Look beyond Egypt’s ancient past – its present and future have just as many stories to tell
WORDS KRUTTIKA NADIG
PHOTOGRAPHS MAHESH SAGARI
When will the dust settle?
Squinting at the dense haze over Cairo’s sand-coloured skyline, I’m lost in thought. Beyond the concrete hodgepodge lie the Pyramids of Giza, which are supposed to be visible from the top of the 12th-century Saladin Citadel here in the old part of town.
No such luck today. The desert haze remains stubborn and I begin to hallucinate. Phantom pyramids appear on the horizon and fade away, some the size of mountains, shouldering millions of imaginations along with mine.
Egypt is a land of mirages and dreams. It’s filled with dream-chasers and nightmare- survivors, painterly patriots and coffee-shop comrades, optimistic investors and selfie queens. Faced with Egypt’s mysterious past and its equally confounding present, you reach through the haze for something solid, and find its walls. Walls inscribed with myths and stories in the temples of Abu Simbel and Luxor, and the thick medieval bulwarks encircling Cairo’s Khan-al-Khalili Market and its social hotspots. The hidden alleys off Tahrir Square, where walls erupted with protest art after the 2011 and 2013 revolutions.
It’s reassuring to have some solidity when the ground is shifting. Egypt’s political uprisings, in which its dictator-president Hosni Mubarak and his successors, the Muslim Brotherhood, were overthrown, first by civilians and then by the military, changed how Egyptians think and make their voices heard. But the violence hurt the economy and kept tourists away – leaving the country licking its wounds and nursing unfulfilled hopes.
Now the streets are calm once more, and I don’t know whether it’s because they’re trying to win back the visitors, but everything seems very affordable. For the first time, the Egypt story is as much about its present and future as its past; a situation I’m intrigued by.
This change is everywhere – it’s even made the people somewhat inscrutable. Sphinx-like, if you’ll allow the cheesy reference. Look, humans are complicated, and the ones here are alternately friendly and wary. Conversations will wobble on the line between politically correct and incorrect. You might become someone’s confidante and discover local haunts while chatting about history and Bollywood. Or you might be frowned at for taking photos and scammed by traders who haven’t made a profit in three years.
But, eventually, if you play your cards right, you’ll find a gap in the brochure-recommended itinerary and hear stories of the living that are as fascinating as those of the dead pharaohs. Egypt’s treasures lie in the past, but its people have a lot more to gain tomorrow, and today.