Cairo Song | Wiam El-Tamami | Granta

Cairo Song

Wiam El-Tamami

‘as in not much new /
as in no news is good news /
as in the war is over; has been for decades now /

– Victoria Adukwei Bulley, ‘not quiet as in quiet but’


Cairo. From my parents’ seventh-floor balcony I watch pigeons swoop and dive, as frantic as the city below them. Cairo is a relentless roar. A barrage of car horns, motors rushing and rumbling. Gangs of street dogs, barking, snarling, stalking the neighborhood. Scraping, drilling, grinding, vendors yelling out their wares, planes cleaving low through the sky. The air is an acrid haze, almost gritty, tinged with smoke.

There is a song about Cairo that my mother loves. It begins: ‘This is Cairo: the sorceress, the enchantress; the uproarious, the sleepless; the sheltering, the shameless.’ The whole song is an unfolding of love, of twisted tenderness, of impossibility – and all of it is true.

My mother. I’m lying in her bed, in the dark, my head in her lap. The last time I was here was a year and a half ago, in the summer of 2021; now it is nearing the end of December 2022. The darkness in the room was my request: I’m trying to soothe away a headache that has dogged me since I arrived. We have lit a candle and are listening to Erik Satie as she strokes my hair. My mother is a woman of strong and specific loves: mangoes; white chocolate; barbecued corn, sweet and dry and charred. And us. When I was a child, she was always able, with her firmness and efficiency and warmth, to make frightening things go away.

Now my mother tells me about things falling apart. She talks in a quiet voice about new banking regulations, the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, shops devoid of merchandise, the price of the most basic goods inflating beyond all recognition or sense. I listen as the piano plays, as the candle flickers.

February 11, 2011. Has it been almost twelve years already? That day, my mother and I were at a protest in front of the massive monolith of Maspero, the state television and radio building. The day before, Mubarak had delivered a speech declaring that he would not step down. We were continuing to protest, chanting our lungs out, en masse, among hundreds of thousands of others all around Egypt, others who were now brethren, in this uprising that had broken open our country and our lives: Bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity! The people demand the downfall of the regime!

My mother and I decided to take a break. We managed to find a taxi. It was late afternoon; the sun must have still been bright in the sky. We were sitting in the cab, listening to the radio, when the transmission was suddenly interrupted and an announcement came crackling through – the sonorous voice of the newly appointed vice president, a shadowy man named Omar Suleiman: ‘President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of the president of the republic . . .’

I remember hugging each other, something widening inside us. I remember being unable to speak, I remember the driver praying out loud, I remember my mother’s voice breaking through its usual decorum, crying out: Take us back, please, take us back to Tahrir!

Dream. Growing up, the news was constantly blaring out from the television. My mother had been among the first cohort of graduates, in 1975, from the Department of Journalism in Cairo University’s newly inaugurated Institute of Mass Communication. She had grown up in the Nasser era: a time of soaring idealism, of dreams that seemed within reach. Who was it that said that a cynic is an idealist who’s become disillusioned?

When the revolution broke out in 2011, I felt that, for my mother, it was a second chance at an old dream that had long been buried, that had seemed beyond rekindling.

I was twenty-seven. Mubarak had been in power for thirty years. That was just the way things were: greed, corruption, repression, brutality, stagnation, apathy. And then came the dream, and our collective surge toward it.

My mother doesn’t watch television anymore. Every independent voice has been squeezed out over the past years, and only a cabaret of talking heads remains.

Next door, in the living room, from the early morning until hours after midnight, the television blares.

My father. He makes me a large plateful of fuul for breakfast, with little dishes of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, arugula and olives arranged around it, and two round loaves of baladi bread. Egyptian flatbread is unlike any other: dusted with bran, the top layer thin and speckled with dark spots, the bottom layer soft and moreish. I smell the bread, the rough and sweet and grainy smell of it, my first in a long time. My father asks me how his fuul is, as he always does, every morning that I’m there – and he doesn’t take anything less than a compliment for an answer.

He plies me with fruit, with date cookies from the bakery. He brings me oranges, brings me pickles, brings me peanuts. I find myself gazing into his face, my breath held, trying and not trying to trace the changes. He walks more stiffly now, does not seem to go out much – maybe twice a week: a brief walk to the mosque on Friday for the communal prayers; another one to pick up fresh bread from the bakery, produce from the fruit-and-vegetable stall, and a few other groceries, if needed – cheese, lentils, olives, black tea – from the corner shop next door. Cigarettes were once a vital part of these rounds; he was a chain-smoker for much of his life. But he finally quit smoking after his kidney transplant six years ago.

