six gorgeous little snakes! It was like Christmas morning. They were wrapped in these cute egg-shaped bundles, ready to be hatched out and born again — forever.

NA: Did you name them all? I’ve heard rumors that you name your mummies?

SI: [Laughs] You know, if I were a good scientist I would follow protocol and give everything a number… but I am numerically dyslexic. Plus… I find the idea of giving the ancient Egyptians names like MUMMY 722A very dehumanizing — or shall we say, de-animalizing! I do name a lot of my animals. Recently I found a very well-preserved ibis mummy. I called him Handsome Herman.

NA: Do you find ancient Egypt more interesting than contemporary Egypt?

SI: [Laughs] A friend of mine always says, You think you live in the Bronze Age. I guess it’s because I spend so much time with the ancients. Eating and breathing and being with them. But I like contemporary Egypt, too.

NA: You don’t sound entirely convincing.

SI: Well, maybe I like rural Egypt more than urban Egypt? But I do like modern Egypt. I like most of post-Pharaonic Egypt. Although I have to admit — I do regret monotheism.

NA: [Laughs] That’s a lot to regret.

SI: I can see how it might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it hasn’t really worked out, has it? It’s vastly more destructive than the alternatives —polytheism or what-have-you. It’s more conducive to wars…

NA: If you could go back to any historical period, when would it be? Who would you be?

SI: [Laughs] I know exactly where I would go. The Old Kingdom, circa 2500 BC. I would either like to be a fly on the wall or a member of the elite. Let’s be honest, being a peasant would be tough.

NA: What would your life be like?

SI: If I were an elite woman in the Old Kingdom, I would be looked after, the food would be good, the air would be good. I could probably read and write to some extent and interact with the leading minds of my time. I could see how the pyramids were built! And finally learn how many chambers were built into Khufu’s pyramid. Of course, I might die young, in childbirth.

NA: Would you rather be a man? Back then, I mean?

SI: I would have no problem being a man. Or even a sacred animal, as long as it’s a very large and attractive sacred animal. But then again — ideally? I’d be a fly on the wall. I could see everything.

NA: Why do you think people love the ancient Egyptians so much?

SI: You know, that’s a hard one. You can try to be rational about it and talk about the aesthetic appeal of the monumental architecture, the complicated religious belief system, and so on. But for some of us, it’s just a chemical thing. It’s like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Titania falls in love with Bottom, with his ass’s head. It’s powerful and compelling and inexplicable. There’s the mystery, the sense of eternity. I mean, I’m standing right now in front of the Colossi of Memnon and all of the tombs of Thebes are lit up and I feel that my heart and belly are connected to all of this.

NA: That’s amazing. Are there — speaking of mysteries — are there things that keep you up at night, as an Egyptologist? Things you’re dying to know?

SI: Well, I don’t sleep much, generally, so nothing really keeps me up. Or everything does? Anyway, one of the things that very much interests me is the question of how literally we should take what we see depicted on tomb walls. We rely on these depictions so much when we go about reconstructing how people went about living their lives. But what if they’re examples of a style or convention that we don’t know to recognize?

NA: What if these are idealized or exalted images of life?

SI: Exactly.

NA: How would you even know? So wait, do you ever think about how people will look back on this period that we’re living through? How we will be remembered by the future Egyptologists or the robo-anthropologists or whomever — will they totally misinterpret our visual record?

SI: I think about it a lot. I worry about the digitization of culture — as a historian, I’m concerned about the lack of material history. Our records, visual and otherwise, all of our letters, our photographs, they’re all in digital space now. I fear that the main thing we will remembered for is our plastic bags.

NA: Oof.

SI. Exactly. Future anthropologists will distinguish between the different types of these People of the Bags — one-handled bag people and the two-handled; the people of the bags with writing on them; the flimsy bag people, and so on. What’ll be left of our entire culture is plastic.

