Everyday Egyptians post photos of Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian locations but from previous eras: the 30s, 40s, or 50s. The pictures seem surreal, almost bizarre, in comparison to the shots taken today in these same areas.
Tahrir Square in the days of black and white photography is a destination for those who want to enjoy a pleasant outing with no exhaust or car fumes—not one car obstructs the viewers’ vision. A beautiful serene fountain centres the Square, and seating is available for those who opt to enjoy Downtown Cairo—a very doable task then. Even the coloured photographs of Tahrir, taken in the 60s, depict an enjoyable spot with the Nile Hilton emerging as a centerpiece in the background. Again the streets are maneuverable and empty of the influx of commuters, vendors, and pedestrians visible today.
Why focus on Tahrir? Resuscitated photos exhibit the cleanliness of El Qorba in Heliopolis, the picturesque Zamalek, the racetracks, and the magnificent stores—Cicurel and Shamla. Even the old souks and the poorer areas project an air of hard work but satisfaction and energy nonetheless.
Egyptians also enjoy posting photographs of women on their outings in Egypt in the 50s and 60s. Dressed in sleeveless floral summer dresses, with wide fluffed up skirts, the women, young and old, are out and about, never in any way hindered or held back. In dainty high-heel sandals and matching purses, they walk alone or in big groups never fearing for their wellbeing. These women exemplify modernity and confidence. The concepts of harassment or gawking eyes do not cross their minds.
But the most astonishing of these reminiscences lies in the bringing out of photographs of the royal family and dusting them clean, where the stately King is met by other dignitaries or walking magnificently towards an awaiting audience, or the regal Queen is being photographed wearing exquisite opulent jewelry.
These photographs appear routinely. They are circulated and reposted immediately. Nostalgia and going back to the good old past are seen everyday on social and standard media. Many Facebook pages are devoted to this endeavour. Surprised and contemplative, I watch.
It seems as though Egyptians are tired of today’s Egypt, and rightly so, be it the traffic or the curtailment that women are facing, be it the pollution, the trash, or the noise, and be it the assault or the harassment. At the same time, these same Egyptians, in as much as they would want the return of old Egypt, are practically doing very little to make the return to the ways of the past possible. They grim at today’s image, make a sad face, and sigh. And maybe post a photograph of the yonder years. That’s about it.
To them the Egypt of today is so behind, so distorted, and so deep in its agony, that it cannot be helped, and so they sadly recollect the Egypt of yesterday. Daunted, Egyptians helplessly accept today’s Egypt.
True enough, today’s Egypt is a different Egypt altogether—no matter how hard we try, if we all collectively try, will we be able to bring that Egypt back. Accept it! It’s a waste of one’s energy to dream of something that will not materialize.
How could today’s Egypt be anything like the Egypt of the 50s? The change is so deep and so entrenched that the return of the old Egypt is a false hope, a mirage. The main change lies in the 91 million that live mostly along the Nile basin. In the 50s, Egypt had a population of 15 million. Of course, many other changes occurred, but the population dwarfs all other reasons. How could anyone expect an Egypt similar to the Egypt of the 50s when we have quintupled in 60 years?
Which makes the focus on nostalgia futile. Either we look back and hope to regain some of that vision, or else we are better off not focusing on it anymore. A kingdom will not reign in Egypt ever again, women will remain mostly scarved, and Tahrir will continue to fill to the brim with protestors, cars, and vendors. This is the scene today.
We may not be able to revive the old Egypt, but a better-than-today Egypt is possible. An Egypt where everyone has dignity, the right to education and medical treatment, and a decent shelter over his/her head is an Egypt that can happen, and that should be our goal.
Nostalgia to a past that won’t become the present is a depressing and destructive practice. Unless we are able to do something about it, we are better off without it.
Better yet let’s focus on how we can change today’s Egypt into a better one.