A midwinter night’s dream
New Year evokes two sets of connotations. Strategically positioned between Roman and Coptic Christmas, it is the occasion on which urban Muslims have most readily recognised the birth of Christ as a joyful aspect of their lives. As event and ritual, each solar transition — the breathless few moments before midnight notwithstanding — seems to hold the key to a deeper, older and more essential Egyptianness shared by all: it carries overtones of annual rebirth, the rain season, the kind of (agriculturally rooted) buoyancy that drives Nile Delta shopkeepers to pile up their wares outside of shops in a proud display of economic vitality. By free association, on the other hand, Western politics, the Palestinian plight, the rise of religious fundamentalism as an antidote to poverty, and the increasingly objectionable celebratory tendencies of the rich, the Westernised and the young: all these combine to deliver an altogether less pleasant package. But looking on, the unattached observer feels it is no less stimulating for being so.
Intentions aside, as you make the rounds of the Bab Al-Louq and Tal’at Harb cafés, you cannot control the free association of (nonobservant) ideas that might not seem very relevant to the occasion. Ancient Palestinian children were burned as offerings to the Canaanite fire god, Moloch. Their modern counterparts are undergoing similar treatment, it seems. But unless it is the new world order itself, nobody can tell who the Moloch behind the current massacres might be. In post-millennium Cairo, the homely aspect of New Year can only be encountered indoors. Cultural dissipation, (a)political purposelessness and moral chaos: on New Year’s eve, the streets throb with the workings of all three — a fire worship ritual that appears to go in tandem with the burning of children. And one cannot but notice the spread of an even more disturbing tendency: indifference. All through the day — and night — little shops here and there make a point of playing Qur’anic recitations, families go nonchalantly about their business, and civil employees lounge about in cafés the way they would on any given day. Even kull sana winta tayyib is not heard as frequently as it might be.
Early afternoon in Giza, the day after Eid: an enormous plethora of vehicles, heavy with post-Eid vacation and pre-celebration loads, gives the holiday atmosphere that has persisted since the end of Ramadan a busy and urgent edge. Where vehicles have been sparse and generally relaxed (many evacuate the city during Eid), a feeling of idle importance, as if in preparation for a grand affair, now overtakes the traffic. The occasional sight of a cassette recorder on the shoulder of an elaborately dressed, street-bound young man and the extensive reopening of establishments that were shut during Eid: so far, few outdoor developments are evocative of New Year at all. And early evening: the buying of presents continues in Doqqi and Mohandessin at a frenzied pace. Flower shops place a noticeably greater number of more alluring bunches on the sidewalks. Cinemas receive a fair share of Eid film lovers who bustle about the ticket booths, or recline on cars. The air has already cleared. And uncomfortably chilly as it might be, the atmosphere is profoundly refreshing. Physical exertion aside, it seems in harmony with the large-scale exuberance that is planned.
My taxi swerves aggressively, intent on overtaking a public bus that, monster-like and determined, edges closer and closer, gradually blocking the street. But before we make it across to the left-hand lane, an incredibly hardy fridge-like white vehicle booms past, the offensive ta-ra-la-li of contemporary urban folk trailing indifferently behind it. As we traverse Galaa Bridge, unobtrusively switching governorates, the party hats — taratir — begin to appear. Featherweight, ridiculous, covered in the kind of thin, colourful, crinkly-metal wrapping that goes into the making of bags of potato chips: downtown, they turn out to be New Year’s most abiding manifestation. As is usually the case on eventful nights, Qasr Al-Nil Bridge is swarming with curiously low-key young men floating about like so many menacing flotillas, and only occasionally interspersed with a lone dressed-up woman bristling with discomfort. Party pandemonium notwithstanding — and various, not always instantly recognisable narcotics have a significant part to play here — the sight persists all through Tahrir and beyond, into Tal’at Harb and the popular districts beyond Ataba. Back in the Qasr Al-Aini-Qasr Al-Nil complex, hotel parties are heavily protected. A state security officer motions silently, telling me to move off the sidewalk. A car stops suddenly, and the young driver sticks his head suggestively out of the window, though the object of his attention remains hidden.
As I run out of time, there seems to be nowhere to spend those precious few moments. In Bab Al-Louq, Qahwet Al-Horriya is all shisha and beer, but the festive spirit is crucially lacking, and the qahwa’s popularity seems to be more about the end of Ramadan than anything else. The same could be said of any number of downtown cafés. Even the Greek Club, the one venue that seems to be in with both intellectuals and everyday revellers, shuts its door to those who have no invitation to a prearranged party. And I retrace my footsteps to Huda Sha’rawi Street, noting a general, lazy quietness. On one side street off Qasr Al-Nil, a group of bored-looking young men are sharing a cigarette. As I pass, they shuffle uncomfortably, and we don’t know what to say to each other. “Kull sana winta tayyib,” one of them finally blurts out. I attempt a knowing smile. Further on, two men are hovering around a car parked diagonally across the street. Suddenly I realise it is midnight. “There you go,” one of them yells at the other. “It’s 12 o’clock, the new year has come already.” And almost instantly they get into the car, slam the door behind them and drive off into the night.