By Anand Raghuraman.
“I’d like a margarita pizza with extra tomato sauce.” The waiter smiled and took my menu, adjusting the bill of his black cap to make sure the words “PIZZA HUT” were prominently displayed above his forehead. It’s a reminder of my failure to find cheap vegetarian food here in Naama Bay. Much like an Egyptian boardwalk, Naama Bay is a haven for tourists in the beach resort town of Sharm El Sheikh. Its streets are filled with vendors hawking fake watches and miniature pyramids. There are restaurants on every corner, whose owners boast that their steak and squid is the best in all of Egypt. But for us nebaatis – vegetarians – of the world, the pickings are quite slim. And after walking aimlessly through the maze of shops and streets, literally dodging a man riding a camel, I reluctantly settled for an overpriced slice of Americana: PIZZA HUT.
Waiting for my pizza to cook, I glanced at the TV. Actually, to be precise, I should say TVs. There were seven of them mounted on the walls—large, flat screen, and each beaming the same wide-angled shot of Tahrir Square. Since the beginning of the June 30th uprising, I’d seen that shot over and over again. It was an ocean of humanity. Hundreds of thousands of protestors stood united, waving the Egyptian tricolor, shooting fireworks in every direction, and painting the stars green with odd laser pointers. When the cameras zoomed in close and picked up audio, the TVs projected the roar of the crowd in blaring unison—echoing from every wall. It was surround sound on the cheap.
My waiter returned with a bottle of water and we chatted as he poured some into my glass. His name was Ahmad, he was 32, and he had lived and studied in Cairo for years before coming to Sharm El Sheikh. I asked him if he had stood in Tahrir two years before and he nodded, “I’ve faced tear gas, bullets…. I was there and I was part of our Revolution.” He turned and pointed at the TV, “You see those people? This is the heart of Egypt. We voted for Morsi. I did too. But Morsi has betrayed us. He promised to rule for all Egypt, to include liberals, to form coalitions. He lied. Now, he rules for only the Brotherhood. He is an elected dictator, and that is not democracy.”
Ahmad left to check on other customers, but his words still hovered over me. During my time in Cairo, I had a firsthand glimpse of the systemic problems facing Egypt. The national fuel shortage had created unbelievably long lines at gas stations and taxi fares doubled in some cases. Power cuts were commonplace and would regularly interrupt the English classes I taught twice a week. Even tourism, once accounting for one-third of Egypt’s GDP, had plummeted dramatically in the past year. But despite these obvious ingredients for unrest, the anger in the streets directed at Morsi seemed to emanate from something much more visceral: pure frustration and fury. Ahmad’s sense of betrayal echoed the opinions of dozens of my Egyptian friends, who felt like their Revolution was being co-opted by Morsi and his Islamists, that this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform Egyptian politics would soon fade fast.
Nearly lost in these thoughts, I was jolted back to reality by sudden commotion that had started in the restaurant. A bearded man burst in through the glass doors and shouted something I couldn’t catch in rapid-fire Arabic. Quickly the waiters dropped their things near the cashier and ran towards the TVs, huddling around them with bated breath. I didn’t understand—what had happened in Tahrir? Had there been violence? Had Morsi cracked down on the protestors? Standing up in my seat, I craned my neck towards the TVs to see what the excitement was about. I had expected a scene of pandemonium, of clashes between the Brotherhood and the protestors with Tahrir being torn to pieces. Instead, I saw the TVs cut to a solitary figure standing behind a podium, flanked by Egyptian flags. The man’s black beret, khaki shirt, and chest full of medals indicated that he was from the army. The generals had finally decided to weigh in.
Chatter in the restaurant immediately came to a halt and one by one workers streamed out from the kitchen, abandoning the pizzas. First came the cooks, their hands and aprons still caked with flour; then the managers, followed last by more waiters. A few of the men draped their arms around each other’s shoulders like soccer players before a match. Others muttered silent prayers and anxiously twisted their wedding rings as they watched one of the seven screens and listened to booming echo of the general’s voice.
Two minutes passed by… five minutes… and soon almost ten. The general was still speaking… I heard a mention of Morsi… and then midway through the sentence—BANG! What happened next was a chaotic blur of raw emotion. Thunderous applause and cheering! The waiters jumped up and down, Ahmad sank to his knees—ALLAHU AKBAR!—and outside the crowd’s roaring crescendo rang throughout the crisp night sky. Men and women ran through the streets—dancing, waving flags, and whistling loudly. Taxi drivers at the street corner slammed on their horns—Beep!…Beep!…Beep Beep Beep! I knew then that it was done. Morsi was finished; Tahrir had triumphed yet again.
The TVs quickly cut away from the general to a female news anchor sitting in front of the desk, beaming with jubilation. She held both hands up to skies, her eyes wide open and frenzied; and though her voice was already hoarse she began to speak faster and faster, “Morsi is gone! The people are free, praise be to God! The anchor repeated these declarations over and over again, punctuating every volley with a full throated ALLAHU AKBAR!
Surveying the room, I couldn’t sit still. I paced about the restaurant, surging with energy, shaking hands and congratulating all the waiters—especially Ahmad. But more than anything I wanted to be outside, on the streets. And so on a whim I switched my order to carry out and bolted out the door clutching my pizza box. Bobbing and weaving through the crowds, I bathed in the ruckus. Drums pounded. Music blared. Three men even danced to the “Soulja Boy,” wearing white Islamic robes, and as I passed them I couldn’t help laughing—only in Egypt. I broke out into brisk walk and then a sprint, running through Naama Bay. The seafood restaurant owners called out offering discounts on their best squid, but I ignored them and jumped into the first cab I could find.
“Take me back to Royal Grand Sharm,” I told my driver. He nodded and didn’t even ask for a fee—all he seemed interested in was punching his horn. The streets were utterly jammed, and I watched as cars playfully rear-ended each other in the cramped quarters. No one seemed to care at all. Drivers and passengers, sitting in different cars, shook hands through the windows, mouthing “Al-Hamdu lillah!”“Praise be to God.”
We broke through the jam and made our way towards the highway, which lay adjacent to the Red Sea. The air was much cooler with the sea breeze and the night much quieter too. As we left Naama Bay behind, I scavenged through my backpack for a pencil, and in the dark began scribbling notes and phrases atop my pizza box. ‘I’d like a margarita pizza with extra tomato sauce….Allahu Akbar…Soulja Boy’ Glancing back at me through the rear view mirror, my driver smiled and asked, “What are you writing about?” I couldn’t say for sure. Was it a coup? Was it a revolution? We would find out in the morning. But for tonight it didn’t matter. A taxi swerved past us and its horn sounded the familiar celebratory call “Beep!…Beep!…Beep! Beep! Beep!” I turned to my driver, and smiling to myself, told him I would be writing about that taxi. The sound of its horn was the sound of the people, the “Sout Al-Hurreiyya”, the “Voice of Freedom.”