Blasts from the Past – Maria Golia – Nov ’06 Int.

Posted: October 17, 2008 in Journalism, Literature, Politics, Society, Travel




The paths of all who have come before lay the tracks for the future, heroes be they or villains, and ultimately every one is a bit of both. To choose which way to go is an inner formula bubbling within us as we speak. The push and pull effect of circumstance, selfishness or selflessness as we go through our days, is the cornerstone of our well-being . We can use our experiences and choices to propel ourselves higher or allow them to lead us down the spiral to a situation where things look pretty dim. And even then we truly have a choice, where to go..


Where do you wanna go from here …?






Maria Golia


Author. Cairo: City of Sand

Columnist. Daily Star of Lebanon





I’m a writer. I’ve lived in Egypt for a long time before that I travelled. I was managing a performance arts center in Texas. I have been an expat for most of my life. Arrived in 1981, left in 1985. Came back in 1992.

Egypt has changed tamaman [totally] since the 80s. Cairo more specifically was still a magical place. There was half as many people, the hash market was thriving. Everyone was spying on everyone else. It was delightful.

It was still [partially] isolated from this western culture of time and money, it was still innocent somehow prior to the assassination of Sadat.

Following the assassination of Sadat things started to change really fast. And when I came back in the 90s there was this whole thing with liberalization, “economic reform” business, which opened the flood gates to all sorts of trash basically, or this western style of development, [resulting in] this veneer of wellbeing as everything is getting worse and worse.

The 80s were more honest somehow. Tab3an [of course] there was corruption, of course people didn’t have it all, but it was honest, more upfront. Now of course the government tries to disguise what it’s doing with all this great rhetoric; ..reform and open market, as people are starving to death.

For one thing the very next-day to Sadat’s assassination, there was a tank in the market-place in Batniyya, and a big crackdown on the hash dealers, but at the same time heroin started hitting the streets in a big way which had never happened before and this totally changed the face of the city. Hashish was one little thing that people could allow themselves, a small pleasure, a recreation. When that was substituted by heroin, you started getting more violence. There was this great uncertainty surrounding Mubarak, and then things seemed to spiral from then on. I think the population [increase] had a lot to do with it. At some point things must have become unmanageable.

In the beginning when I first came here, I’d lived in Europe [Paris, Rome], and tab3an I’m American, Cairo was just so different. It seemed to have all the pluses of a city; in terms of being cosmopolitan, all sorts of strange things going on at all hours of the day or night… But it didn’t have any of the drawbacks; it was perfectly safe, the people were just in an amazingly good mood. There was this idea of mazagg [lucid wellbeing], and people really had mazagg.

There was no McDonalds, no fancy shmancy stuff. Of course there were rich people, but they always did their thing over there [gestures a circle in the back], but there never seemed to be that many of them. Really what was happening was with the people, and the people were fun, and curious, and open- just very pleasant to be with, and very welcoming and again there was this safety that was just fantastic. I’ve been mugged, stalked, robbed, and God knows what else in all sorts of beautiful first world cities, but never in Cairo.


I got my boob grabbed for the first time for the first time in 2002, and I actually sat down and wrote about it. Because I was so shocked. It was just 3 kids in broad daylight, I was dressed like a nun and walking when one of them grabbed my boob. The one who grabbed me turned and ran really fast, so I turned to the ones who were there and I started hitting them with my empty shopping bag, shouting stuff like ‘yekhrebeitku’ [woe unto your homes], and ‘go tell your friend’… I didn’t know what I wanted them to tell him, but I was hitting them for his sake. What amazed me was that people just stood and watched. This would have never happened before. Before the shop owners would have ‘yeshteku’ [filed a complaint], or beat them up themselves. My theory at the time was that it was post 9/11, tourism was down, everything was pretty much shit, the intifada was escalating, unemployment was very high…  There was this general sensation that things were not going well. This wasn’t just about getting my boob grabbed, kids were being more nasty, shop-keepers were ruder- all these forms of rudeness, to me it seemed that people were trying to acquire a false illusion of strength in their ordinary conduct. Imposing themselves in such a way gave them the feeling that they had some power over their lives, which in reality they don’t. And since then it’s gotten worse. In the old days if some guy wanted to flirt with you, they’d sing you a song, the most insulting thing about it would be if it were out of tune, or they’d call you a ghazal. Now it’s “you’re a cunt, you’re a this, or a that, fuck me..” etc. etc. there has been a general descent in the literary content of the average flirtation. Its powerlessness, frustration, it’s hard to get married, let alone have sex. People don’t work, they have no entertainment, they have energy with no place to put it. Plus the state itself is abusing women. It’s beating them up at demonstrations, in police interrogations, May 25th… the state is not setting an example for respecting women, at the same time religious authorities are always dealing with absurd fatwas that make women out to be a threat to peoples’ religious well-being, rather than promoting women in society. You’ve got it from all sides, the state setting a bad example, religious authorities demonizing women, plus the people themselves are in deep shit. There’s a lot of pent up frustration and women, perceivably, are the weakest link in society. What amazes me is that this shit doesn’t happen everyday, [this spontaneous mob scene, sexual harassments of downtown], or that it hasn’t happened before. We can look forward to more of this spontaneous venting.

