CAIRO – Call it romantic or realist, but in the hearts and minds of 280 million Arabs, their world is defined by a western wing in North Africa, an eastern wing in the Levant – with a very strategic border ending in Iraq – and the heart in Egypt. This representation is very much faithful to the powerful geographic, strategic and political ties uniting all Arabs. It’s not a mystery why Pan-Arabia is so worried today, with so many unforeseen consequences of an Anglo-American-led war in one of its strategic borders.

If Egypt is the heart of the Arab world, Islamic Cairo is the heart of Egypt, and El Fishawy one of its key arteries. El Fishawy itself is at the heart of the Khan al-Khalili – a caravanserai originally built in the late 14th century and today a gargantuan labyrinth of markets and shops, one of the great bazaars of the whole Middle East. El Fishawy has been the quintessential ahwa (coffeehouse), packed day and night since the beginning of the 20th century.

Sprawling to both sides of a cramped narrow alley, proud of its mirrors hanging over divans and its old photos hanging on the walls, it impeccably coexists with a bazaar chaos of brass and copper, rows and rows of Nefertiti, Anubis and Horus in clay or stone, plastic transparent pyramids complete with showered golden powder, real and fake amber jewelry, belly dancing outfits, cheap camel design carpets, rubber obelisks and the odd stray cat.

If downtown Cairo is a derelict early modern inferno of noise and pollution, in Islamic Cairo – with its twisting alleyways smelling of cumin and petrol and fabulous collection of medieval mosques – it’s not impossible to time travel to the Cairo of the Thousand and One Nights: after all, many a fabled episode took place in the Cairo of the Mamluks.

Only five minutes away from El Fishawy is the mosque of Al-Azhar, founded in the year 970. Al-Azhar is also the oldest university in the world. For centuries it was the Mecca of knowledge for scholars from all over the Islamic world and Europe. Today they don’t study in the atmospheric central courtyard of the mosque, surrounded by minarets from the 15th and 16th centuries, but in different campuses around the country. And as a sign of the times, political scientist Mustapha El-Feki now worries that Al-Azhar does not send its scholars abroad anymore: this would be “the best way to show the world the true face of Islam, which is based on tolerance.”

On jumma prayers on Friday at Al-Azhar, the imam has been raging against what is largely perceived as another war imposed on the whole umma – the community of the faithful. A request to watch one of these sermons is politely turned down by attendants at the mosque: “The police won’t let you come inside. And many people may be angry, they may think you are American.” Though aware of the currently extra-sensitive situation, Cairenes remain unfailingly polite and helpful. Numerous tortuous steps to arrange a possible meeting with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar – the ultimate theological master in Egypt – are softened with endless cups of mint tea.

Two minutes away from El Fishawy is the mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, arguably the most sacred Islamic site in Egypt, with its shrine under which is buried the head of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, brought to the mosque in a green silk bag in 1153 – almost half a millennium after his death in Kerbala (in Iraq) – at a time when the crusaders were desecrating Islamic holy places in Palestine. This interplay of history is just another example of how the concept of an Arab nation is impregnated in the collective unconscious. At the Mashi Ghet, the Al Azhar building holding the mosque’s administrative offices, an official says, “The Arab nation and Islam is one. So the suffering of Iraqis and Palestinians cannot but be shared by any Egyptian.”

Maybe not around the Hussein mosque – which faces the Khan al-Khalili and inescapable package-tour hell – but behind the alleys of Al Azhar it is possible to enter pure Naguib Mahfouz territory. The 91-year-old 1988 Nobel of Literature, the greatest living writer in Arabic, has recently left hospital. He cannot write any more: he dictates to a friend, playwright and journalist Mohamed Salmawy. Every Thursday, the great writer’s vocal haikus are printed as a short column in the newspaper Al Ahram. Egyptians of all walks of life read them as their secular version of a jumma prayer – a helpful guide to the trials and tribulations of life. Mahfouz now compares his life to the penultimate train station on his annual train journey from Cairo to Alexandria: he is getting ready to collect his luggage anticipating the arrival at his destination.

