A year ago, when Margaret Litvin decided to spend her upcoming sabbatical in Cairo, she had one concern.
“My husband and I were afraid we’d be bored,” she says. “We thought that Egypt was so stable it wouldn’t be that interesting. That didn’t end up being a problem.”
Litvin, a College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of Arabic and comparative literature, landed in Cairo at the end of August with her husband, also a scholar, and two young children in tow. Since then, Egypt has been anything but boring, with the police and the military clashing violently with demonstrators and the country holding its first free election in six decades. Not long after arriving, Litvin began blogging. Her near-daily posts on Send Down the Basket! report on all aspects of life in the 1,000-year-old city, from happenings at the local playground to her thoughts on the multistage election. BU Today caught up with Litvin, who won a Peter Paul Professorship in 2009 and recently published Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost, as she was wrapping up her four-month stay.
BU Today: What have you been researching in Egypt?
Litvin: What I was supposed to be doing, before I got massively distracted by blogging 600 words a day, is researching a new book project on the cultural links between Egypt and Russia, and the Arab and Soviet worlds more broadly. I’m reading travelogues, meeting and interviewing Egyptians who studied in the USSR during the Cold War. I haven’t gotten as far with that as I expected because I’ve been so distracted by current events. The news comes thick and fast. And the instant gratification of blogging, of having people read what I write and respond: it sucks you in.
When did you launch your blog?
On my birthday, September 6. I arrived with the idea that I would blog a bit. It was an interesting time. I thought keeping a blog would be a way to force myself out of the house and to notice and remember things. When I started, I was noticing things that had changed since I last lived here 10 years ago. For instance, there used to be very little public green space, so families would literally picnic in traffic medians, even in Midan Tahrir. That’s still true, but now the Aga Khan Foundation has built the gorgeous Al-Azhar Park in Islamic Cairo. Other things: the taxis have started using natural gas, so the air is less smoggy than I remembered it. And of course campaign posters are all over the place. That’s new. All those billboards of Mubarak and his son in sunglasses looking cool are gone. Then the contemporary politics started catching up. Perhaps my blog sounds somewhat more activist now.
When did the mood get tense?
It’s been consistently tense, because people’s expectations are not being met. In part that’s because they are not realistic. Things like bread that is edible and affordable—that is not going to happen right away. No government can do that immediately. Egypt is actually the world’s biggest wheat importer, and they are burning through their foreign currency reserves. I haven’t posted my blog about the wheat problem, but that’s what I had started writing about on the night of October 9-10. That’s when the army unleashed unbelievable violence against a peaceful march of mostly Coptic protesters outside the state media building, killing more than two dozen people. Until then, you could live in denial and tell yourself that change takes time. That night it was like, ‘Oh. They are running over demonstrators with tanks.’
Did you go to any demonstrations at Tahir Square?
I stayed away during the week of November 19 to 26, which you probably read about and saw pictures of. Not because of any fear for my personal safety—anyway I am not the sort of person who would ever be in a dangerous spot on the front lines in a war zone—but because I believe my presence there would not be useful to people I want to support. I look foreign. Some supporters of the military council, desperate for a narrative, have put out the word that the new wave of protests is due to “foreign hands.”
I had gone earlier in the late summer and fall. The atmosphere on the square then was festive. It was like I imagine ancient Greek politics. You go down to the forum and, between whatever slogans you’re chanting, have an intense discussion about the way the country should be governed.
Experiencing the revolution in Cairo must be so different from in Boston last spring.
On the ground, you see that the city has its own rhythm, that it’s not about the revolution all the time. On the day of the biggest protest, November 18, I took photos of a synchronized swimming team practicing at the Shooting Club. People are going about life. They are eating croissants. Even people who to go Tahir often go to work in the morning and the square in the evening.
What have been the semester’s high points?
In the middle of all this stuff going on, I was giving a series of talks on my book about Hamlet and the Arab world at universities in Cairo. That’s been great fun, though also surreal. At times it feels like we are fiddling while Rome burns: sitting here talking about Hamlet. But I’ve met some wonderful, very enthusiastic students and peers, and it’s very interesting to hear their thoughts about Arab political theater. Some of the conversations get very intense. It’s an intense time, I guess.
What about low points?
Cairo’s a tough city to be in love with. It’s very crowded. The vegetables aren’t very clean when you buy them. It takes a long time to get places. Having the blog has taken the edge off a lot of things that would be frustrating; at least they turn into blog fodder. If we sit in traffic for an hour, great, that’s an opportunity to observe the town or have an hour-long debate with a taxi driver.
How does it feel to be leaving?
I can’t believe the semester has gone so fast. I’m not finished here yet. Fortunately, I can come back again and again.