March 18, 2012

Israeli Air Force was still making air raids around Cairo

For some time after my arrival, the Israeli Air Force was still making air raids in the area around Cairo. The residential quarter of Cairo, the Maadi, is situated in the south. When the Maadi was being attacked, the glass in the windows of my apartment shook and rattled ominously. For a while the noise of the traffic would die down, and the silence that usually accompanied the hottest part of the afternoon would reign. The camels would sit out the attack at the side of the road, their bodies neatly compact, their long legs folded under them and their eyes tightly shut. I can remember often watching them, completely fascinated.

October 1973 Egypt
A frequent topic of conversation at the Press Center during that time was how to cross the Nile from the island if the bridges were attacked. Someone came up with the idea of chartering a boat. But this worry was like comments on rainy weather, everyone talked about it, but nobody would do anything about it.

The Nile is a photogenic river. I once attempted to take a picture of the feluccas, the traditional boats of the Nile, with their distinctive triangular sails, from the first-floor balcony of Television Center. I was using a telescopic lens which captured the feluccas and the people strolling along the banks of the Nile or gazing over the parapets into the water in the foreground. I had the apartment blocks of Zamalek with their rows of palm trees and Cairo Tower in the background. Unfortunately, before I snapped the shutter, an officer from the Ministry of Information reached for the camera and quietly asked me why I was trying to take a picture of the two bridges. The bridges are regarded as military installations. Both are fitted with antimine devices around their girders. At that time, armed soldiers patrolled their approaches, and others were bivouacked in the vicinity of the bridges.

I found it difficult to believe that I was threatening the safety of the bridges by taking a picture with them in it. I explained my intention and the fact that the bridges had not been the object of the photograph. The officer seemed to understand at once.

As there had been no one near me when I was lining up my shot, I can only assume that someone in the distance had spotted me and reported me to the authorities. The secret police are extremely powerful in Cairo and are particularly vigilant around hotel lobbies and shopping areas, places which are frequented by visitors. One could not be blamed for regarding waiters in restaurants, shoeshine boys, maids, porters or taxi drivers as possible secret agents.

A few days after this incident with the photograph, I saw a female tourist have her picture taken with a smiling soldier, right beside the bridge. I didn’t know what to think. Had the security measures been relaxed suddenly, or was it just a case of the Egyptian soldiers having a soft spot for a pretty girl?

Generally speaking, Egyptian children are fascinated by cameras, and if you happen to be carrying one they will immediately gather around you. Adults, on the other hand, are extremely cautious. This may have some connection with the fact that the painting of human images is forbidden by the law of Islam, but it is also apparent that many of them feel that something is being snatched from them if someone snaps their picture. Once, when I had taken the photograph of one of the waiters in the dining car of the train on the way to Aswan, my subject told me very sharply that I had “injured his face and would have to pay him compensation.”

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