In the chaos that engulfed Cairo over the past few days, looters broke into Nadet’s Beauty Salon, smashing the glass façade and making off with padded chairs, the LCD TV and buckets of L’Oreal hair conditioner, leaving behind bullet holes and muddy footprints.
Yesterday afternoon, the first day of calm after four days of violence that left over 900 people dead across Egypt, hairdresser Magda Abdel-Fattah had dragged in a few office chairs to place in front of the mirrors, and Asmaa Ibrahim was getting her hair done.
“If I weren’t travelling, I wouldn’t have come here at all,” said Ibrahim, 34, a teacher preparing for a trip to Saudi Arabia.
Less than a block away, the ruins of the Rabaa Mosque were smoldering, and bored policemen in black uniforms played Arabic pop music on their mobile phones. They half-heartedly asked passers-by for ID as their eyes followed a group of women in jeans and tight t-shirts.
This is the paradox of Cairo today, where the familiar can turn suddenly frightening as residents try to reclaim the routines of daily life. Little girls in the back of a canary-yellow sedan joke and laugh, then burst into tears as the car approaches a barbed-wire roadblock. Men out for an evening stroll appear grandfatherly, until a casually slung assault rifle slips into view. Young men hamming it up pose for cell phone pictures, their backdrop a mosque pockmarked with bullet holes.
“I think of it as flexibility and strategies for survival -- maintaining normal life activities as much as possible under abnormal circumstances,” said Ahdaf Soueif, a political commentator and author of Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. “We’ve lived in extraordinary circumstances for some 30 months now,” since former President Hosni Mubarak was deposed.
A heavy military presence means demonstrations are quickly isolated, but around the areas of protest, the city looks like a warzone, with the carcasses of burnt cars strewn by the roadside. Near Al-Fath mosque, where until Aug. 17 hundreds of protestors had holed up, four sand-colored tanks kept watch over the deserted and locked-up compound.
Around a corner, Nasser Ahmed, 50, had reopened his stationery shop, selling staplers and notebooks in a tiny alleyway.
“It was like a war on Friday” with bullets whistling by his shop and spent rounds littering the streets, he said.
A few minutes away, women shop for groceries and men puff on hookahs on streets crowded with pedestrians. On the roads lining the Nile, wedding processions honk the horns of BMW and Mercedes sedans festooned with bouquets.
The slow return to normal, though, masks the underlying fear of many in a city on edge from conflicting news reports and rumors spread by text message.
“When we sleep, even a child’s fire-crackers scare us,” said Soad Khalil, 65, shopping for diapers in Shubra, a lower-income suburb, her daughter-in-law and four-month-old granddaughter in tow. They’d spent three days holed up at home, the door to their building padlocked to keep out thugs, she said.
The fear extends to the supporters of ousted President Mohamed Mursi, blamed by the Egyptian military-led interim government for the violence of recent weeks. After a weekend of mourning the dead from government attacks on protest sites, the Muslim Brotherhood had called for a day of marches in Cairo.
At 4 p.m. yesterday, about 100 people filed out of a mosque on El Sadek Street, the starting point for a planned protest. Instead of heaving crowds, a smattering of hesitant marchers milled about, fretting over reports that snipers might be positioned along the streets leading to their destination, Roxy Square.
The Brotherhood called off that march, and the would-be protestors made their way home, their eyes darting to rooftops sprouting satellite dishes and water tanks. Elsewhere in the city, opponents of the interim government did gather in four marches, demanding the return of Mursi, who has been jailed and charged with espionage.
“People are trying to live their daily lives as normal,” said Mohamed Mostafa, 47, who owns a market research company. “When you go to Ramsis it was like civil war, but outside these areas, you don’t see anything.”
Last week, he took his daughters and wife to see the protesters at nearby Rabaa Square; he ended up carting a dead man, shot through the head, in the back seat of his van.
“This is my life now,” he said.
Cairo turns even more ominous as the sun sets. Districts have tried to close themselves off to outsiders as a city-wide curfew drives residents indoors. Unofficial neighborhood watch committees set up roadblocks, armed with clubs and makeshift weapons. They stop cars, often by standing in the middle of the road, and force passengers to disembark for searches. Drivers try to make it home before curfew duck through side streets to skirt the checkpoints. The government said yesterday it’s banning local groups from such activities.
Even in the quietest parts of the city, the walls offer a different sign of conflict: graffiti. “Exclusive: Lies on State Television,” reads one quip. Another says, “C.C., you’re better off ruling over your wife,” a reference to General Abdel Fattah Al-Seesi, the army chief and minister of defense.
Near Rabaa Mosque, Sohaib Yasser, 21, was contemplating the wreckage of his car, a late-model Subaru. It had been shoved off the road by a bulldozer as the military cleared the roads leading to the mosque last week. Dented and dusty, its windows shattered, he had loaded it onto a tow-truck.
“I have the get the bullet hole fixed too,” he said, pointing to one on the back.
And then, as his friends laughed, he cracked a big smile.
“Maybe then,” he said, “I can take a girl out in it.”