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Culture

Cairo residents are 'kings of adaptation,' says author Belal Fadl

Megacity Cairo. For author Belal Fadl, it is the stage for the struggle between the rich and poor. At the same time, it's a continual source of inspiration. Deutsche Welle caught up with Fadl in his beloved city.

Belal Fadl reading aloud at Cafe Riche

His words are the soundtrack to life in Cairo: Egyptian author Belal Fadl

Black tea in a glass, exactly the way the Egyptians like it. Belal Fadl sips his tea in one of the famous cafes in the center of Cairo, the Cafe Riche. It is a popular meeting place for the city's intellectuals.

Om Kathoum, an Egyptian singer and a major diva, sang several concerts here in the sixties. Nobel Prize winner Naguib Machfuz was a habitué as well.

"Cairo is a city of contrasts," Belal Fadl notes. "Ugliness and beauty at the same time. And the people here in Cairo are the kings of adaptation."

'Al Qahira' - Cairo, the victorious

In the Middle-Eastern folk tale collection "Arabian Nights," it says that "who so hath not seen Cairo, hath not seen the world." Cairo is even described as "the mother of the world."

A chaotic mother, though - incredibly disordered and with half of her people living in so called informal settlements, otherwise known as shanty towns or slums. The noise of millions of cars is deafening, the stench an ongoing attack on one's nose.

But it is exactly this chaos that makes it easier to write, Belal Fadl remarks. One would only have to stroll along the cramped streets of Cairo to find more than enough material for one's stories.

"I discovered Cairo at its back doors. Or rather: I dove deep into the sewers. There is no street in this city which I do not know," Fadl explains. The 36-year-old usually writes about the city's poor. That is why he is called "Kattib el Ghalabah" - author of the have-nots.

Man sitting in a chair in a heap of rubble

Adverse circumstances? The people in Cairo are the kings of adaptation

"Um Hennd," a cleaning lady, is one of Fadl's recurring characters. She embodies the simple people - she can neither read nor write, but has mastered life's most important art: survival.

In one passage, Um Hennd hugs her television during the broadcast of a speech given by the Egyptian president. She tells him about her children, how she cannot properly take care of them and about her deceased husband's pension, which is not enough to support the remaining family. Now the government wants to cut this pension even further because they found out that she owns a TV set.

'Mr. President, I have to scratch myself'

Fadl has published five books so far, which are especially popular among younger people. His style is humorous and connected to reality; they truly are stories about the haves and have-nots. It's a two-sided kind of writing: Humor is woven through the first layer, blatant political criticism through the second.

In his bag Fadl carries a copy of his book "The Indigenous Egyptians." One story in the book is entitled "Mr. President, I have to scratch myself." It tells the tale of young Egyptians who protested low salaries and rising prices on April 6, 2008. Many of them were arrested. And thus, the political movement called "Shabab 6. April" - "The youth of April 6" - was born.

A passage from the story: "I admit it, Mr. President, I participated in the demonstrations. It might have been a mistake to participate in the demonstrations. But what was I supposed to do? … We have protested so you could tell us how our parents are supposed to guarantee us a great life despite earning so little themselves. And how are we supposed to dream about the future while we learn nothing useful at school or university? Yes, Mr. President, I took part in the demonstrations, just like everybody else. I'm in the hospital now, on a bed, with handcuffs after I got arrested. And I know exactly what I want right now. I want neither social justice nor freedom. Nor do I want a political reform. What I want, Mr. President, is for you to free me from my handcuffs, because I really need to scratch myself right now."

A never-ending traffic jam

Cairo - a 24/7 rush hour and a never-ending traffic jam

Welcome to Cairo

Cairo. Books. Books and Cairo. These two intermingle as Belal Fadl reads his stories aloud. His words are the soundtrack to the scenes going on behind his back, visible through the big windows of the cafe. It is a noisy and action-packed movie: huge crowds on the streets. Young, old, veiled and modern women. Western and Asian tourists. Street vendors and street sweepers. And above all there is the never-ending traffic. It seems as if Cairo has a 24/7 rush hour. Even the taxi drivers complain about the jams and the lines of cars that hardly move.

"Welcome to Cairo," Belal Fadl says, smiling slightly. For him Cairo is like an "aquarium" and he simply loves diving into it to find characters for his books. Politics have been a core element in the writing of young Egyptian authors these days. Belal Fadl especially focuses on the social changes after the 1952 Egyptian Revolution and President Mubarak's regime.

Saying farewell

A man standing in the streets of Cairo

Experience in the art of surviving

More and more tourists start pouring into Cafe Riche. In recent years it has become a hot spot for foreigners looking for a beer or other alcoholic beverages.

Belal Fadl gets restless, turns on his cell phone again. He has a tight schedule. As a screenwriter and author, he has a lot to juggle: handing in a manuscript here, finishing the script for a new - and of course - socio-critical film there.

Fadl checks his watch. Time to say goodbye. And off he goes, disappearing into the crowd - once again diving into the aquarium of Cairo.

Author: Hebatallah Ismail Hafez (gri)
Editor: Louisa Schaefer

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