The photograph above is the door to the house where my grandfather was born in 1923 Cairo, shortly after the Egyptian monarcy was installed under British Imperial rule. It is located in a neighborhood called Rod El Farj. The neighborhood consists of a narrow sliver of a main road, which branches out into smaller streets. The main road is lined with buildings on each side that are ornamented with the varying colors of the residents' laundry hung out to dry off the balconies. At eyelevel, the smells and colors of fruit, meat, and vegetables combined with the cacophony of Koran playing in the background, the voices of people haggling over prices or just catching up, and the sounds of car horns and hoofs make for an overwhelmingly stimulating sensory experience as I walked down to my grandfather's home.
I remember the story my grandfather told us of his birth and early childhood. He was the only boy amongst two sisters, one older and one younger. His mother had given birth to nine other boys, all of whom died either still born or in infancy, except for my grandfather. To ensure that he would live, the family held a Zar for his mother. A Zar is a semi religious ceremony practiced in rural and urban Egypt, to cure an illness caused by Jinn or evil spirits.
In a special room filled with incense, the women perform the Zar with tambourines, tablas, and chants trying to connect with the troubled spirits and offer them an animal sacrifice. In my grandfather's story the Zar was successful for he lived and the sacrificed animal was cleaned and sealed in a wooden box with other offerings. The box was then secured and placed under his bed to prevent the Jinn from taking him back.
The box stayed in its designated spot for several years until one day, when his mother went out and left my grandfather home alone. My grandfather's mother returned from her outing to find that my grandfather had discovered the box and was playing with the decaying carcass. She was convinced that her son would not be around for much longer. My grandfather told us this story to characterize his mischeif, that same kind of curiosity that forshadowed his political activism.
Walking down Rod El Farg I was amazed that the neighborhood still existed as he had described it, although probably more crowded. Growing up in Abu Dhabi, where nothing of the urban fabric is more than a decade or so old, the idea of time, age, and history seemed extremley fantastical and overwhelming. The surprise I felt every time I found a place that my grandfather had described still standing, in use, and even more uncannily just like he described it, continued to leave me unsettled throughout the trip.