Sunday, 18 January 2015

A Cairo State Of Mind

English: View from Cairo Tower
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The pollution is staggering: the air is grey with it, the sunlight dappling the twisted trees by the roadside moves with the slow miasma. It rained in the night, the moisture still shines in the ruts and gulleys of the serpentine backstreets and alleys.

Cats dart nervously between cars or feed on the rubbish piled up on the kerbsides, a broken-legged skinny dog whines. Its ribs are stark, skin-stretched.

The traffic grumbles and roars, constantly punctuated by the cacophony of blaring, bleating horns. People weave between the battered cars, squeezed into each other by the press of steel as they scurry or loiter.

Everything's grubby, despite the rain.

The statue of Ibrahim Pacha stands proud on its great block, the leader of Egypt's armies, the defeater of the Ottomans, defender of the realm and much other rot beside. His hand is raised, his mighty, verdigris-streaked steed below him as he looks out over the filthy, crumbling city around him. When it has all fallen in on itself, neglected until it simply collapses under its own febrile weight and the vibrations of the traffic - like an African Jericho - he'll still be proud, still be there. The downtown area is increasingly being bequested to the poor and marginalised as the Money moves out to 'New Cairo', with its Emaar developments and Al Futtaim Malls.

Over lunch at the conference, one of my fellow speakers tried to prod me about how fake and spangly Dubai is. I was too polite to tell him it was the one thing Cairo's brightest and bestest aspire to, so much so they're building a facsimile of Dubai on the outskirts of their fatigued city just as Dubai is building its very own facsimile of the pyramids. Let's swap: your culture for our glamour. Don't forget to spit on your hand before shaking, buddy.

A subway takes you away from the Great Man, steps take you down to pass under the road around the statue. Two men loiter for tips at the bottom. They have a plastic table to rest their prayer beads and ashtray on. There's an escalator going up and two fat old women approach it nervously. One is holding a box of food on her head, the scarves covering them drape over shapeless shoulders. They hop on, grasping for the handrail.

Disaster: a mis-step and their movements become increasingly Lorenzian, catastrophically they reach out for each other and lose the handrail. The younger of the men with the plastic table starts to move, sensing the unfolding tragedy. He's too slow, the ladies tumble, one onto her back, one falling forwards. The box of food goes flying as he belatedly hits the escalator stop button. I catch the food, the ladies wailing and scrabbling at the glass sides of the stairway as they try to heave themselves to their feet. They bat away the vain attempts of the man to help them, calling to God to help them. I right the food box and leave it aside as other onlookers rush to help the howling women.

Coming up out of the subway into the exhaust-laden sunshine, a man with one leg has paused to regain his breath after the climb, his crutches under his armpits supporting him as he fumbles for a cigarette. His clothes are shabby and his trousers shine with dirt.

For three Egyptian pounds, Dhs 0.50, I enter the Hadiqat Al Azbakiyah, the Azbakiyah Garden. It's marginally quieter in here, the traffic outside carving its way around the Great Man presiding over his crumbling eternal triumph. The pathway is a precarious walk, the paving has caved in. The kerbing is worn and shattered, litter and piles of leaves block the pathways. There's a destroyed, inexplicable low building with a collapsing rusty iron balcony at the end of the pathway, an Ottoman era relic clashing with the 1970s architecture of what can only be a toilet block, its slab sides spattered in bat shit. It is, of course, padlocked shut.

There are gardeners here and a grubby-looking heron vies with two crows to get at a small geyser gushing up from a broken pipe as a turbaned man in a gelabiyah hoses down the matte leaves of the exhaust-dusted plants. A group of men loiter around a gazebo. One calls out to me, 'Hello mate, hey buddy.' I wave a hand as I leave them behind.

I wander around, wondering at the unkempt, smashed-up state of the place. Only the Egyptians could break a garden.

Back to the hotel, then, to feed the mosquito in my room. He must be missing me by now...

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