Cairo: Remembrance of Things Past

party 2

Another season in Cairo after an especially long sojourn back home and I am already missing old friends. I have returned after a fresh wave of departures – the yearly diaspora that is part of life for foreigners here. This round has been especially harsh; it feels like my circle has dissipated overnight. I thought I had taken precautions to maintain my friendships as my relationship with S deepened, but I hadn’t counted on the loss of impetus to make new ones.

The ghosts of old friends pervade the city. In that home on the corner, I once partied late into the night, as old Egyptian belly dance movies flickered on a wall behind us. On another occasion – it must have been winter – we huddled up on the balcony with our drinks over a makeshift fire, shooting the breeze til dawn and exhaustion crept in. When other friends lived there, I attended sunny barbecues in the walled-off garden – a rarity in this city of grey high-rises – eating mezze and grilled meats and watching piles of empties mount up in the corner.

In that flat just up the road, other friends held sophisticated soirees attended by a lively crowd of diplomats and journalists and activists, as the Nile sparkled beautifully in the distance. In this favourite restaurant – now sadly closed – I met many friends over the years, sometimes for big crowded brunches, at others for intimate one-on-ones over fluffy scrambled eggs and toast. We talked about our relationships, our jobs, the joys and challenges of babies, the choices we had made that had brought us to this place at this moment in time.

At that café overlooking the Nile, I brunched with other friends – long, lazy Lebanese breakfasts with Om Kolthoum providing the soundtrack, punctuated by the sounds of the river, cooled by industrial-sized fans. There were felucca rides too with varied friends – more motorboat than traditional felucca in this stretch of the river – but a chance still to escape the crowded streets. On one memorable occasion, I wandered here with a couple of friends for an early morning felucca after an all-night party, drinking in the silence as the sun crept up.

Just around the corner, in that flat with the huge terrace, were more amazing parties – tables laden with food and drink, a butler, sometimes a DJ – and a whole crowd of people who have now departed. Over the years, I have attended parties and gatherings in almost every street in this upscale neighbourhood and their memories linger in the air – Gatsbyesque reminders that the best always seems to be behind us. I am not sure if it is the city that has changed or me. I suspect we have both grown wearier over time.

In this crowded arts centre many years ago, I saw a stirring oud concert with my love at the time – the man who brought me back to this city after my first visit here. Down that busy main street, I sat with a dear friend for mint tea and shisha, discussing our demons and the difficulties of being students again in our 30s. Here too, I walked down to Tahrir with other friends during the revolution – such as it was – a few years later, sometimes fearful, sometimes in awe of my adopted city. I remember our journey down here towards the square in a big group on the night Mubarak fell.

I am the only one left now.

For such a big city, Cairo expat life can feel remarkably provincial – like being on a university campus, with just a few degrees separating you from everyone else in your narrow, privileged circle, and the same unspoken awareness that time is transitory and real life on pause. I remember the many parties I hosted myself – the revolution party, end-of-curfew party, pre- and post-Ramadan celebrations, birthdays, X’mas and New Year’s shindigs. The vast majority of those who attended – both Egyptian and foreign – have now left, their lives overtaken by new jobs, new destinations, husbands, wives or babies.

There are new people now. I met one the other day – a young American girl of 23 who has been here for a year, breathless in her love for her new life here. I was like that once, I think, but I am weighted down by memories now. Goodbyes are more painful when you are far from home – your friendships more intense, heightened by the knowledge that sooner, rather than later, you will part.

In time they will renew themselves – I have been here long enough to know that. For the moment though, I am in limbo, mired in the past, not quite willing to embrace the future.