Youssef Rakha

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Youssef Rakha, from The Cairo Project (cai14.com)

The writer Youssef Rakha is the only child of a former Marxist lawyer and a translator. Depending on the circle in which you ask about him, he is referred to as a novelist, poet, journalist, literary critic, photographer, husband, or father of three. You might even hear him mentioned in the same sentence as Roberto Bolaño. Rakha’s novels—three so far—are intricate and ambitious, often pushing the boundaries of language and form, and have been nominated for numerous awards, including the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. He is also the author of six other books, including a collection of short stories, a volume of poems, and two travelogues. The focus of Rakha’s life and work is his city, Cairo.

That city is also the core concern of May al-Ibrashy, a historian-conservator-professor and the director of Megawra, a nonprofit organization concerned with cultural heritage and the urban environment. Al-Ibrashy, whose organization is headquartered in the historic district of Al-Khalifa, in an unfinished mosque built in the 1920s, has worked on the restoration of some of the city’s most significant monuments. Among much else that she does, she runs a school for children of the neighborhood, and works with refugees.

As practitioners in and of the city, al-Ibrashy and Rakha have known each other for years. They had this conversation over several afternoons at Megawra, on a wooden bench down an alley.

— Yasmine El Rashidi

Youssef Rakha: The question I was thinking of, what I wanted to start with, is how do you feel, or perceive, being in Cairo, as opposed to other possible urban environments, and especially at this moment in time — historically, with all we’ve been through.

May al-Ibrashy: [Laughs] You know, I used to have a very ready answer to that question, until it became — and I mean the whole existence in Egypt in general — overwhelmed by the political. I used to have clear answers about the difficulty of being in Cairo and what is fun about it and how it’s tiring, how it’s invigorating; and then just the potential of being in a city like Cairo, or being a person like me in the city of Cairo, which I think is huge; and most importantly the connection with the historic city, which is what I work in and on and what is of interest to me, and how I can’t imagine myself being in another context professionally. But the issue now for me with this city, with being here, is that politically, socially, economically, even, there is this overwhelming feeling of… a heaviness… a heaviness that is pervasive, which makes you sort of not see the other things.

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Youssef Rakha, from The Cairo Project (cai14.com)

YR: You are saying this started in 2011?

MI: No, not in 2011, in 2013 I would say. [Laughs]

YR: But I mean post event

MI: Yes, I remember in December 2010 — there is this Lebanese anthropologist who lives in Australia, and he talked about how the Middle East in general is in a state of stuckness and how he could not imagine a way of getting out of that state of being stuck, and I remember all through 2011 remembering this guy and thinking, You were wrong! You were so wrong! And now I keep remembering him again and thinking, You were so right! [Lights a cigarette] And I think the issue with Cairo right now… does this bother you? [Gestures to the smoke]

YR: No, no.

MI: The issue is that there is a state of disconnect, in that you get on with everything that you are supposed to get on with, but with a clear understanding that this is all ephemeral.

YR: Ephemeral?

MI: Yes, I mean, the sense that it might stop at any moment, as it did, and that, in the end, it doesn’t really matter if you look at the bigger picture, which is not Egypt… What has happened now to me, after 2011, is that I cannot see Cairo out of the context of Egypt, and now I can’t see what is happening in Egypt out of context of the globe — which is the fall of capitalism in the near future [laughs], and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, of the whole capitalist system. 

YR: I think what is falling is liberalism, which will take capitalism with it. 

MI: But actually I think it’s capitalism. [Laughs]

YR: But there is a difference?

MI: I understand the difference, and I think it’s capitalism.

YR: Okay.

MI: I was in India recently, and Indian cities are extremely difficult, more difficult than Egyptian cities, I think, but the difference — and maybe it’s because I’m an outsider, or because I talk to people, but I felt that this is how they see the country — is that the country is moving. They might disagree with it, but it’s moving.

YR: You don’t feel like we’re moving here?

MI: No, there is no momentum taking things in a certain focused direction, unless it’s the global direction, which you can’t really control. So, for me, I find myself wondering, what is it that I’m doing in the city, when nothing is really in your control? [Long pause] I should say, though, that I never had any pretense of controlling or leading what was happening. Or only very short-lived experiences of that.

