Waiting for the Barbarians: Cavafy and Tahrir Square

After the riots, a report from Egypt

By Carol BergerSeptember 27, 2012

    Waiting for the Barbarians: Cavafy and Tahrir Square

    homepage: Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction (detail), 1836, Oil on canvas

    MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO, a poem was written in the same city I now write from, the ancient coastal metropolis of Alexandria. The poem is called “December 1903,” and it begins:

    And if I cannot speak about my love—
    if I do not talk about your hair, your lips, your eyes,
    still your face that I keep within my heart,
    the sound of your voice that I keep within my mind,
    the days of September that rise in my dreams,
    give shape and colour to my words, my sentences,
    whatever theme I touch, whatever thought I utter.

    —    C.P. Cavafy, “December 1903”

    In the warren of narrow streets surrounding the last home of the poet Constantine P. Cavafy, faces are disappearing: specifically, the hair, the lips and eyes of mannequins. Stroll past the shop fronts and you will see the dividing lines. Observant shopkeepers display mannequins with no features at all. The faceless heads emerge from the new season’s fashions. There are no ears or noses; no hint of a cheek bone or eyebrow. Some are in pristine, glossy white; others are in liquid silver or black. Shops selling religious goods, Wahabi-style jellabeyas and Korans, solve the issue by using headless dummies. Confusingly, the torso mannequins are also favoured by lingerie sellers, their windows crammed with plastic bosoms only partly covered by sheer negligees and lacy brassieres.

    Half a street away, on Sharia el Nabi Daniel, four male mannequins have been placed on the pavement. The upper halves of their faces are concealed. Only their perpetual smiles are visible. The woollen cap on one has been pulled down; on another, a spooky piece of gauze has been taped across the eyes; adhesive strips bearing the bearded faces of religious candidates cover the eyes of the other two. The men inside the shop explain to me that the showing of the face is haram, forbidden. They are friendly, allowing me to take photos of the disfigured dummies. In two afternoons of taking photos of shop mannequins in Alexandria, only one person declined my request, and he was worried that I wanted to steal the designs of his conservative, full-length dresses. But I know better than to extend my hand to shake theirs. The western woman, her infidel head uncovered, is also haram.

    Mannequins, representations of the human form, have become a site of contestation between Alexandria’s Salafists, the Islamist hardliners, and moderate Moslems and Christians. Egyptians, borrowing from the French, call both human models and their lifeless counterparts manneken.

    There are still stores using mannequins of an earlier era, life-sized Barbie dolls with matted blonde and brunette wigs, with bright blue eye shadow and parted red lips. Sometimes a store will crowd them together, in groups of six or eight, their arms and legs placed in mid-stride, as if at any moment they might come to life and set off on a big adventure.

    On a Saturday afternoon in late-December the streets were packed with shoppers. It felt like walking through a strange zoo: behind the glass, a cartoonish stereotype of western beauty and sexual availability, and looking in, Egyptian women hidden beneath the hijab or niqab and wearing loose, ankle-length clothing.

    Further down Nabi Daniel Street, I pause to look through the high gates of the abandoned Alexandrian synagogue. There are no worshippers now, just plainclothes security agents and German shepherd guard dogs. The year before, on a weekend visit, I persisted until someone allowed me to enter the high-walled grounds. The leather-jacketed security guards were bemused but friendly, allowing me and my daughter to go inside the marble-columned synagogue, past the dogs’ water and food bowls. When we had last visited, two decades before, my daughter was a toddler in a stroller. Knowing that there are no secrets in Egypt, I told our “guide”, a smiling dark-skinned man from Upper Egypt, that I had worked as a journalist in Cairo in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Arabic, he said, “The flute is put down but still it plays.” My daughter, now living in the city of her birth and teaching at an international school, is fluent in Arabic. She added, unhelpfully, “Even when the belly dancer is buried and in the ground, still, her belly moves.”

    People have begun to notice me, standing outside the synagogue gates, looking inside. I decide to move along.


    The waiter wants to know if I would like cheese, jam or chocolate on my spaghetti. I ask him to speak in Arabic, thinking this will clarify the matter. But, no, he still offers to put jam or chocolate on my pasta. I decline. Some minutes later, implausibly, the waiter delivers two very large croissants to my table.

    I have only recently learned that the Arabic word I use to get a waiter’s attention is somehow not quite correct. Out with my daughter, I had called to a passing waiter, “Azmah! Azmah!”

