The most striking aspect about Tahrir Square the first time I saw it was how small it was. Television images can be misleading. At the time last year when thousands had congregated at Tahrir Square to seek the removal of Hosni Mubarak as Egypt’s president, the square seemed enormous; at night, it looked shrunk. Perhaps it was the midnight hour when I saw it first, and perhaps it was the utter lack of traffic at that hour, which meant that when our driver took us along the periphery of the square to give us a feel of the location, we felt it had ended just as we thought it had begun.
Later, when I woke up in the morning and looked at the square from the window of my hotel room, it looked like any busy area of a city, largely unremarkable, except for the large Soviet-era government building on one side, and the oasis-like old campus of the American University in Cairo, on the other.
Tahrir means liberation, and in Arabic, the square is called Midan-el-Tahrir. Midan, the word which Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif recalls with great affection in describing the square in her account of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. She writes: “I prefer the Arabic word ‘midan’, because like ‘piazza’, it does not tie you down to a shape but describes an open urban space in a central position in a city…. The central point of Cairo is not a square or a circle but more like a massive curved rectangle.”
The square is central and indeed pivotal. People seeking to change governments have often attempted to occupy it, and the government has cracked down routinely. The part of Cairo where the square takes central space was built in the 1860s, modelled on Paris’ Etoile, with six roads leading out, which in turn lead to six more squares, the city spreading organically beyond. While not as grand as Haussmann’s Paris, which was being built around the same time, it has a peculiar continental charm, marking it as distinct from the old Cairo of minarets and muezzins.
To understand the square’s centrality better, you need to walk along the busy roads that spread outwards. There are hawkers selling plastic bottles, children’s clothing, trinkets for tourists, and books, including a few intriguing biographies of Hitler and Stalin. But go further along, and the babble ceases, the stock market is visible, and a mall emerges, with an ornate exterior that looks like the headgear of a pharaoh.
Right across, on the other side, is the famous Cairene Café, Riche, which has for over a century been the draw for the city’s intellectuals. It is here, in 1952, it is believed, that Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted the coup that removed the rotund king Farouk. Three decades earlier, there was an attempt to murder a prime minister at this café. And it is also here that Naguib Mahfouz, the Arab world’s only literary Nobel laureate, held court.
The afternoon I went there with my friends, an old waiter in robes greeted us and left us alone until I went to the counter where an old man was reading a newspaper by the cash register. With some reluctance I interrupted him, and reluctantly he motioned to one of the waiters to come to our table. We had lemonade and coffee, and if we hadn’t asked for the bill, he’d have let us stay there as long as we wanted. The lush, warm colours of the restaurant were comforting after the harsh sunlight outside. Parisian cafés where Ernest Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre held forth carry small plaques with their names on seats which we must believe they sat on. At the place where Mahfouz held court on Fridays, there is his large portrait; you half-expect him to start talking again as he sips his sweetened coffee. He had the odd habit of ordering two cups, drinking half of each, leaving the rest. His novel Karnak Café is based on Riche, and draws on stories he heard at the café.
I walked back to the old campus of the American University in Cairo. Its walls are now splattered with expansive street art, this time mocking the government of President Mohamed Morsi. There are some large images showing the Muslim Brotherhood, the political base of Morsi, to be the equivalent of the erstwhile military-backed regime. The murals are huge and painted with great revolutionary fervour and gusto. There are other large murals, red blotches of colour, carrying the names of the martyrs, written in white.
Meanwhile, students come and go, earnestly discussing politics. One of them giggles shyly after she sees me hearing her criticize her president. Café Riche is perhaps too old-fashioned for these students, who assembled at Tahrir Square not after listening to a rousing speech, nor after a cardamom-scented coffee-filled evening at Riche, but by following tweets and signing up on Facebook. The murals remind them of what was possible, and what they had achieved. They are disgruntled with the government again, and now they have the means to change it. That is when they take over the square, banish the cars, and magnify this small space of urban openness into the vast theatre of regime change. That’s when Tahrir Square becomes a metaphor; it pulsates with life, and these students show what it takes to walk like an Egyptian.
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