Ideas

People and Places: Imbaba

By Panthea Lee // March 18, 2011
    People and Places: Imbaba

    Just 5 kilometres from the quiet, tree-lined streets and historic villas of Cairo’s affluent Zamalek neighbourhood is the district of Imbaba. Its streets are strewn with garbage, roamed by skeletal strays, and flanked by long expired street lights. In this impoverished neighbourhood, where population density is three times that of Manhattan, we met two friends: Saeed and Mustafa.

    Saeed is elated about the events of the past month and eager to detail his involvement. Starting on Friday, January 28 — orchestrated as the “Day of Rage” by organizers — this taxi driver abandoned his job. “For two weeks, I served my duty in my country’s liberation.”

    Daily he crossed the Nile on his way to Tahrir, often merging with like-minded mobs along the way. In Saeed’s mind, there was only one path to liberation: the road to Tahrir. “And so we stood our ground, we fought.” Saeed does not mention the riot police’s use of tear gas or water cannons and, later, when the topic is brought up, his face darkens. “Those are events that should not have been broadcast across the world. Al-Jazeera had good coverage of events in Egypt, but they were wrong to shame the Egyptian people,” he says quietly. “There are some things that are private to a nation, our own business.” Unlike several youth activists we spoke with, Saeed does not stress the hardships he and his fellow protesters endured. They were part of the price of freedom, we are made to understand, and the conversation moves abruptly forward.

    Saeed is optimistic about a better Egypt, but recognizes getting there will take time. “I didn’t care about politics before January 25, but now I am motivated to learn more.” This sentiment was repeated by many others we encountered over our time in Egypt. Saeed is grateful to Facebook for helping bring forth the revolution. Though he himself has not used the website, he believes users of Facebook and similar tools will be critical to his country’s salvation. “Technology is powerful. It allows true dialogue.” And although Saeed has never used the platform, he adds, “Everyone should be on Facebook. It is our duty.”

    Within Imbaba, Saeed is very much the organic leader that emerges in any tightly knit community. He was the one that collected the 20 Egyptian pounds (USD 3.40) each from more than 30 neighbours to repair the long broken street lights in his alley. Yet despite his proactive nature and his optimism for Egypt’s future, Saeed grows visibly dejected when the topic turns to Imbaba’s prospects. “I want people from here to be represented, but I just don’t see how that can happen. People from Imbaba can only take part in politics up to a certain point: we could participate in Tahrir. Now, it is out of our hands — the rest is up to others, and up to God.”

    Three things, Saeed says, brought him to Tahrir: the desire for freedom, for greater class equality, and for ‘a normal life’, defined as having enough money to provide for his family of eight. To his mind, there has been progress on the first. The path to the latter two demands, he believes, is far more uncertain. Saeed believes the barriers of entry to politics are impossibly high for people like him. Serving as a physical body to bolster the protests, he says, was one thing. The next step in national reform requires facilities he simply doesn’t have: “We are too illiterate, too poor. We don’t even have enough money to take care of daily life, to pay the baksheesh I need to pay to get by,” hey says, referring to the greasing of the palms customary across the Middle East. “How will we have the resources to make things better?”

    He is, however, determined to remain a vigilant watchdog for progress. If those entrusted to rebuild Egypt fail him, Saeed says punishment will be swift: “We now know the way to Tahrir, and we won’t be afraid to head back,” he proudly declares. Like many in Imbaba, Saeed supports the Egyptian-American scientist Ahmed Zewail as one of Egypt’s future leaders. “He won a Nobel Prize in 1999 and,” pausing for dramatic effect, “advises President Obama!” (Zewail is one of Obama’s advisors on science and technology.) He looks thrilled, and the trademark Egyptian pride is on full display.

    Saeed also places hope in select institutions. For years, entities including the non-governmental organization Resala and the well known religious group the Muslim Brotherhood have provided critical social services to Saeed and his neighbours. Such groups have earned the type of strong, popular credibility and trust that can only be established with time and effort. Though he does not politically identify with the Brotherhood, nor with its interpretations of Islam, Saeed recognizes its immense societal value. His family has received medical, education, and financial services from the Brotherood, and he knows it also operates social support programs for widows, orphans, and the disabled. Saeed hopes groups like Resala and the Brotherood will take an active role in rebuilding Egypt, for these are parties he knows he can trust to care for him and his family.

    Saeed’s cautious optimism was balanced with the dark pragmatism of his neighbour Mustafa, who is blunt in his analysis of the situation. “There has not been a revolution,” he says flatly. “The worst has gone, but many more like him remain, in government and in society. Things will now get better for them — they have been waiting for this moment — but not for us. For people like me, things will forever stay the same.”

    We are in Mustafa’s home, a two-chamber studio on the ground floor of a four-storey building. Graffiti covers the building’s outer walls. One particularly striking piece depicts the Kaaba, a sacred Islamic site in Mecca. Within the building’s unfinished concrete walls live 12 families. There is one bathroom for the entire building. In Mustafa’s own 250-square-foot home lives his family of eight. There are thin floral carpets beneath our feet, though the flowers have long since worn away and resemble little more than brownish pink blotches with dabs of faint green. A few pieces of decorative fabric cover the spotty walls. A mixture of peeling sea-green paint and grime pokes out beneath the exterior layer.

    Mustafa seems tired. Really, truly exhausted. Unlike his exuberant friend, Mustafa views the events of the past month as more annoyance than anything. As a day labourer who collects and sells scrap metal, he found that business essentially shut down for two weeks while the nation was caught up in revolution. It was a trying, difficult time for Mustafa.

    “One day I don’t work is one day that my family doesn’t eat. We had no food for two weeks and had to beg from our neighbours.” He believes Saeed was foolish to participate in the protests in Tahrir, and openly scolds his friend. “People like us are the wood on the fire. They wanted you to sacrifice, but they don’t care about you. There will always be more of you, more of us. We are always available for sacrifice.” One gets the sense that he is talking about more than just Tahrir.

    Mustafa’s long list of complaints against his country centre around two themes: immutable poverty and injustice. His son was imprisoned because the family couldn’t afford to pay their electricity bill. Mustafa finally begged and borrowed the USD 10 in baksheesh — one week’s pay — needed to get his son out. He wants his children to lead a better life, but he can’t afford the private classes needed to get them there. “My son is in Grade 9 and still doesn’t know how to read,” despairs the father. “They keep just passing him up through the grades, just to get him through the system. But then how will we ever improve our place in life?”

    To buy gas for their home in Imbaba, Mustafa complains, is 10 times what it costs in wealthy Zamalek because his neighbourhood lacks basic urban infrastructure. He says even the government ‘support’ his family does receive, is a joke. “We bought a loaf of government bread once [bread that is made from subsidized flour the government provides to bakers to allow them to make cheaper, poorer quality goods for low-income clients]. When we brought it home to eat, we found a cockroach in it. That would never happen for those that can pay; for people like us, they don’t care. They treat us however they like… It should not be this way.” He looks deflated. Tired.

    As for the upcoming elections, Mustafa says he will not be voting. “What is the point?” he asks, returning to his favourite metaphor. “We are just wood for the fire; nothing will change for us anyway.”