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The Middle East @ Work

Cairo hits you in the gut

Meaw Mar 7, 2008

Cairo hits you in the gut. The city selfishly takes control of all your senses. Sometimes, you’ll just want to hide. It is the Arab Street — in all of its contradictions and its complexity. Girls wear headscarves and tight jeans. Women in long hijabs — black fabric covering their mouths — only to move when they smoke shisha. Boys who play video games only to hit pause when they hear the call to prayer. Men who stare at all those who walk by. An Egyptian friend remarked, “We don’t have freedom of speech, but we do have the freedom to stare.”

And no matter how hard you try, you can never directly cross the street in Cairo (and take my advice, don’t try). You’ll weave in and out of black and white cabs bleeding smoke, you’ll pass donkey carts hauling trash, and you’ll look at the Egyptian traffic police who will stand in the middle of the chaos around them, shrugging their shoulders and letting you know that they are on display like the artifacts in the Egyptian Museum. In a way, the street represents the society, drivers finding the tiniest cracks to maneuver forward. Pedestrians finding a path across an onslaught of traffic, moving from bumper to bumper like a ball in a pinball machine. And sometimes you’ll do the unthinkable — you’ll wait for a woman or a child or, in my case, a man with a cane, to make the first move. As he steps off the curb, you follow his path, thinking, in your head, there’s no way a car is going to hit him. Inshallah.

But with all the chaos comes a sense of resiliency. You will never meet a nicer group of people. They will invite you inside their homes, serve you buckets of tea and trays of baklava. They won’t accept no. In fact, the more you protest, the more they push. You will, at times, find yourself accosted by people wanting money to carry your luggage, to show you around the pyramids. And you’ll hear the word “taxi” so often that it becomes a phantom ring in your ears.

— Nancy Farghalli

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