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NY Times, April 13, 2018
Pierre Sioufi, Who Sheltered ‘the Kids’ of the Arab Spring, Is Dead at 56
By ROBERT F. WORTH
Pierre Sioufi, who became an unlikely hero of Egypt’s 2011 revolution by
opening his sprawling apartment and balcony overlooking Tahrir Square in
Cairo and turning it into a refuge for the protesters encamped there,
would probably have dismissed his own death — if he could still speak to
us — as a laughably meaningless detail.
Mr. Sioufi, who died of cancer on March 4 at 56, was a big, kind-hearted
bohemian who played down his own role in a revolt that he did all he
could to abet and encourage. He had spent his life dabbling in the arts
and had no interest in Egypt’s frozen political scene until “the kids” —
his words — started risking their lives on the streets on Jan. 25, 2011.
Pierre, as he was known to all, opened his doors to protect them from
police retaliation, and when Al Jazeera, the satellite channel, asked to
put a camera on his roof, he accepted with one condition: It must be on
24 hours a day.
That decision probably saved many lives.
His apartment, quickly labeled the “House of Revolution,” became a
mixing ground and plug-in zone for protesters of all ages and
backgrounds: artists and intellectuals, students, journalists, even a
smattering of Islamists and laborers.
It was featured in many articles, books and documentary films, about the
Arab revolts. The kids commandeered the stove, and pots of koshari, a
favorite Egyptian dish, were ferried daily down the nine stories to
people camped out in the square.
Years later, some of the half-ironic paper signs that Pierre had taped
to the many doors of his home were still there. “This is a work space,”
one of them read. “If you are not working, go out to the streets and
I remember my first sight of him, when I walked into his place early in
the 2011 revolt while reporting for The New York Times Magazine. Pierre
was at his desk, a huge, pear-shaped figure with a beard and
shoulder-length gray hair that soared in every direction.
All around him, protesters were sprawled on chairs and mattresses,
surrounded by the shambolic bric-a-brac of Pierre’s life: gilt-framed
paintings, encyclopedias, dead plants, chipped tile tables covered with
laptops and ashtrays and plates of half-eaten food.
He presided over it all like some absent deity, chain-smoking Marlboros,
dressed in a T-shirt bearing the Kentucky Fried Chicken logo of Colonel
Sanders and below it, the words “May Your Grandfather Rest in Peace.”
I introduced myself, and Pierre glanced up, pushing back the plastic
glasses that were always sliding off his nose.
“I’m just like everyone else,” he said. “No one knows anything.”
I did many interviews at Pierre’s place over the following weeks. I was
on his balcony when the news broke of Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power
and the sea of protesters in Tahrir Square broke into wild roars of joy.
Pierre jumped up and down with glee, making the floorboards shake.
That night, he wrote on Facebook: “INCREDIBLE the kids did it. Bravo and
Pierre continued to make his apartment available through much of that
year, and I, like many other reporters, stopped in when I could to hear
his take on the evolving political scene.
He was far less sanguine than the naïve young protesters he hosted. He
told friends he considered Mr. Mubarak’s ouster a kind of coup by the
military, and worried that Egypt’s immature political factions would
feud and pave the way for more autocracy. His fears proved prescient.
After the election of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi in
2012, Pierre withdrew from politics, and in the following year, as a
vengeful popular movement arose to oust Mr. Morsi, Pierre closed his
Tahrir Square apartment in disgust and headed to the beach for the summer.
His bursts of gruff sarcasm concealed a shy, sensitive nature. He was
upset, friends said, that the “kids” never bothered to visit him after
the frenzy of 2011 had passed. But when provoked, he could rise into a
fury made all the more intimidating by his bulk.
Not long after the 2011 revolt, a senior officer in Egypt’s military
police confronted Pierre outside his house, saying he wasn’t Egyptian.
“I’m more Egyptian than you!” Pierre shouted back, in a voice so loud,
the officer turned and fled. “How dare you!”
Pierre Tewfick Antoine Sioufi was born in Cairo in 1961 to a wealthy
Christian family that spoke French at home. His father, Antoine Sioufi,
an antiquarian, was of mixed Iraqi and Greek heritage; his mother,
Maryse-Liliane Soussa, was Lebanese. An only child, Pierre grew up in
Cairo’s elegant Downtown area — near Tahrir Square — in an apartment
filled with art and some 40 cats.
He attended a Jesuit academy until one day, in his midteens, he told his
parents that he had had enough of school. They had no objection, so he
educated himself with books at home instead.
In his 20s, he decided to attend the American University in Cairo, where
he became a fixture of the theater scene and hung around for years,
playing roles in a variety of plays and films. He eventually earned a
degree in business administration.
Friends remember Pierre as being always at the center of a crowd, but
his gregariousness concealed an inner hurt. “More than anyone I knew, he
seemed orphaned in some way,” one friend wrote in a testimonial after
In later years he ran the family antique shop, tried his hand at
painting and photography, and took up collecting all kinds of objets
d’art: postcards, wrought ironwork, Egyptian movie posters, picture
frames and heart-shaped rocks, to name a few.
In 2013, he married Beatrice Ghiringhelli, whom he had been seeing for
several years. One friend said the wedding was the first time he had
seen Pierre in a button-down shirt. His usual outfit was a T-shirt,
string pants and Birkenstocks, which he wore on all but the coldest
Ms. Ghiringhelli, who confirmed the death and lives in Athens, is his
only immediate survivor.
Pierre was wealthy, having inherited the entire Downtown building he
lived in. But he despised the presumption that came with wealth and
power. He preferred to live like the bohemian students whose revolution
he so admired.
At the height of his renown, a few months after the fall of Mr. Mubarak,
Pierre gently slapped down those who were making him into a spokesman.
“I wonder abt all those people who send me chat messages or private
messages asking me about Tahrir,” he wrote on Facebook. “I AM
unfortunately NOT @Tahrir. Cannot give details about it. Thank you for
taking this into consideration.”
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