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8. LETTER FROM CAIRO (August 2005)
So I'm out in the desert, maybe five or six miles east of the Nile in a car,
returning to Cairo in March of 2005. As with every large Third World city the
air here is usually hazy and filthy. Very sharp in the throat, foetid and even
deadly, as the leaders and people attempt to copy the only modern model they
think really works-- America's car-based, car-obsessed, carbon burning model,
assuming the future will always be on our side, no matter how we conduct
ourselves, but in Egypt with even less regulation and environmental sense than
in America. However, I'm lucking out today, in fact on the entire trip. The
air's fine. Someone tells me this may be Cairo's best air in the last five
years. And you can see clear and far.
A few nights even dip down into the 30's Fahrenheit, and a few days don't even rise above the 50's-- who expected any of this?
Just before my arrival it rained, in fact. When I get up to Alexandria I'll be told it actually snowed there recently-- just a pinch, as the guide touches her thumb and index finger together, but enough to excite her, for she'd never seen snow before.
And so in the great distance, many miles on the other side of the Nile, between the silhouettes of Cairo's highrises, sit two incredible shapes-- they must be just staggering in size to loom this large this far away.
Pure and archaic, stark and ancient, yes there are the Pyramids.
Somehow, staring into the distance at them through the windshield, old as I know they are, they seem to be fitting very well with the present: clean and unornamented, a few swift lines upward, and big big BIG-- that's sort of the essence of our modernity too, isn't it? So these bulks meld oddly well with the high-thrusting modern Cairo between me and them.
As my imagination runs on they could also serve as object-lessons from some super-civilization that dropped them into our midst, just to overawe us. I see the leader of that civilization's newest expedition, returning to us after millennia, slowly emerge from his spaceship, then tilting his huge humanoid head downward toward the gaping yokels below, and though their eyes plead with him for reassurance, his message is the realistic one: "See us, puny mortals, and tremble!"
Thus spake Khafre and Khufu and Menkaure.
On another day, I am in the Egyptian Museum. A sort of musty old place, even it it is one of the supreme treasurechests of the human race. Finally, in one darkened room, I don't have to work my imagination to imagine the Pharaohs. There they are, with some of their queens, eleven in all, lying in glass cases below me, resting fitfully while lines of tourists slowly move forever past them. These are not the Pharaohs who built the Pyramids. They are ones who came later, and built their own different kinds of great tombs, still trying to awe humanity and cheat death. They include Seti I, Tuthmosis II and Tuthmosis IV, and above all Ramses II, possibly the Pharaoh of the Exodus, who reigned for 67 years. If you think human vanity, an obsession with looking good whatever your age, began with plastic surgery-crazed Americans in the late 20th Century, please note that this elderly Pharaoh--- Ramses II died at around 90-- has gone to eternity with his hair dyed the original red.
I pass the cases, circle back to some, bending over for several closer looks. As I stare some stare back; their artificial eyes are stunningly, sickeningly life-like. Never take children to this room, unless you are prepared to comfort them for months afterward as their little selves come screaming out of nightmares. All of these bodies partake somewhat of skeletons, in their sunken-cheeked gauntness, in the way their bones visibly push up under the dark shiny skin-- but they seem near life too, on their backs staring up, still with skin, with teeth in their mouths, lips around the teeth, hair on their heads. Seqenenre II's arms and hands reach upward as if trying to push the glass cover off and rise. His hands twist, in agony it seems, still trying to push away an assassin's weapon or uselessly fend off battle blows. It is an astonishing sight, as if this Pharaoh wasn't so much mummified as flash-frozen. Their bodies don't seem completely dead but dead in a way we all-- hoping-- have at one time or another dreamt death might be: oblivion or nothingness that goes on and on but then's somehow interrupted-- maybe just for a second every thousand years-- but that's enough, a spark of awareness, wait, wait, I am dead, but WAIT IF I AM AWARE THAT I AM DEAD!!!...
As I said, never take a child to this room.
If these monarchs thought that through mummification they could cheat death, convince men death is just one more opponent human ingenuity can conquer, they have failed miserably. They have so successfully preserved their shells that we weep at the meaninglessness of those shells. Amongst the bodies here death seems to reign with greater power, for even these human gods are trapped.
Perhaps this is why I am not that impressed when finally I stand at the base of one of those monoliths I'd seen from a distance. A relative e-mailed me shortly before I left for Egypt and wrote: "I envy you. My one travel desire has been to go to Egypt and stand at the base of the great pyramid-- it would probably give me more understanding of the religious mind than all the words I have read." My guide-- hired beforehand, not one of the onsite hustlers--marvelous with her historical knowledge and enthusiasm, reader of hieroglyphics and speaker of Ancient Egyptian-- tells me how she's conducted New Agers to this place, New Agers so excited they actually worship the ancient Egyptian gods (to the amusement of present-day Egyptians). But I feel no awe and no stir of religiosity. The Pyramids are so obviously the work of men, men with muscles, muscles bursting as they heave the stone up, sweating in the sunlight. While the key extra meaning is added by their little genius monkey death-scared eternity-worshipping heads.