Mahfouz was born in Gamaliyya, in the heart of Islamic Cairo: his family moved to another neighborhood before he became a teenager, but in his heart he never left. He kept coming back to El Fishawy to meet his friends – and Islamic Cairo is the privileged universe of his modern Dickensian novels. In fact, in a novel like Children of the Alley, the whole universe is contained in a single alley and the people who live in it: this is Mahfouz himself speaking as a boy growing up in the beginning of the 20th century in an alley in Islamic Cairo called Darb Qirmiz.

When Colin Powell started delivering the pitch of his life at the United Nations Security Council this Wednesday, the cry of the muezzin at the Hussein mosque calling for the sunset prayer was echoing throughout the Khan al-Khalili. Walking around the huge market, in ahwas and shops, the odd “Hey mister, want papyrus?” barely interrupted the hypnotic drone of Powell, a secular muezzin in suit and tie reading his indictment almost like a prayer, cueing the carefully edited audio of what, for many in the Arab nation, was nothing but accusations and allegations, and for some in the West was indeed “unrefutable” and “undeniable” evidence.

At El Fishawy, the inevitable horde of Japanese tourists carrying an audiovideo Babel kept struggling with their sheeshas – water pipes. And at an ahwa in a dark cul-de-sac not far from El Fishawy, a cluster of men were more interested in watching the rerun of a soccer match on a cheap made in China TV set. All the conversation shuffled around the crucial match this Friday when Egyptian favorites Zamalek face the Moroccans from Wydad Casablanca for the African Supercup title.

Somebody says that Powell has made a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. “He says there are more than 20 al-Qaeda living in Baghdad.” Somebody answers: “So what? You don’t go to war for this.” And the conversation instantly shifts to war. Any ahwa – cheap tin-plated-topped tables, rickety wooden chairs, room filled with sawdust – is not just a coffehouse: it is the quintessential Arab street, square and living room all rolled into one. Some play towla – backgammon – some smoke sheeshas, some drink mint tea or, in winter, sahleb – a warm drink of semolin powder, milk and chopped nuts. Some plunge into deep silence for hours, some do everything at all once and talk non-stop, occasionally glancing at also non-stop Arabic movies on video and, of course, live or rerun soccer matches.

The informal message of the Khan al-Khalili is “no to war, yes to peace”. Everybody seems to agree with the Syrian ambassador to the UN when he says on TV that “war would be a failure of the international system, which should depend on the UN charter”. And some even clap when the ambassador says, “How can we go to war against Iraq – which is not occupying any country and is not menacing any of its neighbors – when Israel is still occupying Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian territories in defiance of many UN resolutions?” Somebody echoes the ambassador, “Nobody must have bombs and missiles. Israel also, no.”

The street-square-living room is nothing but echoing silkier corridors. Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, from the Egyptian Council of Foreign Relations, recently back from a meeting with members of the European Union in Brussels, says, “America does not want Israel to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. It is interested only in going after suspected caches of weapons of mass destruction held by countries that are Israel’s enemies. This double standard is the main obstacle in the way of finding a real solution to the problem of weapons of mass destruction.”

Mahfouz nowadays barely talks about politics. But in one of his weekly newspaper pieces, in 1997, he wrote, “No matter how powerful a culture may be militarily and politically, it cannot impose itself upon a people unless they are convinced of its superiority to their own culture. If they are convinced, then the new culture is more qualified than the one it replaced.” Today this reads like a message from the Arab world to America.

