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Letter from Cairo

Social Change

It was around 9am and I was on my way home from a grocery run, having stopped at the lady who sells onions and the Queen of Yemen coffee store. Next to the grocer is what I call the Nasser Pharmacy because it is run by an older couple who were probably in their teens in the 1950s when Egypt elected its first native-born president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and they have a large portrait of him on one wall. The pharmacy has no door, is more a shelf-lined kiosk open to the street, which I somehow associate with the populist optimism of an Egypt I never knew. I bought some vitamins, chatted with the Doktor and Doktora, and left.

On the corner, around 15 metres away, two young men were shouting because one had usurped the location where the other had lately been selling bread. By the time I reached them they were exchanging blows. A crowd gathered, mostly men, without intervening. One of the young men landed a punch on the other’s head, knocking him to the ground where his head hit the kerb and he fell, unconscious.

At this point the crowd mobilized to restrain the victor (who seemed anxious to get in another kick) and to minister to the defeated, who was turning a pasty white at our feet. No-one knew what to do. The men shook and tried to raise him, but he was limp, so they set him back down on the grimy sidewalk. It was unclear whether or not he was breathing. Recalling that the brain cannot survive long without oxygen, I raced back to the Nasser pharmacy to ask for help. I grabbed the Doktor’s arm from over the counter and tried to pull him to the street, but he balked. I urged him. He said he didn’t interfere with other people’s business. I looked at him blankly. ‘Besides,’ he said, ‘I’m not really a Doktor.’ Now he tells me.

I rushed back to the crowd where the boy still lay. One of his flip-flops had fallen off. His clothes were ragged; he wore a scarf around his head, was younger than I first thought, quite beautiful and possibly dying. What to do? At that moment the young man who works at the Queen of Yemen strode forth wielding a small bottle of perfume. He went purposefully to the injured man, and sprayed the stuff directly and copiously in his face, causing him to splutter back to life. The day was saved.

I’m not sure why, but the incident stayed with me. Nor was it overshadowed by a small electrical fire the next day that might have destroyed my flat and hence my world had I not been on hand with a fire extinguisher. It was that blooddrained face that unsettled me, the sense of helplessness before an event requiring some greater knowledge or preparedness than I possessed. Perhaps I even feared it because it touched upon the tenuousness of our physical existence.

I decided to do something about it and signed up for a class to learn the basics of first aid and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) using ancient rubber dummies and baby dolls. Yet, throughout my first lesson, thrusting my palms into a latex man’s sternum repeatedly, unrewardingly, my unease only grew. I hadn’t gotten to the heart, as it were, of the matter.

Walking home along the Nile – it was an incongruously beautiful day – I realized one cannot help embody the times in which one lives; the volatility, confusion, vulnerability. If Egypt has taught me anything, it’s that we belong to our surroundings and to one another in countless conscious and unconscious ways. This knowledge of interconnectivity, so deeply embedded yet so long overlooked, is rising once more to the surface, here as elsewhere throughout our world. Nor can we ignore that the degree of effort it will take to uproot the failed systems we’ve helped create and empower is very great indeed.

But perhaps we carry some preparedness within us, and whatever we lack, we can learn on the job. I think of Beckett – ‘try again, fail again, fail better’ – and wonder if this is not only the best we can do, but something to actually look forward to.

Maria Golia would like to thank readers who have followed this column: they can continue to check out her writing at: mariagolia.wordpress.com

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