Wednesday, November 26,  2014

Life

Brooklyn, Egypt, and SpongeBob

BY Sherief Elkatsha

Until we cede the right of way, lay off the horn, allow pedestrian to cross, i.e. develop empathy, and restore some of the fellowship inherent in the baladi, baladi mantra, our future will be uncertain.  


“You're missing the revolution!” the voice boomed through the receiver from the thronged streets of Tahrir.  My heart ached.  It was January 27th 2011, and Brooklyn never felt so far from Cairo.  As hard as this past year has been for Egyptians at home, for expats like me it has been exhaustingly difficult to be away.  

 

To be removed was unbearable.  It was as if my Egyptian identity was in question, having not been there those first days; I needed to belong, bear witness, give voice, and get tear gassed with the rest of my friends and family.  

 

But instead we hunkered indoors, plugged into the media for updates, and racked up phone bills to check in, with anyone who would answer the phone.   I ‘slept’ with a laptop, radio, phone and television all within a meter of my head.  An ocean away, I tried hard to separate fact fiction, paranoia, euphoria, and rumors from family and friends.  

 Arriving last week I was taken aback by a poster in the airport with a quote from Barack Obama:  “We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people…”- After the year we've seen, I wondered what exactly he meant


Since 2009, I have been directing a documentary, Cairo Drive - about the art and philosophy of driving in Cairo. I wanted to capture the city from the perspective of its roads and the people behind the wheel, and had been travelling frequently back and forth between Egypt and America. After January 25th, like many, I feared everything I was working on was suddenly irrelevant. How could I tell the story of a city now that this game changer had entered stage left?  I needed to be in Egypt.

 

It seemed overnight, my New York life felt irrelevant. I was glued to media, and had no tolerance for life outside of Tahrir Square.  I was in no mood to see people, I didn't answer the phone, I was appalled by commercials, TV shows, shopping, ... These people didn’t care. It was nothing but a headline, a cover story they glanced at, or talked about over dinner.  But I couldn’t stop dwelling on it: I was in it.    

 

For those out of Egypt, we took any chance we had to be around fellow Arabs to stand in solidarity.  In New York we went to the UN and stood with fellow Arabs, in the snow, waving our Egyptian flags.  Familiar faces with familiar bags under their eyes.     

 

I started wearing a long Egyptian flag trailing off my backpack.  To and from the YMCA on 14th street, on the 2 or 3 train, with my need to brand myself as Egyptian, dangling off my North Face [popular brand of outdoor wear].  It might have looked dumb, but I didn’t care, I was proud.  In New York, on the 2 or 3 train, no one looked twice.  

 

On January 29th, at a Lauryn Hill concert in New Jersey, the flag caught the attention of a young woman who asked, head tilted to one side,  “Aaaw - Is that a flag you made for Lauryn?”  (In my head, ‘…miscommunication leads to complication.’) “No, it's the Egyptian flag.” Pause.  “Egypt, pyramids? “ “Yes.” Pause. “Aren't your people revolting right now?!” “Yes.”  “...and you’re here!”  “Yes.”  (pause of realization) “Well when you’re ready, baby, you jus' let me know, and we gonna hold that flag high – me and you, boo” - which we did, during a Bob Marley cover.  I knew then that I had to get home. 

 

I arrived in Cairo on February 12th, on the day after Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation.  I heard Omar Suleiman’s speech minutes before I got on the plane, and as soon as I got off I leapt onto the metro to Tahrir.   I plugged into the euphoria, walking the streets, talking to people, trying to make up for lost time.  I stayed until June, then went to NY to edit my film, and returned eight months later, to see how much or how little things had changed.  

 

On arrival I was taken aback by a poster in the airport with a quote from Barack Obama:  “We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people…”- After the year we've seen, I wondered what exactly he meant.   As a friend pointed out to me, “We did something for ourselves and our country – and now – we are proud, not for ourselves, but for the fact that the foreign community is proud of us!”     

 The t-shirt sellers were still around, but in between slogans and Egypt tees, you now have an influx of cartoon characters.  More specifically, SpongeBob  SquarePants has landed in Tahrir


In the marble temple of an airport (the 'work' of former presidential contender Ahmed Shafik), I was approached by an army of taxi drivers trying to take me anywhere.  “Taxi, ya basha, taxi,” said in hushed tones as I got within striking distance.  Tourism was clearly down, and everyone was trying to make a living.  

 

Hitting the streets, I noticed fewer flags and 'revolution/martyr' stickers around town but more billboards blaring nationalistic messages and more patriotic consumer branding, like the tissue boxes in red, black and white.  Tahrir was a dirt pit of memories, home to a few diehard campers.   

