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Earthquake in Egypt

Zilzal!

Earthquake in Egypt

By Sah-ra

On October 12, 1992, an earthquake rocked Cairo, Egypt. According to newspaper sources, it was centered just southwest of Cairo, registered 5.9 on the Richter scale, and was felt as far away as Jerusalem. According to President Mubarak’s remarks (Egyptian Gazette, October 18), it caused more than 530 deaths in Cairo, and more than 3,500 were injured. Time International Magazine (October 26) reported more than 6,500 injuries. More than 5,500 residential, school and other buildings collapsed or were heavily damaged, creating at least 2,000 families that were completely homeless (Egyptian Gazette, October 18); many others sleep in tents awaiting inspection of cracked, unsafe homes to which they were afraid to return.

President Mubarak said, “Repairs and reconstruction require at least one billion pounds ($300 million), not to mention the cost of compensating victims, cost of infrastructure, rebuilding and repairing schools, and restoring damaged Islamic monuments” (Egyptian Gazette, October 18).

Many of the casualties were not from falling buildings but from people being trampled in the panic to get out. In one district, 37 school children were killed and 65 injured in the panic to get out of school.

About 116 Islamic antiquities have been damaged, although effects on Pharonic sites were “insignificant” (Egyptian Gazette, October 19).

I happened to be in the old section of Cairo on a three-day photo shoot as the Oriental dancer model for the wonderful photographic artist, Isabel Munoz. The night before we had admired the Mosque ruin across the street from our photo location. We had enjoyed the full moon framed by a freestanding arch, and she had photographed happy children standing by a stairway and a remaining wall. I had noticed a woman emerging from what looked to be formless rubble: she lived there, of course. This place was legally condemned for living, but Cairo is very over-crowded, with ten people often living in one or two rooms. If there is a place to live, someone will find it and inhabit it.

I was just inside the doorway of the photo location “house” when I felt the earth shake. As a “California girl,” 5.9 seemed moderate. I was more surprised than afraid. Egyptians that I did not even know were there ran past me out the door. Then I heard buildings falling—there is no mistaking the sound—and I realized, “This is Cairo! We’re not in earthquake building-code-land anymore!” I ran out to see ten feet of billowing dust. As the dust cleared, I could see that the beautiful arch was no longer there—nothing was left but rocks!

Our driver was very calm. I yelled at him that there were women under there! He just smiled patronizingly and said, “It was not a house, it was an old mosque.” But I insisted that there were women under there. He continued to argue that no one lives there, that it was just a mosque. By then the streets were filled with people panicking. I ran to one of them and told them that there were women in there. At first I thought that he was just looking at me stupidly, but I later realized that he was in shock.

As I was running toward another person to enlist their help, our driver caught up with me and told me, “Everyone knows each other here—if their women were in there, someone would be yelling to get them out.” He was probably right, and it was no use trying to talk to them now. They were in crisis themselves, and had no use for a stranger, nor patience for my Arabic.

On my way back I told the driver, “It was an earthquake” He said, “No, it was only an old building falling down.” Several had fallen down already during the past summer.

As we worked, I could hear ambulance sirens outside and felt sick. Later when we left, it was dark, but people were packing the street, even the main road between the Citadel and City of the Dead. Traffic was stopped and inching forward. You could barely see the next car with the press of people. I truly felt that there had been war declared, a real national crisis.

As a “short-cut,” the driver took us by what is usually an unused road—the back street of a hospital! There were no ambulances here—it was a government hospital for poor people, and they were arriving in mini-pick-up truckloads.

Luckily, Meridian Heliopolis was built with earthquakes in mind. I came into my nice safe room with only my perfume bottles knocked onto the floor.

It is now November 1 as I write. Most schools were reopened yesterday. The Cairo governor has banned all construction for one year. 50,000 apartments are being readied to receive the homeless. But still one rarely has a conversation in which the “zilzal” (earthquake) is not mentioned. People are afraid to live in the old areas where most of the damage occurred. They are also afraid to live in the new “high rises,” newly skeptical of building construction safety. They talk about the fear in the upper stories where you can’t get out quickly enough, and in the lower floors one can imagine all the floors above smashing down. These images were well imprinted on us as we watched T.V. coverage day after day of the pile of dust and twisted chunks that used to be a fourteen-story apartment building (at least five stories were illegal). That particular building was built as recently as 1979 in the modern suburb of Heliopolis.

Authorities do not believe that tourism will be significantly affected by the quake. The Egyptian Antiquities Museum reported that there was no drop in the number of visitors. (Egyptian Gazette, October 14). To a tourist, everything might have looked normal by the next morning. Other than heavier traffic, very little that a tourist comes in contact with had been affected. However, the older buildings in the narrow back streets sustained extensive damage, and it is there that people sit in the streets with their furniture and bundles of possessions.

The effect of the earthquake on the dance world was about the same as on the majority of the population: shock and confusion for a few days, and possible damage to personal belongings.

The dominant religious view in the Arab world is that everything is the will of God. The popular thinking in Cairo was that the quake was caused by society becoming too secular. Demonstrations occurred for a few days (which I stayed away from). Articles referring to the lessons to be learned from this quake spoke of morality and change in behavior, as well as changing building codes. These articles did not just appear in special opinion or religious columns, but rather in regular news articles. The nightclubs on Pyramid Street have been a target of fundamentalist anger before, if only vocal derision against alcohol and female dancers. The Pyramid Street nightclubs were closed for over a week. This also happened to coincide with the vacations of Lucy and Fifi Abdou, so the dance scene was sparse for a week.

The date is November 12, and just yesterday I returned to our previous photographic site with the same wonderful photographer, under another hauntingly beautiful full moon. As we went to the historical house that was to be our photo shoot location again, I looked across the alley to the pile of rocks that I had seen tumble exactly one month before. The sick feeling returned again.

That evening when we had finished, we entered the alleyway to see the homeless sitting with their bundles, sleeping outside with their children. Tears came to my eyes—not from sadness, but from joy! These were the two ladies I had thought had been buried alive in the quake! The heavy weight I had been feeling for a month lifted from my chest.

Their plight is not easy now. They will have to live there outside until the government gets around to them. Earthquake relief is a big problem involving many people, so there is much opportunity to abuse the system. For this reason, people have to stay in front of what used to be their homes in order to get aid. The nights are getting colder now, but help is on its way. Thank God they are alive!

In addition to her success as a dancer in Cairo, Sahra, or Carolee Kent, also has a scholarly dimension to her background. She received a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology, and went on to pursue a master’s degree from UCLA’s Dance Ethnology Department. In 1987 she presented a paper entitled “Arab-American Zeffat al ‘Arusah in the Los Angeles Area” at the annual UCLA Dance Ethnology Seminar in 1988; the paper was later published in the UCLA Journal of Dance Ethnology (Vol. 13, 1989). Later that year, she moved to Cairo and continued her research in the zeffah homeland. www.sahrasaeeda.com

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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