Monday, 19 September 2011

An answer to a question

I didn't expect to like Cairo as much as I do. It's often a difficult city to live in - hot, dusty, polluted, so full of people and vehicles all trying to get from one place to another it can make you boil with frustration. As with all capitals, it has a lot of stressed people working, jostling on the metro, doing their best not to be worn down by the daily grind. Sometimes I wish there was a mute button for me to press and I've never had to clean a flat so much in my life.

But still. Still. There's a reason this city is called Om al Donia, the Mother of the World. It is majestic, life affirming, heartbreaking, mysterious and can often in unexpected ways reveal a beauty that makes your head spin. Sunset over the Nile. The winding old streets of Islamic Cairo evoking images straight from a Naguib Mahfouz novel; houses, shops and the city's most famous market crouched beside the two towering mosques of al-Azhar and al-Husayn. The churches of Coptic Cairo, adorned outside and in with mosaics and intricately carved words in Arabic and the Coptic alphabet. Elegant post-colonial French style buildings in Nasr City, out towards the airport - an area I'd always considered functional and charmless...I was so wrong. Out on the river in the evening you feel encased in a calm, still bubble though the ripples of the sleepless city wash over you. Ceaseless car horns; snatches of music from passing cars or boats - rhythm and beat demanding to be listened to whether you understand the lyrics or not - your senses are seized and you want to dance.

Driving fast at night, everything is ablaze with life and colour. Or sitting in a coffee shop having lost track of time, cocooned by shisha smoke and conversation. I've become addicted to tawla (backgammon) recently, accompanied by the voices of other cafe goers, low and humming or loud and raucous.

My relationships with places are as intricate as my relationships with people. And I was talking last night with an Egyptian friend who asked me whether I still noticed all the things I had liked about Egypt when I first moved here, an insightful question. I went to Alex ten days ago to see Khaled, Karim and the others and spent my first hour there blown away by how beautiful it is. After a few months between visits, I'd forgotten.

And though I don't always look on Cairo with fresh eyes, or fully appreciate it all the time, it has taken me hostage as it has charmed, perplexed, enticed and baffled visitors for centuries. The dirt, the lack of systems, the bureaucracy, the overcrowding are very real but Cairo still gets under your skin.

I can say all this as someone who has the luxury of choosing to be here. There is danger in romanticising a place, especially when as an expat in Egypt your life is often marginalised and very privileged. I have people I care about a lot here who I see not being given the opportunities they deserve because of circumstances they can't control and the unfairness of it eats away at me. They deserve better. And the country deserves better.

In the run-up to the elections my posts will become more political. And anyone who cares about the region will be waiting to see what comes next and whether these problems, which seem so entrenched, have a short term solution. I don't have any answers.

But this is a country that has gone through huge changes but never descended into anarchy. With police gone from the streets and (theoretically) no law and order, the country still functioned in an almost normal way. During the 18 days of the Revolution, people took matters into their own hands in a very visible way; for weeks after Mubarak stepped down everything from safety on the streets to regulating traffic still depended on ordinary people and it worked.

You could just say that what makes this country special and so intriguing is its contradictions, that you may spend years here and not get to the bottom of all of them. But somehow it still matters to you enough to keep trying.

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