In no way are these particularly beautiful objects seen up close. First of all, when you stand at the base of a Pyramid you can only see that one side, so the effect is of staring up at a wall, a not terribly interesting or beautiful wall, though its sheer size-- almost 50 stories in the case of Khufu's Pyramid-- does have impact. The Pyramids, in fact, put me in mind of the World Trade Center towers, blocky and undistinguished in design, but impressive just through sheer brutal enormousness.
You can't climb all the way up the Pyramids anymore, but can go up a few blocks, move across and then come down again. I pass. If you go inside there's nothing to see-- blank corridors ending in blank chambers. And someone my height-- 6-2-- would have to stoop all the way, probably ruining my back in the process. (Ramses II and Seqenenre II are both about 5-6, 5-7, and aristocracies are always taller than their subjects.)
Don't get me wrong. I'm happy to see the Pyramids. It's an experience. Sitting across the street in the Pizza Hut with my guide, the great death-defying constructions plus their ever-intriguing Sphinx framed in the window-- she tells me some tourists like to take shots of the edifices with the window's words "Pizza Hut" included-- I accept that I am wiser in a simple but big way: mind and senses slapped out of the present, the over-rated ever-present present, and opening to the (actually surprising) reality of the past. Suddenly, instead of running a race in isolation I see the baton in my hand. What it all means is probably nothing, but it's bigger, and I like the feel of it. At least it will make me a better writer, blessed with more visceral understanding. I wonder if those tourists across the street, in dungarees and baseball caps, with digital cameras, marching into the Sahara to touch the monoliths, have the same mild revelation. I'm almost embarrassed to spend so much time and these many words adding up one and one as two, but it's a surprisingly hard addition for most people to make, in their gut.
Perhaps it's this hunger on my part not for meta-meaning but a simple sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with my forebears that makes me appreciate the many tombs I'm now taken down into. These small tombs that lie around the Pyramids, which many people ignore, have far more humanity and interest than the great constructions themselves. In their hieroglyphic stories and relief carvings of the everyday life that the dead so deeply wished to experience forever-- I think all of us, in some part of ourselves, understand that the truest heaven is being alive-- in some spots the carvings still washed with a very fresh-looking paint-- the stern stone faces break into heart-warming smiles, and better than awe we're moved to ache familiarly with love, or friendship, or the pleasures of work and play.
Here the Egyptians whirl or shimmy in dance, there they play tug-of-war, they pluck their instruments, hold up a fish, push a small papyrus boat through the reeds with a long pole, bake bread, sip a drink, sit with their family. The Egyptian Museum is filled with such objects of everyday life-- I'm amazed at how much has survived through the millennia-- bolts of cloth, chairs and beds, bowls of grain and fruit, musical instruments, little childrens' toys that will pop into motion if you pull the string. You can hear the long-dead squealing. These things are displayed in the same place as the great monuments that mean to awe-- the super-gigantic statuary, or Tutankamun's solid gold face mask, totally lifelike and totally godlike at the same time, a work of absolute perfection that humbles and delights me the same way the "Mona Lisa" did in the Louvre, a few years ago.
If this is what these people were capable of thousands of years ago then what miracles of progress await me when I step outside the Museum, my day's viewing there ended?
Here is Cairo, the modern heir of a great past. The Egyptian Museum is down the block from Midan Tahrir, something of the Times Square of Cairo. The crowds leaving the Museum merge with the greater crowds of the 16-million-strong metropolis, many of these Cairenes taking no more note of the huge museum to their right than New Yorkers do of the Empire State Building to their right as they walk east on 34th Street, and the buses packed with tourists merge into the larger ocean of traffic speeding away. I would like now to cross the avenue and walk south, but there are no stoplights and there is no sidewalk to walk on. Hello! Cairo! 21st Century! You forgot something! As I stare at lane after lane of traffic racing down Shari Ramses I am struck with the realization that this traffic is never going to stop, even if I stand here all day. I think to go back to the Museum-- but what's the use of that? I know they say move in with a group of locals and go when they go, but I don't see any group. Every now and then a single Cairene darts into the traffic, and I expect, suddenly, a whomp, and gush of blood, but somehow they skitter across, like roaches avoiding your swatting broom. I start to follow, to go-- but the next car's 10 feet, 5 feet, 3-- I jump back! YOU IDIOTS! YOU BUILT THE PYRAMIDS BUT YOU FORGOT TO PUT IN TRAFFIC LIGHTS AND SIDEWALKS! AND YOU'RE KILLING PEOPLE! Meanwhile, an elderly, bearded man in a long robe has moved beside me, offering some drawings in "ancient style" on "papyrus" (actually, banana leaves). "My daughter made." As I wave him away, concentrating on the traffic, as I move away from him, he follows, lowering his price every few seconds. Soon "20 dollars" is down to 2, 1..."I'm trying to cross!" I yell at him, and finally give up, I actually cannot cross this avenue, and start walking away from the Museum along the thin curb, or on the grass, with the traffic, constantly looking back to make sure I'm not suddenly sideswapped, as some of the cars come so close to doing.
