Cairo: a conversation you start but never finish

Cairo: a conversation you start but never finish
5 min read
26 Jan, 2015
Blog: Egypt's capital is a crazy, absurd, emotive and sensual city no matter which ruler sits on the throne. It is a place that persists and transcends politics and change.
One day in Cairo: sit back and watch the crazy [AFP]

"El horeyya fen? Where is freedom?" I ask every pedestrian who pauses to help this Egyptian-Lebanese accented man find his feet in the chaos of Cairo.

The people, the cafes and the crowded sidewalks make the streets of the Egyptian capital richer, tumultuous and more full of life than many I have walked. And to be stopped and asked "where is freedom?" during a time of great political turmoil appears to many to be just another scene in the drama of Cairo, to be taken by the horns and dragged.

     A handful think I am asking for directions to El Horeyya, the only cafe in downtown Cairo that sells beer. Who am I to argue?

Some strangers react with political manifestos, while others want to walk with me, and inquire about my perception of God from a Lebanese point of view. A handful think I am asking for directions to El Horeyya, the only cafe in downtown Cairo that sells beer. Who am I to argue?

So after an essential refreshment, I head from the cafe towards the Nile, the city's beautiful artery. I envy Cairo, remembering the rivers of my hometowns, Beirut and Tripoli, dried up, dusty and used as dumping sites.

God and the truth

Along the grand corniche, while still abusing my "El horeyya fen?" game, I meet a handsome old man with white hair, a grey moustache and a white shirt tucked into trousers held steady with a fake leather belt and a shiny buckle. After the usual back and forth about freedom, Cairo, Beirut, El Horeyya cafe, he took the liberty to ask a question slightly more peculiar than mine.

"Are you one of us?"
"What do you mean?"
"You're Lebanese, aren't you?"
"So you are! I'm very happy I met you."
"I'm sorry, but I really don't know what you're talking about."
"Christian! Christian, like me."

The old man was looking for a sense of safety, so I lied and said yes. Religious naivete is a Lebanese's cup of tea, but little did I know that such conversations would follow me to Cairo.

Indeed, religion was a big topic of conversation. I had earlier been asked by another Cairene whether it was okay in Lebanon not to have a god. I lied again.

In camera

I was walking around Cairo with a camera, an object loved and hated in equal measure in many Arab cities. In Cairo, there is outright institutional paranoia. Officials have come to the alarming conclusion that cameras, and the people holding them, are threats to their safety. My attempt to take pictures at the Garaj al-Opera, a car park, ended with the manager threatening to break my camera.

"Can I draw the building instead?" I asked. "You have 10 minutes, and I will walk with you to make sure you're not playing games." I couldn't sneak in any photos, and had to make do with quick sketches of everything I see.

Read all our coverage of the anniversary of Egypt's revolution here.

"Before this was a car park, it was an opera house, right?" I asked. He nodded. "And it burned down in the 1950s, right?" He nodded again. "Why wasn't it renovated?" He remained silent. As I continued sketching, I asked, "If Golden Age greats sang here, it should have become a shrine, not a car park." No trace of amusement was left in his dark eyes. "Right?" He closed my book, announced my time was up and employed one of his guards to escort me.

I was kicked out of a car park. As appalling as it was, I couldn't help but laugh - I am on the blacklist of a car park in Cairo, something that hasn't even happened in Beirut. I pack my camera in my backpack and walk away, as to not scare anyone.

Every man has his price

I usually refrain from offering bribes, but sometimes you have to. I see a man in his late 40s sleeping in the shade next to a bicycle at the entrance of a seemingly abandoned mansion, and wake him up with an "as-salamu alaykum".

Are you responsible for this mansion?

Can I enter, please?
Is there a reason?
Would you pretend I didn't enter for 20 pounds?
But don't take any pictures.

I take out my camera for some snaps of the garden. For a small sum, the gatekeeper becomes my tour guide. "This historical mansion was bought by a Saudi prince almost 20 years ago," he says. "Does he ever come here?" I ask. The answer was not surprising: The owner hasn't ever visited this mansion. It is a typical case of urban abduction.

This mansion has been frozen in time by an uninterested owner, and is part of a serious threat to Cairo: Buying property for the sole purpose of making a pile when prices rise. That game is killing this Arab city: You can't leave its fate to someone who doesn't care for it.

This abandoned paradise, and many like it, is out of reach of the people who make this city. It remains empty while the city is left to suffocate through its overcrowding. Another example of how crazy this city can be.

Indeed, Cairo is a patchwork of the crazy and the absurd, the emotive and the sensual, the raging, the timid and the restless. The city is a conversation that casts a spell on its visitors and its inhabitants.

It is a place that can be defined neither by its political regimes, nor its urban transformations. Cairo is a conversation you start but can never finish. It can only be understood by being there.