Conversations in Little Egypt
[thethe-image-slider name=”Faces of Little Egypt”]
All Photographs by Alejandro Armas. Slideshow: “Faces of Little Egypt.”
“I have never believed in torture,” Hosni Shahata told me over tea in the Egyptian Coffee Shop on Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. “But I believe in it now. Mubarak has tortured 80 million people for 30 years and I want him and his family to be tortured. I want them tortured painfully and very slowly.”
Shahata is a Whirling Dervish dancer who emigrated from Cairo to New York in 1976 to dance with his father. When he became a US Citizen in 1983, he changed his name from Hosni Shahata to Jeffery Fares. “I didn’t want to have the same first name as Mubarak,” he told me. “I never liked this guy. Now that he has resigned I am going back to my original name. I am proud to be an Egyptian again.”
Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt since 1981, stepped down from the presidency on February 11, 2011, after three weeks of widespread national protests demanding his resignation. The revolutionary events were a link in a longer chain; they followed demonstrations in Tunisia, where protestors were able to oust the longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and preceded uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, where leaders have violently refused to abandon power.
The global community is calling this time in history the “Arab Spring,” an awakening after a long period of political stagnation. But no one knows whether spring will actually turn into summer, or if it will retreat into another period of repression.
Egypt has a population over 80,000,000 (the largest in the Middle East) and what happens there will dictate the geopolitics of the region and the rest of the global community for a long time.
“I don’t care who our next leader is because I know that no one like Mubarak is going to come,” Shahata told me. “The Egyptian people showed the world that they are civilized people and can throw their president out and elect who they want.”
His response is the emotional reaction of someone who is watching the events from afar but wants to participate. Someone who is proud of the risks his countrymen have taken and can’t possibly understand that the victory of Mubarak’s resignation might be temporary, that these risks might not materialize in lasting triumph.
When I watched the news on February 11—the people of Egypt were crying, dancing in the streets, waving flags, and hugging one another—I realized that it went beyond politics. I had to do a double take after I switched to the local news and saw the same thing that was happening in Cairo on the streets of Little Egypt (an enclave in Astoria).
On April 12, after having heard nothing but academic discourse about Egypt for two months, I took the M60 bus to Queens. I wanted to hear what the Egyptians in New York had to say.
That day, Egyptian prosecutors had detained Mubarak, his sons, and members of his administration for 15 days of questioning about the corruption that had occurred during their fifteen-year regime, and about the 800 deaths that had occurred during the protests.
It was drizzling as I scanned the businesses on Steinway Street. I was looking for a café recommended to me by a friend who had spent a year in Cairo.
She explained that café culture is big in Egypt—men visit cafes to relax, play backgammon, talk politics—but women are not traditionally allowed inside. “This is the US, so you’re allowed in of course,” she said. “Just don’t expect to see any other women.”
The awning of the “Egyptian Coffee Shop,” was painted in the colors of the Egyptian flag. On the white stripe, next to the English name, there was a series of words in Arabic, which had clearly been pasted over a pre-existing sign. I asked one of the servers inside what the Arabic said and he told me: “January 25th Revolution Café.”
It was a long and narrow, smoke-filled room with about ten tables—five against each wall. I sat down at a little round table across from a framed portrait of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of Egypt. It hung right next to a poster of Mubarak, whose face was circled and crossed out, like a No Smoking sign, with the words “Thank God!” printed below.
I ordered black tea with mint leaves and looked around. No one seemed to care that I was there. About a dozen men, some sitting alone, others talking or playing backgammon, pulled on hookah pipes and glanced periodically at the big flat-screen TV hanging on the back wall. It was set to an Egyptian news channel airing some sort of press conference with the defense minister (and interim ruler of Egypt) Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
The uniformed and decorated Tantawi spoke stoically into the microphone; he looked like the quintessential military dictator. Tantawi has been a part of the military apparatus since 1956 and was a longtime associate of Mubarak’s. This winter, the military switched sides and betrayed Mubarak by helping civilians to oust him from power.
