Spence Green

التكرار يعلم الحمار

I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Three Days in Cairo

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Last evening I returned from Cairo. No other city in the Middle East (except possibly Baghdad) differs more from Abu Dhabi. The oldest building in Abu Dhabi was erected 30 years ago; the Pyramids have dominated the Cairene skyline for five millenia. 4.5 million people live in the Emirates; 20 million live in Cairo alone, though no one is really sure because the government is a mess. Egypt has the Nile; the UAE has desal. Egyptians work, while Emiratis hire Hindustanis to work for them. Emirati women cover, while Egyptians wear the latest European fashions. Culture, history, economy, society, government. Everything is different, except Islam, but the realization of that aspect differs as well. This was a tourist trip and everything that I saw is well-documented in more reliable sources than this one. I have included some factual information with the pictures. Instead of an exhaustive description, I will comment on the impression that Cairo left on me.

Two things immediately strike the disembarked visitor: the filth, both in the air and on the ground, and the ubiquitous presence of the police. Besides the frequent historical landmarks throughout the city, these are the two most pervasive elements. The air is dirty and heavy and leaves a viscid film on everything: buildings, cars, people. It does not discriminate. Although less humid than the Gulf, the viscosity of the air makes breathing a similarly conscious activity. As I labored down the ladder to a waiting bus, two officers with AK-47s waited for me. This is a fearsome weapon and I circumnavigated the two men with great caution.

Though formally called the “Arab Republic of Egypt”, the country is a police state. Clusters of armed men occupy almost every street corner and sit before every building of relative import–hotels, embassies, government buildings, museums. Once I noticed machine-gun nests encircling a large, statist edifice. The sign above the building noted some department of the Interior Ministry and I noticed a flow of ruffians engaged in inauspicious activity near the site. I think they were renewing their drivers licenses.

Evidently it requires little effort to obtain one of these permits, for the roadways represent a significant threat to humanity. Never before have I seen such a collection of derelict vehicles. The most common machine seemed to be an old Fiat four-door that was probably last produced when REO Speedwagon’s glory years. The roads have no lines and people drive where they will. Once I hired a cab for a twenty minute ride from Gezira (near Downtown) back to Ma’adi, where I was staying. The driver weaved back and forth on the road not to gain advantage, but for amusement. He beeped his horn twice and the car beside us responded with two friendly beeps. He played a melody on the horn. The other car finished the last chord and weaved to and fro. He cut off an expensive sedan and waved as its disgruntled driver sped past. We carried on in this fashion for 20 minutes until I indicated a forthcoming left turn, at which point he applied the brakes and brought us to a screeching, fish-tailing stop. The local police deputation, which included a crossing guard and his weaponized friend, took no notice.

Despite their armament, the cops really are apathetic. In the heat of the afternoon, they typically snooze at their posts, either leaning on their weapon or laying it haphazardly beside them. A slightly urgent man could lay waste 50 of them before any sort of alarm sounded. Given the pointlessness of their occupation, any source of stimulation seems to arouse them. One evening I attended a party for an Embassy employee. A few officers stood watch outside when we arrived. When we left, 15 men loitered in the street with five more crammed into a dilapidated truck nearby. They weren’t menacing at all, but eager, as if hoping that if they waited just long enough, maybe Heath Ledger would walk out.

Egyptians are exceedingly hospitable people; they will not allow you to enter their home or office without serving a refreshment. They don’t prefer Gulf Arabs, who come to Cairo and do nothing but slouch around the hotel, eat, and chase women. Politically, they are not sequacious, but resigned. They cannot criticize the government openly, but they readily offer contrarian opinions in hushed voices. Unlike most countries in the Arab world, it is possible to be Egyptian and non-Muslim. Restaurants serve alcohol, though the phenomenon of pork BBQ has not found fertile soil. Yet. If not for the apparently incompetant grip in which the government holds the people, this country could regain a measure of its past cultivation.

Next to the Pyramids, the Nile is Cairo’s greatest attraction. From the air, it looks like a long aerated vein, a ribbon of life in an otherwise desolate country. Ancient Banyan trees sway in the cool breeze along the river. Long grasses fill the shallow water, which has remained clean despite the city’s colossal footprint. It doesn’t have the same obvious filth as either the Thames or Seine, for example. Perhaps I should not infer too much from the appearance, though. After millenia of use, the river has learned how to clean up after its frequenty inattentive patrons.

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay, though I would approach permanent residence there with caution. Benefits include a relatively open society and space to quickly master Arabic. The country also has tremendous geographic diversity, from the fertile Luxor region, to seaside Alexandria, to the barren Sinai peninsula. But Cairo is a fast, huge place and the grime causes constant anxiety. Though I practiced appropriate personal hygiene there, I felt constantly in need of ablution, like a fervent saint. The government could mitigate this problem if only it issued bottles of 409 to its moribund ranks.

Written by Spence

June 2nd, 2006 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Travel

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