Exhilarating and Exhausting- A Year in Cairo (An Essay)
After high school, my diligent and humble twin brother Paul rightly earned a scholarship to go to an elite university and would eventually study abroad in sunny Ecuador followed by a frigid semester in what was then the Soviet Union. I was jealous and wanted to try too, only for me it was Egypt. I was one of two finalists from my college and gratefully I was chosen thanks to my application essay. Like now, I craved everyday experiences that felt novel at every step. I wanted a place that was hot, dusty, crowded, old and where I could learn to write in a different script. I got all that and more. It was 1989. I was naive, bold and under the care of a local university, so to me, Cairo was a safe, vibrant and welcoming place. Hosni Mubarak was eight years into what would be a thirty year run as Egypt’s President, which he followed with five years in prison and thereafter his last historical breath at age 91.
In the center of Cairo stands the famous Midan Tahrir (“Tahrir Square”), a constant swirl of activity that is easy to get swept up in. The public buses literally never stop, but rather slow down to let passengers leap on and off, be they children, young men, women laden with bags of food and even older folks. A lone man with impressive agility and stamina hangs onto the side of each bus, collecting fares, pushing people inside and calling out stops. The further out from this metropolitan tornado that you venture, the calmer it becomes and you discover small streets, cozy shops and family homes. And no matter where you are, dust. Dust that coats your shoes, lines your nostrils and leaves you parched. If you’re lucky, you can live near a view of the Great Pyramid of Giza, complete with a picturesque sunset.
If you were Egyptian back then, you either rushed or waited. You rushed to catch a moving bus, to sell your wares in an open-air market, or to find a tight spot on the sidewalk outside an electronics store so you could peer through the display window and cheer the game on TV. And you waited. You waited years to have a telephone installed in your home, to see a doctor, or to find a moment of privacy. You did not wait to zigzag across the street hoping not to get hit.
The only Egyptian woman I knew back then that drove a car was my amiable Arabic language teacher. When she returned to Cairo after one year of study in London she wasn’t having any of it, including riding public buses or marrying an Egyptian. She was a good-natured and kind teacher and I loved the complexity of the Arabic language, especially the beautiful script, despite my unworthy execution of it. Each word became a unique puzzle to decipher as I scanned sentences from right to left in the tiny library where we studious types spent our afternoons.
The Egyptian people were kind to me, save the occasional whistles and cat-calls, from which I promptly removed myself. I was invited to join family dinners, chat on rooftops and even attended a wedding where I remember a young boy blushing at the hired belly dancer, who looked only a touch less gloomy than the handsome bride herself.
Now decades later, the famous Nile River and the brutal Egyptian desert still dictate where and how life happens. The river snakes southward where impoverished people live in whatever shelters they can improvise and the water carries the burden of waste, filth and death, and yet sustains life to those souls who depend on it. Children happily suck on sugar cane, oblivious of their distant futures with dwindling teeth, and relax under giant palm trees to get some respite from the searing heat.
Follow the Nile further south and you arrive in “Upper Egypt”, home to a mass of touristy shops where you are never left alone to browse the endless hand-made wonders, and over which you are expected to haggle the price. But you don’t, because for one single U.S. dollar you could buy a huge stack of fire-baked pita bread, take a taxi across town or visit a museum. And for most Egyptians a few pounds were gruling to come by. But after buying just one last souvenir, you escape to the ruins in Luxor, which you promise yourself you will not mar the stone with the grease from your fingers, and you sunburn your chin staring up at enormous half-demolished statues, a mere carved toe the size of your very head. You wonder how the workers made their way up there and back down safely.
Later, at the Valley of the Kings you stand inches from actual ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The bored gentleman that is paid to sit and sweat all day, replenished by less than a liter of water, quietly warns you not to touch anything. You proceed to the restaurant on the hill nearby and gaze down at the desert, digesting the exact same view that a few short years later horrified onlookers, as a bus full of adventuring tourists was shredded with gunfire. My beautiful Egypt was beginning to unravel.
You know the rest. The Egyptian uprising of 2011 overthrowing President Mubarak, was fueled by those long suffering at the merciless hands of poverty, corruption and neglect. Fed up crowds of good Egyptian people swarmed Tahrir Square for weeks on end, young sons and daughters balanced in shouder rides, holding makeshift signs made from bedsheets. Brave and devoted demonstrators camped for weeks on end and the swirl of buses came to an abrupt halt.
I’d love to go back someday and see what feels different. Do newspaper merchants still sleep in their galabeyas on the sidewalk? Can you still see a lone cafe brightly lit and alive with chatter at midnight during Ramadan? Do the camels for sale still have one leg tied up so they don’t escape, and do young kids with furrowed brows still stain their hands green from scooping up henna powder in their uncle’s stall in the market?
And the dust…is there still dust? I hope so.