    “What are you doing, mom?”

    “Getting a waiter.”

    “No, that’s ez-meh, not az-mah,” she advises me.

    “So what am I saying?”

    “Crisis! Crisis!”

    My claim that I’m merely using a Sudanese Arabic pronunciation does not convince. I can only add, “So that’s why I’ve had such good service all these years.”

    But the misunderstanding between myself and the croissant-serving waiter goes beyond language: the menu shows photographs for the main dishes.

    I am in a posh new cafe beside the Cecil Hotel, where Churchill and Montgomery met on the eve of the Desert Campaign, along the corniche, the seafront motorway that separates Alexandria from the sea. The European-style facades are battered, the rooftops gone from many of the abandoned buildings at the heart of the historic downtown. Wooden shutters are open and the winter wind blows through the upper floors. Somewhere, an absentee property owner waits for the building to be condemned, to make way for one of the new glass-fronted high rises.

    The noise is constant, a cacophony of horns, tuneful blasts, amplified whistles and police sirens. Disturbingly, the volume of the horns is in inverse proportion to the size of the vehicle. At midnight the night before there was a different sound, of shotgun blasts. Not the automatic gunfire of my most recent country of residence, South Sudan. Or the sharp, metallic-sounding blasts heard in the pre-dawn hours of Cairo’s Tahrir Square the week before, but the plodding, pause-filled sounds of a single-shot weapon. There are nine distinct shots, fired so close that each shot is followed by the rain-like sound of masonry falling onto my narrow fifth-floor balcony. I think better of opening the shutters to investigate further.

    I had come to Alexandria after a heart-stopping day in Cairo. It was December 17th, a Saturday, and my daughter and I had settled into a bookshop in Zamalek, the upscale island district in the centre of Cairo. But I had forgotten my computer cable back in her apartment in the downtown. I hopped in a taxi to pick it up. As my taxi descended off the bridge into Tahrir Square, we were confronted by a phalanx of stick-waving police, dozens and dozens of men in riot gear. The police, in their visored helmets and riot garb, waved through my driver, an elderly, white-haired man. As I would learn later, other drivers had been hauled out of their cars and beaten on the street. It was the afternoon of “the girl in the blue bra,” the stripping and assault of a young woman by police that was caught on video and shown around the world. It was hours before I was reunited with my daughter, well away from downtown. A decision was made: my daughter would move out of her apartment to a neighbourhood well away from the unpredictable war-zone that the downtown had become, and I would go to Alexandria.

    When I emerged from my seafront room the following morning, I asked the manager about the gunfire. He reached inside the front of his shirt, to close a valve resting on his chest, and said he knew nothing of any gunshots. The manager stopped smoking only in the past year. An ashtray is close to hand, but there are no cigarette butts in it. There is a gaping hole within the folds of his wrinkled neck. He can only speak when he closes the tube in his chest. Like the poet Cavafy almost a century before, he has had a tracheotomy. Cavafy was reduced to writing notes in the last year of his life, before his death from cancer of the larynx in 1933. Unlike the poet, the hotel manager can still talk. But it requires some effort, and patience on the part of the listener. His voice is a disembodied growl. He tells me that what I have heard is only the blast of a noise gun, part of a celebration for a wedding.

    In the parking lot across the street a bearded man called Ahmed waits for foreigners like me. He devotes two hours every morning to spreading the word of Islam to nonbelievers. I brushed him off two days before, and felt guilty. But I had a more pressing concern: I had just realized that I’d left my wallet in my hotel’s communal shower room, the “Salle de Bain.” I raced back to my hotel, comforting myself with memories of past experience in Egypt, the return of lost passports left in Cairo taxi cabs and earlier mislaid wallets. I was not disappointed: as I fairly leapt out of the elevator, a young Egyptian called Badr was just turning the wallet in to the front desk. Not a piastre, not one of the 10 one hundred-dollar bills, was missing. Badr turned down my offer of a reward, my suggestion that I would pay the modest LE 100 ($15) cost of his room.

    Today I will talk to Ahmed. I must cross his path as I walk to the tram station where English-language newspapers are sold. His dream is the union of all Arab countries, one nation encompassing the entire Middle East, all united in their commitment to Islam. “How?” I ask. “How can all the different nations be one when your own country is in pieces?” He ignores my question and asks if I would like a free copy of the English-language book in his hand, a book about women in Islam. I decline.

