Under the Black Blanket

01/17/12

Blood, Mint Tea and Free Speech

riche.jpegTonight, we returned to Cafe Riche, pictured left, a downtown Cairo bistro where Naguib Mahfouz once drank coffee every morning at 8 a.m. It's walking distance from Tahrir Square, and the last time we tried to go there, Sunday afternoon, a gang of men with swords was rampaging through the streets and deterred us.
Cafe Riche is one of those watering holes of the imagination, where spies and intellectuals and artists and movie stars used to congregate, in the days of Ray Bans and black and white photography. And maybe they still do.
Among the regulars there tonight, in the fog of Marlboro smoke, was a lawyer who likes to go on t.v.  and argue with the Islamists, a journalist, an engineer missing a hand, a very dessicated looking "famous movie star". They were  talking about how the last time the Ireligious parties were in Parliament, in the 1990s, and again in '05, they went straight for the jugular vein of Egyptian intellectual life, filing what are called "hisba" lawsuits, which are like citizens arrests in which the accuser charges that a person is breaking some precept of religious law. Usually the targets have been writers, poets and moderate Muslims, the most notorious was a moderate Muslim philosopher Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, who, after being charged under the hisba system, was legally reclassified as an atheist, and forcibly divorced from his wife (in Egypt non Muslims and Muslims cannot marry). He self- exiled to Holland and later died, obit here.
One of the lawyers said he expected that during the next two years all the free thinkers in Cairo will be picked off and hisba'ed.
As we were chatting over our tea and wine and cigarettes, the laconic blue-robed, Ottoman-costumed waiters all suddenly dashed out the front door and started yanking down the metal shutters to protect the beautiful old street-front glass walls from a rampaging band of knife, gun and rock wielding thugs. Thus trapped inside, with occasional explosions and shouts reaching us from beyond the walls, we nattered on about the imminent death of free speech in Egypt,
Outside, the marauders (about two dozen teens rumored to be paid) attacked the small group of tentdwellers who have been in Tahrir Square, throwing molotov cocktails and burning them to ashes. My young translator had run out to join the scene and returned to Cafe Riche with blood on his pants, very worried about what his mother was going to say when she saw the evidence of his brush with danger. He had helped flag down a taxi and force the driver to take a bleeding man in the street to a hospital. Tahrir was still smoking as we left and all the tents are gone.
So it goes in Egypt tonight.

2 Comments | Leave a comment

Powerful stuff, Nina. Stay safe.

Hisba'ed, eh. Hadn't known that word before. Interesting account from the intellectuals. Keep the updates coming. These are much more refreshing than the standard newspaper fair from Egypt these days. Thanks.

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