Tahrir: Ends of Circulation
These are confusing times in Cairo . . . and the greater Middle East. To write from within a revolution for publication months hence, when some now dominant strands may recede and others that might prevail are barely visible at present, is necessarily perilous. Perhaps, I tell myself, it has the merit of freezing a moment, taking a snapshot from down below in the crowded square without the chance to climb to a higher vantage. Without the aperture of retrospective history, there is a kind of freedom. Narrative tahrir (liberation).
Cairo was already filled with millions of voices, almost always loud, marked by a hisa that seemed its most overwhelming characteristic. Hisa, a word from Egyptian dialect, means more than noise. It means chaos, the hectic, and the frenetic, all in one. Zahma, another crucial word, means more than traffic. It means a standstill, a blockage. In Cairo, one learns to navigate between hisa and zahma, not to become overwhelmed by the one or overly depressed by the other. It’s a dangerous opposition. Finally, in late January and February 2011, the balance shifted.
In March 2011, when I returned to Cairo for the fifth time in two and a half years, the hisa was yet more pronounced. But the zahma that had been the key to comprehending the city in the last decade of Hosni Mubarak’s rule had become unblocked by a massive will of the people. When traffic came to a standstill, which of course it still did, it no longer signified the stagnation of Egyptian society within the state of emergency.1 Now as you sat in traffic, you guessed that there was a demonstration somewhere on your route. If you were passing through downtown, you were usually correct.
Mubarak was gone, shouted out of Tahrir Square after eighteen days of mass mobilization, ending his three decades at the helm of power. Because of the midnight to 6 a.m. curfew enforced in the city, however, there was also at times an unfamiliar silence in this city of 20 million. Or a relative one anyway, to be replaced by the sound of keystrokes and mouse clicks, as a late-night city moved from the sidewalk cafés back online: reading, tweeting, linking, and updating.
A month after Mubarak’s departure, Tahrir Square had returned to its regular business as a major traffic roundabout, now decorated with revolutionary graffiti and tributes to those who died for the cause. Friends pointed out where the makeshift hospital had been set up in the grassy area near the Mugamma, the massive government office building; where they had stood on which days; and the place on the 6th October Bridge from which snipers had shot into the crowd. They showed me the missing section of sidewalk in front of the Tahrir Hardee’s and explained how the square tiles had been lifted and broken into pieces to be hurled. In the first days after my return, there were marathon conversations with old friends who had so much to tell about the previous weeks.
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I would like to thank Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, Stephen Twilley, Plaegian Alexander, and Eric Klinenberg for reading a late draft of this essay and providing helpful editorial comments and suggestions. In Cairo, my thanks to Hamdi Abu Golayyel, Muhammad Aladdin, Nadim Audi, Fadi Awad, Humphrey Davies, Magdy El Shafee, Nael Eltoukhy, Mansoura Ez Eldin, Ahmed Nagy, Leri Price, and Bahaa Taher, among many others, for discussing the events preceding my trip to Cairo in March 2011, and for helping me understand what was happening while I was there.
- I was not alone in associating the experience of driving through Cairo with Cairo’s political stasis. See Khaled al Khamissi, Taxi, trans. Jonathan Wright (London: Aflame, 2008); originally published in 2007 in Cairo by Dar El Shorouk. Taxi, a series of vignettes composed by the Egyptian journalist as he spoke to Cairo’s taxi drivers, was a best seller in Egypt. See also Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006). The latter offers a powerful account of patterns of attention among drivers as they layered a range of sound tracks over Cairo’s hisa.