Learning Cairo’s thousand-year history was a requirement at my alma mater, and it was usually taught with a resigned sigh, as if to admit, Al-Qahirah, “the city victorious” had always seen better days. Our professors at the American University of Cairo all seemed to mourn a place we would never know—a city of glamour and glory. But the secret of Cairo is that every generation mourns its brighter days, though in truth, more things stay the same than ever change. This might be why every few decades, revolution draws in the young and idealistic anxious to break the spell. Anyone looking to understand these cycles would do well to read Waguih Ghali’s 1964 novel Beer in the Snooker Club.
The Egypt of Ghali’s semi-autobiographical novel is one where honorifics like “Bey” and “Effendi” are still used without sarcasm. Ghali’s literary avatar, Ram, is broke but still a member of the elite, proven by his good posture, bad Arabic, and open tab at the tailor. He’s also a Copt in a mostly Muslim country. At the start of the novel he claims he has no particular politics, declaring himself colorless: “I’m not red, pink, white or yellow.” Over the course of the satire, we follow Ram through his drunken rambles in Egypt and London (where he attempts to overstay his visa) and back again to Cairo. Before long, driven by conflicting desires, he joins the Communist Party to impress a girl and throws himself into the revolution.
When I finished school I lingered for a while before leaving Cairo. Then, I ceremonially shed everything I owned, including years of accumulated books like Beer in the Snooker Club, and moved to New York City. As I learned how to live in a new city, the psycho-geography I had built of Cairo began to shift and fade in my memory. But in the autumn of 2011 I went back to the city for the first time to scout for a film. That week, the Maspero demonstrations broke out and 28 Copts were killed in a battle with police.
As I whizzed along the 6th of October Bridge toward the center of Cairo, the city snapped sharply back into place. We sped past the baroque 19th-century buildings along Midan Ramsis and Al-Daher, now decrepit from disuse. I felt a lump in my throat as we rode above the bus station on the arterial tangle of bridges between the Ramsis Hilton and the rear of the Egyptian Museum. And when I stepped out onto the honeycombed sidewalk of Zamalek, I decided to walk back along the route I used to take to school—over Asr el Nil bridge and through Tahrir to the now disused Main Campus of AUC (this was still before all the roads entering Tahrir were barricaded with massive concrete blocks). Despite the charge around the square, the university press was still maintaining its bookshop. I lingered over some of my old course books before settling on a copy of Beer in the Snooker Club. Then I continued my walk and found a seat in the ahawa behind Café Riche and opened the book, skipping to the end when Ram returns to Egypt after his period in London, finding himself a changed man in his unchanging home.
That night I went out with old friends and it was as if I’d never left. Before the night was over we went to one of our favorite bars. Everything about it was frozen in time: the gregarious elder bartender, the rooftop view, the bottles of Stella rotated in and out of the ancient freezer so as not to explode. When I had been at school this was the quiet downtown bar you went to if you needed to have a private talk, but this time, it was full of people—mostly young activists but also a few resident expats and some of the old guard who seemed slightly bemused at the turnout.
Among the new faces was a young Egyptian who stood behind the counter taking orders and serving up drinks. As the night went on I gathered he had just graduated from Oxford and returned to his parents’ home to devote himself to the revolution. His eloquence and energy were infectious. And when the conversation turned to that week’s demonstrations he spoke of the urgency of “being here now” with an idealism that reminded me of Ram observing himself and his friends: “The only important thing which ever happened to us was the Egyptian revolution. We took to it wholeheartedly and naturally, without any fanaticism or object in view.”
And that was the thought that troubled me that night. I worried that this young man, like Ram before him, had been swept up in the drama of revolution and was barreling blindly toward the barricades, even though the “object in view” remained unclear. As Ghali knew well, even in a country where little seems to happen, rushing headlong into action without clarity of purpose leads either to tragedy or farce. I left my copy of the book on the table when I left, hoping that someday soon the fog over this “city victorious” would clear. But as events have proven recently, the goals of revolution in Egypt remain obscure.