After Mubarak stepped down, the military vowed to maintain order until Egypt was ready to elect a leader. Meanwhile, the military made sweeping changes in accordance with protestors’ demands—dissolving the parliament, suspending the constitution, and calling for national elections in the fall. When Tantawi became the interim leader, he assured Egyptians that he had embraced the idea of a democratic future for Egypt.
Yet, many people are skeptical about the military’s willingness to accept democratic change and hand over power to civilians. On April 8th, tens of thousands of Egyptians, upset with the lack of real progress since the regime overthrow in February, went back to Tahrir Square to protest. Though it was a peaceful demonstration, riot police shot two people and injured dozens of others.
Part of what triggered the demonstrations was the arrest of the 25-year-old Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil, who had criticized the military on his blog. “The revolution has so far succeeded in getting rid of the dictator, but the dictatorship is still there.” he wrote. On April 10, he was sentenced to three years in prison for “publishing false information” and “insulting the Armed Forces.”
I stirred my tea and tried to gauge the emotions of the men around me as they watched Tantawi speak. That’s when I noticed Shahata, sitting by himself and pulling on a hookah. He was the only one smiling at the television.
Shahata is a petite, middle-aged, mustached man who has been dancing since he was four. He wasted no time in telling me how much he’d hated Mubarak since he came to power in 1981. (Mubarak was Vice President when a group of soldiers assassinated President Anwar Sadat at a military parade in honor of what Egypt considered its victory over Israel in the 1973 war. Mubarak inherited the presidency and used Sadat’s assassination as an excuse to keep Egypt in a State of Emergency Rule for Marshall Law.)
“An Israeli guy told me the news of Sadat’s assassination, and we stood together, crying,” Shahata sighed, exhaling sheesha smoke. “I loved Sadat very much.”
He recalled how he’d felt increasingly sad with each year of Mubarak’s tenure. “I used to go to Egypt with my kids all the time, but I stopped going from 1995 to 2006, because every time I went, I would see the Egyptian people walking down the street with faces like dead people.” He shook his head and pursed his lips together. “A bunch of corrupt people were controlling the country, and no one could say a word. If they did, they would disappear—probably they were shot.”
Now that Mubarak is gone, Shahata is frustrated that western media does not share his optimism about Egypt’s future—he feels that media outlets focus either on the threat of Islamic fundamentalists coming to power, or on the military retaining it. “But Egyptians are very smart and they know the difference between a good and bad leader,” he insisted.
Intimating that the media’s pessimism is the result of “one big problem,” Shahata leaned in and whispered, “The media here is controlled by the Jews. And you know,” he added, raising his eyebrows, “my ex-wife was Jewish.”
Then he pounded his fist on the table and told me that he wanted me and the world to understand one thing: “This is the Arab looking for democracy.”
Suddenly, Shahata pointed toward a short gray-haired man with rectangular glasses. “Here is the man you should be talking to!” he exclaimed, gesturing for him to sit down.
Albir Shokralla hesitated before pulling over a chair. “I only have a couple of minutes,” he said, but Shahata insisted, before leaving the table to step outside.
Shokralla told me that he had initially beeen excited by Mubarak’s resignation. Two months later, he feels anxious. “Crime has risen, there is major instability, and no clear leader has emerged. The Muslim Brotherhood is the only group that knows how to run an election. I see a very dark future for Egypt.”
The Muslim Brotherhood played a large part in the winter protests. An Islamic organization established in 1928, it advocates for rule according to the Quran. Though in its early stages the organization promoted jihad, over the years, it has come to denounce violence and to advocate its cause through legitimate political channels. “It’s like Mother Theresa compared to some of the other groups out there,” confided Shokralla, maintaining that it would still be bad for Egypt if they came to power.
The Brotherhood was illegal during Mubarak’s tenure—Egyptian law banned all parties based on religion. Since his resignation, the military has tacitly allowed the group into Egypt’s political realm. According to a March 24, 2011, article in The New York Times, the Muslim Brotherhood has become “the driving political force” in Egypt. The organization is in the process of forming a political party.
Shokralla is a Copt. Coptic Christians make up about 10-percent of Egypt’s population, and they are politically marginalized—Sadat declared Islam “a major source of legislation” in 1971. In 1981, he changed the words “a major” to “the principal.”