    In a week I have had not a single problem as I walk through the streets and markets, only kindness, and a bit of oddball flattery. Older men drinking tea at cafes interrupt their conversations to say “Welcome.” Their voices have a leaden tone. Every now and again, a young man will walk past, close enough to touch but not touching, pausing only to say something like “Ssssooo beautiful,” or a simple “Wow.” Small children, their hands held by veiled mothers, openly stare. Teenage boys as well. I am a curiosity.

    Was it like this thirty years ago, when I arrived in Alexandria for the first time? It was on October 6, 1981, that I stepped foot in Alexandria. I had taken a two-day trip by boat across the Mediterranean from Crete. It was only later that evening that my travelling companions and I learned that Sadat had died that day in a hail of bullets.

    Heads were not covered then. Women were not shrouded in full-length robes and overcoats, but now they are. A generation has grown up surrounded by covered women. After a week of walking through the crowded streets, riding in speeding taxis along the corniche, it occurs to me that this odd combination of extreme politeness and naked curiosity feels manufactured, even purposeful, as if someone has decided to show the few foreigners in their midst that there is nothing to fear of an Egypt run by ultraconservative Moslems. After a year of revolution, there is an almost total absence of foreigners. I begin to feel as if it is some sort of a test, but not of me, rather of the people of Alexandria. At the Elite Restaurant, a young woman sits alone in the next booth. She is talking on a cellphone and chain smoking; a glass of beer sits before her. But even she is wearing the hijab.


    Six days of the week the former apartment of Cavafy is open to visitors. It is a Tuesday when I arrive on the second floor of 4, Sharia C.P. Cavafy (formerly Sharia Sharm El Sheikh, and before that, Lepsius Street). The marble stairs are new, not sloping from decades of wear as they are at my hotel. A man wearing a baseball cap opens the door. Within a few minutes, he has sat down on the edge of the brass bed in Cavafy’s bedroom, and removed the cap. His head is covered in white gauze bandages. This is what you see in downtown Cairo, young men with newly bandaged heads. Throughout the month of December, the mid-day sight had become commonplace, brave young men with concussions, newly released from makeshift first aid stations in Tahrir Square, making their way home to downtown apartments to sleep off the combat of the night before.

    But Mohamed’s story is different. He had been chasing a chicken to prepare for dinner when the chicken almost won. Struggling to capture the bird, Mohamed struck his head on a water heater, opening a long gash along the crown of his head.

    He is in the middle of his story when I realise that he is the same Mohamed whom I last met at the museum in 1992. Back then he was a supporter of the Gamaa el Islamiyya, the underground militant group which assassinated government officials and attacked western tourists. In 1992, Mohamed was living in a storage room off the kitchen. He is married now, with children of his own, and an apartment big enough for live chickens.

    “My mind is changed now. You know, when I was young I was another man,” he says. “Now I hate the Salafists and Ikhwan (Moslem Brotherhood) too much, because I shared the revolution with youth. Why [did] the Salafists win the elections? I ask myself why. Because people here are not cultured, are not educated.”

    I ask him to name his favourite Cavafy poem. Without irony, he says, “‘Waiting for the Barbarians’” (1904). “Because the barbarians will come today”: The line is repeated throughout the poem, a poem filled with the ennui of anticipation, describing the paralysis of the civilised as they wait for an invasion that never materialises, until it reaches its conclusion:

    Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
    everyone going home so lost in thought?

    Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
    And some who have just returned from the border say
    there are no barbarians any longer.

    And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
    They were, those people, a kind of solution.

    We are all older now. For the past 20 years Mohamed has spent his days in a museum, surrounded by the writing of a long-dead poet. Outside, the streets of Alexandria have similarly remained somehow unchanged. Like the Cavafy Museum, the city and its people are as if stopped in time.

    “Cavafy imagined half of Alexandria from his mind. Cavafy’s Alexandria was not the real Alexandria,” Mohamed says. “If you ask anybody on the street, he doesn’t know what Cavafy is. This time is a different time.”


    My daughter sends me a text: “What are you doing in Alexandria?! Come back to Cairo.” It’s time to leave the Mediterranean, to take the train back through the Delta and into the traumatised capital.