Modern Cairo. I know I didn't get the full Cairo experience, thanks to the freakishly cool and clear weather. I really needed to come back in a few months, when the sun is madly hot and my clothes turn liquid-- the largely un-airconditioned Museum must be a hellish experience in summer, how can anyone visit it?-- and the air is filled with dust and filth, and I stand frozen on a streetcorner, squirting sweat and squinting with craziness.
But this is bad enough.
The crowds are like human rivers. Even New York City, the epitome of urbanism in America, will actually seem quiet and half-empty by comparison when I return to it. Imagine a city where a huge proportion of the blocks are as packed as Canal Street on a Saturday afternoon, or West 34th Street at Christmastime, or Chinatown at its densest or the Wall Street area at rush hour-- but here beards and robes and headscarves whirl around you, almost everyone is swarthy, and they're chattering in some crazy language you understand is Arabic even if months of study enable you to catch no more than one word in fifty. When occasionally someone stops to talk to you, with their little bit of English, you're startled yet grateful, even if they want to sell you something. (But others are just being friendly.)
I've been to enough rapidly-developing (and rapidly decomposing) Third World cities by now-- Bombay, Istanbul, Ankara, Bangkok, Alexandria, Cairo-- to know the type. It's a city too big for itself, grown up before its infrastructure is ready for it, and still growing bigger. The air is foul, the streets, many narrow, can't remotely contain all the cars, mostly small or medium-sized, with a Westerner's or rich native's SUV or Mercedes occasionally thrown in, the buses are dirty and streaked and belching dark diesel smoke while inside men and women grope for space and move their heads left and right for air, or maybe they're one of the passengers hanging half-outside the open doors. (Scores, hundreds? of different bus routes in Cairo and I never see a single sign indicating a bus stop or a specific route. The stupidity of it, the contempt of the leaders, not just Egypt's, most leaders in the world, for pedestrians or public transport users-- as if we all ride limousines like them.) You mustn't drink the water, or brush your teeth with it. Even be careful in the shower. Keep your mouth shut, don't swallow anything. Everyone accepts this, as miserable normal. Parks, so desperately needed, are completely inadequate. None of these cities has a Central Park. It's like living with a single lung. There are, in certain parts of these cities, the sort of tall, blank, glossy office towers and modern hotels and apartment buildings that make the natives proud, especially the lead ones, and make them feel they've caught up. Some of the buildings have a few kitchy-koo "Eastern" touches added, but we're not fooled. These buildings are One World elite architecture, and it's as if every such building in the world has been designed by a single cloned architect who was trained in Los Angeles or Hong Kong.
As for Cairo's older pre-60's architecture, the Colonial legacy, it's aging poorly. I find these older buildings fascinating, and try to understand why they give me the feeling I'm in a city of ruins, even though they're packed with humanity. I think it's because even while they continue standing they don't get the kind of maintenance Western buildings do. Often there are streaks down their sides-- sometimes dark, other times like giant pigeon poop streaks-- never cleaned off. Sometimes some of the walls' plaster has fallen off, revealing the cheap brick underneath. Shutters hang sideways half off their hinges. Air vents and air-conditioners are decades-dark with dirt. Metal slats are bent. Wash hangs from many balconies, some of which look like they're ready to fall. Crude huge plaster patches splotch some walls. Peeling paint hangs off, even in sheets. Old, broken window frames that would have been replaced decades ago in the West continue to serve. The buildings are cracked, pocked, rusting, spotted, smudged like old pots, sagging, discolored, some have holes in them, some have fallen bricks at their base, some do sag, some visibly lean a little bit left or right. Wires hang down the sides like weird vines. The fences around buildings lean too. Some of these are darker at the top as if there was a fire. Amazingly, even some modern buildings are beginning to partake of this decrepit air. What an even greater mess this city is going to be in 50 years, when its population has soared with additional millions.
New apartment buildings, many in huge developments, sometimes for the masses, with fewer and better for the wealthy, march all the way out into the desert. Unlike American cities, which slowly peter out into richer and richer suburbs, Cairo ends with a Bang! as if sliced off with a cleaver. The newest apartment buildings sit at the edge of the desert and, if you walk out your door to the west and step off the sidewalk, you are immediately in the Sahara Desert, and all that's between you and the Atlantic Ocean 2,500 miles away is sand. Almost all these apartment buildings look alike, cookie-cutter piles of brown brick four or five stories high, with open stairwells in their sides. The workmanship looks shoddy, the materials cheap. I couldn't believe how the bricks, not as evenly placed as ours, seemed to be piled on top of each other without mortar! Wasn't there an earthquake in Cairo in 1992 that sent just such buildings tumbling down? Yes, with some 450 deaths. How corrupt is this place, how lax the regulation? I examine one such building, still in construction, up close. I see how only one-third or so of the brick is dabbed with mortar, enough to hold the brick that will be put atop it, at least for a time, but not enough to cost the building owner more than he wants to spend. A really huge earthquake will absolutely devastate Cairo. A lot of these buildings won't last five seconds.