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Youssef Rakha, from The Cairo Project (cai14.com)

YR: We’re talking 2011 here?

MI: Yes.

YR: Were you “involved” from the beginning?

MI: Not from the beginning, no. I remember the day when planes flew by. I think it was that first Saturday, the twenty-ninth? I had been working in the cemetery those first few days — we were working on a conservation project — and that day, the twenty-ninth, I was driving home and those F-16s flew by, and I remember thinking, What is happening? After that I went to the square.

YR: Do you remember that time, or even specific feelings or moments from that time?

MI: There are moments that are very clear in my mind, especially during the early days. But almost all of them are ontological — I mean, they are more about who I am as a human being than anything else, or things I was thinking about. A lot of them relate to my understanding of time. I was still working in conservation then, which obviously requires you to deal a lot with history. What’s interesting to me now, thinking back, is that during those days it felt like we were living through a historic moment. There were a lot of references to the past and to the future — what we were going to do, how we were going to be. Those moments were very vivid, and they color how I see myself and my profession to this day. 

YR: Can you describe one of them? 

MI: Well, there were times when I felt very vividly a sense of right now physically being in this place, and this place being something totally different from what it had always been before. I remember that there was no pollution in the square. There were no cars! But it didn’t just feel different on the ground — it was the air that you breathe, the sun that you see. It was a clear moment of now. And then almost the opposite feeling the first time I experienced tear gas: So this is what it feels not to be able to breathe. Is this what death feels like? I mean, it wasn’t real death, but, you know…

YR: Of course. It’s a form of torture.

MI: I was very naive and stupid and very slow to get all the other things that were going on. Most of the time I was like, what the fuck? But there was always a sense of responsibility. I was aware that my body is of a certain volume, which could fill a space. So if you need a certain number of those volumes to fill a square… mine was one of the volumes that could be used. So that’s what I did. I rarely talked to people. I just sat there. I drew a lot.

YR: You drew? 

MI: Yeah. I just sat in the square and drew whatever was happening around me.

YR: It’s interesting that for me, as a writer, an observer, a journalist, it’s maybe the opposite, how I feel being here right now — in that I feel like I have a tremendous privilege in Cairo now and forget whether things are moving or not. Being here, you can see things through a different prism. You can have a complete critique of liberalism; you can see democracy’s discontent. Whereas if you were in London, there’s no way you could see it.

MI: Why? You don’t think they have that veneer of privilege one finds elsewhere in the western world?

YR: I have a veneer of privilege here, I think. You see the global order breaking down from here. The same issues that you are dealing with in London — positions you would defend in London in terms of freedom or justice or cultural diversity — in regard to Islam, say, when these arguments are transplanted here, it’s not the same. And having to see both sides is a tremendous privilege. It allows you to be —

MI: To be independent?

YR: As a writer, the whole point is not to let your writing become propaganda. And by propaganda I don’t just mean obvious propaganda, but for you to genuinely chart your own path and be completely dispassionate.

MI: I agree. Among architects working here, there is a general frustration with the way we are required to deal with global discourse on issues of urbanism or heritage or the politics of whatever. In our discipline there’s a need to engage with both theory and methodology — to translate theory through process, in a way. But — and this is where it becomes tricky — I feel that we are necessarily more creative in developing these methodologies because of the context that we work in.

YR: You have to be.

MI: But this kind of methodological work is extremely time-consuming, and draining, when you’re dealing with a place as diversely complicated as Cairo. So you end up in a position where you have what you believe are more interesting, more useful methodologies, which point to the inadequacy of the standard global theories. But as soon as you start talking about that, you are accused of not knowing enough. If their theory isn’t working, it must be that your methodology isn’t right. But as soon as you say, for example, that Cairo poses a problem for the idea of participatory design, which is very big in the field and very problematic, you’re told to go study what happened in the 1990s or the 1970s. The default presumption is that you have nothing to say.

