For many years, I have made countless and futile attempts to describe the Oriental charm, magical attraction and the sheer wonder of living in Cairo to my family and friends. Suffice it to say that Cairo is not simply a location, or a specific set of geographic coordinates on a map. And it is much more than one of the greatest cities of the world; it is a living, breathing organism, with its own peculiar set of moods, wants and desires.
Cairo isn’t just an idea; it is a whole set of often conflicting ideas and emotions. Part-Paradise, part-Hell and part-Purgatory, Al-Qahirah is also permanent frame of reference. Commonly referred to by the Arabs as Om al-dunya, (“Mother of the World”) it is also set of wise parents, a best friend, a set of cantankerous relatives, a tempestuous lover, and a naughty child. Cairo is ancient, modern, profane, sanctified, sublime, enigmatic, revealing, bewildering, intoxicating, sobering, opulent, impoverished, parochial and cosmopolitan — all at the same time. Indeed, it is Cairo’s countless contradictions that can produce such a wide range of emotions from all who have lived or visited there.
Once Cairo has come into contact with anyone, it becomes a permanent part of that person; its unique essence is absorbed instantaneously through the pores of the skin and courses through the bloodstream directly into the heart. All those who have known Cairo in its many incarnations, throughout the ages, have learned to alternately love or hate it. The city’s considerable magnetic emotional pull will simply not allow anyone to feel indifferent about living or visiting there.
The analogy I often use is that Cairo reminds me of a middle-aged woman, who had been a striking beauty in her youth before the toll of the passing years had robbed her of many of her natural gifts. I have known several such older women in the leafy, well-heeled and slightly run-down section of Cairo’s Zemalek neighborhood, whom I could describe similarly.
When you see her during the day, all you notice are the blemishes and wrinkles that line her face. Her countenance appears plump, her features a bit exaggerated. Invariably, these Grande dames cover their hair – the very essence of a woman’s vanity in this part of the world — with a simple scarf. What little of her hair that you can see are the roots, which appear thin and graying. During the day, some of these women can often be seen dressed in old, oversized house frocks, meters of threadbare fibers that largely obscure the contours of their bodies. When you look at them closely, they appear unattractive and rather unremarkable. Their nails are unpainted; their fingertips appear as if they are gnarled claws.
Outward appearances are also about attitude; a reflection of how someone feels about himself or herself. And during the day, these grand ladies are invariably cranky, holding forth a litany of complaints about the unpleasantness of the surroundings, assorted aches and pains, the way things used to be, and their unfortunate station in life. This testimony, which alternates between whining and complaining, is delivered in an annoying tone of voice, which sounds like fingernails being scratched against the chalkboard. You are happy to take your leave of her when she respectfully excuses herself to repair from the sitting room to her boudoir.
This description fits Cairo. The dirtiest city in the world (according to a 1995 United Nations environmental study) bakes for hours under the steady rays of the Sun each day, its formerly grand avenues and main thoroughfares are awash in debris, literally crumbling before your eyes under the sheer weight and volume of unceasing waves of traffic. The air is heavy on the lungs, filled with exhaust fumes, or smoke billowing from a forest of factory smokestacks and dozens of roadside fires. The strong desert breezes bring in low-lying yellow and black clouds from rice straw fires set on hundreds of sprawling farms that hug close to either side of the fertile banks of the Nile just north of Cairo.
A vast and unlikely fleet of vehicles — ranging from the latest model luxury sedans and SUVs, malodorous and balky donkey carts, dented microbuses crammed dangerously to the gills with passengers, as well as sputtering, antique taxis held together with nothing more than chicken wire, rope and few dozen coats of black paint — careen dangerously along wide avenues and narrow streets, their drivers seemingly oblivious to every modern convention of traffic safety. Miniature copies of the Quran are affixed to nearly every dashboard. Passages of the Muslim holy book blare from car speakers off scratchy, overused cassettes, as if the collective piety of both driver and passenger will somehow avert the next traffic accident that is surely waiting around the bend.