Downtown Cairo has become a souq like Attaba.  Vendors have spread, like a disease, away from Tahrir to the neighboring streets.  The vendor stands have bled off the sidewalks and into the traffic.  Pedestrians are forced to walk in the streets, while navigating piles of socks, soccer jerseys, and underwear for sale.  

 

The t-shirt sellers were still around, but in between slogans and Egypt tees, you now have an influx of cartoon characters.  More specifically, SpongeBob Square Pants has landed in Tahrir.  (Wikipedia: “SpongeBob is a childish, joyful, eccentric sea sponge who lives in a pineapple in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom)Why SpongeBob?  This animated, effeminate sea sponge?! Why isn’t he at least holding a Molotov cocktail? Or raising a fist?    

 

Like the vendors, the spray paint and tagging has spread all over the city; some of it good, most of it crap.  There seems to be no tagging code, of spraying over things, where to tag, where not.  It’s a free for all.  Anyone with a can of paint will do.  Stencils are the latest fashion…everywhere!  Martyrs, candidates, old icons…it doesn’t matter.  Just grab a stencil and go to town, which is exactly what people have done. 

 

Bookstores displayed recent releases celebrating our ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom.’  But are we ready to bind a living, unfolding history in a hardcover book? People are hesitant to talk about the current situation too definitively.  If a year ago we knew it all, now we know much less. People seem tired.  Poor infant democracy still cries through the night, demands constant attention; no one sleeps much.  

The traffic is worse. There were never many rules but even these are now ignored:  wrong way down one ways, reversing off bridges, double-parking, triple parking, gas shortages, lines for diesel… 


”Me first, and me only.”  Loud.  Our city has gotten louder than it’s ever been before

Last year we learned that people power can relieve our fears but our collective identity is still shifting. The ‘we’ of last year has turned into ‘me’.   For many, freedom means doing exactly what you want with no regard for others.  Voices are louder, arguments more animated. Tempers flare more quickly.  Entering and exiting the metro is like a wrestling match.  

 

The traffic is worse. There were never many rules but even these are now ignored:  wrong way down one ways, reversing off bridges, double-parking, triple parking, gas shortages, lines for diesel… 

”Me first, and me only.”  Loud.  Our city has gotten louder than it’s ever been before.  Or maybe it was always this loud – and we never heard it.

 

As I continue editing “Cairo Drive’, I see this past year as a long personal detour.  I now realize that what I documented before last January is still relevant and interesting, and that the revolution will be a part of it, as a chapter in our history but certainly not a closed book.   My fear of ‘missing it’ has gone, and instead I look forward.  But unless we recall that we are all in this together, and learn to act like functioning members of a community (as we proved to the world that we are) – life will be difficult.  Until we cede the right of way, lay off the horn, allow a pedestrian to cross, i.e. develop empathy, and restore some of the fellowship inherent in the baladi, baladi mantra, our future will be uncertain.  

 

And we were voting for a president, although we still lack a person or movement that truly captures our imagination or inspires us.  I went to the Egyptian Consulate in NYC early on the first day of expat voting, thinking there might be lines around the block. But it was relatively quiet, and reminiscent of any governmental office in downtown Cairo.  With my national ID card in hand I thought I could simply vote.  Instead, I needed my registration number, an access code, a printed ballot, and a photocopy of my ID and US license.  There were no ballots on hand, no access to a computer or printer. I was directed to a photocopy place five blocks away. ‘They will take care of you’ someone said, ‘they are Egyptian.’ Indeed, the shop-owners were from Minya and around a half dozen voters waited as they churned out ballots and the necessary paperwork. I filled in my ballot, went back to the consulate, and dropped it in the slot. It felt good…a little unsure, but good.  

 

The runoff was announced between Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik.  I was not allowed to vote here in Cairo, as my registration was in the NY consulate and it was too late to change.  This was just as well, because I felt the choice was between a rock and a hard place…and ultimately the “rock” won.  The people have spoken and our first democratically elected president is Mohammed Morsi.  So be it.  

  

The revolution continues and will keep rumbling on.  We are just at the beginning of a long road ahead.  Democracy, it turns out, is something to strive for. It’s a direction, a state of being - not an event.

Sherief Elkatsha is a documentary filmmaker living between Cairo, Egypt and Brooklyn, NY.  He has directed two feature films: 'Butts Out' (2006) and 'Egypt We Are Watching You' (2007).  He has also directed numerous short films, and was cinematographer for the Danish film, 'Cairo Garbage' (2008) He is currently editing his third feature, 'Cairo Drive.'  www.katsha.com



READ MORE BY:  Sherief Elkatsha

 

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