He likes to tell stories, and he creates them (with generous embellishment) out of anything, even the modest fabric of his now-small life and the bits of news he receives from his siblings’ daily phone calls. On the phone, when I’m far away, he tells me about family news, about the football results, and about what’s in season. He waxes hyperbolical about guavas (like honey!), about gorgeous pomegranates and sweet green grapes. In the summer, he buys me mangoes, hoping that I will come. When I don’t come, he tells me that the mangoes he bought for me are in the freezer, waiting for me.

Now that I’m here, he hands me the telephone: your aunt wants to say hello. He hands me the telephone: your uncle wants to say hello. He hands me the telephone: your other aunt wants to say hello. They were once eight siblings: four girls and four boys, a tight-knit gang. Three of them died in their thirties and forties: accidents, illness. My youngest aunt has just emigrated to the US. Many of my cousins are now living abroad. There’s a contingent in California; a few others are scattered across the Arabian Gulf. Two are in Berlin, like me.

My father was once a beloved doctor. Now retired, his television is his temple. He watches football, and volleyball, and squash, and handball, and tennis, and swimming, and athletics; and in between sports, usually late at night or just after daybreak, he watches the talking heads – the ‘drummers’, as they’re called in Egyptian Arabic, el-tabballeen: the percussionists of the regime. He watches them closely, peering at the screen. He counts money, tallies up the football scores, watches the daily newsreel of state achievements and progress, reads the official newspapers, scanning every bit of information. He memorizes the statistics about all the new megaprojects, the new construction works, the new administrative capital, stores it all in his head.


Sara. When I get into the Uber to go see her, the driver glances down as the destination appears on his phone, then turns to me in alarm: Where are we going?

In the spring of 2014, in the aftermath of the military takeover that rendered our dream stillborn, I left Egypt. I moved to Istanbul, where I found myself in the wake of the Gezi movement. I found myself surrounded by people with whom I connected deeply and immediately, whose questions of life seemed to mirror mine. We had all experienced a living, waking dream: a utopia of collective power, agency, oneness – and now we were experiencing the nightmarish aftermath. And yet there we were, all of us who had been part of it, our lives forever changed, broken open in more ways than we could express or delineate.

In 2016, I found myself suddenly summoned back to Cairo: my father was about to have his kidney transplant. I ended up leaving my life in Istanbul in mid-air and staying in Cairo for almost a year, and it was during that time that I lived with Sara.

Since then, I have wanted to write about this apartment: this home that we once shared and which I was now visiting again. About the roof terrace bathed in sunlight, the birdsong and bougainvillea, the geckos darting across the walls. The frangipani that bursts forth with sublime flowers in the spring; the pomegranate tree that bears miniature fruit.

Inside, there are many more plants, cozy assortments of succulents, colorful cushions and rugs and books, pottery from a Fayoum village. A kitchen with fresh herbs and a turquoise wall.

Downstairs, the road is lined with smashed, disemboweled cars, vehicles coughing up their entrails, glass sprayed on the tarmac. Sara’s small road is barricaded, and at the mouth of the street is a checkpoint, guarded by several men with guns. Sara lives – we lived – next door to a police station. In the time that I lived in this beautiful home that was mostly a haven, I would often hear things. Shouting. Sometimes wailing. At least once, screaming.

Today, as Sara and I hang out in the living room and catch up, we’re not sure if the ululations we can hear are coming from the police station – the family of a freed detainee? – or from a wedding at the hotel across the road.

Police Day. Police stations in Egypt are feared and loathsome places of possible torture, death, disappearances: nightmare incarnate. Police brutality was the initial impetus for the revolution, the spark that lit the great fire. In the summer of 2010, a young man in Alexandria named Khaled Said was beaten to death in broad daylight by the police. There were attempts to cover it up, lies about the cause of death, until photos emerged of his face in the morgue, mangled beyond recognition.

I was not political. It was the first protest I’d ever participated in. We all wore black and stood along the waterfront, in Cairo and Alexandria and other cities around Egypt, observing an hour of silence over the life and death of Khaled Said. We did not know until then that there was a ‘we’. And that there were so many of us. So many of us who needed so much to change.

Meal. Sara and I cook together, as we love to do. I bought some ingredients for our meal on the way; when I went to pay and the man at the cashier told me the total, I could not believe my ears, though I tried to keep a straight face. The food cost three times more than the money I had in my hand.

We slice aubergines, tomatoes and onions into a tagine, anoint them with oil and spices, and cook them low and slow, until the aubergines are succulent and falling apart. We make a salad with red cabbage, a mash of sweet potatoes, a dip with white beans and beetroot. We sit down to eat, delighting in the meal we’ve created. But as I look down at my plate, I feel something like shame – shame that we can still eat this way, can still fill our table.

Wiam El-Tamami

Wiam El-Tamami is a writer, translator and editor. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Granta, Freeman’s, Social Movement Studies, Jadaliyya, Banipal, Ploughshares Solos and Craft. She won the 2011 Harvill Secker Translation Prize and was a finalist for the 2023 Disquiet Prize.

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