Stories from Afar & Up Close

Time for a chat

Dear Cairo,

We need to talk.

It’s been more than seven months since we first met and I fell head over heels for you, and quite frankly, I don’t know what happened to those seven months – that’s how quickly they passed. Sure, I’ve been meeting people and discovering places and getting involved in things left and right, but seven months? I could almost have produced a baby, is what I’m saying, and yet it feels like I barely blinked twice since my first arrival here.

Apartment complexes in Maadi. Just a few of them.

It’s one of the most baffling things about you, Cairo, the way you play with time. Not just with weeks and months and seasons, also with the general rhythm of life. There’s the possibility of going grocery shopping at 3am, rush hour starts at 10.15am, breakfast in the office is at 2pm, neighborhood kids are playing football in the street at midnight and then just when I thought everything was simply pushed back by a few hours there’s the vegetable seller praising his wares on his donkey cart at 7am and an 11pm invitation for a bike ride – at 5.30am the next morning. I guess things are a matter of possibility rather than routine; when there are this many people using a limited amount of space, a little flexibility in timing is useful so if at all possible, you pick a time when you expect the least amount of people to be doing the same thing you do. Now to figure out when are those times, that’s going to take me the next part of the year…

Pedestrian in Attaba, Downtown Cairo.

But time is not the only warped thing about you. Social connections are too. When I ask your inhabitants what they like most about you, most of them say “I never feel alone here.” And they are not referring to the lack of personal space and everybody putting their nose in everyone else’s business – no, they mean that you can go to any place, at any time, and find someone you know. For good or for bad, it seems impossible to be anonymous in this city of almost 20 million people, and I understand why they like that. Because should it happen that you find yourself at a party with *only* 2 people you know, you can strike up a conversation with a random friendly-looking stranger and by the end of the night be invited to a party of his friend a week later. And the best part is that these are not empty invitations extended out of a sense of obligation, but rather out of a genuine belief that life is best lived together with others. 

"Egypt, factory of men."

And that, dear Cairo, makes you my current favorite city to live in, despite all the shit that is heaped up on us from above (often excused and justified from below). It makes that I am persevering in my efforts to explore you, to understand you, to grasp you from all sides. Because you’re no easy city, what with the political situation and the power cuts and the insane heat and the dust and the harassment, but I think you’re worth it. If only because of the little boy I met at a demonstration: dirty face, 5 stitches on the side of his head, torn clothes, trying to sell me chewing gum. When I bent down and told him I had no money, he looked at me with big, sad eyes. “But then how are you going to eat?” he asked. When I said I had money, but hadn’t brought it with me, he gave me another serious look, pulled a note of 5 Egyptian pounds out of his pocket and offered it to me to buy lunch.

His situation reflects so much of what’s wrong with you, Cairo, and yet he’s your charm, and he redeems you.