To be walking these streets…

Throughout my teens, my only experiences and memories of the Cairo city center had been of my grandmother taking us to the Groppi tea garden on Adly Street for ice cream and hot chocolate as kids, being dropped off and picked up by my father for dentist or ENT doctor’s appointments, and of marveling at its building facades and storefronts through the school-bus window as our driver maneuvered the huge tin box through its traffic en route to the other part of town. It was only towards the end of my university years that I started exploring and reacquainting myself with the city center. And I was immediately drawn to it, I found myself gravitating to it away from the drabness of my suburban neighborhood replete with its commercial centers and hideous malls, and the sameness of the regular watering holes or whatever “in” nightspots and their patrons. The city center presented itself as more colorful, vibrant, layered. 

Here the menadee (street valet) would smilingly greet me from afar blowing his whistle to point me to an empty parking slot, here I would walk a couple of blocks amid familiar street vendors to my yoga class on Talat Harb Street, here I would schedule my dentist and ENT doctor’s appointments back-to-back just to have another pretext to walk down the whole length of Emad elDeen Street, here I would go on expeditions to locate photo stores, and have the friendly lab technicians point me to film suppliers on Sherif Street, here I would stroll in Borsa through the night just as it was freshly turned into a pedestrian zone, here I would discover exhibitions and art shows, here I would have colder cheaper beer served by a more welcoming staff among more spirited people.

Here the city’s soul shone through the street harassment and noise and exhaust like the twinkling of an old tired man’s eyes through the blemishes and wrinkles on his face. And I embraced it all. I wanted to make it mine. Then came the revolution, and we owned the streets.

Here we marched, here we chanted, here we stood our ground.
Here we entered the square, here we collected stones, here we erected barricades. This corner is still haunted by the smell of burned flesh and blood, while that one over there still hisses with the noise of the mob and reeks of the rancid smell of their bodies and violating hands, and this sidewalk here still echoes with the banging on the rails.
Here we marched, here we chanted, here we stood our ground.
Here we delivered medical supplies, there food. Here we stood joking under hovering clouds of teargas. Here we ran, here we climbed to the other side, here we charged back. Here we debated, here we argued. Here we rolled our drums and blew our whistles and raised our voices.
Here we marched, here we chanted, here we stood our ground.
Here we raised our banners. Here we fought back assault. Here you got my back, here I raised you up as you fell. Here we rested.
Here I met you, here I met me, here we marched, here we chanted.

I have walked these streets like a bewildered tourist exploring an exotic destination, I have walked these streets like a savvy city dweller treading her turf, I have walked these streets like a fighter pacing in her ring, and now I walk these streets like an estranged outsider. And it is not for the memories of violence and ugliness – those would be cherished the way a proud warrior cherishes the battle scars. It is because these streets are now indifferent to the blood of the fallen, the pain of the scarred, the cries of the free. These streets, once abloom with the promise of rejuvenating change, are now shriveling back into their old decaying selves. These streets have rejected the promise of liberation for the confinement of walls, solidarity for a hostile suspecting vibe, diversity for repressive homogeneity, tolerance for aggression.

I have walked these streets, many times, many ways. One day I’ll walk them as victor, one day they will embrace me, one day they will be mine.

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