There was a lot of optimism about Muslim and Christian relations during the protests this winter. The two groups united in their fight to oust Mubarak—Christians shielded Muslims during the call for prayer, and Muslims protected Christians when the thugs were attacking.
After Mubarak stepped down, however, tensions rose again. In March, mobs of Muslims went around the town Sol, 90km south of Cairo, burning Christian homes and a Coptic church after they had discovered that a Muslim man was in a relationship with a Christian woman. On May 7 there were more sectarian riots outside of Cairo—another Coptic church was set in flames.
“The majority of people want to live in peace. We see beautiful photos of Copts and Muslims holding hands on the street, but of course, every peaceful moment can be ruined by radical groups,” lamented Shokralla.
He told me that there were two scenarios for the Middle East. “Either it becomes stable, or there will be chaos and civil war as we see in Yemen and Libya. This will be a magnet for Al Qaeda and other radical Muslims. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I am afraid it’s leaning towards the fanatics and the fundamentalists.”
On this note, he excused himself. He was late for a backgammon game two tables away.
An older man in a green Timberland baseball cap walked in, nodded at Shokralla, waved at Shahata, who was now schmoozing at another table, and asked me if he could sit next to me.
“Of course,” I said, and he sat down and unwrapped a turkey sandwich.
His name is Ibrahim Ebied, and he’s a retired freelance translator from Cairo. He comes to the Egyptian Coffee Shop three or four times a week from Jackson Heights, which is thirty minutes by subway (Shahata comes all the way from the Upper Eastside).
Ebied expressed measured optimism about Egypt’s future. “All Egypt needs is a good constitution,” he said and explained that “Egypt had a long history of democracy.”
From 1922 until 1952, Egypt operated as a constitutional monarchy set up by Britain. Under that system Egypt was secular as well as culturally more European than Arab. On July 23, 1952, a group called “The Free Officers Movement” overthrew the regime, bringing Gamal Abdel Nasser to power and establishing an Arab republic. Nasser started the pan-Arab movement, which led Egypt to adopt a more Arab identity.
“Since then, we have been ruled by one dictator after another,” Ebied said, looking down at his hands. “It is going to take some time for the people to understand what democracy really means.”
Ebied went on to tell me that he was not worried about the military retaining power (“From the beginning they have acted honestly and straightforwardly and have expressed that they have no interest in ruling”), and he emphasized that he did not want a charismatic ruler for Egypt.
“We’ve had charismatic rulers,” he said, pointing to the portrait of Nasser hanging on the wall. “Sadat was also charismatic, but we want someone who can find solutions.”
When Ebied said this, I remembered the sadness with which Shahata described the assassination. “I thought the Egyptians loved Sadat,” I challenged.
Ebied waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Sadat was a dictator too,” he said. “He did some good things, but his mistakes were great. He is the one who brought fundamentalists to Egypt. At first he didn’t have much support or popularity on the street, so he befriended Nasser’s enemies. His enemies at the time were the Muslim Brotherhood. Sadat is the one who took the genie out of the bottle.”
Sadat became president after Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970. After making friends with the Muslim Brotherhood, Sadat made peace with Israel; the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979, ending thirty years of war.
“Sadat was a man of adventure, political adventure,” Ebied reflected. “If I wanted to compare him to someone, I would compare him to Neil Armstrong. Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem was similar to man’s first trip to the moon. He grabbed the people’s admiration; the whole world was stunned by that visit.”
Sadat’s actions in Israel won him a lot of praise in the West but turned the Islamic groups against him, eventually leading to his assassination. “He was killed by his own hands,” Ebied told me.
Ebied then explained that he liked Mubarak even less than he liked Sadat. “When a human being stays in power for a long time, a mental change happens. It could happen to anybody, especially a dictator. Mubarak is a victim of his own making.”
He leaned forward, put down his turkey sandwich, dropped his hands on his thighs, and stared at a point beyond my head. “Mubarak is like the heroes in Shakespearean tragedy—a tragic hero. For every story there is a hero, and when there is a point of weakness in his character, it will cause his downfall. Sometimes this weakness is too much ambition, too much vanity.”
