Covering the Sphinx in Wax or talking about Shaw and Mahfouz

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“You are Irish, I like George Bernard Shaw”

“Shaw. Wow…I don’t know much about him”

The disappointment on the face of the Egyptian man sitting beside me would have made the Sphinx cry.

It was just the truth. Shaw is one of the Irish writers I know least about. I saw ‘Saint Joan’ in the Abbey Theatre (I think) many years ago, and I don’t remember being very impressed. Maybe the ideologically red hot furnace in which my literary interests were forged in college- made me suspicious of a writer described as a Fabian.

Yep- to sort off quote Woody Allen- I was once a literary bigot, but a bigot for the far left. I like to think I’m better now though.

So I switched the conversation.

“I like Naguib Mahfouz.”

“Ah yes, Mahfouz a great hero here. In touch with the people, the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. You have read some of his books? “

He smiled when I told him that reading Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, in this city, over the past two months- has been one of the great literary experiences of my life.

The man was in his late 50s I think. And he had landed in the seat beside me, shuffling his newspaper loudly and obviously angling for a conversation.

The backdrop was somewhat depressing.

Just across the road the remaining tents of the revolutionary vanguard, hung languidly. There is a sense of despondency in Tahrir Square at the moment- a despondency that would drain anyone who has shared in the tumultuous history of this city over the past month. Numbers are down in the square, the elections trundle on, the revolutionaries wait until the anniversary of the revolution next month.

“I am optimistic, things will get better”.

Surprisingly the Egyptian man was upbeat despite the scene outside the coffee shop. Speaking in deliberate, but excellent English, he said he had been a lawyer, but I don’t think he has much work now.

“The Presidential elections are important in June. After that there will be a leader people voted for. Unlike all the other leaders like Mubarak and those before them, this new leader cannot make decisions just for themselves. They will have to listen to people.”

I mentioned the big names.

Mohamed Mustafa ElBaradei- “People in Egypt did not know him until the Iraq War. He is popular with the very wealthy and intellectual. But people here say he does not understand Egypt because he has lived outside for so long”

Amr Moussa- “He is liked. He was popular when he is the leader of the Arab League. But some people think he is too old”

The too old bit shocked me a little. In a country where leaders seem to be considered youthful if they are on the sunny side of 70, I thought 75 year old Moussa would still be considered somewhat sprightly.

My friend said he thinks he would vote for Dr. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh Abdel Hady (I think I was not taking detailed notes!)- He described the former Muslim Brotherhood member as moderate and “he would be in the middle of Egypt- not too left or too right. He is somebody I think we would need.”

I said my goodbyes, but before I left he saw the article I had been reading in the Egyptian Gazette.

“Ah yes, this is the TV interview that was a disaster.”

The article was about a TV interview that had been conducted with one of the leading, very religious Salafists politicians Abdel Moneim el Shahat.

The interview had proved shocking to some Egyptians. Shahat spoke about the role of women he envisaged in an Islamic Egypt ( …shall we say a little restricted!), he attacked the writings of Naguib Mahfouz as “inciting promiscuity, prostitution and atheism.” But most bizarrely, he turned his mind to the artefact’s of Ancient Egypt.  He had form on this topic

“For instance, he is notorious for his statement that Pharaonic monuments should be covered up because, according to El-Shahat, they are from a “rotten” culture that does not worship God. This also caused outrage among archaeologists as well as those who work in the tourism sector, who have further accused him of sabotaging one of Egypt’s main sources of revenue.”

He “moderated” his message on the TV interview, saying that the statues did not have to be covered up  but should be covered up in wax…so people could still see them if they must.

The Sphinx in Wax.

The man in the coffee shop laughed.

“It was a really bad interview for him. His party lost many votes because of it. And he himself did not win his seat in Alexandria.”

But el-Shahat’s Salafist Al Nour Party did win many votes in the first round of the elections. What it means I’m not sure.

Cairo does not feel like Tehran 1979 to me. It feels like a varied, safe, exciting city going through a period of rapid unpredictable change. But still many Egyptian liberals and left wingers are concerned.
Egyptians are proud of the Islamic aspect of their identity, but for most their identity goes beyond that. It is not narrowly Islamic, it also involves pride in the Ancient History of their country, the modern literature of people like Mahfouz and also the Christian and other aspects.

We have to hope for every man who wants to pour wax over the Sphinx and other ancient statues, there are many more who like spending some time with a westerner in a coffee shop, talking with pride about their country’s rich and varied culture.

Let’s hope it is the latter that emerge victorious in the growing cultural war here – Insha’Allah.

Photo shows the Sphinx from the back. Ready to pounce on anyone who wants to cover it up- or pour wax over it! Originally published on Arab Spring on My Mind on Sat 10th of Dec.

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