Thursday, June 09, 2005

Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt/Garden City, Cairo, Egypt

If ever a city were tailor-made for me to hate, it might be very much like Cairo. There is an old saying that once you have drunk from the Nile you will never leave Egypt; when I first heard that here the Cairene who told it to me added that it was because the water was so dirty you would die. The water, however, is not the worst of Cairo's environmental problems. When you first arrive, the air feels like an unseen malevolent entity which wraps around choking you, for although Mexico City has the privilege of being the world's most polluted metropolis, Cairo's atmosphere has the highest volume of suspended lead particles, and every day living here is supposedly equivalent to smoking a whole pack of cigarettes.

The organization of the city, I think, also leaves much to be desired, for amid the countless high-rise apartment buildings and skyscraper luxury hotels there is very little open space. The frequent plazas along the narrow streets are all so small you hardly notice them, and there is no real place to sit and just take things in like there was in Morocco. You can sit down outside along the Corniche el-Nil, but the crowds make it hardly worth the walk over there. The coffeehouses I've seen so far fall into two categories - the small, traditional ahwas, all set indoors and generally so smoke-filled from cigarettes and sheesha pipes I try to avoid them, and the more modern western-style coffeehouse chains such as Cilantro, Arabica and Beano's, also indoors and pricier but also air-conditioned.

The cramped lay-out of the city is actually aggravated by the huge, elevated overpasses which shepherd traffic even through the city's upscale neighborhoods. And in a further note on traffic, I should say that whereas life in the developing world is stereotypically conducted at a more laid-back pace, this does not appear true of Cairo drivers, who with horns blaring will seek every last advantage, trying to nose around each other and speed through intersections whenever they can get away with it, and if the seconds or minutes they gain thereby were necessary to save the life of their dying grandfather. And all these things I've mentioned combine to convince me that those people running around places like AUC that muse on how they could live in Cairo the rest of their lives must be totally insane.

Yet my opinion is evidently not universal, for in addition to the 5 million or so tourists who turn up here every year, there are perhaps thousands of expats actually living here, mainly in the embassy districts of Zamalek (an island in the Nile) and Garden City (just south of downtown), as well as the more distant Ma'adi in the southeast. They form a rather curious collection of individuals which a German girl I was hanging out with compared to the Lost Generation after World War I. Some of these, are, of course, business types who were sent there by their corporations to manage whatever projects or branches for a few years. Others better fit the profile - you meetlots of people working with NGO's seeking to save the world or institutes and think tanks which talk about saving the world. There are also students, both undergraduates studying abroad for a year or so and graduate students doing research, as well as artists - before I left I talked to a man who had a musician friend who would occasionally grow bored with life and move to Egypt for a few months. And, not to be ignored, a significant population of drifters who weren't quite sure what to do with their lives, found some excuse to go to Egypt, and haven't left, or in some cases hit a dead end of not being able to leave for lack of money or trouble with the authorities back home.

This expat population also creates something of a service network catering to itself. For example, if after crossing onto Zamalek from the east and walking down the steps from 26th of July Street onto ground level you head south for a block or two, you soon find yourself outside the All Saints Anglican Cathedral, a light brown building capped by what looks like a sandstone haystack, though I'm fairly sure it's supposed to be some sort of Egyptiany crown. Led until this week by an elderly English bishop named Maurice Sinclair, it has separate congregations in different languages, with the three most important being English, Arabic, and Dinka. Leaving aside the Arabic and Dinka for the moment, the English congregation, made up partly of people from Commonwealth nations in Africa and partly of expats from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia, throws up all these types, from the guy passing through to work at a hospital in Ethiopia to another sent here by his company for a year, as well as a few stray AUC students and older people I've never spoken to. All Saints, known to some locals as the "English church," shares religious turf with the "American church," a Lutheran-run outfit somewhere to the west, and multi-denominational church in Ma'adi, and a handful of Western-oriented Catholic churches, as well.

There are also lots of English-language publications, such as Egypt Today and Cairo Magazine, and a visit to certain Zamalek coffeehouses will show you their writers and readers hard at work, often themselves drifters or students who showed up in Egypt a few years ago and still haven't gotten around to leaving or don't plan to, along with other expats doing things like trying to get together community organizations and activities which I suspect are born and die in ever-changing patterns that stand in relation to the rest of Cairo like the life cycle of certain-shortlived flies, just stretched out over months rather than hours.

I, of course, fit most naturally into the expat community, and it is they who form most of my social circle here in Cairo. I live in Garden City, though just barely - my quest for an apartment wasn't proceeding as well as I'd hoped, and I wound up accepting discounted rate to stay at a hotel for my time here - apparently there's always a summer rush for flats, and people weren't willing to give one up for someone only going to be here for nine weeks. The best thing about where I do live is the spacious balcony overlooking the Midan Simon Bolivar in one direction, and the Nile in the other, where at night you can see the lights of the small passenger ferries cruising around and the larger craft which are homes to businesses such as the Cairo Chili's. Garden City is also one of the most tree-filled districts in Cairo, with its shady streets making lots of loops around the embassies and past patisseries and other businesses before it peters out to the south opposite Manial near the Galaxy Theater where last weekend some o us watched Kingdom of Heaven. (Some Egyptians apparently get emotional about their movies - there was a group of five hijabi girls behind us, all of whom started crying when Baldwin died.)

This is my first real experience with an overseas expat culture, though I suspect they're fairly common in many cities scattered around the globe. The social positioning is interesting, far closer to mainstream Egypt than the tourists who see everything almost as a movie through the lens of a bus window, but yet distinct, as well, inevitably upscale compared to the vast mass of Cairene society and having its own distinct patterns and rhythms affected but not determined by those of citizens and natives. There's probably a whole research project there if someone wants to write it, but for me, I think I'm ready to split town for a few days to recharge my batteries instead.


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