On a gusty November night, the vanguard of Egyptian journalism and activism convenes upon a roof overlooking the River Nile to commemorate the genocide of Native Americans. Two massive turkeys -- one roasted in orange juice and another basted hourly in its own juices -- crown an altar of plastic tables. Mimicking the desks in the newsroom a flight below, there is no surface area -- barely room enough for the two iterations of mashed potatoes, salads -- green and otherwise -- cranberry-pomegranate chutney, bags of synthetic cutlery and Styrofoam plates. A Google Doc ensures that the thirty-some diners would be amply stuffed, though, predictably, someone had forgotten to make stuffing.
Alaa Abdel Fattah has just been arrested -- again. (If this were news and not social diary copy, we would call Alaa a "prominent activist." Tonight, he's just a friend). Twenty thugs (in journo-speak: authorities), some wearing masks, broke into his apartment a day earlier. The "authorities" slapped Alaa's wife across the face, beat him up, and arrested him. Just two weeks ago, Alaa had been present at trivia night downstairs at Art Bar, a pop-up pub.
"When Alaa stops getting arrested, we'll know the 'transition' is over," quipped a leading gent of the Western press corp, on his third helping of poultry and potatoes. He wears a French blue button-down, honing his TV look. But the country is decidedly still in transition, often throwing evening plans into question.
There is fear that tomorrow's activities might be postponed. Is it appropriate to throw a surprise birthday bash for the scene's grand poobah, the wittiest of the bunch, among all of this transition? (Her birthday was cancelled last year due to a battle at the presidential palace).
A comrade shoots off a rocket: "I'm really confused to have a party while our friends and colleagues are detained or were beaten..."
Reply all! "If we don't party we have let the terrorists win," another rattles off by e-mail.
Both shows go on. Cancelling Thanksgiving -- that ahistorical celebration of colonial feasting so beloved by expatriates -- is out of the question anyway. Egyptian mothers and grandmothers are already laboring over the affair, while their daughters copy-edit, transcribe and publish all the tragedy that's fit to print. The generous providers of the potluck are also the generous providers of the news. Once called the Egypt Independent, they were stricken of independence. Now, an online zine, rebranded and more independent than ever, it's published from the fifth-floor flat of a ragged European apartment building in Garden City, a fine address indeed.
In the meeting room, whiteboards are covered in stream-of-consciousness word plays and flowcharts ("Tahrir is not a square!"). There are the dos and don'ts of filing: capitalize "Al" in "Al-Qaeda," but not in "al-Sisi." The piles upon piles of CD-Rs in the front office came from an art show by the managing editor herself.
"Did you hear that she started smoking a pipe?"
"Like a real pipe! That's so perfect."
And there it is. The managing editor's corncob and a satchel of tobacco, beside five bottles of Cape Bay (Egyptian Merlot allegedly produced from South African grapes). After a plateful, she ignites her peace pipe with a lighter brandishing junta leader Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi's face (pure coincidence, she says). Her deputy is ill, not present, though he did work a news shift from his sickbed. She makes a plate to deliver to him later.
"This is the kind of party that would be in a Woody Allen movie if Woody Allen was cooler," said a gray-haired anthropologist. "I'm surprised by how little Cairo has changed since the 80's."
She makes sure everyone hears her poignant observations.
I'm thankful for the ink-slinging advocates and mavericks, fighters, detractors, third-culture kids, straight-talkers and stringers -- the ones who've written the first, second and third drafts of history. I'm thankful for the homegrown art-gallery proprietors, commissioned creators, broadsheet illustrators, adventurati, and critical historians, munching on Turkey skin, pouring on a little extra gravy. Everybody needs a little downtime.
"It's my favorite holiday," said a familiar radio voice. "But it has a dark past."
"Come as You Are" blares. There are faces of scraggly beards and cleaned-up scruff, blazers and hoodies, jackets of puffy and Army-Navy surplus varieties. Denim always works. Turtleneck? Perfect. Your grandma's lace dress? Yes! Converse or Nikes are fine -- boots are the best. Especially combat boots.
This group wears a litany of political causes, too. NO MILITARY TRIALS. NO SCAF (a.k.a. the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, though that's a mouthful). END SEXUAL HARASSMENT. And NO talking about these things tonight -- or at any social get-togethers for that matter. (And no live-tweeting either -- posting an Instagram of the grub is kosher).
Is there another bottle of Cape Bay around? Try the potatoes au gratin -- they're something else. And the Frito Pie! (Is that really something you eat in America?)
Could we be in Beirut or Bogotá or Belgrade or, dare I say, Brooklyn?
"No," a reporter from Berlin said. "People here are really doing something real."
No time to problematize that assertion. Distractions abound -- someone reaching for the corkscrew, another looking for an ashtray, and I'm wondering what version of the song is playing.
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