Yet what I have described doesn't represent the real poverty I see. Many of the poorest Cairenes and Egyptians-- I traveled elsewhere in north Egypt too-- would dearly love to move into one of Cairo's faded old apartment buildings, or into one of the new, however shoddily constructed, apartment buildings at the edge of the city. I'm not saying what I saw equals Bombay, a hell on its own level (and a prosperous place too, if you've got the money), where some people don't even have shelter but sleep and eat in the streets, "go" wherever, and shower by maybe dumping some small cans of filthy water on their heads. Nonetheless, I see some absolutely terrible poverty in Cairo, primarily in the outer precincts, where you begin to see donkeys and horses replacing cars (though you see some donkeys and horses in the center of the city too), and in the Cities of the Dead (people living in cemeteries) and in areas alongside the tracks going up to Alexandria, and elsewhere. It is deeply hurtful to see the way some of these people are living, in low mudbrick houses, with roofs that at their worst seem to consist of nothing more than a sporadic framework topped by thatch. But even worse than the houses are the huge garbage lots in which they're placed, the dirty pools of water around which or in which chickens and ducks move, the obviously polluted streams and canals in which the women do their wash, and people go to the bathroom in and-- good lord!-- do they also draw their cooking and drinking water from this slime? And the incredible brownness and dustiness everywhere, the absence of greenery and shade. Yet little children play here, happy young selves, at least for a time, and adults walk purposefully through the dirty lots to work, and here a woman vigorously sweeps the dirt out of her sparsely furnished, poor house (where I was able to look into the poorer houses and apartments I saw very little furniture) into her bare backyard, trying, trying. Inside Cairo I see a different kind of terrible housing, wretched little shacks built right on the roofs of the cheap apartment buildings. But I also see, wherever I go, the beautiful rocket spires of minarets, sometimes the small spine of a modest neighborhood mosque, other times soaring towers of faith, and every now and then hear the muezzin's wailing calls at the faithful to pray. Take away Islam, with its power and hope, and insistence on social cohesion even in the worst of circumstances, and this city is Lagos or Nairobi. But there has to be anger and frustration building here too, and perhaps in a few years the child I now see playing amidst the garbage will have drawn certain bitter conclusions about things, and moved up to Al-Qaeda.
It is extraordinarily hard for most Westerners to see Islam as it sees itself. To Westerners, Islam is an unnecessary addendum to the great truths of Judaism and Christianity, and, really, how they wish it didn't exist. To the Muslim, Islam is a final testament, cleansing the errors of two flawed earlier drafts, and bestowing on mankind the purest and sanest of monotheisms. I, a Jewish atheist, must admit I have, for whatever reason, always been drawn to Islam, perhaps for the clean lines of the faith, and if I believed there was an Allah I would convert. I've been to Turkey twice, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and now Egypt, and I feel the religion in the air in these places in a way I don't feel Christianity or Judaism in the air in the West, and I'm impressed.
It reflects in the good public decorum of the people, even the young. In the way their lives are obviously being guided by a code, not just a momentary consciousness. What a pleasure to walk a city and see no giggly, sluttily-dressed girls (though plenty of giggling girls), no barbaric boys with low-riding pants and dead eyes shouting "Mother-fucker!" at each other to feel proud and big, to never hear the huge pounding filth of rap, and to search in the obscurest corner of a bookstore and still never find pornography. Americans, other Westerners, of course, in return, will pity Egyptians for their lack of sexual joy, and suppression of women's spirits. This even overflows into contempt at times, I think. How else to explain the miniskirts of (a very few) girl tourists as anything but an in-your-face gesture of contempt toward the Islamic society they're visiting? (These girls know what the guidebooks say.) Or the predilection of a very few tourist couples to neck and kiss in the great mosques, as I saw in one? (In the same month I visited Egypt a Hungarian couple was stabbed and slightly wounded by an Egyptian after he saw them smooching it up in a mosque.) (And regarding miniskirts, I have never seen one on a Middle Eastern girl. The shortest skirt I can remember was knee-length, worn by a coed at the University of Istanbul. In Cairo, I saw two girls with mid-calf skirts, and that was bold.)