During the day, the flowing waters of the mighty Nile River — the world’s longest — look ordinary, not majestic. The river churns dark brown, not blue or aqua, as it flows at a steady pace northwards, like an unending passenger train, past Cairo. Large modern barges cruise up and down the river, hosting power lunches and candlelight dinners to the more wealthy patrons. Lingering near the shoreline are dozens of ancient Arab fellucas, their distinctive, triangular canvas sails mastering the winds as they glide silently along the surface. The ancient ships recall an era long ago, but do not in themselves suggest anything grand about the Nile.
Downtown Cairo’s odd jumble of architectural styles – British, French, Ottoman, Mediterranean, beaux art, modern, post-modern, Western and ad-hoc – are all arranged in a haphazard, even chaotic fashion, all angles and lines clashing with each other. Ornate latticework and wooden shutters, cracked and covered with layers of dust and grime, adorn the balconies that terrace countless old tenements, a reminder of Cairo’s golden age almost a century ago. Decaying, yet stately, stone and brick dwellings stand cheek-by-jowl with hundreds of gleaming, modern office buildings of tempered steel and glass, which tower dozens of stories overhead and help create drab canyons of concrete. They are most often topped by jungles of flashing neon signs, stretching hundreds of more feet skyward in crazy patterns outlining the latest commercial slogans in giant English script or the swirling and flamboyant Arabic calligraphy.
On the streets, a ragged army of a thousand beggars, some of them pitiable paraplegics in wheelchairs, stretch out their withered arms and open their palms while attempting to surf the innumerable waves of pedestrians that hurriedly walk past. A series of rusted steel and concrete bridges and flyovers, or elevated overpasses, snake through the center of the city, scarcely regulating, but not reducing, the traffic congestion of one of the most gridlocked cities in the world. The fear of claustrophobia can be overwhelming, especially when an unfortunate soul is trapped in one of Cairo’s signature traffic jams.
Built some 30 centuries ago atop drained swampland, al-Qahirah — the “City of the Triumphant” — has defied the well-intentioned efforts of countless generations of government bureaucrats to manage her growth. Despite building gleaming new satellite cities of high-rise projects in the outlying deserts, millions cannot bring themselves to depart for long from the squalid, teeming neighborhoods of Egypt’s capital city.
In many respects, Cairo is like a fortress, constantly besieged from all directions by a dizzying number of forces and influences, both natural and man-made. And yet Cairo survives. Cairo’s gritty streets overflow with humanity at nearly every hour. Despite the frenetic daily pace, the city has remained one of the safest in the world. The annual murder rate during most years is in the single digits – when such crimes have occurred at all. Muggings, armed robberies and violent crimes, of any sorts, are rare. A city with three times the population of New York City has but a mere fraction of the Big Apple’s crime rate. Men, women and young children walk unmolested and unafraid in virtually any neighborhood at any hour. And despite the big city hustle, Cairenes are unfailingly friendly and accommodating, even if some conversations between themselves are often punctuated by harsh words, brusque tones or colorful language.
My friend, Gamal Nkrumah, an editor for the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, wrote of his home in November 2002 thusly:
“Cairo is not just big. It is among the most densely populated cities in the world. The estimated 20 million daytime Cairenes live and work in an area of merely 214 square kilometers. In contrast, Oslo is a city of some 500,000 people living in an area of 242 square kilometers. London, with 12 million people, has a land area of 625 square kilometers.
“Drive from Helwan to Heliopolis — from one end of town to another — on a Friday morning and you’ll realize how tiny the city is in comparison with the world’s other great cities. Cairo is no island, like Bombay, Hong Kong, Singapore or Manhattan. But, since time immemorial, Egyptians have preferred to live by the banks of the River Nile and abhorred the surrounding desert…
“‘Al-Qahirah’ as Al-Mu’izz Li Din Allah Al-Fatimi, its founder, named her a millennium ago, is a true megalopolis, in a league of its own. ‘It is the metropolis of the universe,’ pronounced the Arab historian Ibn-Khaldun in 1382… Indeed, Cairo
feels much bigger than it actually is, because it is bustling, teeming with people who, in spite of hazardous pollution and a national predilection for television soaps, enjoy hanging out, shopping, eating or playing backgammon in the countless cafés.”