Right then, Shahata walked by in a beige trench coat. He waved to me and winked, (“Masha, baby, take care”), and when he reached the door, he hesitated, before coming back and speaking into my ear. He wanted to talk about his dancing career.
“Please record this. I was on the David Letterman show, the Jon Stewart show, and Good Morning America. You can rent a movie: The Spy Who Loved Me, a James Bond movie, and you can see my mother, my brother, my entire family in there.” Then he squeezed my shoulder and walked out.
Shokralla came back to talk to me after his backgammon game. He nodded at Ebied, saying, “This man, he is always reading. He’s read everything in the library,” and then announced that he loved nothing more than talking politics.
Until a couple of years ago, when he learned just how corrupt the regime was, Shokralla had been a Mubarak supporter. “I would have voted for his son Gamal to replace him,” he admitted, then commended Mubarak for resigning. “He had a little class; he couldn’t be locked down as a thug like the guys in Yemen and Syria. That’s why he stepped down. He could have easily opened fire, but he didn’t.”
He clarified that it wasn’t really that he had liked Mubarak; it was just that he didn’t see a better alternative. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) had been in power since 1952. “During all that time, no one else was able to gain any experience in running the government,” Shokralla explained. “Yes we want change, yes we want different people in power, but if you get a cab driver to become president, or even a foreign minister, they won’t know what to do. I want the country run proficiently, like it should be.”
On April 16, 2011, the Supreme Administrative Court of Egypt ruled that the NDP would be officially dissolved. A new constitutional referendum, voted on by the Egyptian people this March, has given other parties the momentum to organize, including some Islamic parties.
“Now we have to worry about the extremists coming to power,” lamented Shokralla.
According to the results of a Pew Research Center Poll that surveyed 1,000 Egyptians in face-to-face interviews—the first major public opinion poll since Mubarak stepped down—about 30 percent favor Islamic fundamentalists, while 30 percent oppose them; the rest are indifferent.
“The Salafis are the ones to worry about,” Ebied jumped back into the conversation. “They want to follow in the footsteps of the prophet.”
Salafism, a term derived from the Arabic noun salaf, meaning “predecessor,” refers to a movement of Muslims who believe in violent jihad. Salafis have been actively demonstrating in favor of Islamic leadership since the regime change. Many of them have been freed from prison and allowed to re-emerge from the shadows of Egyptian life.
Ebied pointed out that their plight isn’t strictly a matter of religion. “It is a matter of politics—the Salafis want to re-establish the Islamic Empire to go back to the early time when Muslims were real Muslims.” Although he does not agree with this as a course for Egypt, he said that he would accept whatever came out of the ballot box.
“Let’s say we have the Muslim Brotherhood in the government, this is a reality. They understand that in the political kitchen of the West. If we have an Islamic government, we will have to deal with them.”
“Yes,” Shokralla said, “but the question is, will they deal with the West?” Then he shook his head and said that he was glad to be living in the United States.
“There is nowhere like New York. I have traveled a lot and I am always so glad to come back.” Shokralla left Egypt in 1978, when he was 19, in order to avoid the draft. He didn’t return to Egypt for a period of 11 years. “I went back to visit when I was 30, once they could no longer draft me.”
Ebied left Cairo in 1977 “for the same reason everyone leaves—America was temptation. I accomplished a lot of things here, especially for my children.”
He looked nostalgic when I asked him if he ever returns to Egypt. He used to visit every two years, but these days he visits less because he feels that the country is changing for the worse. “The people are not the same, and the things that used to be beautiful are not beautiful anymore.”
He confided that since he stopped working, he’s felt lost. “I’m happy in this country, but when you retire, when you get old, sometimes you wish you could go back.” Then he gestured at the other men in the café. “We are very close here,” he said. “We see each other more than we see our own families.”
Shahata feels conflicted too. He still considers himself an Egyptian but made sure to clarify that he will stay in New York. “America has been a wonderful stepmother to me. My life is here now.”