Here, on the overall subject of human erotics in the Middle East, I can only offer my gut feeling based on no authority or source, just based on what I sensed walking or riding around the city day after day, observing, watching, trying to feel it from the outside. The city has its own erotic heat, believe it or not, the same erotic heartbeat you feel just below the surface of so much "well-behaved" 19th Century literature. My gut tells me the Islamic world has accepted some of the West's lessons of sexual liberation but channeled it into private behavior solely, and of course within the confines of marriage (apart from the few inevitable exceptions when hunger or love overrides everything and risks everything). So give me some examples, you say. Okay. My last day in Cairo I visited the Al-Khalili market, your classic Middle Eastern souk with narrow winding streets and alleyways, noisy, jostling, scary, filled with the rude spirit of all-out human commerce. (A few weeks after I visited, a suicide bomber killed three and wounded eighteen there. One was an American tourist; that could have been me-- but then, all of life is just a crapshoot. Other close calls: In April a suicide bomber near the Egyptian Museum, and two women, his sister and fiancee, on the same day, shooting up a tourist bus near the Citadel of Saladin, where I also visited. The three attackers wounded nine. It didn't surprise me that they were from just north of Cairo, a poor area.) The market features everything from the same plastic junk you find in the 99-cent stores in the States to authentic Egyptian goods like costumes and tents. Many of the Egyptian women moving through the souk are covered from head to toe, just the face, sometimes only just the eyes, visible. What are they looking for? Well, amidst the shops and booths, here and there, are sellers of lingerie, not many, but some. Without stopping, I slowed a little as I passed their displays, to check on the heart's desire of Egyptian females. Far from plain or drab, the panties and bras were rich and vivid, lots of lace and bold colors, even to bright scarlet, and really oodled up with lace. This is not a place where the most modern Egyptian women shop-- they have their own stores. Some fundamentalistic girls are obviously getting very racy under their long and conservative robes, and some of their quiet bearded husbands (though they would never talk about it in public) are no doubt delighted. But then, anyone who knows anything about Orthodox Jewish women in New York knows they are among the biggest fans of sexy lingerie in the city. Islam, like Judaism, does not, like Christianity, try to fight off our sexuality. It accepts it and embraces it as a gift from God, to be treasured, but only within marriage. Hadith, Islam's second sacred source, sayings and actions of Mohammed, says: "In the sexual act of each of you there is a form of charity." Or, as a little booklet I picked up in the United Arab Emirates, Shari'ah: The Way Of Justice, puts it: "To seek sex outside the limits set by God is a sin, to seek it within these limits is therefore an act of worship." Again, so much of Westerners' sense of superiority to Muslims comes from their sense of themselves as sexual pioneers and visionaries, so different from those stick-in-the mud "towelheads" and burka victims, but the truth of demographics tells us otherwise, that it is Islamic people who are the reproductively vital ones and to whom the future belongs, not we Westerners and Americans with our hookups and flings and "meaningful relationships" and flop marriages that leave you alone and childless in a room at 50 with your cats or internet porn.
This is interesting stuff, the reader says, not like the usual political commentary. "Give me another example!"
Take the bridges, and the walkways along the Nile. (Which, by the way, is a rather slowly flowing and unimpressive river, nothing like New York's Hudson, the flow having been made sluggish by the Aswan Dam, and of course it's poisonous water-- all the guidebooks warn you to not so much as dip a finger into it.) It's hard to get on and off Cairo's cross-Nile bridges. There are sidewalks when you're up on the bridges, but no sidewalks at their ends-- you have to actually walk into the avenues-- it's insane. Nonetheless, all up and down these bridges, spacing themselves modestly apart from the other couples, men and women, usually young ones, stand close, perhaps staring out at the water, perhaps staring meaningfully into each others' eyes, but not touching or only lightly touching-- you never see any young couples actually "making out" in Cairo-- creating soft little cocoons of privacy for themselves in a city where privacy is harder to come by than in the West. He's in whatever-- slacks, shirt, jacket, she's in some form of Islamic dress, which can mean anything from sneakers, jeans, a blouse and a scarf, to a full-length dress and head-covering. Their looks, the way they stare into each others' eyes or look away, the willing closeness of their bodies, the deliberate tilt of their heads, the way they smile at each other, or frown if things aren't going well-- and the words-- spoken rapidly, softly or insistently, angrily or soothingly or flirtatiously-- tell you these are couples on dates, or in something deeper, or maybe married couples who've come here to talk things out or just relax with each other. On walkways along the Nile, couples stroll-- yes, sometimes hand in hand-- or sit on benches and talk, or talk it out. At night, in the thickly crowded streets, you see young couples on obvious dates. Here and there, but not often, a boy even dares to put his arm around the girl's waist. What I'm saying is: men and women after each other here, like everywhere. I recall one beautiful girl walking with a guy. She wore a dark floor-length skirt and a scarf on her head-- but her t-shirt-like top was thin enough to display the definite outline of her bra. She knew what she was showing. And she wasn't the only dark-eyed, lush-lipped beauty I noticed on these streets. Middle-aged and older Egyptian women are often heavyset, but the young ones are usually svelte, and move with far more feminine grace than many of their cheeseburger-swilling, jeans-busting American sisters. The androgyny of American women (see my Short Essay, "America's Female Butch Heteros") is missing among Egyptian females. When you see an Egyptian woman walking in the street she is a distinctly different creature from a man, and that alone is exciting, regardless that her cleavage or belly button or thighs aren't on display.
