The Dust Spoke Of Survival

by Zoe Pollock

Derek Vertongen recalls an older Egypt:

When I first went to Cairo, Anwar Sadat had been dead for six years, but many of his official portraits still hung in shops and back rooms and petrol stations. Sadat looked friendly in the faded black-and-white pictures. His successorthe man sitting next to Sadat when he was gunned down in 1981never did. The new rais, Hosni Mubarak, didn’t even smile. But slowly, his bovine gaze, his don’t-mess-with-me expression, was taking over. I remember seeing an art film in which, subtly, Mubarak’s portrait was in the background of every frame.

Cairo didn’t look promising on that first visit in August of 1987. I had landed in the middle of the night and decided to wait until dawn. The bus from the airport was brutal. At 6 a.m. the air was bad and I was shocked by the state that Egypt’s capital was in: covered in thick grime, it looked tired and squalid, as if something terrible had happened. When the sun rose and burned off some of the haze, the decay was even more obvious. I couldn’t tell if the buildings were half-completed or half-demolished. Policemen dressed in cheap uniforms stood outside government buildings. They looked like extras from a World War I movie. Then I noticed that the police were everywhere. That is what they did: they stood around, armed with machine guns and looking hungry.