One Foot on the Moon

Hosni Mubarak
Hosni Mubarak; drawing by David Levine

1.

“Egypt resembles an iceberg, one eighth is above sea level. Seven eighths are submerged in the depths. One eighth of our lives takes place in the light of the twentieth century, seven eighths in medieval darkness…In the nineteenth century we went through pangs of birth…but the renaissance was stillborn, and when another embryo was formed in the womb [under Nasser] it was aborted.”

—Dr. Louis Awad, Egyptian literary critic, 1969

By simply turning a corner in central Cairo, one enters a different world and even a different sphere of time. A short distance behind the glossy steel-glass-and-marble office tower of Al-Ahram, the prestigious semi-official Egyptian daily, another age, another Egypt begins.

In the Al-Ahram building one finds the elaborate gadgetry of a great publishing house and research center with its ultramodern computers and automated printing presses, and with its sophisticated executives, fluent in several languages, who communicate with their secretaries—and perhaps also with the outside world—by closed-circuit television. Luxury cars come and go, and doormen in dark suits behind high glass walls require all visitors to walk through blinking metal detectors, as in an airport.

Barely fifty yards away begins a labyrinth of narrow lanes where millions of Egyptians live in seedy shacks and dark warrens above and below ground, often without water, sewers, or electricity. The vast, teeming slum districts stretch far into the distance. On crumbling walls fundamentalist graffiti proclaim the imminent victory of radical Islam whose advocates consider Hosni Mubarak a second Shah. “For every Shah there is an Ayatollah,” “Islam is the solution,” “There is no God but God.” On the broken pavement someone has just slaughtered a lamb and is cutting up its leg with a large saw. Barefoot kids wade through the dirt piled in the street. Used shoes are laid out for sale in great heaps. Clouds of smoke and dust and the stench of sewer water hang in the thick air between shacks of mud and corrugated iron.

Much of the top floor of the Al-Ahram tower is taken up by an executive dining room. Top editors, columnists, politicians, and well-known Egyptian intellectuals gather there for lunch. Since the days of Nasser and Sadat, dozens of writers and other intellectuals (including some who oppose the government) have had their offices in the building, even when the Al-Ahram would never print their articles (they were nicknamed “intellectuals on the shelf”). Through the large picture windows there is a fascinating view of Cairo, old and new. In the far distance, the pyramids float on pink-gray clouds of air pollution. Nearer, the city’s latest skyscrapers soar against the background of the slums. In the harsh light everything is bleak and gray and there is hardly a tree or anything green in sight.

I sat up there by the window talking with one of Al-Ahram’s leading columnists. He was furious that beer and other alcoholic…


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