But while these teenagers may be on a date, she's going home to her parents after, not to his bedroom. My guide for the Pyramids-- and for some other sites in Cairo-- but I did a lot of exploring on my own too-- though chicly dressed, in Western style, and made up, and wearing sunglasses-- was insistent-- this came up in a general conversation we had about Islam and men and women-- that premarital sex is absolutely forbidden to women. (She herself is married, with several children.) Again, a Westerner might look on the Egyptian girl as a prisoner of repression, and that's part of it, surely. But isn't it also liberating for a girl to be able to go on a date without feeling any pressure to have to go to bed with some pimply sixteen-year-old boy surfing on his hormones, his hands hungrily thrashing all over her body, some boy who's realistically years or decades from being able able to marry her and have a family with her, assuming he even has such interests (increasingly, year by year, Westerners do not), who realistically will not be part of her life beyond this night or the next few weeks or months? Liberating, partly because of the way society makes you dress, but also partly because of the way it controls men and demands respect for women from them, to be able to walk the streets without being hassled just for being female? "Hey, come on over and say hello!" "Yo, Moma, you lookin' fiine!" "Mm-yeah!" (These rules apply to Egyptian men and their own women. The same Egyptian men will feel free to hassle Western women, whose reputation is very low.)
Yes, these are good things. But I wouldn't be honest if I denied that this vast, messy city has the capacity to absolutely enrage you. The whole country does.
I'd leave in the morning from my base on the island of Zamalek, an upscale place plunked in the middle of the Nile. Zamalek is about 2 miles long and 2/5 mile wide. It's an island favored by Westerners, especially diplomats, and a couple of dozen embassies are there. So you would expect it to be a place that would make an American feel comfortable. But even here you can't escape how problematical Cairo is.
Seeing the Cairenes trying to walk up to the El Zamalek Kubri Bridge even though the sidewalk simply disappears always made me uncomfortable. Even scared to watch. Throughout Cairo I would see girls and women holding hands or linking arms to give each other support and courage as they plunged into the deadly traffic. All that's needed to avoid this mess is to build sidewalks up to bridges or consistently along streets and install traffic lights, perhaps using just a pittance of those endless billions the U.S. has poured into this corrupt land. Or the way perfectly fine sidewalks suddenly turn narrow or turn into rubble or sand or even totally disappear, in the most unlikely places. It's one of the many ways the city's reality struck me as somehow "off", for all its seeming modernity. Here in the West we have certain expectations for everyday physical reality, such as consistency and logic in the infrastructure, and good maintenance of it, and these expectations are continually frustrated in Cairo, and you're thrown off balance by it, and in the end enraged, and you feel contempt too, though to actually live your whole life in Cairo I think must lead more to a kind of nervous exhaustion and deep resignation. Walking south on Zamalek across the street from the river-- it's often not possible to walk right along the river-- some blocks seem initially fine, the buildings certainly solid and modern-- but somehow things are always turning wrong. I'm not talking about native costumes and the Arabic chatter around you-- that's delightful. I mean the incompetence and lack of caring in the way the city has physically been made up, and in people's behavior as a result. I mentioned how you can be walking on a good sidewalk and have it suddenly turn to rubble or sand. Another example is the ridiculous height of the sidewalks, how you step way down off the curb, cross, and then have to step way up to get back on the sidewalk. Not always, but often. It was okay for me, but unnecessarily hard on the old or weak or for children. Hasn't anyone in Egypt studied how high sidewalks are in the West? How high sidewalks should be? It seems like a small thing, but it's an accumulation of small things done well that make a city work.