The millions of residents of Cairo have learned to come to terms with the city, its many gifts, its strengths, its limitations, its weaknesses, and its constantly changing nature. Over the years, Cairo has gone through several different incarnations, while retaining its unique essence. By nature, Al-Qahirah is defiant, eclectic and untamed; yet it survives by borrowing and incorporating various architectural, social and spiritual influences. Unwieldy and essentially ungovernable by daylight appearances alone, dirty, noisy, poor and chaotic Cairo can at times be a virtual madhouse. It is, in any number of ways, an urban planner’s worst nightmare.
Yet, at night, Cairo, like a middle-aged woman, is stunningly transformed. Come the evening, our lady pulls out her rollers and lets down her thick mane of expertly-coiffured hair, every strand in place. She applies make-up and eye shadow with a flair that would make a movie starlet envious. Her lipstick is just the right shade and texture to accentuate the shape of her inviting lips. Her fingernails are painted in thick red coats, the enamel polished to a high gloss. The ratty old house frock has been discarded for the evening and our middle-aged beauty literally pours herself into a little black dress. The extra pounds have miraculously disappeared from her midriff, and the lines of her figure have been alluringly restored.
Appearing at the bottom of her hemline, just above the knee is a pair of still shapely legs, accentuated perfectly by sheer stockings and pair of well-appointed patent leather high heels. For the evening, she is every bit of everything you remembered from her youth — all of her curves are in place; her beauty and sensuality radiate. And when you cast your eyes upon her, you suddenly realize that you are in the presence of a very elegant and beautiful woman. She is a visual feast.
When she walks, she glides with the sensuous slink of a belly dancer. The excitement of the evening is just in being around her. You also realize that the combination of her expensive perfume and her pheromones have placed you even more firmly under her spell. The sound of her voice soothes; the mere touch of her hand arouses. The seduction is instantaneous. Your heart is light, your pulse suddenly quickens with excitement. Every pore in your body opens; you want to absorb her very essence. The stars are out, the night is young, and you never want the moment to end.
Cairo’s dramatic transformation begins as the oppressive sun finally sets along the horizon and the city’s temperature cools off considerably as the sensual night winds blow in off the Western Desert. The combined effect of the changes in light and heat noticeably slow the usually electric pace of the city. Instead of slowing to a crawl at nightfall, Cairo pauses momentarily to catch a “second wind.” Then the city roars back to life.
For it is the onset of night, the curtain of darkness becomes Cairo’s “little black dress.” Night hides the ever-present clouds of dust and dirt, and much of the unsightly skyline has been reduced to the shadows. Cairo’s make-up is the innumerable rows of bright neon lights, which produce a riot stripe of colors that brighten nearly every main road and city corner. Bright lights also show off the countless ground-floor banks of the gaudiest storefront displays of clothes, shoes, imported electronic goods and books, beckoning legions of shoppers young and old. Gaggles of schoolgirls, all wearing the white higab, or headscarf, exchange smiles and nods as they point out dresses or shoes on display. Parents walk hand-in-hand with their small children, while carrying large bundles under their arms.
At night, it appears that every square-inch of pavement, road and sidewalk has been covered by man, machine or beast, pulsating in rhythm likes a giant anthill. In the evenings, especially during Ramadan, a powerful electric current surges throughout nearly everything and everyone in the city. Without thinking, residents and visitors, one and all, are swept up in the hypnotic rhythms of the night, an excitement that it readily palatable even for those who’ve lived in Cairo for years.
Instead of a necklace of jewels, a diamond ring and gold bangles, its most enduring physical feature — The Nile — sets off Cairo’s beauty. The bright lights hang like several strands of pearls from billboards and countless rows of skyscrapers and hotels along the riverside Corniche reflect off the luminous waters of the Nile, like a vast mirror. During a full moon, the skyward orb shines down from the heavens like an enormous pearl.
On the bustling streets of the capital, the latest Egyptian pop music blares from megaphones and loudspeakers, joining the daytime symphony of discordant notes from car horns. This “symphony” is interrupted only every few hours by the mournful drone of the muezzin from dozens of neighborhood mosques, calling the observant Muslims to evening prayers.