In Baghdad, General Amer Al Sa’adi, scientific adviser to Saddam, is describing the Powell presentation as “a typical American show, with stunts and special effects”. Ahmad laughs at the comparison. Ahmad is a character straight from a Mahfouz novel. He is only 22, unemployed, left school to take care of his ailing father. He spends mornings and nights at home, and during the day hits the streets of Cairo trying to make ends meet. In three months he’ll be going to military service for three years, and he is very much afraid of the future. Especially to what might happen to his relationship with his 18-year-old girlfriend. They see each other only once a week, sometimes only twice a month. He says that he is shy, so that’s why she took the initiative to kiss him for the first time. His most pressing obligation is how to find US$15 to buy a brand-new Lifestyle shirt for their next date. “She is very chic. From a rich family. When we go out, she always pays.” He wishes he would not have to serve the obligatory three years so he could pursue his studies, be with his girlfriend, and work on his dream of emigrating to London. Now he is afraid of a possible war. “Bush is crazy. He wants to bomb everybody. What if something happens to Egypt?”

At a jewelry shop in the Khan al-Khalili, Fatima gives up on a silver necklace. The Powell theme is inescapable, “I was waiting for something more practical. He showed a lot of photos. Why did they keep this so long for themselves?” She’s not convinced about the al-Qaeda ties, “Nobody knows. They can say these people are in Egypt. Who can say no?”

In private, the Arab street talks a lot, but it is more or less prohibited from shouting in public. Amina, a professor of French literature at the University of Cairo, says, “There are many people who share our feelings but are afraid to come out and protest.” Moderate Islamists, fierce nationalists, Nasser nostalgics, human rights activists, politicians, university students in fact have very specific demands. They want Egypt to ban US and British warships from entering the Suez canal. They are asking people to boycott US and British products: McDonald’s and KFCs in Cairo are nearly deserted these days. They demand the end of any form of American military presence in the Arab world. And most of all they want the end of Egypt’s draconian emergency law – which prohibits demonstrations. Abu Madi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a “moderate Islamist” by his own definition, sort of agrees with regime change in Iraq: “We need to change Saddam Hussein, but through democracy. If Iraqis want to get rid of Saddam Hussein, that is their right. But no one has the right to do it in their place.”

Gamil Mattar, who directs the Arab Center for Futuristic Studies, says so much speculation about the war in Iraq affects everybody in the Arab world. “The US has many plans for us. But do we know what they are? And does the US, for that matter, know what they are?” For months Mattar has been puzzled by the deafening silence of the Arab street. He is convinced the silence masks a lot of anger, which could explode anytime with very worrying consequences: “The gap between the Arab people and their regimes was widened to such an unprecedented extent that one can’t imagine a worse scenario than reality today. I’m quite pessimistic. I think this gap has swallowed everything.”

The gap between the Arab street and the governments in the region sometimes narrows, though. There have been a few demonstrations in Cairo – the heart of the Arab world – but with more police than demonstrators. The regimes obviously prefer silence. At the 35th Cairo International Book Fair, which ends this Friday, for the first time since 1983 any debates about the explosive situation in the Middle East were prohibited. Egypt created this fair in 1967 to show the world it still had an important regional role to play in spite of the military defeat by Israel. Book sellers confirm that the fair was always a great forum to debate terrorism, freedom of expression and the political role of religious institutions.

For Mustapha Bakri, editor of an independent weekly in Arabic, the fact that nobody is allowed this year to discuss Iraq or Palestine shows how much the powers that be fear those oceans of extremely angry Muslim youth ready to explode: “The state is very much conscious of the gap between the government position and public opinion.” Writer Mahmoud Al-Tohami says that the fair has lost all its impact: “It is naive to think that to channel the interest of the public to purely cultural debates will calm their anger. If there is war, it will be difficult to imagine the reactions.”

Powell’s speech has come and gone. Late at night, El Fishawy still gets a drop of its ceaseless heavy dose of tourists, but the shops are closing and the ahwas are more silent. A raiyis – waiter – says, “Who cares about war? We have to worry about getting money for the next day.” In The Day the Leader Was Killed, a complex mini-novel which is really about the merciless new materialism creeping into the Egypt of the early 1980s, Mahfouz writes, “Life’s but a walking shadow on a summer’s day, seeking shelter under the shades of a tree for an hour or so and then is heard no more.” At the Khan al-Khalili, the call of the muezzin starts another day – and the Arab street goes back to the business of seeking shelter from the coming storm.

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