As I traveled about I would occasionally take out an index card and jot some notes on it, though it was something I was warned against doing in such a militarized city, with police and soldiers with rifles and submachineguns sometimes present even on quiet residential side streets. Here-- join my mind as it floats through the city of Cairo, or to its north:
"This is a city like Bangkok or Ankara, growing too fast, hungry for Western Miracle Wealth, newly rich, not planning well, seeking a bright new fantasy of living....Movie billboards- Men: goofish, or impossibly good looking, or older men. The Women: Dark, full-fleshed beauties like Bollywood or Latin TV....Scarf - a soft helmet of virtue....And increasingly in the West it is only Islamic men who get to know the joy of lasting marriage (& early marriage), a wife who doesn't cheat drink smoke do drugs dress like a slut or alternatively an obese heterosexual butch and the joys of raising a large family & maintaining control of the children....Into an antique shop-- people sitting around, chatting no hard sell....If only the countries were democracies. And if only the great crisis (see two essays back) wasn't coming which will undo so much of the Islamic world's material progress, & drive them who knows how crazy...Traffic police seeming to do nothing, rarely stop traffic....Cars parking on sidewalks, in street....few public phones few garbage cans....Shops more like very large booths and they're open to the street. No doors or windows....Entrances to older apartment buildings, especially small ones: dark, narrow, not one electric bulb Like entering a medieval....donkey carts & horse carts appear. Flocks of sheep...Narrow streets and alleyways...Dusty...Polluted ditches....People - friendly, dignified, bordering obsequiousness. Helpful....I didn't see a single rail car that looked like it had been washed in decades. The inside was very clean....Fancy co-op/condo along shore drive-- @ $160,000 Great teeming city. Great poverty viewed along the way. Worse than anything in Thailand or Turkey. Old, pitiful apartment buildings....Also, donkeys cost about 700 Pounds ($108), camels about 3,000 Pounds ($480)....Half of the War on Terror is about what will be the role of women in the coming days, especially how much of their virulent, potentially anarchic powers of sexuality & emotion should be released into the world....many of the windows without glass, shutters only....what appeared to be mud huts topped by thatch. I hope what I was seeing were structures meant for animals, not humans....vast fields of garbage and shiny filth-- cans? glass?-- gleaming in the bright sunshine...I assume the ducks and geese "do their business" in the pools, & I hope the people didn't use the pool's water for any purpose....The Nile itself...seems to barely move....I saw no swimmers, & little boat traffic of any kind. On the outskirts of Cairo & further north factories pour their filth into the water....Yet the neighborhoods have their mosques, the minarets soaring over the slum buildings & glittery garbage fields, like fierce, pure, transcendent rocket ships of faith, their launch to journeys not ours....The German woman backing back & holding her camera away from the donkey driver ('Egyptian taxi'): 'Nein, nein'....Poor signs, no signs....A group of male runners in track suits actually running against the traffic down the middle of a highway....Scarfs-- but one scarf said 'Louis Vuitton, Paris'....Perfect example-- the bathroom in the Cairo Tower, a major tourist spot-- no toilet paper & no towels....A museum w/no b-r!....Museums that close between 1 & 5, or close for the day at 2....Smokers....The greatest insult I can give the Cairenes is this: Traveling your city I understand why every army you & every other Arab country ever threw at the Israelis was immediately annihilated. You have most of the outer appurtenance of modernity & think you've completed the process but missing is the inner mental efficiency. In a sense, in peacetime, you kind of fake it, but war is the ultimate test of all, and an outer skim of modernity isn't enough. The West triumphed over the world through an inner mind honed to ruthless, fat-free efficiency....Cairo...works the way your PC works:...the product of an amazing technology, it is incompetently designed, without human comfort in mind...as if actually designed to fail at some point and crash, or succumb to some virus its nature creates, or to be bored through by some worm that exists only because it exists....I realize how ordered NYC is, & that it has standards....missing...labels on museum exhibits....The elevator operator in the elevator going up to the top of the Cairo Tower giving me some bullshit: pandering, obsequious, meaningless 'America? America number one!', & then pumping my hand up and down, with a big, hungry smile, & when I don't pay him for this nonsense, ostentatiously pulling out & playing with a fold of bills. So I gave him an Egyptian pound. 'Thank you for your story', I said....After a week or so you begin to accept everything around you as normal, so whether it's no sidewalks in Cairo or no toilets in Thailand or people cooking on the street in Bombay while a bull passes behind them and a bearded man in a loincloth passes in front of them-- that's just how it is...And to change it-- is ridiculous. And of course impossible...A sense of pity, & love, for human beings, who are trying so hard, yet are so misguided....Each old Museum has relatively large #'s of guards, attendants, observers, doorkeepers, ticket seller, ticket taker, 2 others to shmooze with the ticket taker....Abdeen Palace. I was the only one there, on a Tuesday afternoon. Yet a ticket seller-- never saw a computer with any ticket seller-- 4 guards outside, about as many inside, 2 women seated and chatting at the entrance to 1 exhibit, 4 or 5 male attendants or guards. Book: Closes at 3. They: 2:45. At: 2:25, they start trying to shoo me out....The automobile is like a computer virus. It infects the software called the human mind & tks control of it....battered cars and cabs, doors don't fully close, full of dents and batterings, fenders falling....Roofs formed of flat pieces of wood (or just cardboard) laid on a sparse row of crossbeams. Then garbage piled on top (not by the inhabitant, we assume)....Guy sitting next to girl on bench: His arm hovers toward her back then suddenly stops, hovers an instant & pulls back....Vegetarianism. I ask for macaroni, potatoes & carrots-- get separate spaghetti, separate french fries, & a single quarter-sized carrot slice. The Egyptian at the next table, who'd heard me trying to get across a vegetarian meal [in Arabic], laughed good-naturedly at the result. I held up the little carrot piece. 'Kwayyis,' I said. 'Everything's fine.'....horse w/tremendous load trying to navigate the Suq....Noticed lipstick on conservatively dressed women...."