A profusion of different scents, smells and odors overwhelms the nose and the palette. It is an odd mixture of acrid and noxious automobile exhaust fumes, burning tobacco from nargelia or water pipes at curbside shisha bars, thousands of individual cigarettes, and the pungent smell of sweat from millions of Cairene brows. These smells merge with competing aromas of meat cooking on upright spits at countless shawerma stands, a dozen different oils and spices, kiosks hawking pastries or smoked nuts, sidewalks cafes offering pots of strong Turkish coffee or shot glasses of minted tea. Collectively, this distinctive mixture constitutes Cairo’s pheromones, the effect of which is every bit as telling on residents and visitors as if they were emitted by a beautiful women.
As evening falls, hundreds of young lovers pair off in public parks alongside the Corniche, sitting next to each other on benches during un-chaperoned, but chaste, romantic encounters.
On any one of four main bridges spanning the Nile, there are invariably, at any time, wedding parties of young men in dark business suits or tuxedos. They stroll from lavish receptions in the ballrooms of five-star hotels and pose for photos along the railings with their new brides and bridesmaids, who are dressed in Western-style, cream-colored wedding dresses with long trains trailing. The waters of the mighty Nile, whose seasonal ebbs and flows have long mirrored the fortunes of Egypt, provide the eternal backdrop.
On another bridge a mile or so upstream, a solitary procession of camels, their humps painted in large numbers with a reddish-brown vegetable dye, are being marched single file at a deliberate pace by a young boy perched atop the lead animal. The caravan takes over in the slow lane of the span as the gentle and ungainly beasts inexorably make their way to slaughter in the butcher’s district, near the stone ruins of the old aqueduct leading to the Citadel a few miles to the east.
Once I learned my way around Cairo, I carved out one of a half-dozen favorite spots at which to take the pulse of the city and fall into its rhythms. More often than not, I’d retreat a few hours every week, sitting on a wooden bench smoking pineapple- or apple-flavored shisha from a hubbly-bubbly, or water pipe, at the Naguib Mafhouz Café, or the nearby Al-Fishawy. Both well-known establishments, which are little more than chairs and tables set up in the narrow passageways that are always choked with pedestrians, are tucked away within the intimate, yet sprawling, confines of the Khan-El-Khalili market in the venerated Al-Hussein district.
There, relaxing amid a cloud of tobacco smoke, I would spend an evening drinking small cups of sweet, mint-flavored tea and sampling Baba Ganouche, Om Ali, samosas, kebab, kufta or rice wrapped in olive leaves. More often than not, a small band of musicians playing an oud, a violin and drums would serenade an appreciative audience with classical Arabic music. Small knots of men sat hunched over tables playing dominoes, good-naturedly smacking down the chips on the tabletop with a defiant clatter. Beneath the tattered, overhanging parapets, time would appear to slow down amid the constant hustle and din of normal traffic, giving me a sensation similar to sitting calmly in the eye of a human hurricane.
On many nights, I would often pause for a moment and remind myself that I lived and worked not only in one of the oldest and greatest cities in the world, but also, undeniably, one of the most beautiful to behold at night. I would almost have to remind myself that I was living in a nation that has been placed under an official state of emergency for the better part of two decades.
After I returned to the States, when talking by telephone to friends in Egypt, I would express how my heart would yearn at the mere thought of returning to Cairo. Cairo has burrowed deep into my heart, burned deep into the recesses of my mind. The city still returns frequently to my dreams. When listening to familiar music by Warda or Mohamed Mounir, I am magically transported back to Cairo, albeit briefly, and the mere sensation is enough to bring tears to my eyes. Even years later, I occasionally awake in the early morning hours and imagine that I am laying in my bed in Cairo.
Some of my friends express amazement, for Cairo is surely a very difficult and stressful place, even for Egyptians, to negotiate every day. But I would remind them Cairo, like a beautiful woman, with all its myriad of problems and incessant aggravations, is simply unforgettable; the memory of her is always with me. I frequently tell them that they should consider themselves far more fortunate than me, because, for the moment, they have Cairo in their intimate embrace, and I do not. And sometimes I ask them, rhetorically: Can 20 million Egyptians (Cairo’s estimated population) be wrong?