In our next ‘Brits Abroad’ post, roaming world citizen Flo Wollstonecraft, shares her reflections after a year of life in the Egyptian capital.
When I announced to friends, family and colleagues, that I, late twenty-something year-old, lost at sea, single female was quitting gainful employment, leaving my comfortable life in a European capital city, packing my bags and heading off to Oum El Donia – reactions were mixed. They ranged from concerns of, “Is Egypt safe? Be careful!”; to bewilderment and incomprehension, “But… why?!” ; to mild envy at my grand plans to learn some Arabic, explore the region and seek out new adventures. Admittedly, Egypt’s capital city wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice to set up home…dirty, noisy, polluted and frenetic – not very inviting! Upon arrival you are greeted by a belching, bellowing, farting behemoth of a city. But dig beneath the layers of dust, cut through the fog of pollution, mute some of the noise and throw yourself head on into the chaos and you’re in for a treat.
Egypt has suffered more than its fair share of upheaval and trauma over the centuries, no less in recent years. I’ll leave aside the political analysis and predictions for those far more qualified to speak on such matters; but in the hangover of the Arab Spring, as the population grapples with the realities of a failed revolution, amidst increasing state repression, it is clear that the road ahead for Egypt is by no means smooth. Yet amidst this turmoil and confusion, El Qahirah, literally “the victorious”, remains undefeatable – a city with a tenacious soul, an inextinguishable energy and a remarkable ability to excite, enthral, enchant and infuriate in equal measures.
Cairo is a city of stark and disorienting contrasts, with very little offering for those seeking a safe, moderate, middle ground. Ancient vs. ultra modern, opulent wealth vs. extreme poverty, unbearable heat vs. punishing cold (don’t make the same mistake I did and be fooled into thinking it is hot and sunny all year round).
Cairo has a pulse, albeit an erratic one that would baffle most cardiologists. It is capable of flitting from languid sluggishness – example: Friday early morning where the empty, dead streets resemble a scene from the zombie apocalypse; to supraventricular tachycardia – example: Friday mid-rush-hour traffic jam, when an altercation between drivers competing for road space can, at the drop of a hat, break out into an aggressive shouting match. Though if I’ve learned one thing living in Cairo, it is to accept the predictability of unpredictability and embrace it as part of the city’s allure. Living here one is never dulled into stagnation and a seemingly banal everyday activity or encounter, can jolt you out of the hum drum “eat-sleep-work” loop modern-life has so many of us trapped in.
Take the daily commute to work, which is rather like flipping a coin and waiting to see which way it will fall. Every morning I walk out of my apartment (located in a pleasant but nonetheless fairly chaotic neighbourhood of central Cairo) onto the nearest main street to hail a cab:
Heads – it is a calm, hassle-free, simple, transactional affair: the taxi is mechanically robust and traffic is bearable. The driver agrees to take me to my work location and with the meter running, I pay the appropriate fare upon arrival and hop out of the cab. Job done.
Tails – the situation is rather different. We hit one of Cairo’s infamously bad traffic jams with a journey that ordinarily takes 10 minutes lasting 50. Or, I forget I have no change for the fare and spend several minutes arguing with the taxi driver in my rudimentary Arabic, as I insist on us finding change.
In both cases I arrive at work angry and exasperated. Alternatively, I land upon a taxi driver with Formula 1 aspirations, who takes me on a daredevil journey, crossing the bridges of the Nile at breakneck speed, dodging cars, other taxis, microbuses, bicycles, and the occasional horse and cart…an adrenaline-fuelled start to the day, rivalling any theme park rollercoaster…
I could of course order an Uber – a service which has taken off rapidly in Egypt and become a lifeline for many in a city, where public transport is scant. However, this can be an equally unpredictable and frustrating ride. The concept of service provision and the customer/provider relationship is rather fluid. On numerous occasions I’ve waited patiently for my Uber, only for the driver to call and tell me to come find him at his location – this generally leads to heated conversations in my pidgin Arabic, “ana fee el GPS BEZOBT!” (“I am at the GPS, EXACTLY!”). On other occasions, as a result of a system failure with the drivers’ navigation system, I, geographically inept at the best of times, end up navigating my own way to my destination with the help of Google maps and creative guesswork. Don’t be fooled either into thinking modern cars result in better driving. Motoring styles of Uber drivers can be equally erratic, albeit with an illusory feeling of safety, in a more mechanically sound vehicle.
That said, for every exasperating Uber driver, there have been some redeeming ones. My faith in Uber (and humanity) was restored late one evening, when absent-minded me returning home late one night from Cairo airport, hopped out of my Uber, only to realise an hour later that I had left an entire suitcase, of paternal ownership whilst he was visiting me and the city, in the boot of the car…after a couple of hours of various calls, this time testing the absolute limits of my rudimentary Arabic and resulting in a slight raise in my blood pressure at the thought of losing all of my father’s worldly goods, the wonderful Uber driver, having crossed all of Cairo to return my case, arrived at my door. I showered him with “Alf shukran”, (“a thousand thanks”), thrust a hefty tip in his hand and we parted ways, both uttering “Alhamdulillah”, (“thanks be to God”) – that standard but oh so useful phrase, which covers any situation of good fortune, regardless of how modest.
For a keen ambulator of European cities, this unavoidable reliance on taxis and Ubers took some getting used to. Prior to moving to Cairo, I recall naively spending some time on Google maps to gauge distances and carve out my new territory, thinking to myself that I would be able to navigate the city on foot. Upon arrival my grand plans were quickly scrapped. Walking the streets of Cairo is not for the fainthearted – unpredictable, often non-existent pavements, constant traffic and honking of car horns, and for a Western woman the added challenges of at best constant stares, at worst heckling remarks. Sexual harassment is an unfortunate and often not acknowledged or understood reality of life in Cairo. My own way of dealing with it was to thicken my already relatively thick skin and bat off remarks with either humour or by adopting a resting surly face (friends tell me this is my natural expression…). But this technique has its limitations and the insidious effect means it can reach breaking point, resulting in occasional outbursts of anger – on a bad day I even shocked myself hurling some abuses at a passing persistent harasser. Attitudes are shifting, but change is incremental and this remains an unfortunate and unpleasant reality for women living in the city.
Cairo is therefore no city for aimless flânerie and on occasion I nostalgically dream of my previous, rather self-indulgent life spent lazily strolling down wide, leafy European boulevards, stopping at terraces for glasses of wine, browsing in chichi boutiques and watching the world go by…
But despite the city’s drawbacks and for all I lament no longer being able to enjoy a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc on a terrace, Cairo life is full of joys and pleasures: lazy, languid weekends spent by palm tree lined pools, exhilarating horse rides out at the pyramids and spontaneous boat parties on the Nile dancing until dawn; Incredible sunsets of an intensity I have never seen, that even one year on, still make me stop in my tracks to gaze at in wonder; Wistful, fleeting and priceless moments of solitude within the city, such as the sunset prayer time or wandering around the usually chaotic streets just before iftar, during Ramadan; