Masr ummu dunya—Egypt is the mother of civilization, and tonight she got through to the next round of the African Cup. The last few nights I’ve gone over to watch soccer at Sharif El-Husseini’s, I’ve noticed that every once in a while some of his friends walk into a back room and hang out for a while, and I figured maybe they were smoking hash, which is very available here. Tonight Sharif wanted to lend me a book I’d asked for on modern Egyptian history and led me toward the office of his late father, one of the great criminal lawyers in Cairo’s history, which is that same room where some of his friends go. “Oh, these guys are praying,” he said. “I’ll get the book for you after the game.” Ah! They came out later, and when Egypt scored another goal, Sharif screamed, “Show me the money!” one guy waved the Egyptian flag, and everyone ran around the apartment high-fiving each other.
It should be obvious that that sort of stuff happens here, but back in the States all of us maybe read too much about the politics of Islam. It’s great we wanted to learn something, but somewhere the Arab people got lost among all the theories we have about Arab culture. The Egyptians love Americans, but, like most Arabs, they distrust our politicians, forgetting that it is a government by and for the people. Americans for the most part are scared to death of Arab people, forgetting that these guys don’t have the great privilege of electing their own leaders.
One of the few men I’ve met here who isn’t interested in soccer is a film critic named Mustapha Darwish. I could tell even on the phone that he’s sort of a curmudgeon, which made me all the more eager to meet him—that and his laugh, the laugh of a villain eternally looking for the perfect railroad track to tie a maiden to. Of course he’s not a villain, but a short, balding man maybe in his sixties—an intellectual who’s lived with his sister in the same apartment since 1952. And when we started talking about Baudelaire—he started it—it felt very 1952. I asked questions about Egyptian politics, and he used the word “Arabist” to great ironic effect.
I’d gone over there to see a film called Saving Egyptian Film that a friend of his has made, an Egyptian actor and filmmaker named Sayed Badreya who lives in California now. The film stock is falling apart, and Sayed made the movie, raising the money himself, to encourage the Egyptian government to protect this legacy—which, along with Czech film, is one of the great dark horses in world cinema. We didn’t watch Sayed’s film, because the projector was unavailable, so Mustapha cued up a scene for me from Moulin Rouge, which I’d never seen. He thinks that Baz Luhrman is a genius and loves the way the film is edited. Also, I think he, like Sharif, is a huge Nicole Kidman fan. It’s the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best” friend scene, a huge song and dance number with strong emotions—money, sex, the impending death of a beautiful young woman are all on the line. It’s pretty much what golden-age Egyptian film, say the ‘30s through the ‘50s, consisted of. I think in a sense Mustapha was showing me the kind of ideal that Egyptian film always aimed for. “Egyptian film was never as great as American film,” he said. “It’s small. But it’s ours. The language, the music, the manners—it touches every Egyptian’s heart.” He wrote the introduction for a nice picture book on Egyptian film, Dream Makers on the Nile, which he gave me. I asked a question about Mahfouz’s career as a screenwriter, and he told me he’d written something on that for Al-Ahram, and I remembered that I’d read it and thought it was amazingly great. He was positively baffled, but pleased, he said, to find someone from the States interested in Egyptian culture.
I realize I haven’t said anything yet about the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, and if I don’t people might not actually believe I’m in Cairo. This is a good time to do it, since it’s Friday and the Diary’s finished, and it’s the Sabbath in Egypt and the streets are so quiet I really did hear the muezzin from the mosque near me next to the river Nile. Strange, but the sound of the voice of the Quran is so keeningly powerful that hearing it here isn’t all that different from when I first started to listen to it back in Brooklyn on a CD by some of the great reciters, most of whom are Egyptian. I asked Sharif if he read the Quran, or if he listened to recitations of it. Sharif said he read it to himself mostly and had no idea who any of the great reciters of the Quran were. He started laughing, “So write your book and I can find out all about them.”