Alas that my tummy offers protestations, and I can offer it no succor. But yoga will not be done for at least 20 minutes, and so I await, captive in my room. It is nighttime here in Cairo, a still sweaty coolness from the scorching heat of day. The dry branches outside my window rustle in the faintest of breezes, and a downstairs neighbor shouts at someone in Arabic. A car, most likely passing through the nearby meedan (roundabout), rumbles past without a honk. Light from the bare bulb saturates my room, illuminating my large (alhamdulilah!) wardrobe, spacious bed, and drying rack of clothes in the corner. Remarkable to think that I have only been here about two weeks. My room has an intimate feel to it, a familiar sort of twinge that makes me feel rather like I am returning home, instead of entering a new life.
But perhaps that is merely indicative of my entire experience, thus far. Certainly, there have been novel moments, but, overall, I feel as if I have (forgive my watery analogies, but I am, after all, in the land of the Nile) stepped into a boat on a reedy bank, and felt it glide smoothly into the river’s current, melding into the world I left, years ago. There may be new companions on this journey, but many are still the same; new scenery sliding past, but the essence of this place is immutable. Cairo never changes. Certainly, buildings rise and crumble, people arrive and depart, headscarves come in and out of fashion, regimes ascend and fall, but Cairo sits quietly on her haunches, bemused at human efforts to alter a city that has, truly, witnessed it all.
Today I had no classes or meeting on campus; I walked. I walked from my door, down the winding staircase, underneath the arches at the entryway, into the quiet street shaded by towering acacias leaning indolently over the pavement. The Nubian bowab of the neighbor’s building is, as usual, snoring softly in his chair, slumped over a plastic arm as cars rumble past and feet patter by. I turn left onto street 250 and encounter the parade of lumbering SUVs, Mercedes, taxis, and BMWs. To the unassuming eye, Maadi appears affluent, high-class, occasionally supercilious…there is more to Maadi than diplomatic residences, gated villas, imported cars, pasty foreigners, and wealthy Egyptians.
I walk through miidan Victoria, skirting the honking and exhaust-choking vehicles merging and weaving through the circle and emerge unscathed, alhamdulilah, onto the far side. A sidewalk of sorts exists here, although alarming depressions/chasms, sudden mounds of sand, low-hung signs, and iron posts appearing sporadically along the way render it somewhat perilous as a pedestrian route. So I just walk in the road, like everyone else. I follow the brick on my left, a fortification of Victoria College, a place I have yet to penetrate, although their large outdoor baseball and football fields are often used by AUCians in need of energy release. The Grand Mall of Maadi is in front of me, though I pass it, ignoring the taxis in front of it that assume I must need their services. Surely a foreigner does not wish to walk anywhere. Surely not. As I leave the ‘orderly’ quarter of Maadi, with its swept sidewalks and overpriced Costa coffees, I enter the other part of Maadi. Although still clearly paved, the road somehow manages to also convey the impression of a dirt pathway, rutted and bumpy. I often see foreigners in my neighborhood, and unveiled Egyptian females are a common occurrence. Other than my roommate, who showed me the way, I have yet to find another foreigner endeavouring through the alleyways and congested streets of hadayiq al-Maadi; doubtless there are other audacious souls like me, but we are not usual, this is certain.
I come to the Al-Arab bus station, less station and more chaos than, perhaps, that to which you are accustomed. It begins inside a dirt lot enclosed behind a crumbling brick wall, though the mini buses spew into the street as well, shouting at riders as men hang out the doors and narrowly avoid hitting you as they careen down roads not meant to hold 7 lanes of traffic. I cross more traffic lanes, glaring at drivers through my sunglasses as they attempt to cut in front of me. Tiny mahaals, or stores, line both sides of the wide road, offering car repairs and home goods and sheesha smoking (alas, only for men; women are, to put it mildly, not very welcome); a few fruit and vegetable vendors line up beneath the scant shade of the trees, their produce selections succulent and fresh from the gardens and farms along the Nile.
I continue down the road, taking the left fork into a narrower, cobblestone street. Tail swishing belatedly after flies, a donkey turns to stare at me, warm, brown liquid patience filling his doleful eyes and resigned face. Little children shriek and play in the street, running in and out of dark doorways and underneath the feet of passerby, brown hair flying and bare feet covered in dirt. A few women in full niqabs, or black coverings, appear, but most women are garbed in colourful, long dresses and bright headscarves. The odour of an open sewer briefly assaults my nose, and I step carefully around a pile of muck that a street worker has pulled from an uncovered man hole.
I love the way the buildings seem to lean into each other, dusty brown walls and crumbling bricks somehow managing to climb aloft several stories. Doorways, though, are perhaps the most fascinating element of any area; some are carefully wrought iron barriers, some intricately carved wooden apertures, some plain and peeling wood, and still others brightly painted with Arabic script scrawled across them.
Sunshine suddenly fills the road, and the blessed shade of the crowded houses retreats, and I feel several degrees hotter already. Off to my left, down a wide road, shouting and movement catch my eye. A market! And a local one. Where I live, there is one man who sells produce in a tidy stall, tripling and quadrupling the prices for the foreigners. Here, in this corner of Maadi, tidiness is in short supply. Shopkeepers hawk their wares behind carts still attached to the donkey, rickety tables scorching beneath the hot sun, and canvas awnings stretched across the road as it narrows. Chickens squawk from atop a pile of crates, and rather adorable bunnies sit demurely in the shade, sadly aware of their fate. Swarms of flies descend on the piles of dead fish while their owner futilely waves them away; shirts and blankets and pots and pans and everything in between overflows into the walkway; and the produce…gleaming mounds of red tomatoes, supple cucumbers and fresh peppers, strings of garlic and purple eggplant; sweet pears and ruby dates, shiny apples and heavenly figs, bunches of yellow bananas and large melons all vie for my attention as I step over the muddy slop in the road and the squashed fruit.
How I wish it were not Ramadan, and I could sate my thirst with freshly squeezed juice or cold water. Alas, I sweat without hope of replenishment. For a little while, I am lost in the crowd, swept amongst the brimming shopping bags and the pungent odors of fresh fruits and rotting garbage and tangy spices and unwashed bodies, the children darting through the crowd to deliver packages and shoppers carefully picking out each piece of produce. I stop, eventually, and turn around, hot enough for one day. One my stroll back, I stop and collect my own shopping bags-tomatoes and cucumbers, lemons, grapes and the most sensual fruit in the world, luscious figs. I kilo each of tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, and figs and four lemons = less than 4 dollars. I manage to only lose myself once on the long walk home, dirty and sweaty and quite unlike the carefully manicured denizens of my neighborhood that drive past in air-conditioned luxury.