Why Cairo?

I’m always asked this – what brings a British Indian woman all the way from London to Cairo?  For the average Cairene, especially, there is bemusement – why would you give up all the conveniences and luxuries you have in London to live here?

I’ve given it a lot of thought and I still don’t know. I tell people the truth – that I had Egypt in my blood from a very young age. My mother puts it down to taking me to the British Museum as a child, when I was awe-struck by their collection of (stolen!) Mummies. I remember also watching a 1970’s Hollywood film called Sphinx with an Egyptologist (Lesley Anne Down) who goes to Cairo and gets embroiled in cursed tombs and plots to steal ancient treasures, alongside a brooding Egyptian (Frank Langella!). It’s a terrible film in many ways but the romance of it stayed with me for a while.  Apparently, I told an old school friend around then that I would live in Egypt one day. 

When I was 21 and a fresh graduate with a degree in Film and Literature (what does one do with that anyway?) and a yen for travel, I hit upon Cairo as the perfect place for a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. It didn’t happen. Nearly 10 years later, bored and drained from too many years of PR in London, I thought about Cairo and that TEFL course once again. And then 9/11 happened and the axis of the world seemed to shift a little bit and heading out to Egypt didn’t seem like such a good idea after all.

In between, I managed a Nile Cruise, on a slightly shabby boat that will remain nameless, in the scorching heat of the June sun (which would explain why we got it at a bargain rate). So we drifted up the Nile and saw Aswan and Luxor and the Dam and took in the temples and souks and some of that legendary Egyptian hospitality – but I still didn’t make it to Cairo.

It wasn’t until I was 37 and travelling around the world that I finally arrived in the city.  Out of an eleven-month stint involving nearly 20 countries in four different continents, I allowed myself three and a half weeks in Cairo.  And thankfully, I fell in love – literally and metaphorically (how awful, I think, for a long-cherished childhood dream to dissolve in tatters around you).  I roamed the streets, drinking in the chaos and colour, from the tranquillity of an Old Cairo mosque to an incredible Oud player at one of the cultural centres, from smoking shisha in crowded Downtown streets to braving the cliches of the Khan.  But more than anything, it was the warmth of the people that stayed with me – the constant Ahlans and Welcome to Egypts, the easy smiles and the realisation – wise, it seemed to me – that nothing is more important than human contact. 

This is why I live in Cairo. I may be a cynical old hack at times but there is still romance in my soul.

Cairo Blues

I love this city. I fell in love with it on my first visit nearly three years ago, with its steaming concrete urban sprawl, the too-wide  roads I couldn’t cross, the patchy pavements I could barely walk on, the friendly – sometimes too friendly – cab drivers,  the ritual greetings I had to learn and the lingering sound of the adhan that punctuated each day.  Above all, I could feel its pulse. There are cities I’ve spent time in that have barely registered with me. Cairo was – is – alive.  Always.

But there are times when its frantic soul resonates in a different way, like static from a hundred radio stations playing at the same time. Or the sound of nails violently screeching across a blackboard. When your nerves are shot and you want nothing more than to escape the relentless din, the angry cabbie, the clogged-up traffic and persistent stares and crawl into the sanctuary of your king-size bed.  Today was one of those days.

I am tired. I am probably pre-menstrual. I have been away from the city for nearly four months. I am still acclimatising to the stifling humidity, after the crisp air of London. All of these factors made me want to jump into a cab the moment I stepped outside my office, instead of walk the approximate seven minutes it would have taken to get home.

But I did it. And once I’d crossed my personal Rubicon – otherwise known as 26th  July Street – it got easier (crossing roads here is a little like drinking alcohol – you have to build up a tolerance to it or you could be stuck on the sidewalk for a while).  I braved the man randomly welding on my left and the shower of sparks that resulted, the six different men who muttered under their breath as I passed, the long pitch black darkness that is Hassan Sabry Street and the hormonal teenagers sprawled, as always, outside Hardees and I made it home. And I’m glad I did it. It’s the little victories that count sometimes.