Stories from Afar & Up Close

Valentine's Day

Dear Cairo,

The other day a friend asked for beautiful spots to regain her enchantment with you. The word ‘airport’ came up more than once, because a lot of people seem to think they can only be happy outside of you. I don’t. All of that “you’ll get tired of her at some point” has yet to kick in for me – we’re still getting along quite well, if you ask me.

Of course, it was inevitable that my initial infatuation with you would wear off a little. There are a few things about you I just don’t understand and that, quite frankly, piss me off. Why so many of your men can’t think of anything better to do than give disgusting looks to women and accompany those looks with equally vile remarks (or worse), for example. Or why so many of your people insist that stability is better than respect and equality for all citizens, thus welcoming a new general as their great savior. These are the big things I know it’s better to shut up about and stay out of, as a foreigner. So I begrudgingly accept these aspects of you, Cairo, but I will forever wish I could change them.

Sphinx Square, early one December morning.

More fun are the small things that puzzle me. Tell me, how do your pedestrians manage to always take up all available space on the sidewalk? Really, it doesn’t matter if it’s 30 centimeters or 2 meters wide, there is simply no passing an Egyptian walking. Also, why is your national dish (kushari, that beautiful blend of spaghetti, macaroni, rice, lentils, and chickpeas with a hint of deep-fried onions…) a heap of carbohydrates, when you have the best arugula, beans, and tomatoes in the world? And while we’re on the subject of food – if next to that you also have the tastiest strawberries, bananas, and carrots, why add sugar to your juices? Really, your insistence on unhealthifying your food is mystifying.

Vegetable vendors with tasty food.

But I have to admit, it’s the little quirks that make you so endearing. You’re the only city I know whose inhabitants have collectively decided not to wake up before 10am. Sure, there are people out and about in the hours before that, but it’s all very quiet, very Sunday-morning-in-a-small-European-village-calm, as the actual screaming and noise doesn’t begin until noon (and then lasts until about 3am when the little shop on the corner sees its owner falling asleep behind the cash register after his last client has walked off with his laundry detergent and powdered milk, because why not go grocery shopping in the middle of the night?). Your people are also the only people I’ve met that are more stubborn than the Dutch in their belief that it is possible to get onto a full metro before arriving passengers have gotten off the train.

But I’ve saved the best for last, because what I love most of all is your drama. Yes, you heard me right. You’re so incredibly theatrical, and you combine it so well with a complete absence of the concept of personal space and an unapologetic attitude of everyone-is-up-in-everyone-else’s-business, I can’t but admire the sensational outcomes. Examples? Car bumps into another car, owners get out screaming and almost start a fight, dozens of bystanders physically peel the two drivers off each other just before things get serious – but not after enjoying the scene for a while. During rush hour, a woman on the metro lets her child sit on the seat reserved for the old and pregnant, and at least 15 women argue with her, scream at her, and scream at each other for arguing with her, invoking everything from God to terrorism. Someone sleeps with someone else’s ex, and names are called, phones are smashed and sides have to be chosen. A small bomb goes off close to a police post around the corner (no deaths, hardly any damage), and two hours later there are still residents walking around the area lamenting the state of the country and literally bursting into tears as they do so. A general succumbs to his hunger for power and announces he will run for presidency, and the people are dancing around in the streets, carrying flags with his face and singing his name. In life, in love, even in politics – everything is more dramatic here, and the aliveness it creates is what I love so much about you.

Found on the street. And it wasn't even February 14th!

Found on the street. And it wasn't even February 14th!

This past Friday it was Valentine’s Day, which I heard is a big thing in Egypt. Unfortunately I wasn’t there to witness it. I hope you accept my word that I would surely have given you a beautiful red rose, Cairo. You deserve it.