Capital of Chaos

by Ursula Lindsey

20 September 2004

In Cairo nothing seems to work that well, and yet everything seems to work out. The city is rotting as much as it is growing. The dead and the living commingle. Seeming always on the verge of collapse under its own weight, Cairo is perpetually reborn.
Cairo as Seen from a Mosque's Minaret
Photo by
Ursula Lindsey 

Every Friday morning, Cairo takes a deep breath. The sky is clear, the streets are unclogged, and the call to prayer rises from the city’s mosques through an extraordinary silence. It’s a wondrous pause for this megalopolis of 16 million. And a brief one. Within hours Cairo is roaring, pouring, screaming, screeching, honking, hollering, laughing, loitering, wheezing, teasing, rushing, crushing, shoving, moving and grooving. Things are back to normal.

Cairo is one of the oldest cities in the world, and today is one of the most astounding urban expanses; a sea of humanity and cement that laps the desert, laps the lush Nile shores, spreads week by month by year like a roiling beast. It’s a city that truly never sleeps. It makes London and Paris and New York look like staid pretenders, although in Cairo it is not nightlife that is taking place so much as just plain life, of which there is too much for it to unfold in under 24/7. It’s an extreme, often almost surreal-city, where everything is too old or too new, too rich or too poor, too fast or too slow; where the imported Jeep Cherokees of affluent Westernized kids cut off the donkey carts of rural vegetable peddlers. It’s home to a fifth of the country’s population, the 13th largest city in the world, and the largest of both Africa and the Middle East. All of Syria could live here.

Cairo’s traffic defines it, with its anarchy, its overwhelming numbers, its close calls, its smart negotiations and its mysterious grace. On any given day, a man on the back seat of a moped holds a huge pane of glass behind his back, like a vaudevillian, rags wrapped around his palms. A bread-seller cycles past with a board the size of a dining-room table balanced on his head. An elderly man chases a bus down — buses never actually come to a stop — swatting the fenders of taxis as he jogs through traffic, jumping on to the bus’ lowest step with the help of outstretched hands. A cab-driver idles alongside another car to bum a smoke from its driver, slowing the honking vehicles behind them. Cars weave within inches of each other — lanes don’t exist — the car horn is a fluent and constant form of communication.

Chaos and inefficiency flourish in Cairo, where ambulances get stuck in traffic and visiting a government office is a Kafkaesque experience. But the city also fosters a gift for miraculous accommodation, for what Italians call the art of arrangiarsi, “arranging things”. In Cairo nothing seems to work that well, and yet everything seems to work out. The tire is changed, the stamp affixed, the street found just when you thought it no longer possible. After all, this is a city that boasts a “single shoe market”, where buyers elbow each other to find two similar-looking shoes of about the same size in a pile of mismatched footwear. This is a city in which even the living and the dead have reached a deal; the vast slums known as the “City of the Dead” are ancient cemeteries that have been re-colonized, where families now sleep and cook and do business among the turbaned tombstones.

In Cairo people are the key, the frustration, and the joy of it all. This is not a city of anonymous, eyes-averted masses; rather, it’s a place where opportunities at social contact are pounced upon with glee. Cairenes offer each other food, advice, services, commentary, tea, catcalls, admonitions, cigarettes, jokes, and glancing conversation. Egyptian emigrants shiver in European and American cities, become depressed: They wander the streets at night, bewildered by the closed shop fronts and the silence.

Most things here happen “Inshaallah” (“God Willing”). Islam is tolerant: there are plenty of bars downtown, and young Egyptian couples stroll hand-in-hand along the riverfront, arguing over what furniture will be part of the dowry. And it is pervasive: it connects and dignifies everyone, and gives the city its great communal pauses; the sunny calm of Friday mornings, and the great dramatic hiatus of Ramadan iftar, the meal at which the entire city breaks its day-long fast (Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown during the holy month of Ramadan). As the sun sets, policemen bivouac at the corners of streets and groups of doormen huddled on landings offer passersby food off their plates. The streets are blue with dusk and marvellous with silence, whole avenues empty but for a few stragglers speeding to the family table, driving like desperados.

Of course this diffuse faith has its if not “dark”, at least “murky” side. The Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated by fundamentalists in 1981, and there were violent uprisings in the south of Egypt in the past decade, culminating in the 1997 massacre of a bus load of tourists at the ancient Pharaonic site of Luxor. Pugnacious writers and feminists are hounded out of the country, accused of being “unbelievers” and divorced from their own unwilling spouses (the Koran gives community members the right to sue for divorce in the name of someone whose spouse has abandoned Islam).

Social conservatism has been on the rise in Egypt since the 1970s. These days there are more and more men with the zabiba, or prayer bruise, a symbol of religious righteousness. It’s a self-induced bump in the center of the forehead achieved by hitting one’s head particularly often, or hard, against the prayer mat, and it can swell to grotesque, purplish proportions. And more and more often, the front cars of the subway, which are reserved for women, witness teenage munaqaba (fully veiled) girls stepping into the train car to recite a specific transportation prayer and proselytize the crowd in high, sing-songy voices. When they’re done they huddle together, critiquing each other’s delivery, patting each other’s polyester-sheathed shoulders, aglow with the pleasure of having been center-stage.

The rest of the women in the cars aren’t enthusiastic, although a good number of them mouth the appropriate responses. Women in Cairo, even more than men, don’t look healthy; they suffer from a lifetime spent indoors, eating beans and bread and breathing the city’s blighted air, some of the worst in the world. In October, when farmers burn agricultural waste in their fields, the sky turns apocalyptic. People call it the “black cloud”. At dusk the outlines of buildings disappear entirely, leaving only their lit windows visible through the dark haze. All year ‘round the fumes of lead smelters and cement factories and one-and-a-half million cars make the city feel like a huge dirty pot with its lid clamped down. Many mornings one wakes to a flat, luminous, chalk-colored sky, a vast milky cataract over the sun. The sandstorms in March (five days of orange light and wind-whipped sand) wipe things clean, for a while.

But the city teeters daily on the brink of implosion. Giant urban organism that it is, Cairo is rotting as much as it’s growing, seeming on some days ready to collapse under the weight of its own immenseness, of its multitudes; its rooftops cluttered with masses of broken furniture, the ghostly inner stairwells of its once-grand downtown buildings stinking with piles of jettisoned garbage, scavenged by packs of feral cats. Late at night, in a police station, a civil rights activist or an Islamist or just a poor, unconnected man who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, is beaten until he confesses — or dies. Egypt has been under a “state of emergency” for 23 years now, a situation that allows the authorities to subvert the country’s progressive constitution, to hold people without charges, and to try them in special courts. The recent war on terror has given authorities even more power over its citizens.

The Egyptians are used to being beaten-by sultans’ guards, by tax collectors, by foreign soldiers, by neighbourhood bosses. One of their best writers, Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, has captured with absolute, poetic mastery the overlapping cycles of aspiration and violence that characterize his society, the way in which brute force remains a formidable challenge to individual vision. Mahfouz himself was almost killed when an Islamic fanatic stabbed him in the neck in 1994. In his fantastic novel Children of the Alley (The American University in Cairo Press, 2001), Mahfouz creates a vibrant religious allegory in which the miserable families of a mythical alley are lifted out of squalor, time and again, by the actions of different leaders — only to fall back into poverty and injustice as the vision of each “prophet” is corrupted. For, as Mahfouz writes, “forgetfulness is the plague of our alley.” Here is how one of the alley’s early leaders, Gabal, describes it: “The men are prisoners in their houses and the women are exposed to every insult in the alley. I endure disgrace in silence. And yet, strange to say, the people of our alley laugh! How can they laugh? They celebrate winners, any winner, and cheer any strong man, no matter who he is, and bow down before bullies’ clubs — all this to conceal the terrible fear deep inside them. We eat humiliation like food in this alley. No one knows when it will be his turn for the club to come down on his head.”

Since millennia the source of some of the world’s cheapest labor, Egypt has been ruled by the Pharaohs, by the Greeks, by the Romans, by the Mamelukes, by the Ottomans, by the British, and now by the current elite of inheritors: military and business men who are entrenched in their power, who have no vision beyond maintaining their own privileges, who spout some of the emptiest platitudes you’ve ever heard. After a train crash in 2002 in which 360 poor Egyptians died, Prime Minister Atef Ebeid — who is infamous for the lunatic-like, rosy predictions he delivers every year in his state of the union speech, in which he often describes the country’s moribund economy as a “miracle” — assured Egyptians that “all [Egypt’s] trains are in good shape and at the highest degree of efficiency and they are reviewed completely and regularly.” This is hard to believe when third-class compartments have no emergency exits, no fire alarms, no windows, and the cars that house them look like they’ve been sitting in a scrap-yard for the last 10 years. Meanwhile, the Minister of Tourism’s priority at the scene of the crash — a sprawling, nightmarish scene of mangled metal and bodies — was to assure the world that “tourists do not use these trains.”

What can you do? El-dunya keda, “the world is this way”. Egyptians shake their heads (and sometimes their fists) at government prevarications and pronouncements, but most are too busy trying to make ends meet to dream of radical change. As Egyptian feminist and writer Nawwal Saadawi said to me, “Ninety percent of the population are paralyzed by work”. For those living here it’s difficult to look beyond tomorrow, and it’s difficult to look beyond Cairo; the city is all-encompassing. When you do manage to gaze outwards — past the endless red brick slums and the gated, landscaped, residential complexes at the edge of the desert, past the pyramids and what a friend of mine calls the “greed towers”, shoddy apartment buildings that risk imminent collapse — what you see is the misery of the Occupied Territories, the dishonesty and failures of the Iraqi invasion, the deaf and misapplied power of the US, and the hypocrisy of Arab regimes.

In March 2003, when war with Iraq broke out, Cairo saw one of its first huge demonstrations in over a decade. Notwithstanding the usual oppressive security presence, thousands of protesters surged through downtown, throwing their shoes at policemen, burning a fire truck, chanting slogans against America, against Israel, and against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian president of 23 years (these are feelings strung on the same thread here, with reason). Hundreds were arrested in the following days. By now the anger appears to have crested into dumbfounded outrage and resigned cynicism. The US’s status as a bully and a hypocrite — the force that supports both the regime and the condescending and ineffectual calls for reform directed at it — is a fait accompli. Egypt’s current, sad stretch of unwarranted mediocrity — of political, economical and educational shortcomings — looks set to continue.

And yet, while the future here is hazy as a smog-wreathed sunset, it’s hard to doubt that boisterous, corrupt, cheerful Cairo will endure for another 4,000 years; a powerless and overpowering place, held together by mile-long flyovers, by good humor and goodwill, by thousands of civil servants moonlighting as cab drivers, by shades of history, by every family’s hope to buy a new satellite dish and an air-conditioning unit. Cairo: the Mother of the World, The Victorious-awesome, inexhaustible and inexplicable capital, cauldron of life.

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