Monday, September 04, 2006

We have been here almost two weeks, and in that time an enormous statue of Ramses II was ceremoniously transported from Cairo Square to a spot near the pyramids. The statue was moved due to concerns that pollution was making its lungs itch.

Then Naguib Mahfouz, famed writer, who won a belated Nobel Prize for his Cairo Trilogy, died. He was known as the “Balzac of Egypt,” by the way.

And J has had the time of his life getting plucked and shined.

In this city, the momentous never stops happening, it would seem.

It is a city where the enormous discrepancies between rich and poor are very much evident. Each morning when I peer from our balcony to the street, I see. Obviously, me, straight from crackerville and bowled-over by my newly-discovered wealth – looking down from the literal heights with my MFA degree, useless in America, tucked proudly under my arm. The street is full of parked cars, often double-parked. Everything from BMWs to jeeps to dented sedans. (By the way, I saw a giant powder-blue ‘70s car today, pimping slowly down the street, and it was the greatest thing ever. It reminds me of the fact that everyone has a mobile phone here with a kickin’ ring, like the one set to the song “Big Pimpin’.)

Back to the street. This morning our bawaab was rinsing and toweling a Mercedes, which was parked just next to the spot in the sidewalk where ripped-open garbage bags are constantly tossed.

Down there, so much happens. In the span of a few seconds, you might see the following:

The bawaab, wearing a light green gallabiya, lifts the wipers of the Mercedes as he towels the windshield. A dingy white cat pilfers the scattered rubbish on the walk. A couple of taxis barrel down the street, and another car comes in reverse straight toward the taxis, as a buggy, led by a skinny horse and featuring tinny music, makes no bones about its intentions to plow through this path. Add to this an old woman in black dress wandering in the road, sobbing a story with her palms outstretched. A truck full of copy paper, parked across from the car-washing bawaab, takes up necessary street inches. Clumps of pedestrians between and around all described vehicles. Now a delivery moped whizzes up, spurting a stream of bluish exhaust (the people who deliver – for the restaurants, for the grocer, for Drinkies, for almost anywhere – seem fearless).

Yet all of it works itself out in a matter of seconds through a series of well-timed honks, swerves, and subtle movements. In other words, no one gets their panties in a bunch. The pedestrians move so that the passing cars only just rustle their sleeves. The horse leans slightly to the side, the car in reverse keeps going, the taxis create three lanes where there should clearly only be one, the deliveryman zips like a ping pong ball, and the old woman goes on as if she were the only one in the street. The bawaab towels down the tires. The cats rummage.

Upstairs, I find that my panties have bunched. Down below, all is right.

A few minutes later, perhaps, a short white truck with a square front pulls up, and a man in a blue suit with neon yellow stripes across the back jumps out of the truck bed which is already filled with tree branches and rubbish. Are these the garbagemen, the “sanitation workers?” I’m not sure. We set our garbage in the hallway whenever we want to and it magically disappears within a day. We’ll meet the garbagemen when they knock on the door for the LE 10 we’re supposed to give them every month.

There are other people who collect garbage, whole families. They have carts that they load up and pull through the city. The carts have long handles like hooks that go over the shoulders and curl under the hands. I’m sure there is a name for this cart that I am ignorant about, but it looks like a rubbish-filled chariot. In a part of the city that we have not yet seen, the collectors sort the trash, and this sorting, while unhealthy, to say the least, for these families, is apparently an extremely efficient method of recycling. These are among the poorest people, we are told. There is a philanthropic organization here that seeks to help educate the children of these families, we are told. All of this prompts me to separate and rinse plastic bottles and cans before setting out the garbage, which certainly doesn’t settle my, er, discomfort at knowing what will be happening to my discarded peels, my wadded up tissues, my wrappers, my boxes, my clumps of hair, the ant-infested sugar I covered with Raid. Here, I have to know these momentous things.


P.S. Upon further investigation, I’ve learned from the wily and unpredictable internet that the garbage I see across the street may in fact be mine. People retrieve the garbage from my doorstep, rummage through it, leave it for the cats, then – a man comes along later in the evening and picks through the rest, carting it off. Meanwhile, Mr. Mercedes parks his car wherever it will fit, even if it is straight into a pile of trash that has seeped into the street. Makes sense to me.


Beth F said...

I would have those same hesitations and worries about my trash as well, if i knew what you knew., no aggressive drivers? can you imagine if what is seen on the streets of cairo were happening here? someone would be out kicking the taxi car or something...

Sari said...

I love reading your blog. Your writing is so visual that I feel as if I'm hanging out the window with you--except, I'm also holding on to something as I'm morbidly fearful of hanging out of windows.

Are you missing home yet?

Anonymous said...

Totally random comment: in case you're curious, Jay-Z sampled a Abdel Halim Hafez song for Big Pimpin'. So really, it's not that odd to have it as a ringtone in Egypt.

Kim said...

i meant to ask you two if you had witnessed the exodus of King Ramses. I heard about it on NPR around the time it was happening and meant to say something...hopefully, he will be free from the perils of pollution in his happy new place.