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Letter from Cairo


Illustration: Sarah John

Sayyid is a wiry man in his mid-twenties who lives near the Giza Pyramids and works part-time hustling tourists. He’s also my research assistant and guide through Cairo’s labyrinthine slums. The Egyptian word for slum is ashwa’iyya, whose root meaning is ‘chaos’, ‘randomness’ or, in this case, ‘unplanned’, but the etymology goes further. Ashwa is what the Arabs called an old camel that had lost its eyesight and barged around the camp wreaking havoc. This image of bestial disorder lies just beneath Cairo’s venerably chafed hide, especially now, as the power of Egypt’s self-organized uprising fades to memory.

Sayyid’s sinewy arms are covered in cutting scars, dozens of short horizontal slashes inflicted while under the influence of sedatives and painkillers. He says he quit pills eight years ago as a promise to his girlfriend. He showed me pictures of Zeinab (who was ‘dying to meet me’) saying he needed 4,000 Egyptian pounds ($665) to be formally engaged but hadn’t managed to save up. Yet Zeinab had waited for him for eight years, refusing other suitors. So I agreed to accompany him to her house in an ashwa’iyya not far from his. En route, Sayyid said he hadn’t seen Zeinab in 28 days and six hours. I assumed she knew we were coming.

Our microbus entered a maze of brick boxes along a semi-paved road flanked with grocers, barbers and photography studios where people can have their portraits digitally altered to suggest they’re somewhere else. Sydney, Paris and Vegas are popular backdrops. Sayyid and I disembarked and zigzagged along narrow alleys muddy with sewage. After 20 minutes we arrived at a makeshift door in a brick box where Zeinab’s brother welcomed us into a room lit by a hole in the ceiling, furnished with a single bench.

Zeinab appeared briefly and asked why Sayyid hadn’t called. He said the signal was weak in her area. Like his excuse, she retorted, and stalked off. I berated Sayyid for not announcing our visit. He said Zeinab was thrilled to see us but pretending otherwise. He sat beside me, took a bit of foil from his pocket, unwrapped a red pill and broke it in half. I asked if these were the pills he stopped taking eight years ago. He said this one was ‘for power’, ie an amphetamine and therefore good, as opposed to the evil painkiller/sedatives. No wonder he can’t save for his wedding, I thought.

In a room off the entry, I noticed a pile of blankets begin to stir. From it emerged a taurine man of around 50, Zeinab’s father. He grunted, sat up and invited us to join him. I offered the usual greetings but he wasn’t interested in conversation, aside from asking Sayyid if he had any pills and corroborating his story that the red ones were for power. We sat around a humming refrigerator and a small TV running without sound, watching close-ups of spears ejaculating blood. Sayyid engaged Zeinab’s help in topping up his phone. She read the numbers from the card, he punched them in – an attempt at intimacy.

Suddenly, a toy ball entered the room, kicked there accidentally by kids playing in the alley. Zeinab’s father leapt up, grabbed the ball and bellowed for someone to bring him a knife so he could destroy it. It took all four of us to wrench the battered toy from his burly fists.

I asked to see the roof. Zeinab and I climbed unfinished concrete stairs to a garbage-strewn space surrounded by taller brick boxes framing a wan scrap of sky. A pair of geese and a few chickens roosted there. Everything smelt of burnt garbage; the reek of boredom and despair.

The bulk of Cairo’s population lives in these so-called ‘informal quarters’, built in the last 20 to 30 years without licence or expertise, mostly on precious agricultural land. In this chaotic simulacrum of urbanity, people heroically pursue the illusion of an orderly life.

It seems all human history may be seen as the struggle to impose order, and the companion desire to say the hell with it. We are ambivalent that way but won’t admit it, as divided from within as from without.

If order was our forte you’d see it everywhere, pervasive and convincing, reflecting the harmonious interactions of great nature. But it’s spotty, tenuous, often forced. Chaos is what we’re good at, blind and rampaging, it’s our secret love and fertile: from it all things issue forth.

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

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