Notes From Cairo
It’s hard to miss Mo Salah in the city. He is everywhere
It’s hard to miss Mo Salah in Cairo. He is everywhere — on billboards, murals, in cafes, on tees of every third youth walking the streets.
“Do you like Salah?” asked Ahmed, my guide, while ferrying me from the airport to the city centre. I didn’t have any particular love for this Egyptian-born footballer playing for Liverpool FC, but I nodded, and that seemed to make Ahmed happy. Salah, who has made it big, comes from a poor part of Egypt and his rags-to-riches story gave hope to the thousands who had stood in protest at Tahrir Square.
Things may not have really changed on the political front, but Salah’s success on the international playing field seems to bring some pride these weary youth.
I was in Cairo a couple of weeks before the beginning of Ramadan. One evening I walked through the Khan Al-Khalili souk and found clothes, carpets, bed linen, lanterns and toys — all decorated with Salah’s image. “Anything with Salah’s face on it makes for good business,” said a shop owner in his 20s over cold hibiscus tea. “He is the best thing to have happened to Egypt in a long time. While everyone else his age was protesting at Tahrir Square, he was sweating it out in the football field. Maybe we should all learn from him. Instead of changing the environment, we should change ourselves first.”
On my request, Ahmed took me to Tahrir Square. This otherwise unremarkable square was the centrepiece of the Arab Spring in 2011, where hundreds of thousands of youth converged to protest the presidency of Hosni Mubarak.
I asked Ahmed how things had changed since then. He took a few moments to reply. “First, the Egyptian pound is worth less than half of what it was in 2011. We buy a lot of our daily stuff in American dollars, and everything is twice as expensive as it used to be. Second, we used to get 15 million tourists every year! Now we don’t even get five million. The whole country is suffering as a result. Tourism is the main industry here after all.”
Later, I visited El-Fishawi cafe, an old but popular hangout. While sipping strong mint tea in the relaxed surroundings, I initiated conversation with three friendly men smoking sweet smelling hookah at the next table. We discussed the transition from Hosni Mubarak to the present President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Nothing has really changed, they all said, echoing Ahmed’s sentiments. “Maybe we should have let things be the way they were.”
There is nothing quite as dispiriting as meeting young people who have lost hope. I thought about Mo Salah again, and that Egypt for the first time in 30 years has qualified for the World Cup. I hope their team does well, for there is nothing like sports or a good revolution to bond people and reinvigorate them. And revolution they’ve tried.
Cairenes, as inhabitants of the city are called, were looking forward to the visit of Pope Francis. Only about a tenth of Egyptians are Coptic Christians, but lately most terrorist attacks in the country have been targeting this minority.
They felt the Pope’s visit would help soothe relations between Muslims and Christians, and send a message to the rest of the world that Muslim Egyptians are keen to protect their Coptic brothers.
I visited the Coptic part of Cairo, where Jesus is said to have spent three months of his life, not far from where a bomb had killed two Copts only a couple of days before my visit.
“This violence is not us, but the Islamic State,” said Ashraf, a friend I made in my short stay. I asked Ashraf if the strife between Copts and Muslims was a long-standing one, and whether Copts have always had been at the receiving end.
He didn’t answer directly: “Copts have done well economically. Honestly though, their fortunes have gone up and down depending on who’s in power.”
I noticed in Ashraf an eagerness to make me feel that all the bad news coming from his country was exaggerated. Just as I would have done if someone had asked me about India.
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu