Tuesday, February 12, 2013

When I walk down the road in Cairo

Egyptians walking. The traffic is worse nowadays.
In the grandiose marble lobby of my apartment building I say hello to the doorman and his wife, who are cleaning the high windows. They always greet me in English, and I them in Arabic. Any business more complicated involves a dictionary. Outside, their children, 5, 7 and 9, are playing ball in the small space between the front steps and the chaotic parking lot and shout ‘Hi!’ to me. The plants are green and carefully tended, though covered with the yellow dust that invades everything in this polluted desert city. The paving stones are cracked and misplaced: while my flat is in a luxury complex of 40 apartment buildings unaffordable to all but a few residents of Nasr City, Cairo’s shoddy building standards know no difference of class. The doormen carry out repairs: a patch of cement here, a new, mismatched set of steps there. But after thirty years, the parking lot and its small gardens and narrow paths are showing signs of wear. 

The sky was blue earlier in the day. Now the sun shines through a yellow haze, reflected in the sand-coloured buildings and the dusty cars. At the gate I say hello to the soldiers guarding the gates.
Our estate is home to several retired and serving army officers, and, it is rumoured, secret service agents. Therefore our security is second to none. The young boys in their red caps view my partner and me as a bit of a mystery- rich enough to live here in luxury, yet we carry our own shopping, walk to work and he stops to chat with them in Franglarabe, a language he invented himself with surprising success. 

As I step into the road, chaos breaks loose as three or four of the dozens of taxis pull over without indicating before changing lanes. There’s something about my face which makes everyone think I need a taxi. Across the road, one of Cairo’s new mega-malls looms over me, bigger than Westfield Stratford and gaudily decorated with marble obelisks and glass pyramids. I’ve learnt here to walk along the green island in the middle of the road, or I will be driven crazy by taxi horns and white Suzukis swerving to my side. One ran over my toes once. 

Around the mall are dozens of security guards with docile-seeming Alsatians, stopping cars and searching shoppers. Rich women come out from the American supermarket, their faces covered by designer sunglasses, their plastic bags carried by shopping packers in yellow vests working for tips. (This shopping centre banned the galabiya, the traditional long shirt worn by Egyptian men, when it first opened. Then it found it risked alienating rich tourists from the Gulf, whose freshly-pressed, shining white robes couldn’t be further than the dress of Cairene doormen and construction workers. So it switched to a more straightforward system of simply turning away poor people at the door. ) 

Between the dogs, rows of cars and security guards outside the Holiday Inn is a little girl aged around 8 or 9. She sits there every day, more waiting than begging, tired out by malnutrition and the elements. This girl, who always gives me a wave, is one of the lucky ones among Cairo’s estimated 50,000 street children. The mosque across the road allows her to wash and sleep inside, and the security guards, probably influenced by the mosque, don’t chase her away as they do the other boys and girls. Rather they bring her bits of food or share their lunches. It’s a terrible situation yet she is protected to an extent from crime, violence, exploitation. Every day I wonder if she will be there tomorrow. 

Leaving the shopping centre behind me I cross by the traffic lights, although no one is paying any attention to their colour, and walk through a residential area, past three large construction sites dotted with rubbish, and several small fashion shops struggling to compete with the new, air-conditioned temples to consumption. One of the construction sites has a long, sand-coloured wall covered in radical Al Ahly graffiti. RED AND BLACK FOREVER. VOTE NO. MERCY (sic) OUT. Between these, black stencils with the faces of martyrs to the revolution. And of Mursi wearing a pharaonic wig. Cab drivers pull over and urinate along the wall, so again I stay in the middle of the road, where pipes trickle water among the scrubby grass and palm trees, causing mini-swamps you walk around. The pavement is blocked by illuminated signs for Burger King, Nescafe, and new residential developments in Rehab City, one of the latest luxury suburbs reclaimed from the desert. 

Tactically stationed along this central island are three little girls. First the oldest, holding a dirty rag to wipe the windscreens of stationary cars blocked in traffic. Next her younger sister, around 6 years old, who runs up to me with a beautiful smile. ‘Money! Money! Dollars!’ She’s selling individual packs of tissues- her stock, a multipack of twelve on the pavement. The youngest sister, a toddler of three years old, still has a bottle of milk and a blanket with her, next to her own supply of four packets of tissues. Their guardian, a woman in black, watches from a safe distance to make sure they’re all working. (I have a feeling that the women who beg or hawk in the street, or supervise children doing so, wear the burka for reasons other than simply piety: it could be useful to have your face covered in this kind of business, and might make police and other men less likely to attack or extort.) 

I get to the main road by the bus stop, a busy intersection where mini-buses pick up their passengers. Young men cry ‘Ram-si-es! Ram-si-es!’ to advertise their destination as they wait for the buses to fill up before they leave. From here you can go anywhere in Cairo for less than 40p. In an area with no Metro, it’s the only option except a taxi or private car, and surprisingly quick and comfortable. One young man says ‘Welcome to Egypt’ to me as I go past, and I thank him. I’ve walked past this crossing twice a day, four days a week for the past three months, yet I’m constantly being welcomed. 

Crossing the road, a main artery from the airport to central Cairo, is my daily challenge. There are three lanes painted on the tarmac on each side of the central reservation, yet the ever-shifting traffic is divided into at least four lines, with drivers constantly changing lanes to try to get ahead. On a good day the traffic is at a near standstill and I only have to weave through. On a bad day I usually get stranded somewhere in the middle, with cars honking and braking and swerving around me. There’s a theory you shouldn’t show fear. Walk, don’t run, and don’t stop once you’ve started. But while the taxis will let you pass, there’s often a shiny new four-by-four with smoked windows which absolutely won’t stop. Best to get past the bus and stand between rows of roaring traffic until someone takes pity on me and slows down for long enough for me to get to the other pavement. Or to use an unsuspecting Egyptian pedestrian as a human shield: get on his right side and walk when he walks. Most people don’t seem to mind. 

 In the central island here I buy my cigarettes from a table minded by a couple of friendly young men. Occasionally they try to overcharge me, but after a laughing stand-off we now compromise on LE15 per packet, one pound more than the real price, and two pounds more than their regular customers pay for the under-the-counter Marlboros with no tax stamp. It’s still only £1.50 sterling...

 I enter a busy shopping street where the pavement constantly rises and falls in a series of steps and slopes. In some places the step is missing, but I know the spots now. Between fashion shops and furniture emporia there’s McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut. Above street level the wall of the buildings are covered in adverts for the offices and services within. Down more steps are shops selling jewellery, scarves, and the famous LE 2.50 shop, which stocks the same junk as the UK’s 99p shops at a quarter of the price. Across the pavements are more stalls, of toys, books, earrings. This high street is as busy at midnight as at midday. 

Corn-on-the-cob is roasting in metal braziers, and sweet potatoes, soft and scorching hot, in big iron kettles fed with coal. I skip up a step, down three more, and make a detour around the twenty or so motor-scooters outside McDonalds. Every fast food outlet delivers here, and the men who ride around with your fries and burgers have one of the most dangerous jobs in the city. 

Rubbish awaits collection in the side-streets, spilling out of wheelie bins onto the ground. Where there’s a bin in Cairo there’s always a gang of cats, lazing in the sun on top of a pile of rubbish, or poking through the bags for delicacies. At first I felt sorry for them: now I don’t know. There’s something about feral cats which makes you feel a bit sorry for tame ones. That being said, the cats and dogs of Cairo have terrible health problems, including rabies and feline HIV. 

As I walk, some people, usually men but also school girls and women begging, greet me. They don’t know me, and because the street is an inherently male territory in Egypt sometimes I’m uncomfortable with this, yet usually it’s friendly enough. ‘Welcome in Egypt’ is ubiquitous, or simply ‘Hello’. A young woman who sells corn sits on the pavement with her baby and sometimes her husband, and if I fail to greet her she hisses between her teeth to remind me of her presence, the Egyptian equivalent of shouting Hey! or Oi! She’s my friend, so I stop and say hello. 

But sometimes I hate people hissing at me like that. Men do it, and a simple interpellation which in the UK I would happily ignore or return in kind becomes threatening here. You know the police will do nothing, passers-by will do nothing, and if you were to respond the situation would become worse. While it’s usually minor, it’s a challenge to a woman who walks alone, and its underlying message is that women don’t have a place in the street without male protection. 

Today it’s worse. Young men are stacking sofas outside a furniture shop and one shouts ‘Bitch!’ loudly as I go past. I’m tempted to stop, to march into the shop and wield some touristic/colonial power- demand to speak to the manager, ask for his dismissal, threaten to tell my wealthy friends to boycott the shop and so on. But the end of this fantasy is me leaving, placated, and the entire staff having a good laugh once my back is turned. So I walk on, frustrated and threatened. 

As I turn into the road where I work, the lunchtime call to prayer begins to ring out over the loudspeakers of the nearest mosque. It’s a totally different experience to the individual mosques in London: seconds after it begins, another mosque joins in, until I’m surrounded by a wall of beautiful chanting. My calm returns, and crossing the road to avoid the flooding from a burst water main, I enter the high walls of my school and pass my bags through the x-ray machine.

1 comment:

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