    My last night in Alexandria, I decide to go somewhere I have never been before. The Cap D’or. For more than a century, visitors to Alexandria have found their way to the postage stamp-sized bar. I am too early, it seems. At seven p.m. I am the only customer. The bar’s regulars, Alexandria’s gay men, won’t arrive for hours, not before midnight. I am assured that I can order food, but there is no one in the kitchen.

    A thin young man with long curly hair pushes the narrow door open and stands on the threshold. His clothes are worn, and he looks unsure of himself. He is a traveller from Europe. There isn’t much to see, just Ahmed, the barman, and myself, a greying middle-aged Canadian woman drinking a Heineken and reading a day-old copy of The Financial Times. A moment later the rest of his crew has arrived. A young woman, looking past his shoulder, dismisses any plans to stop with the words, “It’s too depressing.” And she is right.


    I have only a few days left in Egypt. I decide that I will go to the museum and ask if I can see the subterranean level. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities has remained unaltered for a very long time: royal mummies and Tutankhamen’s tomb on the second floor; monolithic statues and sarcophagi on the ground level; and beneath, the stores. For more than a century, foreign archaeological expeditions were obliged to place a portion of their finds in the museum stores. People speak of narrow passageways created by the stacks and stacks of unidentified artifacts. It remains a mystery for all but a select group of gloved curators.

    The day before, I arranged to meet with a young man who has recently been at the museum for another purpose, for torture. The Egyptian Museum has become known as the salakhana: the torture chamber. It is late when we meet at a restaurant two streets away from Tahrir Square. He is animated and handsome. He is one of the thousands of young men and women who have stood at the barricades along the streets off Tahrir, and in the square itself. He tells me there is a video of his injuries on YouTube. He was dragged into the museum compound and set upon by state security.

    The museum feels like a police post, because that is what it has become. Located just off Tahrir Square, it was from here that Egyptian security launched its early attacks against protesters more than one year ago. In the months that followed, hundreds were taken inside the museum grounds, and into the museum itself, where they were brutally beaten and humiliated. There are almost no tourists now, but the museum is still open. Groups of leather-jacketed men sit in the museum garden, loiter in the hallways of the administration offices. They carry pistols and smoke inside the buildings. A year on from the start of the revolution, the museum staff still sleep in their offices. Sometimes they put out fires from Molotov cocktails thrown inside the museum grounds. Directly behind the museum stands the burned-out headquarters of former ruling party’s headquarters, a reminder of how close the fire came to the museum itself.

    I have been through the museum dozens of times before. Never have I seen it like this. There is an air of disorder, of something gone amiss. Familiar cases in the great entrance hall are not in their places. The furniture, so to speak, has been moved. There are too many idle men sitting along the walls. They look as if they are taking a break from their work as thugs in Tahrir Square.

    I am taken inside the administration offices, past plainclothes policemen, and introduced to the director of the museum. We agree that I will submit a formal request to see the stores later in the year. For now, a diminutive assistant escorts me to the lower level of the museum. Just as I see the padlocked metal doors leading to the stores, I strike my head on the low entryway. Behind the black doors lie untold riches, or mounds of dust, depending on who one speaks to.

    I am shown the archivists’ “offices,” a narrow corridor squeezed out of the available basement space. The ceiling is so low that I take care not to hit my head again. The archivists, all women wearing hijabs, sit at computer terminals. Beside the terminals are open catalogues with black and white photographs identifying objects long hidden in the bowels of the museum. We exchange email addresses. In the weeks that follow, they will write to ask me to help them study abroad.

    As I leave the museum, the diminutive director’s assistant insists on walking me to the main gates. He has grabbed a few books from the shelves in his office and now hands them to me: among them, a bound doctoral thesis on “footwear in ancient Egypt” by a German scholar. He tells me that he and his colleagues still spend their nights in their offices, for fear that the museum will be burned down. He kisses my hand and announces, “We will spend New Year’s eve together!” “No we won’t,” I reply.


    I wait until I have left Cairo before going onto YouTube to see the young man’s injuries. His upper body is covered in long wounds. He is bruised and bloodied. No need to wait for the barbarians. They have been here all along. And for the past year they have been inside the gates, inside the Egyptian Museum.


    Cavafy poems translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, from Collected Poems, ed. George Savidis (Princeton University Press, 1992).

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    LARB Contributor

    Carol Berger is an anthropologist who specializes in South Sudan. She is a former foreign correspondent, reporting for the BBC, The Guardian, and The Economist from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. She lives in Cairo, Egypt.


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