Stories from Afar & Up Close

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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. 

Queen of the Road

So I have this thing I bought here in Cairo, it's called a bike. It's actually really pretty, look:

Pretty, right? Made in Taiwan.

And, since bikes are mainly known as means of transportation, I use mine to get around the city. I ride it to work, to Arabic class, to go out... you know, the usual.

In the beginning, it was mainly fun. Sure, the dust is awful and traffic is crazy – there are not a lot of rules, cars pull over without warning and buses start and stop wherever and whenever they damn well please (or wherever and whenever there is a potential passenger waiting, even if that is right at the base of the on-ramp of one of the busiest bridges in town, but that aside) – but all in all, the roads are quite good, there are no hills to speak of, and it's not as dangerous as one might imagine.

However, I quickly learned that it's not all that usual. I mean, there are certainly plenty of people who ride bikes here. Hell, I've even seen people who ride a bike with a long rack with bread on their head! Or a serving tray with a complete breakfast on it! But the thing is, those people riding bikes are not women, and that's what makes the combination of me and my main means of transportation so special. Apparently.

Hence my status on facebook:

So riding my bike in Cairo is really dangerous... especially for the three guys on the scooter that stared at me for so long they hit the parked car in front of them.

People keep staring. And commenting. And screaming at me. Most often heard, in order of frequency:

  • Eh da?!? (What is that?!)

  • Random car honking (not meant to warn me for anything, just to say hi)

  • Agala, agala! (Bike bike!)

  • GOOOOD MOOORNING! (no matter what time of day)

  • Hey, you, good, good! Bravo!

  • What's your name! (preferably from across the road) or How are you!

  • Ahdslasehlkajebshf! (never understood the actual text, usually a sentence thrown at me from the open window of the seat of a passing car, with an accompanying grin)

You may have noticed they all have exclamation marks at the end. That's because they're all exclamations. Loud ones. Meant to attract my attention. Which I don't understand, because why would I want to look at you when you are screaming and I am riding my bike. In aforementioned traffic. In fact, it may even be dangerous to look at you:

First bike-accident in Cairo is a fact, thanks to the helpful guy who kept screaming ‘watch out watch out watch out’ trying to warn me about the gigantic concrete block he had put in the middle of the road. Which I then didn’t see, because I was looking at the screaming guy. 
Result: I flew over the concrete block, and my bike flew over me. 

Fortunately, no bike-parts and only one knee were hurt (and only 2 guys thought their stupid opinions about women riding bikes were confirmed).

Other dangers? Teenage boys suddenly jumping in front of my bike or sticking out a leg (I can only assume they are unfamiliar with the physics of wheels with spokes) and young men with big egos on motorcycles who cannot accept being passed by a me when they are stuck in traffic and I manage to find some space to squeeze myself between two cars. They eventually find space, pass me, stop a few meters ahead of me, hurl an insult when I ride by, and race off.*

See that guy there? With one hand on a double(!) rack of bread? Yeah, he's riding a bicycle. Now  that  deserves awe and respect.

See that guy there? With one hand on a double(!) rack of bread? Yeah, he's riding a bicycle. Now that deserves awe and respect.

The good part? The women. Where the surprise of boys/men comes out as annoying attention-seeking or hurt-ego-compensating, I have yet to pass one woman who does not smile when she sees me, and give me a look that says: you go, girl. It's awesome, and I hope that somehow, somewhere, they will get to experience that same rush of wind and speed and owning the road that riding my bike in Cairo gives me.



*Important footnote: I was standing at an intersection yesterday when a group of teenagers started commenting on me and my bike from across the street. They kept going, eventually surrounding me, touching my bike and screaming things at me. It was more annoying than dangerous, so I tried to ignore them (which is kind of hard when someone is changing the gears on the bike I am sitting on), when suddenly a man in a suit appeared. He picked up two of the boys and threw them towards the sidewalk, then grabbed two others and pulled them in the same direction. The rest of them followed. He then lectured them in front of everyone, without even once looking back at me. I was very grateful to see an Egyptian man telling other Egyptian men(-to-be) that this kind of behavior is not ok. Thank you, man!

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.

Love After Love


The time will come 
when, with elation 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, in your own mirror 
and each will smile at the other's welcome, 

and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 
for another, who knows you by heart. 
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 

the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life. 


- Derek Walcott

Bas kidda*

Oh, Cairo.

People warned me about you. They said you are crazy - dirty, noisy, and overwhelming. That you are dangerous and crowded. That I wouldn’t be able to walk for 5 minutes without being verbally harassed and touched and bothered. That your polluted air makes it impossible to breathe.

Balcony in an alley in Downtown Cairo.

Maybe they are right, Cairo. After all, I’ve only been here for two weeks and a bit, so I don’t know you that well yet. And yes, you are loud and busy and dusty, so dusty I want to take a huge bucket and hose down the tree in front of the house (and while I’m at it, hose down the balcony as well. And the rest of the house.) Your air is brown, at times, and your drivers do like honking. And yes, sometimes I want to slap the next guy in the face before he even attempts to talk to me, because I don’t want to wonder if what he is going to say is yet another nasty proposal.

But you know what?

I like you. I really, really like you.

I like your wide avenues that create space in and between the neighborhoods. Your have trees everywhere, and parks, and boats that go up and down your river. Your people accuse each other of being liars, but I keep meeting people who are friendly and helpful and who follow up on their word. And they are quick to laugh and almost always return my smile. You have the easiest metro-system in the world, and it is so fast and reliable and cheap I still have trouble believing it. And you’re big, Cairo, so incredibly large – it makes you just the right mix of life and anonymity, with the people in my street knowing exactly what I’m up to but no one outside of that caring one single bit, all 18 million of them living their own life in their own way. And you function – your telephone system functions, your internet, your water supply, your electricity… maybe it offends you, umm el-dunya,** that I doubted any of that, but remember that I've come from Beirut, the shiniest city in the Middle East, where none of that works.

I also like your style. You pull off a combination of old-time European architecture with bustling alleys in a way that very few can. No one is tearing down your beautiful old buildings and replacing them with expensive luxury crap. Your stray cats want attention more than they want food, and your people give it to them. And your language, Cairo, your language… it is so soft and round and – dare I say it? – cute, I could listen the kida kida kida’s and ah’s that almost sound like oh the whole day.

So yes, Cairo, I like you a lot. Thank you for taking me in and making me feel right at home.

Sunset at Qasr el Nil - bridge.

* Kida can mean many things, but in this sentence it means 'just (like) this'.

**Cairo’s nickname, meaning Mother of the World.