YR: Precisely. I don’t have this problem with my writing — the beauty of literature is that you don’t have to do this [laughs] — but when I try to express similar ideas in a nonfiction context, this is precisely the problem. If you are rethinking democracy then you’re obviously just antidemocratic; it couldn’t be that democracy isn’t working. 

MI: What do you know about democracy?

YR: So then did the revolution change your relationship to architecture? Megawra opened later in 2011, correct?

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Youssef Rakha, from The Cairo Project (cai14.com)

MI: Well, I’d been teaching full-time for some years before then, and by 2010 I was generally unsure about what I was doing in my life. And it occurred to me that I would like to do something to start to address the gaps that I felt existed in architectural education. This was where the idea for Megawra came from, although it wasn’t until the revolution that everything sort of came together suddenly. And through Megawra, I was able to engage with the historic city again, which I hadn’t really been able to do for some years. 

YR: Why? What was holding you back?

MI: I think because my engagement had mostly been through conservation, and that approach, of focusing purely on heritage buildings without truly engaging with the city, was not working. It might be gratifying on a personal level but it’s not necessarily useful or impactful in the long run. You conserve a building, it’s fine for five to ten years… then the city takes over again and we’re back to square one. But after the revolution I had a sense that things could move forward in place — that architecture and conservation might be able to makes things better in the moment.

YR: It sounds like more of an existential kind of approach: bettering things without charging your actions with the expectations of the bigger movement.

MI: Do you think they ought to be charged? 

YR: No. Professionally? No, I don’t think so. That’s where the savior complex comes in. 

MI: Although to get back to this idea of charging… In my opinion — and tell me if you agree — your first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, is kind of charged. Which comes with baggage…

YR: Yes, I agree, of course. Although you could say that its baggage is that it is charged with hope. It’s definitely more hopeful than my second and third books. 

Youssef Rakha, from The Cairo Project (cai14.com)

MI: I suppose that any book could be said to be charged; what I mean is a work that is consciously engaged with how we see ourselves as a community. 

YR: It’s tricky. It still needs to be filtered through the individual, I think, if you’re to avoid falling into all kinds of discourses that are not independent.

MI: Well, from my perspective as a reader, sometimes a book speaks to you in a voice that is very clearly its own. That’s basically what happened for me with your first novel. And when that happens, it doesn’t really matter what it says, you get a kind of magical experience. I don’t mean that in a romantic way. It’s just that — you know how some people read to know? I don’t. I never read to know. [Laughs]

YR: I wouldn’t have wanted you to.

MI: Have you read this horrible book about Bombay? It’s called Shantaram, and it’s awful, but you can’t stop reading it. It’s about an Australian guy who goes to India and gets immersed in the under-life in Bombay: If it’s Orientalist, racist, fetishistic, et cetera, it is in this book. And yet it’s an amazing read. I had just been in Bombay when I read it, and I cannot stop making that book color the way I think about that city.

YR: But why is that bad? What specifically is wrong with “Orientalizing” and “fetishizing” the city? [Laughs]

MI: It’s flattening! 

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Youssef Rakha, from The Cairo Project (cai14.com)

YR: It takes away complexity?

MI: Of course. I mean, you always have to simplify to a degree, right? It’s inevitable, whether it’s a design or a novel. 

YR: But why is it problematic for you?

MI: I think it’s about the degree. When I say “flatten,” I mean to such a degree that it loses individual parts that are necessary. It’s an act of your distillation, as opposed to a decision on one narrative. 

YR: So then what’s the difference between a judgment and a value judgment? 

MI: A judgment would be saying that the book is ridiculous; a value judgment is saying that a book about Bombay written by an Australian Orientalist can only be so good anyway. So a value judgment involves a predetermined idea about something. For example: I have a problem with the hijab, because I have an issue with Islam.

