Cairo, “the city of a thousand minarets,” is the biggest city in Arab world (with 17 million people). And whether you’re wandering aimlessly through the market streets of its Islamic quarter or driving out of town through towering canyons of high-rise apartment flats, you can’t shake the sense that this city goes on forever.
In fact, random housing is the new scourge. Vast fields of rare, rich agricultural land have been plowed for the last time, as developers throw up towering, cheap, concrete-and-red-brick apartment flats. It’s scandalous: Productive fields are so scarce and precious in Egypt; this housing could be built on sand instead, allowing good soil to survive and continue to feed the multitudes of hungry people here.
As is the sorry case in most of the developing world, the poor and uneducated multiply like rabbits, and the wealthy and educated have only a couple of children. Trying to explain the new post-revolutionary dynamic in this country, my friend said, “Democracy has advantages and disadvantages…and we’re experiencing the disadvantages.”
I find traffic chaos endlessly entertaining. Only in Cairo have I seen cars randomly choosing to go against the traffic — their drivers actually mad at those going in the lawful direction for being in the way. Tuk-tuks, three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaw taxis recently imported from India, are perfect for the Calcutta-like chaos of the streets.
Streets recently cobbled to be pedestrians-only are now a battlefield of both cars and walkers — like an accidental double exposure that didn’t work out. There’s nothing graceful about cars, merchants, and pedestrians all struggling over the same space. Horns honk as if to fill a “void” that’s already jam-packed. Wagons loaded with long, wobbling pipes and boards joust through the crowds. Doing battle with the cars and motorbikes on the streets, I recall how just a few months ago, I crossed a street in Seattle that was empty of cars. A cop stepped up and issued me a $50 ticket for jaywalking. When you live in a lawful society, you may not appreciate the value of strict parameters being set, with strict consequences enforced. That ticket makes a little more sense to me now.
On the fertile streets of Cairo, life is everywhere. And so is death. I hear what I think must be a child is squealing from an apartment high above. Then people gather, the squealing becomes more heart-wrenching, and my friend tells me, “Someone in that apartment has just died.” Later, while catching a rest over mint tea at a restaurant sprawling under a blanket of exhaust at the side of a chaotic highway, I see a somber parade of people following the simple plywood coffin of a dead loved one — marching through the traffic on their way to the city of the dead. Muslims (perhaps waiting for their own Martin Luther) believe in scoring religious favor by doing good deeds, and — as if eager to score a few easy points — people race to help carry the coffin.
If there’s any order amid the intensity, it’s Egypt’s social class system. The big determiner of which class you fall into seems to be education. The vast sea of uneducated masses share the poverty. The hardworking, educated middle class struggles against a flagging economy, desperate not to slip to a lower rung. And a tiny economic elite lives in its isolated, parallel world. I was struck by the dignity and grace and good humor of the people I met all across the board — especially the poor. I felt safe here, more so than in big cities in Central America. I encountered no aggressive beggars, and hustlers were limited to the predictable, touristy places. And, while I saw a few international visitors in my hotel, after three days spent on the streets, at the sights, and in the mosques of the greatest city in the Arab world, I met no Americans and only one Canadian — a Sufi Muslim with a big red beard from Montreal who was glorying in the spirituality of his favorite city on earth.