A group of students sat in a fake coffee shop, giggling as a 19-year-old, his galabaya hanging over his Adidas trainers, paraded a crate of Pepsi bottles in front of them.
“Cold drinks! Pepsi! Cold drinks!” he sang out in Arabic slang.
The pretend coffee shop sat in a fake street built for the occasion. It looked rather like a film set for an old western — the facades had nothing behind them, and the “shops” overlooked a spacious square, around which milled a number of students dressed in galabeyas and tarbooshes.
I had come to the American University Cairo’s New Campus to experience El 7ara, a project by AUC’s Theater and Film Club.
“It is a unique and unprecedented experience from the local Egyptian streets brought to you,” the Facebook page told me. I would find a “lost identity,” and have a chance “to walk in the alleys of Cairo and experience this style of living.”
Whose identity, I wondered, and who lost it? Curious to find out, I bought a LE150 ticket, which included a voucher for LE500 off Apple products at iTouch.
Certainly, as is expected from a Theater and Film Club, the set was impressive, looking well-funded and professional. Far from a mere alleyway, the club had created a mini-neighborhood complete with shops, fairground rides and vegetable carts. A large stage took up one corner, with a sound system pumping out 1950s pop music.
The young students were happy to explain the lost traditions on offer.
“This is sweet potato,” somebody told me, directing me to a man in a tarboosh working a spotless stainless steel oven.
“Oh, this is koshary,” explained another. “It’s very traditional.”
Walking around the square I found all sorts of “traditional” things, such as men selling seeds from wicker baskets, an Egyptian wedding (“not like ones in hotels,” I was told), a marching brass band, and a microbus sitting idly on the corner. El 7ara appeared to be a mixture of the mundane and the fantastic, with a carnival atmosphere, but for what purpose?
“The idea behind it is to show people what the average alleyway is really like,” said one of the organizers, 18-year-old Amr from 6th of October City. “People should know about these things, it’s part of our history as Egyptians. People like Gamel Abdel Nasser came from places like this. It’s important to come see these places, so we have set up a way for people to see them.”
From the way Amr spoke, I was not sure if El 7ara represented a scene from the present or from the past. Apart from the tarbooshes and brass band, it consisted of elements that are all around us in Cairo: street coffee-shops, koshary and taamiya vendors, a microbus. Was it not possible for AUC students to visit such neighborhoods, I asked?
“Well, they could, but they don’t have to,” Amr said. “We have brought it to them here. It’s on their campus. Also it’s much safer here. Many rich men would not want their daughters to visit a place like this in real life, it’s too dangerous. Probably 50 percent of these people have never seen a place like this for real, but it’s safe here.”
This seemed to imply that the environment of the vast majority of Egyptians is unsafe, and would no doubt give fuel to those who had criticized the event on social media, accusing the students of self-orientalism and a dangerously touristic attitude toward their own countrymen, without asking any questions about class and inequality.
But the many attendees appeared to appreciate the opportunity. They strolled around the meticulously clean environment, delighted in chewing sunflower seeds and pretended to sell spring onions dressed in abayas, while the much older AUC security guards looked on in bemusement.
The “koshary restaurant,” where take-away was LE20, was manned by five young men wearing tarboosh.
“This is the traditional headgear,” explained Amr. “You will find it in koshary restaurants.”
In El 7ara, at least, the tarboosh was ubiquitous. I approached another organizer, Mohamed Mohsen, a 21-year-old engineering student from New Cairo dressed in a galabeya with an H&M scarf as a turban, to ask about it.
“The tarboosh is something from our past, it’s very traditional,” he said. “You’ll see it in lots of old movies, for example.”
I was still struggling to work out if El 7ara was a scene from the past or from the present. When I explained this to him, he found it equally confusing.
“But it’s the same,” he said.
This idea has also gained the event criticism on the Egyptian blogosphere — the depiction of part of Egyptian society in a perpetual, timeless state has reminded many of European attitudes toward “the East” in the 19th and 20th centuries.
A young man walked up behind me on stilts, dressed as Uncle Sam.
“Would you like a picture with him?” the young woman accompanying him asked. “You will find people like this walking around El 7ara, it’s very traditional.”
This increased my confusion. I was reassured by another attendee, an 18-year-old physics student called Yousef, from Giza.
“I don’t think this is very accurate,” he said. He had come to the event out of curiosity and, having got there, was skeptical. “Some parts of this are real, but most of it is just fantasy. I’m not saying I agree with the people who think it is immoral — I think the idea is good, but it’s not accurate at all.”
I asked him if this is because the organizers don’t know what an alleyway really looks like.
“It’s possible,” he replied, “but it could also be the case that they chose to leave certain parts of it out. They just want to focus on the parts they like.”
“But why do it at all?’ I asked.
“Many people will never see this in their lives,” said Yousef, “and they’re curious.”
The sight of girls pretending to sell onions from a basket, flawlessly straight white teeth shining from specially purchased abayas, and the sound of 20-something Egyptian boys putting on a show of pretending to be 20-something Egyptian boys were surreal. There was an innocent curiosity to it all: A society that had grown up in isolation, in secluded compounds, wanted to learn more about a “lost identity” they felt totally detached from.
But there was more to it than that. El 7ara was a metaphor for what the organizers considered traditional Egypt. The picture they drew was a place without time, with eternal, unchanging characters. The culture represented was clearly perceived as universally traditional and Egyptian, yet by pretending to be part of it, they were confirming to themselves that they were not: They had left out everything associated with modernity and created a world to which they could not belong.
Before I left, I asked Mohamed if he thought the display was representative of Cairo.
“Yeah, I think so,” he told me. “I’ve been to places like this before in Old Cairo, and it was 99 percent like this.”
Had they left certain parts out?
“Yes, of course,” he said. “I suppose if you go to old Cairo then you will find technology shops as well. They can fix your iPhone and things like that, but those aren’t the things we were interested in showing here.”
So by purposefully creating a world which didn’t exist, leaving out the things they thought modern and could relate to, surely the objective was not to reacquaint themselves with Egypt’s alleyways, but to invent a world to alienate themselves from, where everyone wears the tarboosh and galabeya?
“Well, they have to wear the tarboosh,” Mohamed said. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, they would look just like us.”