LETTER FROM CAIRO MARCH 2013

Shortly after the second anniversary of the January 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, I ventured beyond Tahrir Square to the Nile Corniche, where clashes with security forces had lasted well into the morning. The Corniche was littered with rubble and glass, chunks of pavement torn apart to use as projectiles; the tang of tear gas still hovered in the air. The towering Semi-Ramis Hotel was shuttered up as tight as a fortress. Police personnel carriers flanked the British Embassy behind coils of barbed wire trailing windblown trash.

“This is Egypt’s capital”, I said to the cab driver as he hastily rolled up the front windows, effectively trapping the tear gas in the car; it was a wrecked and desolate prospect.

Only the Nile, flowing serenely to my right, seemed oblivious. I heard no birds, though they love the giant riverside banyans. The tear gas, lavishly employed over the preceding three days, must have killed them.

My destination was the Egyptian Geological Museum, several kilometres from downtown. I had to show my press ID and pay a small fee to enter the hangar-like structure. The entrance was flanked with chunks of unmarked stone and the massive decaying trunk of an uprooted palm. The low-ceilinged exhibit space was filled with several rows of display cabinets, some of them harking back to the museum’s first incarnation in a glorious 1908 neo-classical building, torn down in the 1980s when Cairo’s Metro was under construction.

The displays were lined with white cardboard. The smaller specimens of mineral and rock laid on card- board platforms covered with stapled-on fabric, the larger ones tossed into the case unceremoniously, with laminated labels bearing their name and provenance propped up on or beside them. The fossils cabinets had large gaps, places where something had been glued to the cardboard but had later been pulled away. Aside from a few small maps and an unprepossessing plaster of Paris model of the geological strata of the Fayoum Oasis, there was little information on hand. There were, however, astounding remains of the arsinotherium, a kind of twin horned rhinoceros that roamed a tropical Egypt 35m years ago, including its grand ‘pelvic girdle’ and formidable boney horns.

I was alone except for several men staffing the museum. One of them, with a beard like a smoke cloud, showed me what I’d come to see, a rare type of meteorite that fell near Alexandria in 1911. It was housed in a dim corner of the museum, on the bottom shelf of a book case with a locked glass front.

Over half a metre long, it is black and pitted, laid unceremoniously on a sheet of blue plastic,
its crevices filled with Cairo’s sandy brown dust. It came from Mars, a fact not mentioned in the display, or that it is 4.5bn years old: as old as everything else in the hangar rolled together, including the pelvic girdle, as old as the earth itself.

As I was leaving, I heard the men talking about the fighting around Tahrir and whether the streets there were closed or open. I told them what I’d seen on the way over, and they shook their heads in dismay.

One man said “it will take a time”, meaning the revolution, a familiar refrain, referring to a future that is already two years behind us.

Looking around at the jumble of rock and bone, the derelict layers of history, I had to agree. “Yes, it will take time” I said, but I was thinking geological.