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The return

Illustration by *Sarah John*

It was late summer and I had just returned from a short trip to Prague where I’d gone for the funeral of an old friend and had more fun than I’ve had in Cairo in ages. Prague was green, moist and smelled like a florist’s; beauty greeted my eyes wherever they fell. The people I met were politically aware and selfreliant, interested in music and literature and proud of their playwright former-president. I understood why Curtis Jones, my co-inspirator of 30 years, had decided to live and die there. He was a radically outrageous performer and wit. The Czechs love rebels and heretics as much as they love a party.

Stepping off the plane I warily sniffed Cairo: the familiar aroma of sock and tuna casserole. When I reached home, the heat was so intense in my shut-up flat I literally had to fight my way in. There was no room in this breathless space for a pair of human lungs. I threw open the windows only to find a vacuum that sucked the very water from my blood. Faint, I mixed a bit of sugar and club soda and knocked it back to boost my blood pressure. I closed the windows, turned on the air-con and, clutching a bottle of mineral water, slept fitfully, dreaming of Prague. When I awoke I saw things in an unaccustomed way. I work at home and am as attached to my flat as a clam to its shell, but I suddenly loathed its confinement.

I arranged to see a friend on the other side of downtown. Dressing for the street, I passed over the gauzy blouse I’d worn in Prague and chose something more opaque, with longer sleeves, and pinned it more safely together at the bust. Outside I greeted my neighbours, the vendors and shopkeepers that sit beside their ramshackle enterprises inhaling noxious traffic fumes day after day. The man on the corner who sells belts had removed his sunglasses and I understood why he’d lately stopped greeting my waves and nods: his eyes were white with cataract and unless I spoke up he didn’t see me.

I stopped to buy sweets for my friend and discovered that the local bakery had ‘modernized’. Nuts and dried fruits formerly sold in bulk were pre-packaged. Even the sticky sweets, that had long been displayed on massive round trays and carved into pieces on request, were now imprisoned in prefab boxes with foil bottoms, covered with lids and Ceram wrap. I nonetheless bought a kilo of kunafa, crispy honey-soaked wheat threads pressed into a sandwich with a centre of cream. Continuing on my way, I chose a route I hadn’t taken in a while, that led past the building where I had first lived in 1981.

My old block was closed to traffic as the Ministry of the Interior is nearby and some big shots use it coming and going to work. Four security guards with walkie-talkies prowled the 20-metre stretch of mango-shaded street and they all had their eyes on me and my kunafa. In the course of that two-minute transit I fielded a series of predictable enquiries and innuendos and disobeyed the insistent command to keep to the sidewalk, which didn’t actually exist. ‘Why?’ I asked one of the more belligerent plainclothes cops; ‘how?’ I asked another. By the time I reached the corner I was tired and lucid enough to realize I’d been running this same sort of gauntlet for years.

The 1980s, my first years in Egypt, were a time of freedom and discovery. Egyptians, while living under martial law, had reached a kind of détente whereby both they and the state were content to ignore one other. But as time passed, the state could only legitimize its tenure through the use of force – rarely direct but pervasive. I used to write tough, insightful editorials condemning Egypt’s wily regime. But I quit because I was tired of being angry at powerful males and of letting the drive to diss them define me.

Now I discovered I could no longer internalize Cairo’s pain and injustice, even if it meant writing less vividly about it. Out of love, or so I’d thought, I’d allowed its strictures, decrepitude and crackpot ideologies tighten a noose around my throat. There’s a difference between love and attachment: the former never constrains. I’d reached the point of being unable to imagine a life outside of this city. Now that I can, perhaps I will once more love Cairo.

Maria Golia is the author of the non-fiction Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004) and Photography and Egypt, being published by Reaktion Books this month.

New Internationalist issue 428 magazine cover This article is from the December 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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