As myself and tens of millions of Egyptians jubilantly relish at the victory of toppling a dictator who ruthlessly clung to power for three decades, it may seem unusual that I have garbage on my mind.
Watching footage of the past two weeks building up to the revolution that would depose Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, I was shocked to see Egyptians picking up paper scraps and splashing water onto the streets of Tahrir Square with mops and matchless motivation, cleansing their surroundings with a spirit of pure delight and good cheer. This struck me as a key symbol that something had fundamentally transformed in the Egyptian mindset.
A daughter of Egyptian parents but born and raised in Canada, I was always deeply bothered by trash during my usually infrequent trips to my homeland as a child. I couldn’t understand the rationale of throwing cigarette butts, candy bar wrappers, empty plastic bottles out of speeding car windows and dirtying one’s neighbourhood and home. One day when I was 13, during the second family holiday to Egypt that I can recall, I posed the question to one of my cousins Ashraf. We were visiting him and other relatives in the Suez Canal city Ismailia, my mother’s birthplace.
My cousin, then a 30-something lawyer who had lived his entire life in the North Eastern Egyptian city, smiled , looked me in the eye, and said in a matter-of-fact way, “ya habibty ya Daliah, this is not Canada. Our government gives us no benefit for keeping the country clean. This culture doesn’t exist here”. I admit that in the almost two decades that have passed since then, most of the details of that glorious summer holiday spent with family in Cairo, Fayoum, Ismailia, Suez and Port Said have escaped my memory. But Ashraf’s words remained etched in my mind. Egyptians had been denied a culture of civic responsibility by a government that defined legitimacy as its ability to incite fear and indifference among its people.
Each time I returned to Egypt following that trip in 1992, I saw the trash accumulate more prominently; as the streets became more riddled with rubbish, I felt inside that it represented another layer of hopelessness afflicting the population. I worked as a journalist in Egypt from 2002 to 2004, but left as living costs soared wildly in part triggered by a state decision to sever the dollar peg in favour of adopting a managed flotation for the Egyptian currency in early 2003. Inflation mounted in the following years due to currency weakness, high oil prices, swelling global food costs, huge population growth. As the people’s frustrations grew more palpable, the trash piles heaped higher and higher.
But I wasn’t prepared for what I would witness during my three visits to Egypt in the past year and a half. People living in our 10-year-old apartment building in the Haram (Pyramids) district of Cairo were throwing entire bags of trash from their eighth and ninth floor balconies onto the empty plot of privately held, abandoned land behind us. It was covered in garbage. I was shocked and appalled. Only palm trees, not a spot of trash, could be seen on that land just five years earlier.
My brother-in-law, who grew up adoring Egyptian cinema and people from afar, was ecstatic about embarking on his first trip to Egypt this past September. He was, regrettably, taken aback by the filth that filled so many Cairene streets. One day, he went with my mom and nephews to visit the Pyramids and a man with a horse-drawn carriage graciously offered to take them on a tour, but said he would use a short cut. Smirking, he told them they should be prepared to see some wonderful “ful and yasmeen” – deliciously fragrant flowers commonly sold in Egypt. My gullible mother and brother-in-law believed him. Until, that is, the old man’s truly Egyptian humour rung clear; the carriage passed through heaps of uncollected pungent trash, situated just off the five-star Mena House hotel adjacent to the Grand Pyramids. They pressed their noses closed and laughed at the redefinition of floral aroma.
While Egyptians always bring light-hearted humour into every situation, desperation was building. I could feel it on every street corner – the people were frustrated, desperate, irritated following 30 years of repression and years of double-digit inflation met with no meaningful increase in wages. Along with the building furore, I was overwhelmed by how garbage was teeming everywhere. Walking along the Nile with my family one day, police officers tried to force us to erase photographs we had taken of the trash amassing along the banks of the great river. It was disgraceful. My mom cursed the government, and Hosni Mubarak, her criticisms silenced only by our pleas for her not to make a scene. Egypt was, simply, overflowing with the sense of indignity and apathy that my cousin had described to me so many years before.
You can imagine my astonishment watching footage of Egyptians rolling up their sleeves and cleaning Cairo’s streets in Liberation Square this past two and a half weeks. It literally moved me to tears. All it took for the patient, good-humoured, inventive Egyptians was the scent of freedom to restore their dignity and faith in the future of their country, and fuel their resolve to rebuild its glory, one piece of trash at a time.
In my elation at the momentous events of the past 18 days, I imagine that during my next visit to Egypt, it will appear exceptionally cleaner – in form and spirit. I imagine the attitude of civic responsibility will spread through the streets and people will take pride in their supreme accomplishment of regaining their dignity and reclaiming ownership of their land. It will take a long time for Egypt to reverse the damage left by decades of oblivious dictatorship. But I have enormous faith that this newfound freedom will echo in every corner of ‘Umm Al Donya’, an Arabic phrase commonly associated with Egypt, meaning ‘Mother of the World’.