A Clear View to Cairo

My editor at PopMatters was enthusiastic about some columns I wrote earlier this year while outside of Egypt. It seems that distance sharpened my insights, gave me a fresh perspective (see “Mistaken Identities” and “Cairo in Capetown“). Perhaps being far from Cairo — far from my 16 million neighbors, from the IQ-lowering clouds of lead pollution, from the distracting sound of a hundred drivers leaning on their car horns in a nearby street — helps me think more clearly. I’m hoping the happy phenomenon repeats itself, since this month I’m writing from Morocco (I’m here for two months, travelling and reporting).

It’s the first time I spend so much time in an Arab country other than Egypt. Before this, I’ve only been on a short visit to Lebanon and Syria. Morocco — El Maghreb in Arabic, “land of the setting sun” — is far from Egypt, five hours by plane to the West, on the other side of Africa. And it’s distant from Egypt in more than geographical terms. With its cool sea breezes and its French newspapers the capital Rabat, where I’m living, is the center of a different history, a different set of concerns, far from Cairo’s overheated and pitched battles.

Rabat is an anti-Cairo of sorts. It’s a pristine bourgeois town with tree-lined avenues and white-washed government buildings. Coming from the Egyptian capital, Rabat is shockingly clean, calm and orderly. At ten o’clock at night — just as the evening starts in Cairo, as thousands of families make their way to a midnight picnic on the bridges over the Nile or the traffic medians in the middle of congested avenues — the streets in Rabat are empty.

I spend a lot of my time here making these sorts of comparisons, weighing my impressions of Morocco against what I know of Egypt. The exercise seems pointless — or at least fruitless — but it is hard to abandon. For example, on recent travels around the country, the clean platforms with their potted plants, the proper second-class compartments, free of tea-spills or cockroaches, induced a whole reverie on Morocco’s relative advancement.

I even make comparisons between the landscapes — although, truth be told, Egypt barely has a landscape. It’s one of the flattest, driest countries in the world, comprised of more than 90 percent desert. The countryside is one long strip of lush green land along the Nile. Morocco depends on rains rather than the bounty of one great river; it has mountains and seasons. Right now the country is golden. The trains I rode carried me past fields and fields of dry hay, baking under the sun, divided by giant fences of cacti. Women went about cutting and packing the hay into enormous bales, which they balanced miraculously on their bent backs.

From a political point of view, the biggest difference between Morocco and Egypt is that Morocco never underwent a revolution. There were attempts, and several failed coups, and the same post-colonial, nationalist unrest, but the Moroccan King was much more savvy and ruthless than Egypt’s irrelevant gadfly monarch, and he held onto power. This was in many ways a bad thing — especially for the tens of thousands of Moroccans who were tortured, imprisoned or “disappeared” during the period of worse repression, what they call “the years of lead” here — but it may not have been worse than what would have happened if a military coup had succeeded, as it did in Egypt. At least, things are clearer here in Morocco. In Egypt, president Mubarak, now in the 28th year of his reign, is an abusive king who plans to “democratically” enthrone his son. And while Morocco, with a new king who came to power in 1999, is seeing some changes and reforms, Egypt is stagnating, muddling along, holding its breath.

In the cities, I can’t help noticing how much more of Moroccan women than Egyptian ones you see. How much more of their bodies, I mean. Grandmothers in djellabas (traditional dresses) walk side-by-side with granddaughters in midriff-baring tank tops. At the beach there are a good number of Moroccan girls comfortably wearing bikinis. Then again, at one end of the beach, young men with beards and long shorts sometimes show up to berate women in swimsuits (I guess they have nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon). The argument over suitable female apparel is ongoing. But at least it’s not over: In Egypt, the waves of the beaches of Alexandria are darkened for miles upon miles with the tanned bodies of men (and only men).

Reprieve in the Moroccan countryside — photo by Ursula Lindsey by Ursula Lindsey

Some things between the countries are quite similar. Here, as in Egypt, there’s corruption, terrible poverty and embarrassingly high rates of illiteracy. There’s police brutality, and concern with the rise of Islamist parties.

Some things are like echoes of each other. Much like the community of Sudanese refugees in Cairo, there are Sub-Saharan African refugees here. They live in precarious and sometimes terrifying conditions, and receive little sympathy from a population too concerned with its own problems. Recently, I watched a demonstration of Moroccan human rights activists outside Parliament. They were a small crowd of middle-aged militants who’ve spent their lives in and out of jail. They who would have hit it off, I’m sure, with Cairo’s own hardened but jovial activists.

I know the slogans of the Egyptian activists by heart, but the ones here were harder for me to understand. I’d been warned about the difficulties of understanding Moroccan Arabic, or darija. It’s a mix of Arabic and Berber, mercilessly contracted. Egyptian dialect in comparison is all vowels, open-mouthed, emphatic. While I can hardly make out what people are saying to me, my Egyptian Arabic is understandable to almost everyone here, because of the Egyptian TV shows and movies that are shown across the Arab world. Understandable and entertaining to Moroccans who I imagine delight in hearing someone speak “like in the movies”.

And then some things between these countries are exactly the same. The women gathering hay in the fields let loose the same high-pitched trills that Egyptian and seemingly all Arab women do. It’s a high-pitched, joyful cry, in which one moves one’s tongue frenetically back and forward in one’s mouths like a clapper in bell. It’s one of the greatest sounds I’ve ever heard.

I guess making comparisons is what we do when we travel. It’s what we do when we carry a country around with us, like I carry Egypt-a large, ungainly piece of baggage, constantly expanding, springing buckles.

One thing that visiting other Arab countries reinforces is my sense of Egypt’s exceptionalism. I realize that Cairo in no way represents the rest of the Middle East. Cairo is unique, as much of a shock and a mystery to other Arabs as it is to foreigners. “I hated it,” one Moroccan visitor to Cairo told me. “It’s crazy,” another said. “There’s people everywhere. And Egyptians are always laughing.”

Of course that’s not true, but I know what he means. Ah, I think I’m starting to miss my 16 million neighbors.

Although Morocco is superior to Egypt in almost all respects — better scenery, better food, better cultural life, better air quality— I think I’m looking forward to my return to Cairo in August (now that’s a sentiment few people would voice). I’m looking forward to days in my apartment, the fans whirring and the shutters closed, surrounded by lead fumes and the far-off noise of car horns. I’m looking forward to smoking a shisha at the café around the corner, or going out late at night, when the heat recedes, in a city that is just sitting, leisurely, down for dinner. I’m looking forward to Cairo’s buzz, the way the city seems to hum with the life of so many, so close.