New Internationalist

Letter from Cairo

Issue 436

Maria Golia watches the sunset of an era and the birth of a brave new world

Illustration by Sarah John
Illustration by Sarah John

I met Mounir on a felucca (Nile sail boat) – a traditional setting for small celebrations, in this case the birthday of a common friend. He was tall, unusually poised and self-contained for a man in his early twenties, with the longish hair that in this culture signals rebelliousness. He studies philosophy at Cairo University, which is challenging, he said, since students are not allowed to question the existence of god. He taught himself English reading Plato and Kant and was articulate and ironic to the point of scathing. His eyes were very black and animated with something more righteous than anger. He reminded me of a falcon I once saw that had been trapped in the desert and brought to market in Cairo; the eyes of a caged god.

I learned that Mounir was applying for a scholarship at a Greek university and that he had a Greek girlfriend whom he had met in downtown Cairo while participating in a demonstration that the police dispersed by roughing people up. The girl spoke to him, asked if he was all right. She introduced herself as Athena, and Mounir was struck that the justice embodied in her name should have reached him at a moment when it seemed the most distant of concepts. We talked throughout the felucca trip, as the sun slipped behind the buildings and the sky grew dark. Viewed from the Nile at sunset, Cairo looked almost benign, like a defused bomb. But Mounir carried its explosive tensions within him; he seemed to burn with possibilities that turned to ash before he might even speak their names.

He agreed to help with my research concerning housing collapses in low-income areas. I was invited to his home in Saft al-Laban, which means ‘milk-pot’ (‘Don’t ask me why,’ Mounir warned), a sprawling mostly informal neighbourhood that had sprung into being over the last 25 years. The name probably dates from its previous incarnation as rich agricultural land, a time of which Mounir has no memory. Around 350,000 people now live in tight clusters of four- or five-storey red brick buildings intersected by narrow dirt roads and labyrinthine alleys. We met at the Cairo University metro station, the last outpost of urban infrastructure available to people living in his quarter, and from there took a (privately run) microbus. It was a bumpy 20-minute ride to Saft al-Laban’s main, paved motorway, dominated by the massive pillars of a superhighway access-ramp squeezed so tightly between the facing houses as to practically roof the street. The microbus stopped abruptly at an intersection, a piece of claustrophobic holy chaos that passed as the town square.

It was around 40 degrees Celsius that evening; the dust and exhaust fumes wafted brownish-red on a hot abrasive breeze. We walked beneath the highway ramp, more a tunnel than a street, where battered vehicles, garbage, human and animal traffic mingled freely. At the side of the road were several patches of garden, perhaps a metre square, scraps of grass and struggling shrubs encircled with barbed wire, as if they were the last specimens on earth and in need of protection. A woman and a boy led a weary and disoriented water buffalo home from one of the few remaining fields a few kilometres away.

Come,’ said Mounir, ‘I’ll show you the view.’

We climbed the steep narrow stairs chipped into the side of the towering highway plinth, and stood at the shoulder of the 10-lane monster. Past the cars and a vast expanse of brick warrens, we saw the sun disappearing behind the pyramids. Yet this immutable landmark was of little assistance; I still felt like that water buffalo: lost, anachronistic, and in need of a better word than ‘apocalyptic’ to describe the scenario. Neighbourhoods like Saft al-Laban are not the end of the world, but the places where most people are born and spend their lives, the settings for countless narratives of love and loss. They are the norm now, not just in Cairo, but cities everywhere.

Mounir mentioned that his scholarship had fallen through. ‘Greece’s economy collapsed,’ I said, thinking instead of the house of cards we’d built in the last great and progressive century. I asked Mounir when he thought he’d see Athena again and he said he didn’t know.

Maria Golia is the author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt.

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