Thursday, November 6, 2008


What can one say about Cairo without falling into the orientalist clichés or sounding common place? So much has already been written, drawn or imaged that I find there is very little left to add.

I’ve never liked Cairo. It is dirty, smoggy, noisy and crowded and I hate khan al khalili. But then again I’ve never properly visited Cairo. I have been there 5 or 6 times on conferences or assignments, but I never had time to walk the city, as I do in all other places I visit. I also have never been in a home. I don’t count my wife’s cousin’s house. She lives in a very posh neighborhood and she and her husband works for international organizations and are therefore no reference.

This time, I walked twice for several hours through the city. It killed my lungs and damaged my hearing, but I saw Cairo differently.

A Yemeni who was born and raised in the US once told me that the first time he visited Sanaa, the first thing that came to his mind was: “it is broken, the walls are broken, the streets are broken the windows are broken the street lights are broken.” This is the impression Cairo gave me. I also realized that this was a city (and I mean the central part: Tahreer, Zamalek, Dokki, Muhandeseen, Sphinx) where I was unable to detect clear geographic boundaries between classes: one moment you are walking in a bourgeois street with Italian coffee shops and art galleries, and then suddenly you are under a derelict building, then again a couple of rich houses, then you cross the street and you are in the middle of poorly lit alleys or a popular (shaabi) neighborhood, with streets full of people and drainage water filling the holes in the asphalt. Then you walk out of these onto enormous highways with an unceasing stream of people.

To complete my cliché visit, I had cliché conversations with taxi drivers. I asked the taxi from the airport about the types and provenance of the food he eats at home. He was 60something, and lives in a shaabi neighborhood not too far from Tahreer. He insisted that everything he buys originates from Egypt, even the cooking oil and the sugar. I knew there is a heavily subsidized sugar industry, but I wasn’t aware of the cooking oil. But what a food system it must be to feed that can feed this huge city, disorganized and crowded as it is! I must find out more about it: this must be a huge industry.

He also told me that he eats meat or chicken or Nile fish almost everyday, but the poor, according to him, only eat meat twice a week. He only works and plans one day at a time: he stops when he makes 120 Egyptian pounds or thereabouts: nearly 20$. He pays half of it to the taxi owner, and takes the rest home, gives it to the wife and tells her to prepare food. God will provide for the rest.

The other taxi driver I talked to -on my way to the airport this time- gave me a reasonably good economic analysis of loans and debts and told me that all the cars you see in the streets (and there are hundreds of thousands of them) were bought on credit. The banks encourage credit, he said because they cannot lose: the police, which works against the people and for the rich, will make sure that either people pay or the cars are taken back and sold again. Anyway the state would bale the banks out. He was in his mid-30s and wore Ray Bans. He had to make fake papers to show that he is a company employee to get a loan to buy his car, which he uses as an unlicensed taxi. He said that he lives reasonably well, and eats everyday while many people he knows are only able to afford one meal a day. He has 3 daughters and the fourth is on the way. And it is God’s will that he does not have boys, and it is God’s will that the rich are sucking the country dry, and it is God’s will that the rich can get good health care and education and that he cannot. And he fears God and does his duties as a good citizen because then God will protect his daughters.

I told him this was a really odd God who keeps him on his toes all the time when He appears to be really lenient with those who steal and rob and exploit people’s misery. He told me I was right, but that it does no do any one any good to think this way, because the rich are powerful and violent and they can break him and thousands like him, and that he is the only earner in his family, and should he disappear like many others, then who will protect his daughters? So, I said, you fear the State and the Rich and do your duties to them so that your daughters are protected. And you fear God and do your duties to him so He protects your daughters. He said yes. So I said: following this logic, the State and the Rich must be God.

Then my phone rang and I had to answer and I think he was pleased that the conversation ended there.


Leila said...

I lived in Cairo among upper class, Western educated Egyptians, and married a man of approximately my class background although his mother thought her family better than mine. We got a lot of our information from the house servants... It's very difficult not to behave like a Western reporter. One meets the taxi driver and the man who serves tea so one converses with him. Else one meets the AUC graduate with the MBA, the Mercedes, the subsidized apartment inherited from his late father the Cabinet minister, the cushy job with an AID consultancy.

Aren't you friends with Issandr al Imrani? He is a good reporter and has good contacts.

When I arrived in Damascus for the first time last month, and stood in the crowd on Thawra STreet next to Bab al-Jabiyeh, I felt immediately at home, because of my year in Cairo; and I felt much more comfortable and safe. Damascus is better organized, less crowded, and the people on the street were incredibly polite to me. Had I stood for ten or fifteen minutes on a similar street in Tahrir SQuare I would have been pushed, insulted or accosted in some manner. I don't quite understand why Damascus is so much calmer than Cairo, unless it's just that there are far too many people in Cairo and have been for two generations.

What I found most attractive about Damascus, oddly, was the mid-20th-century office buildings and streets at the edge of the old city, which remind me of the generation of our fathers, who built new quarters and installed offices for agriculture, education, commerce and industry; they had such hope and such pride. They were going to build great new societies for the benefit of our people. The old lobbies and sidewalks and offices remind me of those promises... And yes, in Cairo it's all broken. I lived there in 1983 and we scratched our heads at how everything was always broken...

northshorewoman said...

your cliche story was anything but! I enjoyed your story on your nothing-to-report time in Cairo, and your witty question to the taxi driver on the richness of God....