At night I sit and read another tourist guide (Insight Guide to Egypt) to see if it can give me some deeper understanding of what I'm experiencing, but actually it confirms my own impressions:
"Egyptians are tactful and diplomatic, sometimes even to the point of obsequiousness."
"On Cairo's streets the contrast between the elegance of imported luxury and the rolling slum of a packed bus or the pathetic heap of a trash-collector's donkey cart is particularly shocking....Trash collectors, known as zabbalin or 'garbage people', live in conditions of appalling squalor...."
"Products of a school system that stifles curiosity and promotes learning by rote, more and more young Egyptians feel a sense of frustration regarding the future."
"Increasingly one finds university graduates working as taxi-drivers, plumbers, mechanics and the like." (My only real conversation with a taxi driver-- they generally have little or no English-- is with a high school teacher who has an engineering degree, but has to moonlight to make ends meet, and seems to be expressing that nervous exhaustion [vigorously smoking as we talk] and resignation I mentioned.)
"The typical lifespan is not long-- perhaps 55 years-- and many Egyptians appear to die of worry or grief...While families and neighbourhoods provide a degree of support unimaginable in the West, they also eliminate privacy...."
"...there are some districts of Cairo where the average density is three to a room."
"...the Egyptian bureaucracy and public-sector industry, which together employ half of the non-agricultural workforce, is catastrophically overstaffed. Studies have shown that an average government employee actually works for between six and 30 minutes a day."
"An atmosphere of melancholy pervades life but, strangely enough, the salient characteristic of the Egyptians is their cheerfulness."
As I traveled about this huge and mediocre city I realized that there wasn't one
20th Century thing in it that would have brought me to it, and like every other
tourist who comes here I came for the past. But the present is overwhelming and
smothers you. This doesn't speak well for the Egyptians of today, but, really,
the same could pretty much be said of two of the most gloried European cities
I've visited-- London and Paris, the capitals of two once great empires and now
utterly played-out nations. There isn't one artwork or piece of architecture in
the last half-century to draw you to either place, or really to New York City
either. Indeed, staring down the Thames at the blocky and undistinguished office
towers that increasingly line it-- I could just as easily have been looking at
office buildings in Atlanta or Houston. A paradox, how this enormously wealthy
modern world of ours is creatively parched, and may not even want to live.
Is Egypt exhausted too, or is there some present-day source of energy to all this that is unavailable to the West?
Again. And ending. With the subject of Islam.
On my last full day in Cairo my guide took me to a number of its greatest mosques, including one she says is so great it's called "the Fourth Pyramid". Looking back now, they sort of run together in my mind, especially since I had so little time left on the trip. To get you their exact names I guess I could go back to my guidebook, but that's not important. I remember one after another, all with soaring interiors and great windows of colored glass and massive columns and immense and beautiful carpeting (except for one with such a beautiful tiled floor no carpet was thought necessary), and light that had a quality of its own, a kind of brightness of the outdoors beautifully touched and cooled by the indoors as it floated down. In some of the mosques there were many worshippers, in others almost no one. In one of these latter my guide, who obviously knew him, prevailed on the Imam, a youngish man with a short dark beard, in a robe of course, to sing/chant in Arabic, his face then tilted up to play his voice against the great interior, utilizing all the echo effects. Voice was strong, just a tad over-dramatic I thought (playing to his small Western audience?), but standing in that vast chamber near him as he wailed his faith to the sky, I had my thoughts-- perhaps few of any originality. Islam is impressive. The building I stood in was a work of genius. His faith was strong. The question I can't answer, since those are days we all have to live through, is how much of this power is going to determine history, and how much is like the Louvre or Westminster Abbey, tokens of power past. Standing in the great mosques in my socks, uneasy at the sight of bearded robed men around me, though my guide assured me "Everything's okay" and that we were welcome, I rather thought I was being serenaded to a considerable extent by the human future.
Yet outside, the same messy megalopolis buzzed and swirled and both succeeded and failed in meeting human need. I was about to return to a city which is itself both a glory and a mess, in a country that is the same, so any certainty, and any feeling of superiority, was put aside.
The plane I returned west on, cramped into coach as always, is a miracle of human ingenuity, as are our great faiths, and our basic collective attempt as a species to be the everything that is everywhere. But though I saw many vivid and wonderful sights, and tapped into the reality of ages past, present and to come, I'm afraid my final conclusion cannot satisfy everyone. It is a sour and in the end unimpressed one, where not tragic, of activity that is half madness, though the world doesn't know, the work of an ape that is as much to be pitied for the results of its sudden, inexplicable power as it is to be admired or, really, as it would prefer, in its endless self-satisfaction at how it lives and what it's done, worshipped. Like, once, those poor and prostrate, dried-out Pharaohs.
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