Saturday, September 09, 2006
The city is overpopulated. There are too many people, buildings, stray cats and dogs, too much dust and dirt, too many vehicles. The city does ban trucks in city streets during daylight hours, but this only avoids total infrastructural collapse. Every fourth or fifth car is a cab, painted black and white, and (most disconcertingly) sporting several fresh or rusted scrapes, some of which traverse the length of the vehicle, or a wiry stump where the side view mirror used to live. Some day I will share the very particular experience of riding in a cab on the streets of Cairo, but perhaps I will wait until a cabbie proposes marriage or rendezvous to M, which we hear is bound to happen sooner or later.
I would say that the streets are overwhelmed, but it appears that overpopulated does not mean overwhelmed. Not exactly. Things continue moving. Cars double or triple park, pedestrians negotiate a narrow strip next to these parked cars, carriages drawn by gaunt horses click past, cars whiz down the middle of the road. Traffic laws are obeyed when situationally permissible.
You might assume this would lead to complete bedlam, but instead it creates a kind of improvisational street logic that must play thousands of times every day in Cairo. We’ve witnessed this from our seventh-story window; when we are not skittish about the African bats swooping across the semi-darkness of the city, jaggedly flapping their distinct shapes into the haze and into our night terrors—yes, when we can belay thoughts of their terrible bat-faces, we will look down to the streets. Very soon there is a confluence: a group of boys walking arm in arm in one direction, a horse drawn carriage in another, a Fiat driving with no headlights (or, politely, with blue headlights). In a situation where there quite simply isn’t enough space, nobody gets too bent out of shape, nobody stops moving. Cars pull aside just enough, the pedestrians tuck in their arms, the horse slows, a delivery motorcycle careens onto the scene and zooms into a narrow path. From above this looks like a knot untying itself. That’s a characterizing image. It’s a beautiful sight.
On our way to Maadi on Friday, to the provost’s palatial villa, our air conditioned van contributed its own blue-gray plumes of exhaust to the breathable air. It was near dusk, and the streets, sidewalks, alleyways, were packed—mostly with men, smoking sheesha, hanging out in front of buildings, or, most unusually, tending to their herds of lamb and cattle. Right in the streets, among the vehicles (both operational and junked out) and the children, these animals awaited placidly the onset of Ramadan, when they will be ritually slaughtered and the streets will run red with their blood. No kidding.
I had a moment’s insight into the intensity of the population, of the sheer numbers. Zamalek is spacious by Cairo standards; the road to Maadi was what I will assume is more typical of Cairo. I can’t do this immensity justice, since I’m still trying to grapple with its image in my head. It wasn’t squalor, as one might think when they think of poverty in Africa. It looked like a dramatization of the brink of exhaustion—one more person, one more set of needs and desires, hopes, ambitions, disappointments, one more person striving in this immensity, and the city might cave in. Some people strode with great purpose, faces serious; others laughed with friends, unconcerned; others appeared very much to wish they were elsewhere; and still others seemed dumbstruck by something I did not understand.
In the distance, the misty pyramids loomed, mirage-like, suggesting grandeur.