YR: I think that any judgment — even with all the goodwill in the world — even in its fairest, most objective form, still has yourself in it. I keep thinking about the kind of decisions you have to make as a writer — how you engage with history, in choosing what to tell and what not to tell. Those are the biggest challenges I’ve had to face.

MI: The wider issue is simply understanding who I am and acknowledging that you may not want to make value judgments, but there are judgments and value judgments and the devil lies in between. And maybe admitting the sort of frailty in the system is important.

YR: Are you constantly aware of the possibility that you are fetishizing or Orientalizing? 

MI: Are you aware the way you want to be aware all the time? I don’t think it’s possible.

YR: I agree. I think some of the activist discourse in the Egyptian revolution was extremely imperialistic in this sense, that it refused to admit any possibility of failure or frailty. It lacked the humility to step back.

MI: I think that was true for some people and not others. 

YR: What would you say made the difference? Does it depend on education? 

MI: Not education. You can become educated to a point that you have to start unlearning. It’s a cliché, but a little knowledge is much worse than no knowledge at all. 

YR: Yes, I believe that a little education could be a problem, although for some people in certain contexts it works. [Laughs] In any case, I remember reading an article about demonstrations that noted that there are always opponents to demonstrations —

MI: Counterdemonstrators?

YR: Yes, but even more, those who stay home. But the journalist and human rights worker who wrote the piece was totally convinced that demonstrations are always right, always the best for people. I don’t really think that there’s such a thing as knowing what is better for other people.

MI: This is why democracy isn’t working — there’s a flaw in logic here.

YR: I think democracy is a different case.

MI: Not really. It’s about the rule of the majority.

YR: In theory, but not in practice, I don’t think, because of the ways that the rule of the majority is constituted in different societies.

MI: Sure. I guess I think the important thing is the planet is collapsing because of us, and we as a human race are fighting over silly things instead of confronting that. 

YR: Part of what it means to be a writer or an artist or an architect — somebody who is at least a little outside — is that you have the capacity to get away from the details a little. You can step back and see the panoramic view. One of the things that drove me completely crazy during those years was the amount of time and effort that we spent on insignificant details. 

MI: Like what? 

YR: Like whether Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was Muslim Brotherhood or not. People would spend days arguing about this. Friendships collapsed over it. Things were very irritating in that sense. I thought it was a bit stupid, to lose the ability to have a conversation because you are too busy changing the world. People behaved as if they were little gods forging reality…

MI: I think what it comes down to, what those years did to us as individuals, is not just about whether the effort was effective. It’s also about what it has done to you as a human being.

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Youssef Rakha, from The Cairo Project (cai14.com)

YR: I think it’s only about what it has done to you as a human being.

MI: Okay. So let’s say that you were faster at seeing this than others. And you distanced yourself accordingly. But why do you think that was?

YR: I don’t know. It just became obvious to me. When the revolutionary youth, “the pure ones,” led by Alaa Abd El Fattah, went to join the Salafi Hazemoun demonstration at the Ministry of Defense, and it ended with the locals slaughtering the people on the streets — well, what the fuck were you going there to do? It was bound to end like that.

MI: Was that the boy who died from being hit by stones?

YR: I don’t think so? This was in July 2011. That was it for me, when I realized that it wasn’t really about anything that I thought; it was about demonstrating, even if these demonstrations were completely the opposite of what you were fighting for. There was a whole group of young people who were prepared to blindly follow the leader — a fanatical liar whose presence was an indicator that we were completely sick as a society. Why should we as seculars and liberals support this? Just because they are demonstrating? 

MI: You don’t think there was an element of idealism in that? Or just fetishizing demonstrations for their own sake?

YR: I think it was about fetishizing demonstrations. It wasn’t really about anything, which is a big part of why nothing could’ve come out of it. I was making fun of it at the time, but later on it became very clear to me, this idea that there are objective conditions for a revolution to be a revolution as opposed to a series of protests or whatever. In as much as the event was about young people claiming public space and doing things that they had been prevented from doing, then it was wonderful… But it could only go so far and last so long. The general public won’t accept it indefinitely. But this was the moment for me when the revolution ended, when people were going to go support Hazemoun and being killed on the streets. Obviously, I didn’t want to be part of this. 

