For most people in the United States, October 6 is a date like any other. But one can’t ignore October 6 here in Egypt, if for no other reason than the fact that the one of Cairo’s most important streets is named after the date, as is one of Cairo’s satellite cities, and an entire governorate. Plus, everyone gets off from work.
The day is the anniversary of the start of the 1973 war with Israel, known in that country as the Yom Kippur War. (For now, let’s just put aside our reservations about celebrating the beginning of a war.) Very briefly: The 1973 war began on October 6 when the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal in an attack that took the Israelis by surprise. The Egyptians quickly made their way into Sinai, reclaiming land they had lost in the 1967 war. Three weeks later, after the United States provided Israel with a massive re-supply of arms, the war ended.
October 6 a national holiday, when everything is closed. Think Memorial Day, but with even fewer traditions. (No barbeques.) Most people I talked to said it’s an excuse to stay out late the night before or do something fun with friends during a day off from work. Some people stay at home and watch TV movies about the 1973 war. But as a recent arrival in Cairo eager to take advantage of all the cultural opportunities the city has to offer, I wanted to find something special to do to mark the holiday. So I went to the October War Panorama, a museum-complex housed in a circular building between downtown Cairo and the airport.
En route to the panorama, I was greeted by men selling Egyptian flags. When I got to the gates it was packed with families. Children. Hundreds of Egyptian children standing in the heat, holding their mommies’ hands, waiting to get into the panorama compound. It felt more like a national field trip than a holiday. Vendors sold popcorn, iced cream, and hotdogs. A man at a table sold small pictures of Anwar Sadat dressed in full military garb next to photos of Egyptian movie stars. It was a pleasant carnival atmosphere, but not the main attraction.
The garden surrounding the panorama is an expansive area filled with military relics. On one side is a formation of Egyptian artifacts from the period-a Mig 17, a Howitzer of the kind used to shell the Bar Lev line, a Soviet-made tank. On the other side were Israeli memorabilia. A captured tank, a few large caliber guns, everything marked “Made in USA.” The tail of a felled Sky Hawk protruded from the ground, covered in Arabic graffiti. With little sense of history, children climbed over the military equipment. “Ahmad, no!” a father yelled at his son who tried to spin the wheels on an Egyptian fighter jet. Families posed for photos. Between the opposing unmanned armies were four bronzed Egyptian soldiers in a rubber raft that was used to cross the Suez on October 6.
Inside the main attraction a narrator spoke in muffled Arabic, extolling the glories of the Egyptian army while the seating area spun around the circular room, passing by miniature tanks and battle scenes. A crumpled Hebrew newspaper lay in an abandoned foxhole. The walls, which had been painted with help of artists donated by North Korea, depicted scenes from the war. The show ended, there was some half-hearted clapping, and we all exited the panorama complex and returned to the Egypt of 2009.
No one mentioned that 15,000 Egyptians died during the 1973 war, far more than the 3,000 Israelis. No one mentioned that by the end of the war Israeli forces were within 150 kilometers of Cairo. And of course, no one mentioned that October 6 is also the anniversary of Anwar Sadat’s assassination.
But national holidays aren’t created to remember the bad. The early days of the 1973 war proved that Egypt was a military power that could rival Israel. It instilled a renewed confidence in the Egyptian military and it led to Egypt regaining control of the Sinai Peninsula. But even those details aren’t that important.
National holidays are about creating myths and fostering nationalism. That is why the panorama is perfect for children. When they drive over the 6 October Bridge or go to visit an uncle in 6 October City, somewhere in their minds they will recall victorious feeling of climbing over an Israeli tank or spinning the wheels on an Egyptian jet.
Photo by Paul Keller.