On an ever decreasing magnitude of scales Egypt then Cairo then Tahrir and finally KFC in Tahrir represents a confluence of intersecting, overlapping and often contradictory tectonic plates of identity. Pulling and pushing in a variety of different directions and with a range of forces, it is this salad of historical identity and cyclical movement which makes this part of the world so interesting. The KFC in Tahrir square Cairo, is no different, a cursory glance and it’s identity is a closed case, an American fast food chain in the heart of a middle eastern city, but scratch below the surface just a little bit and you will realise that its identity and cumulative existence beyond the brash pantone red exterior is far more interesting.
Down town Cairo, and the area around Tahrir Square is the culmination of architectural dreams projected onto the fertile banks of the Nile. Championed as Paris of the Middle East during the days of the Khedive Ismail Pasha, Cairo and Egypt were in their ‘Belle epoque’, and were adorned with wide streets, green trees lining beautiful boulevards, cafe Riche, Groppi (http://www.cairo360.com/article/caf%C3%A9s/1023/groppi-a-once-cherished-downtown-relic) pulled in the intellectual Egyptian elite, European high fashion scattered eloquently along the roads, a beautiful opera house around the corner and a sense of cultivated class permeated the streets of this now thoroughly modern and hip international city.
The eventual deconstruction of the last Egyptian kingdom and its replacement a much more brutal and far less refined but popularist military socialist junta hybrid brought with it a change in order of society. For better or for worse, the state now provided a different narrative, and with it the architectural and artistic priority of Egypt and Cairo dramatically changed.
The revolution in 1952 was partially driven by external forces, a war in Israel/Palestine, the dying echos of European colonialism and the changing dynamic of the gulf as its natural resources concentrated minds far far away across the Atlantic. But one thing the revolution did was unify the masses against a perceived ‘other’ colonialist threat from across the Mediterranean. It didn’t really matter who, but really it never has. As the beautiful Belgian and French villas and apartments made way for ugly functional but badly built concrete monstrosities all in the name of socialism, another page in the history of Cairo was being written. Cairo isn’t a ‘European’ city, whatever ‘European’ means, like wise it’s not an ‘Arab’ or ‘African’ city either, its all of these and none of these. And this is the beauty and driving force of downtown Cairo and the subject of this article, KFC.
KFC represents the most contemporary phase in this changing of masks that the ‘Vanquisher’ is now wearing. With Sadat’s open door policy ‘infitah’ and his successor’s subsequent acceleration of this; Western companies flooded Egypt with investment and along with it came the Mcdonalds, KFC, Starbuckes etc etc. Brash commercialism that the ‘noveu riche’ attach status points too now sit silently by old coffee shops where old men watch Ahly v Zamalek and play backgammon, the average meal in a KFC is around 25 L.E far more than the what most Egyptans can afford on junk food, but the place is always full, and I have no doubts will always do well.http://www.flickr.com/photos/aviewafar/5731545938/sizes/z/in/photostream/
But it was during the 2011 revolution that this corner of Tahrir square added another layer of identity, this time not forged in the deep fat friers of the Colonels secret recipe;KFC normally a provider of saturated fat and cholesterol had a 180 degree identity change, the front of the shop was turned into a makeshift clinic for those injured during the uprising, drips, needles, amoxicilin, catheters and bandages replaced the bargain buckets, and chicken popcorn as the injuries came flooding in.
But the narrative of a ‘foreign’ ‘evil’ plot repeated itself again, accusations from multiple sources that the people in the square were paid agents simultaneously in the pocket of the CIA, Mossad and also the Illuminati, swirled around the Egyptian airwaves in only a way Egyptian gossip knows. Accusations of payments in fried chicken and dollars were aimed at discrediting those in the square as state TV in Maspero down the road pumped more and more propaganda into the fertile minds of the silent majority. But this part of Cairo has always had multiple foreign identities, and its population always a funny relationship with those it perceives as foreigners, paradoxically, fearing and admiring.http://youthvoices.net/sites/default/files/image/8002/jan/talat.jpg
The pervasive ‘3oudit el xawaga’ ‘عقدة الخواجة’ simultaneously drives and contracts Egypt’s attenuation to external cultural forces, just look at the most popular foreign films in Egypt, and then make a note of who is blamed when new ‘cultural vices’ are exposed in a scandalized style across the trashy tabloids sold on most street corners. KFC in Tahrir sits as a shrine to Egyptians multifaceted approach to ‘foreign’ organisations, the irony was that the state which so heavily enticed these foreign food franchises then flipped the equation and used the external identity of this franchise as an excuse to crush the uprising in January and February of 2011.
The irony of the whole situation is that for better or worse, Egypt will always be at the cross roads of cyclical global changes, and the sooner Egyptians identify with the default status of their country as an international meeting point and cultural melting pot the sooner Egypt can reclaim those heady days that the Khedive’s tried to so desperately create.