Its being hungry in many, many ways. Let’s face it, life is really hard and you’re in the situation where the people in power have no idea how hard it is. Somebody like me, or somebody like you doesn’t have any idea how hard it is, you have more insight obviously, but even the people living in the worst conditions in Downtown Cairo are a thousand times better off than anyone living 2kms away in any direction, be it imbaba, shubra… the shanty town situation is horrendous. People are walking through garbage that comes up to their ankles. I mean life is dehumanizing for so many people, that its amazing to me that it still holds together this well. I think people should be congratulated on a daily basis for everyday they get through without killing either somebody else or themselves.

Another thing about the assaults, and the general deterioration of society, is the role of the Emergency Law which has been in place since Sadat died. This means that kids today 20 year olds, grew up in the absence of any basic human rights, in the absence of due process, [someone that’s suspected is innocent until proven guilty. and has to be tried in a normal court of law, not a military court of law]. Today you can be swept-off the street at anytime for any reason, the state reserves the right to do that. ‘No reason‘, that’s the biggest reason why people get arrested here, that’s the most popular one. The police too have been dehumanized, they’re as much a victim in this situation as anyone else, and they’re just victimizing others. It’s like an abused children sort of situation. So what you have with this emergency law situation is that people are much less likely to help each other when there is an incident because they don’t want to have to go to a police station. When you deny people their basic rights, they become alienated from the system, that is to say they wanna stay as far away as possible from the system, that provides nothing but pain, as they can. When that happens in society you get the feeling that society is not worth protecting, and certainly not respecting. So you have this loss of self respect, you have this loss of willingness of people to help one another. It [Emergency Law] has caused a gradual erosion of this normal impulse that people would have to help one another, to keep things more or less straight, because they no longer feel like they belong to anything. The only thing they belong to is the system, that exploits them and has nothing but contempt for them.

Sadat and Nasser were always seen as having an intimate relationship with the people, and maybe Sadat took it too far when he started to feel he was Egypt; saying things like ‘my people, my airplanes, my this, my that..’ , and shortly after he made that speech he got shot, so he went too far. But there was never this sensation with this administration, you never felt that there was any ‘love’ for the people. It’s as simple as that. It’s why this regime is selling the land to foreigners. You see this modern development in Cairo while people are living in shit. There’s no love. There’s no higher value in government that says “we’re here to serve the people.”

There’s no love lost either way, but you have this gradual deterioration within the community of all the qualities that make the community able to somehow function. This is the biggest tragedy, I think- seeing people change to this, because they have to change, they have to survive.

You need leadership, and that’s a very tough one, because leadership or individuality, has not been encouraged in this country for… perhaps ever!  Those who have a natural ability to lead, have to keep their heads down or else get into trouble, unless they want to lead in some religious movement where their energies will be exploited that way. You need enlightened leadership, you need to look at the priorities, and you need love. You need leadership that will have understood what people have gone through or are going through. Leadership that was genuinely interested in lifting their suffering, and prosecuting corruption. This would just be a start, then you’d need national projects where people could get involved, that people would feel were worthwhile to give their life to, be it the educational system, be it cleaning the place the fuck up, or environmental projects. Egypt should be leading an international effort to preserve the waters of the Nile. This could be a project young people could get behind. Then they can contribute to make sure that their children are able to drink water not so far down the line. These are the real pressing environmental concerns that don’t even enter the rhetoric yet. In a desert country, with a small amount of land, and determined amount of water, these are the most pressing limits to growth yet nobody’s paying attention to them. But that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, unless I am elected president.







The book is non-fiction, Cairo: City of Sand. I was fortunate to have a London publisher who allowed me to approach in any way I wished. I decided to do it in a third person way. I knew that ‘I’ would be very present in it without making it a first person book. I wanted to put into this book everything that had amazed, troubled, thrilled, mystified me really, in the years I’d lived in Cairo. It was a chance for me to download what I felt was so remarkable about the city, not just positive things, but obviously also remarkably awful things too. This book was a chance to pay tribute to the city.


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