October 2015 Special Series: Egypt
If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Cairo as you feel or see it?
Can we describe the mood of Cairo in one word? I doubt it. Perhaps it is easy to describe it with the word “exhaustion,” or “fatigue.” But after a while, it seems more difficult than that. Cairo is very sneaky. It has many faces, and it keeps its own time. Whichever entrance you come through, whatever your ability, you must remember clearly: when you are in the presence of Cairo, you are just a teeny, tiny thing. You are nothing, an atom that will be crushed to become a part of another atom of colors that cover the city streets. So, it is best to be prepared to be diminished. Perhaps it’s the style of big cities. But the other big cities offer keys so you can sneak in, a map, a billboard, or a tour guide. But Cairo does not give you any key easily. Only after you are crushed and melted down can you understand where you are in Cairo.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in Cairo?
I was sitting at the station, surrounded by my big suitcases. My tears were falling, even though I tried so hard to stop them. But I was wiping my eyes continuously so no one passing by would notice I was crying. I was just a victim of a scam. Maybe I didn’t understand, exactly, the words of the Cairo man, so my interpretation of the whole thing was that it was a scam to keep myself together. It was my second year at the university. I failed my first year, so I decided to change to a different college, and I was unable to join university housing. So I had to look for an apartment for myself. Lonely in this big city, I didn’t know where to start, so I decided to start with a neighborhood near my college. The reason I chose the neighborhood is that it was part of the old city. I should not neglect to mention that I lived my first year in the new city, which I still hate today. Next to the old mosques in Cairo, I searched for a student room. I made a deal with one of the landlords who was to rent me a room on the roof. He was working on it then, so I could not see it. I paid him a deposit. We agreed I would be in my room the day before the school year starts. I came from my city on the promised day, carrying my big suitcases, ready to get into my promised room, but the place was still unlivable. So I didn’t have my room, and the man would not return my deposit—only half of it. It was my fourth or fifth time failing to find a room. I didn’t know where to go. Returning back to my city, with all this luggage and the failure of that. And going to one of my relatives would add embarrassment to my failure. I sat at the train station, feeling humiliated: the massive city did not give me a space. All these big buildings, yet not for me. No one will care about me. No one among the passersby would look at me. That is how I came to understand that Cairo does not care about anyone. And you cannot wait for it to give you anything in return. But I have learned how I can sneak into it.
Is there a place here you return to often?
Cairo is stingy. The streets are only alleys to reach from one point to another. Crowded alleys. The minute you enter the alleys, you wish to be at your destination as soon as possible. The first few days of the revolution were the days we owned the streets. Or that’s what we discovered later on: that we were afraid of the city that changed its look at the time of the revolution. But somehow we owned it. We owned the Square, and several streets. And we searched other streets for sympathizers. Through them, we were able to go to our homes. The first days of the revolution came after I had been in Cairo for ten years. The revolution came in waves: after the first wave, the streets were taken back from us again. But Cairo had offered us small apartments in little tiny streets. Maybe it was good luck that most of the streets were quiet and your neighbors were silent. In one of these apartments, we established our residence. We were three. We called ourselves the Poet, the Writer, and the Filmmaker. We transformed the naked apartment into a place for living. We knew it was temporary, but we lived it. More came to live with us, and every night more friends would come, and their friends would come, too. We smoked, drank, recited poetry, watched movies, and brought the world to trial. And hid from the misery of the city that we had tried to discover. Our apartment was famous for its address: 8 En Nakli Street. That name was so popular in the Square. We had people come to us from all over Egypt, but I should be sure to say they were from all over the world, too: Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Kurdistan, Iraq, and Syria. Some of them came only once, many came more than once and lived with us. No. 8 En Nakli Street was the starting point for us. Some of us started back to work and school, and some left Cairo with more hate for it. I don’t really feel any longing for any of Cairo’s neighborhoods, but I really miss 8 En Nakli Street.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
Downtown, modern Cairo, built in the nineteenth century. It remained throughout the first half of the twentieth century a place for expats and the rich. The cosmopolitan Cairo in the second half of the century deteriorated but remained an attraction to many. The high-rise buildings that were built by Italian and French architects give the place its own spirit. Despite its age and crowdedness, its coffee shops are so friendly and there is a mix of poets, journalists, writers, foreigners, scholars, young, old, crooks, drunks, and people who are looking for fame. This mix you can usually find downtown in any city. With time, you know that its existence is definitely going to change your perspective on life. Downtown, where the intellectuals gather, where the protests started against the regime and the security forces chased them. These protests grew one day and it became a revolution. The revolution gave downtown the kiss of new life and added a new myth to the old ones, and it attracted a new audience from the rest of Cairo. They tour around in downtown streets, looking for the revolution.
Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
Because Cairo is so big, each section of it has a barely visible face. You cannot reach it easily. You will be surprised by things you would not expect to see either in each part of the city or maybe in all of Egypt. But the moulids, or festivals for Sufi saints, seem like special cities built for a few days that disappear, to appear in another place, or wait for a whole year to come back again. It becomes a magic city for seven days. In the moulid, you will see a different crowd filling the streets as if they just came from the Middle Ages to get the blessing of El Hussein, Sayeda Zeinab, or Sayena Nafisa. In the moulid, everything is lined up next to each other. People are praying and in trances, with hash smoke a cloud above all of them. Gamblers, prostitutes, and free food services. At the moulid, you will find someone to give you food to eat, a place to sleep, hash to smoke, just to get the blessing of the saint. There, you could enjoy yourself, you could lose your wallet, maybe be harassed sometimes, but you are in a strange city. The streets, dressed up in special clothing for special nights, or as a magical city that was built and will disappear after seven days.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Cairo, does an outside exist?”
The massive Cairo whirlpool that crushes everybody also makes everybody open to the outside, perhaps in an attempt to escape the whirlpool. Perhaps they have ambitions for a different life with more comfort, freedom, or money. But Cairo is never disturbed by the fact that people are escaping because all those who enter the city tattoos, and they will never get rid of that tattoo. It will always remain a part of them. Cairo is a great stop on the road to the world. You will see Cairo every time you try to compare it with other cities. Perhaps the world does exist outside of Cairo, but surely whoever leaves Cairo will turn their face to look at it, and, sometimes, wish to return.
Mohamed Farag was born in Alexandria and now lives and works in Cairo. He is currently a cultural editor at Akhbar Aladab newspaper.