MI: I think I know the moment, and it was a difficult moment for me for different reasons. What struck me that day was that guy dying — in my mind, it was the first time I heard of an incident where people killed someone. I forgot the name of the guy, but until very recently I remembered his face. What I remember was this stone thrown from the roof of a building — so the building itself was the weapon, gravity —

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Youssef Rakha, from The Cairo Project (cai14.com)

YR: The city was the weapon. But I am still thinking about this question of yours. Why did I see this so early? I think it’s partly that I’m a very impatient person, and I suffer from anxiety. I don’t really wait on things. But it might also be the fact that I was at the point in my life where I needed evidence that this was going somewhere. People were willing to die so that Hazem Abu Ismail can run for president? I just couldn’t deal with that.

MI: Well, this idea of fetishizing demonstrations, the slogans, how people engaged in things… They’re all things that could be interesting to really think about now that —

YR: Now that we’re cured.

MI: I don’t think I’m cured. I don’t think I even want to talk about this anymore. [Laughs]

YR: Really? 

MI: Yeah. [Laughs] If you’re impatient, I’m a little bit pragmatic, so now that I see that nothing is going to change in my lifetime, I don’t really care. [Laughs] It does what it does, and it’s the responsibility of others.

YR: There was this idea that was very current at the time of the revolution, that maybe we’ll suffer now but in ten years it’s going to be better — that you can’t see it now, but ten years from now… For me this was a disgusting form of self-delusion. It’s exactly the same logic as not questioning certain things because God tells you not to. The revolution was like an Abrahamic deity, who we all had to bow to and follow. 

MI: I think you are very right. My father — and mind you, I have serious ideological problems with him — but I think he is a reasonable man. And he has become more and more pro-regime and anti-revolution, and part of it is that I think he felt oppressed during that period, and it’s all coming out now. He can talk about it. He says that if he wants to say those things, he should be able to talk about them…

YR: Yeah. That was the paradox of the whole thing — it was a liberal-democratic revolution, which, I mean, is a contradiction in terms. I mean, you’re supposed to be able to have multiple opinions in a liberal democracy…

MI: But it’s a revolution! [Laughs]

YR: So how was that going to work?

MI: This was discussed, and nothing came out of these discussions. There were all these discussions about whether this or that action was revolutionary or reformist.

YR: I remember Amr Ezzat talking as if “reform” (eslahi) was a dirty word. And post-2011, “enlightened” (tanwiri) became an insult. It’s unbelievable — so much of the Islamists’ work was being done for them. I couldn’t help but think of the Iranian revolution. There must have been a similar moment in Iran, circa ’78/’79, where people acted the same way, and it ended up the way it ended up.

MI: It’s funny, I was just thinking about that period. I mean, it’s all about what happens after, right? And what they become. A lot of the people who led the revolution in 2011 are the children of ’78/’79. But we are a bit older. 

YR: I think that helps.

MI: I think it helps, but for me there has always been this cloud of guilt associated with our in-betweenness. 

YR: I’ve never felt such guilt.

MI: I had it, and I had it because of what I thought I was doing with my life, and how I thought I was engaging, because I thought I was doing something good, but it was something good that was made after a clear decision… But you have to engage with the politics. I mean, I am not a political animal, but I am aware of politics, and I made the decision not to be engaged. And, I mean, it’s a very ignorant thing to do. 

YR: I don’t know if it’s ignorant. I would say that it was my decision, too, and still is — except for those few months in 2011. But choosing not to be engaged is still a political decision! 

MI: Yes, of course. All I am saying is that there was a time when I believed that I could practice my profession without thinking about politics, but of course I no longer believe that. That’s why I stopped working in conservation — I couldn’t just decide to work on a building I was interested in, engage with that building for two or three years, make it nice and pretty and whole again, and just leave. That was the job, and it stopped working for me. Now I do work that involves interesting buildings in the historic city, but it’s a different job. [Laughs] It has a different frame, a different context. 

