while growing up in zambia, my family and i would visit cairo every year for a week or 2, and then move on to holland. i never really liked cairo that much, but i never really thought about it much either, since it was only a holiday. when we moved here, however, i formed an instant distaste for the pollution, traffic, driving, manners (or lack thereof), and sexual harassment. i have spent much of the past 5 years complaining about these things, and fantasizing about the day i leave cairo and never come back.
0n the other hand, i’m in love with cairo. i love how the city has 18 million people crowded into it, i love the nile, the pyramids, the mosques. i love the ottoman architecture, zamalek, heliopolis, and the fact that cairo has so much history to it you can almost feel it in the air. it really is a beautiful city, but unfortunately it’s difficult to see that sometimes when you’ve been stuck in traffic for an hour, breathing in heavy pollution and being subjected to lewd comments and glares from passing men (and women).
this weird love-hate relationship is pretty common, i’ve found, among cairene residents. a lot of my friends complain about the city, but can’t wait to get back once they leave. as i get ready to leave cairo sometime this year (inshallah), i wonder how much i’ll miss it (because i know deep down that i will, no matter how strongly i deny this). i know for sure i’ll miss the call to prayer, the beautiful mosques, and just the atmosphere of a city so steeped in history.
i was in heliopolis about a week ago, and as i drove past the old palaces with green gardens and overhanging trees, i realized how beautiful cairo must have been in the 1800s and early 1900s. this thought made me very emotional, and i wished i had been able to experience the cairo of then. back when the population of egypt was 20 million, not 80 million; when the idea of a modern nation-state hadn’t turned the middle east upside down; when people worried less about surviving in the global capitalist economy, since it didn’t yet have the far-reaching influence it has today; when the british hadn’t yet taken over cairo; when life in general was easier. egypt today is struggling with an identity crisis, an economic crisis, a population crises, to cite a few, and it’s a miracle that people are still moving from day to day. it’s a miracle that the infrastructure of cairo that was built by muhammad ali for 2 million people still works in a city of 18 million. that although almost 50% of egytians live on less than $2 a day, mortality rates are much lower than other developing countries. that although not classified as developed, there are so many BMWs and Mercedes’ on the street it’s impossible to keep count. it really is a country of contradictions.
of course every country has negatives, and i think maybe in the end it comes down to memories – a lot of good memories in a country can tie you to it for a lifetime, whereas a few bad memories in a country can make you never want to go back. i have a lot of beautiful memories of cairo, and hopefully that’ll make me eventually realize that the pollution, traffic, lack of organization, and sexual harassment in no way make cairo less amazing than lusaka, amsterdam, or anywhere else i might end up in the future.