LETTER FROM CAIRO NOVEMBER 2013

I was in Prague when an old friend, Egyptian pop star Mohammed Mounir, passed through town. Mounir is famous throughout the Arab World, where his warm tenor has formed the sound track of several generations’ worth of fond memories. Born and raised in Aswan, Mounir makes music that is playful but thoughtful, often marked by the rhythms of Nubia. His lyrics speak of love and loss, of the struggles and triumphs of daily life.

When I took him to dinner, the first question Mounir asked was ‘what do you think?’ meaning about Egypt. I told him I was relieved to have missed the events of early August when a large Islamist sit-in was dispersed and 800 people lost their lives. From afar I’d followed reports of growing antagonism towards the supporters of ousted President Morsi and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, coupled with an increasingly vehement support for the military, which has thoroughly eclipsed the interim civilian government established after the ‘popular coup’ of 30 June. I was happy to have not been home during Friday demonstrations near my flat when others died in clashes between God knows who, and to have avoided the anxiety associated with this, and with reports from Sinai where an Egyptian journalist was arrested for covering skirmishes between Islamists and state security (army and police) that are also adding to what has become a tragically commonplace loss of life.

Mounir listened patiently as I catalogued the bad news. ‘But what do you really think? he asked when I finished. I wanted to say ‘it’s a terrible mess’ and be done with it, without having to explain that in the midst of the recent turmoil the democratic dream of equal rights and responsibilities for all citizens, no matter their religious or political persuasion, had receded to a distant horizon. Instead I said: ‘it will take time.’

Mounir leaned towards me and smiled, ‘Yes! he said.’

It will take time. Look at the French revolution – it took a hundred years.’ We were sitting in a square surrounded by the beautifully restored facades of Prague’s neo-classical and baroque buildings. Mounir stretched out his arms as if to embrace them. ‘Cairo and Alexandria have buildings just as beautiful as these – maybe more beautiful’ he said, ‘if only we cleaned them up. We have to clean everything up!’ he exclaimed, ‘right now!’

Like many Egyptian artists, Mounir was in a quandary following the uprising of 2011 as to how to participate in the political upheaval. We talked about a PR campaign to unite people behind simple endeavors like caring for their neighborhoods, conserving electricity and water, and above all, preserving that formerly ubiquitous Egyptian attribute: kindness. Mounir said he’d sing a song telling everyone to go out and get a broom and start cleaning, outside on their streets but inside themselves as well.

‘Egyptians are peaceful and positive and we must focus on this because it is more powerful than the negative.’ By Mounir’s calculations, negative (i.e. violent, authoritarian and/or fanatical) people will be obliged to join hands with everyone else because otherwise they will be sidelined by society. His plan to overwhelm Egyptians with their own positivity seems like a long shot just now, but he still had a point. ‘We cannot forget who we are’, he said, meaning human beings that however diverse, share the desire to live in peaceful dignity. ‘I am an artist, not a politician or activist’ he concluded. ‘I can only give the people music’ he said, ‘but music can help them remember.

Maria Golia