YR: You decided to engage with certain things in a different way.

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Youssef Rakha, from The Cairo Project (cai14.com)

MI: Yes, to think about the politics of heritage, to see it as a vehicle for improving people’s lives and try to get them to see that, so they can claim ownership of their heritage and take care of it. It’s a tall order not necessarily achievable in that linear manner but worth working toward… And as I say that, I wonder how those few months when you made a different political decision, as you say, impacted your work — what effect that period of engagement and disillusionment had on your writing.

YR: Well, the second book, which I started right before the revolution, was inspired by a love affair. And then it also became about the revolution. But that love affair ended up being a way to get into the literary community here. I mean, I was part of that community, and it made me think about how these people function and how different I was, coming from the provinces as opposed to be being born in the city, and different thoughts around that. And they were not happy thoughts. [Laughs]

MI: Where were you born, again?

YR: Dokki.

MI: So you mean metaphorically, in terms of the literary community—

YR: —then when the revolution happened, I started incorporating it into the book, and then the whole book became about the revolution. But perspective-wise, it still included what was happening in my life and why it was failing, which became the lead-in to the revolution and that moment of engagement.

MI: As an architect and as a reader — as someone for whom fiction really shapes my perspectives, sometimes subconsciously — I’d like to know a bit more about how the story of the city gets told… I keep thinking of that film, Synecdoche, New York. Have you seen it? 

YR: No.

MI: It’s about a playwright who is trying to stage a play about New York, and how he starts thinking that bits of New York have to be included in the set, and he keeps adding more and more because he feels like those bits have to become part of the set if he’s going to tell the whole story. It’s literally during the film that the set is being built.

So to go back to this question of what is distilled and what stays with you and how the story of the city is told — I feel like your books are stories of communities in the city.

YR: Well, I always start with a single person, an individual consciousness, whether it’s going to be the storyteller or not. The book that I am working on now is different, in that the story is being told by a son who experiences things through his mother’s consciousness — so then the city becomes something a lot smaller and a lot more limited but in no way less valid, you know? More subjective, maybe. But in any case, a city is… I couldn’t possibly deal with the whole city. Especially a city like Cairo. I mean, it becomes a rhythm thing. And also the more difficult part is that no matter how open-minded you think you are, it’s ultimately a question of place and position. And in the end, you are standing in a very small place and there are always other places that you’ll never be able to deal with. Which brings us back to the question of how not to Orientalize, in a way. I think the way to deal with that is not to pretend that you can see from the position of somebody else, but to look for what could be shared between your position and that of others, what you have in common. Which is the city. [Laughs] So I think it’s essential, this idea of telling the story of the city, which is telling the story of someone in the city. And the more specific and unique the person you’re telling the story through, ironically, the more convincing the story of the city is going to be. I mean, that’s the thing with fiction. You must have noticed as a reader — it’s not about communicating or transporting reality or a section of reality; it’s about doing something that suggests or evokes reality in a convincing way.

MI: So, I am going to ask you a question that might make you hate me… 

YR: Really?

MI: So you know how books are sometimes described as formulaic? And there’s a pleasure to be found in that — when you read children’s books, for example, there’s a kind of comfort in recognizing the underlying structure. With detective novels too — and I’ve found that I really love detective novels. When I don’t want to think, I enjoy the formulaic. So as a reader, I will select crime novels by city or country, moving from country to country. Anyway, this was something that I noticed I was doing subconsciously, so I started doing it purposefully, because I realized I liked it. And I think it’s related to formula.

YR: Why would that make me hate you? 

MI: Well, because formula in fiction has a pretty bad rep. And with everything we’ve been talking about, you know, the uniqueness of the singular voice, I think my question would be: How do you relate to formula, as a writer of fiction?

