FoodLife & Style

Surrealism during downtown clashes

Egypt's revolution has given us its fair share of surreal moments, and recent clashes in downtown Cairo were no different. As security forces continuously pumped tear gas into Mansour Street, some protesters could be found eating an Egyptian staple, koshary, from Macarona Reda, the only store on the street that stayed open throughout the entire days-long battle.

A day earlier, further down Mansour Street, people were sitting in a pavement cafe smoking shisha as the tear gas thickened. Some of them had their faces drenched in yeast, the sign of countering a particularly bad bout of tear gas. A volley of tear gas assailed the street. Moments later, after the gas had cleared somewhat, customers had moved off the pavement into the cafe proper, still puffing on their shishas.

Yet Macarona Reda is further up the road, near the intersection with Mohamed Mahmoud, much closer to the violence. At one point security forces pushed forward to the entrance of the restaurant. Macarona Reda has a store-front on the street to serve customers for takeaway, but also a seating area a little further in. During lulls in the violence, protesters hoovered the street sustenance, often with gas masks perched on their arms, eyes tearing from the stinging chemicals in the air.

Then the gas would come again and people would skitter away. That's why Reda takes its money upfront from the customers — you never know when they might have to leg it mid-meal.

Why stay open then amongst this carnage, this violence, with motorcycles careening through the road carrying the many injured? The decision to stay open wasn't intended to support revolutionaries on the ground; rather, it was about supporting families at home. Simply put, the 25-strong staff cannot afford to go without work for even a single day.

Ahmed Hafez readies ingredients in Reda's storeroom, next door to the restaurant. He has fainted on many an occasion because of the tear gas as staff would run up the building stairs when a volley was fired from security forces less than 100 meters away. Yet he showed up every day during the fighting. "We need to make a living," he says.

In the front kitchen, Shaaban Aboud says, "We have families to feed, we couldn't afford to close for a single day." When Aboud talks about mouths to feed, it's close to home because his ten year old son Ibrahim works as a waiter in the seated area inside. Ibrahim was also there every day during the clashes. He too fainted from the gas and was taken to an apartment upstairs to recover, yet he kept coming every day with his father.

An indirect attempt to admonish the father for risking his son's life in such circumstances was met with the response: "He works during school breaks to learn to depend on himself and to pay for his school necessities, like books and clothes." The Aboud family lives in Hadayek Helwan, quite far from the center of town where they work. And every day they came; rain, sun or tear gas.

Not that Ibrahim is the least bit cowed by all this. "I wasn't afraid," he says excitedly. "I don't fear anyone or anything but the God who created me."

Hamada, who does the deliveries, also gives off a sense of normalcy in spite of the madness that enveloped Mansour Street. "I did my deliveries quite normally during those days," he says, indicating that business was regular in the drive-by stakes. Of course, Hamada happened to get shot in the leg with a birdshot during one delivery run.

The important thing to the staff of Macarona Reda was that they came to work and business was decent — not as high as regular days, but during the lulls in the tear gassing, business was good as protesters exploited the calm to grab a bite. They continue to serve their customers with the same cheery insouciance on less action-packed days of the week, as well. 

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