Under the Black Blanket

01/20/12

Letter to Cairo

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"In Egypt, the women love to sing and dance. And the men are submissive to authority." - An advance scout's message to the caliph in the tenth century, before the caliph invaded.

In its thousands of years as a hive of human life, Cairo has had many nicknames, but one is The City Victorious.

It remains one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world, teeming with people who generally live and let live. In spite of the great daily challenges of living in unsettled, post-revolutionary, the Cairenes I met were uniformly friendly and welcoming. I didn't even get as much of the notorious street sexual harassment everyone was talking about. In any case, I was insensible to it, because I don't know the nasty words.

A day before I was supposed to leave the city, I met a group of women around my age, who had organized themselves to meet me via twitter. We met at a coffee place in Zamalek, and they and the venue could have been in New York (global monoculture alert).

Their concerns were the same as those of any woman in the U.S.: fair treatment at work and on the streets, child care, husbands. But, they tend to the chores of modern life in a city challenged by civil breakdown. I think living in New York is "stressful." We don't know what that word means.

They talked about politics more than we do, but they have just had a revolution.

And, yes, they are concerned about the religious government's limits on women and culture. But they also have a lot of energy and hope and a great sense of humor.

On an average day, Cairenes can encounter rampaging thugs (in the pay of some power or other) a gas shortage that an oilman told me is caused by looters at fuel depots in Alexandria siphoning off fuel and replacing it with water, which the authorities didn't notice until it was too late. Hundreds of cars lined up around fuel stations through the night last week.

Traffic is unbelievable. People have got used to two-hour one-way commutes over distances that a man on a bicycle - should he be foolish enough to dare - could take 20 minutes.

If the religious parties care about the country, they will forget about their culture war and provide food, jobs and civil services.

I don't think I am imposing my western mores to observe that there's an advantage to any society in trash pickup and streetlights and sidewalks that goes beyond "Orientalism" (you can see me being accused of this here at Slate).

Example: We had to scamper through lane after lane of beltway traffic to get from the Ramses Hilton on the Nile over to Tahrir Square, because there is no other way to get there. People just step out into the stream of cars and hope for the best. My advisor in this game, the young wit, translator and swimming champ Hassan el Naggar, showed me how it's done. "Don't run," he advised, as vans and cars aimed straight for us.. "Don't show fear. That encourages them."

Even with the crazy traffic, shortages, hardship and sword-wielding bandits , Cairo is beautiful.

The infrastructure of Cairo is Istanbul and Paris thrown together - graceful arches, 19th Century ironwork, angled streets pocked with surprising lanes and covered alleys and unexpected parquet courtyards where at any given moment one of the city's cats is padding by. The building pictured above is typical: houses a restaurant in Zamalek, but is filled with mysterious doors and stairways and hallways leading who knows where.

Cairo's buildings have a grace and human scale obscured at street level by hideous advertisements for Toshiba and Xerox and Nokia and Vodafone. The visual sewer of capitalism has gushed over everything, unchecked, baiting the hunger for newer and better and faster.

If someone bothered to take down the signs, the old grandeur that's still there - the balustrades and terraces and iron grillwork in downtown Cairo would put Paris' Blvd. St Germain to shame.

Besides the infrastructure, this vital, vibrant city, the ancient "mother" of the ages, remains a city of ideas and people that Mahfouz celebrated , and is inherently tolerant and joyful.

It would be a terrible tragedy if the new religious parties tried to extinguish that spirit and replace it with the somber, male-dominated Utopian ideal that the parties' funders in the Gulf States prefer.

For the sake of the Cairenes I met, including those in the religious parties who were kind enough to give me the time, and for the ancient City Victorious, may they let Egypt be Egypt.

For Hassan and Fadel and Wassin and May and Shamiaa and Lana and Fatima and Chah and Nada and the Big Pharaoh the rest of you.... Shukran,

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