YR: Actually — I feel that I could have benefited from formulas more, if it had been part of my education. I’m not hostile to formula. Interesting anecdote: I really, really love Mustafa Ismail, the Qur’anic reciter.

MAI: The radio qari’? Really? He’s been dead for decades.

YR: I don’t listen to him as much anymore, but I really think he was a genius. Unbelievable. And I really like that tradition. The thing is that there are seven or ten accepted “readings” of the Qur’an, ways to read it correctly, and you’re supposed to stick to one set of rules when you read. You don’t switch. And I always thought, how can he do what he does? Then I paid attention, and I realized he doesn’t stick to one style. He actually breaks the rules. But he was very well established, and no one objected. And this is a confirmation for me that to get to a certain level of creativity, you have to break the rules. Which doesn’t mean you’re disrespecting tradition. But it does mean that you can’t just apply the formula — you have to go beyond it slightly. You have to have a conversation with formula. In my work, the formula is generally outside of the narrative, so for example, in my second book, The Crocodiles, where the main characters were writers, the formula I was talking to is the prose poem.

MI: But that’s more structure than formula. 

YR: At formula’s deepest level, you’re not usually aware of these things.

MI: The reason I ask this question, I guess, is that my field, architecture, is a field of outsiders. Or rather, the field is outside: It’s somewhere between art and science and technology. And we have our formulas too, right? And that got me thinking about whether it is even possible not to work with them. Because they do work, sometimes — certain books work because they’re formulaic.

YR: I think that even books that are not formulaic —

MI: Not just books — I am thinking of writers. Like that Japanese writer…

YR: Murakami?

MI: Yes! He’s formulaic. 

YR: Yeah. 

MI: He is very unexpected — surprising, but surprising in a very formulaic way. And he has developed a following because he is formulaic. When you read his books, it’s like going back to a familiar place, to a world that you like to spend time in, even while there’re differences between books. And I am wondering — maybe this is the part I thought might anger you — are you formulaic in that way? 

YR: My honest answer would be that I try not to be. As I was saying before, I get bored easily, and I am very impatient, so in order for a project to really consume me, it has to be something I haven’t done before. Or at least, I have to believe that it’s something that I haven’t done before. Having said that, when I look back through everything that I have done, there are ways that it’s always the same. I always end up telling the same story. I am trying to tell it in a very different way, but the same elements are there — the structure, the way things move. And you know, you’re right — it’s one thing to describe someone as formulaic, which has negative connotations, or could have. But I feel like even the best writers… A writer writes one book.

MI: They tell one story.

YR: They do variations on a single story. Of course, in the practice of doing writing, I try to do extremely different things as much as I can, but I also realize that underlying it is more or less the same story. So the interesting thing is how reality enters into it. So if I am telling the same story now that I was before the revolution, what’s different is that now the story has the revolution in it. And maybe it’s more convincing now. Maybe the story was waiting for the revolution to happen. 

MI: So is it a question of content or craft?

YR: Both. I don’t really think you can separate them — when you’re doing things with words, the content is there for the craft.

MI: I think craft fascinates me just because of the ritual element. And because it tends to have a bad rep — most creative people prefer “art” to “craft.” When we opened Megawra, my references were cultural spaces or art in the city. So I would go to these meetings with Townhouse or CIC (Contemporary Image Collective) and see how we could fit into that schema, but after a while I realized that we were doing other things. But if I were to start over today, knowing what I know now, rather than trying to fit architecture into an art context, I would try to rethink both from the perspective of craft. Which is interesting, then, how little it becomes about content. 

YR: I think that content is important to show that the substance is there…

MI: In our practice at Megawra, we often make use of art in very blasphemous ways. I will go through whole books and movies, some of them quite wonderful, just mining them for references to the City of the Dead.

YR: I mean, they’re artifacts — they’re there to be used. 

MI: Yes, exactly. So in a hundred years, people will look at your books as artifacts, as cultural products of their time, as supposed to the individual voice of Youssef Rakha.

YR: I am totally okay with that.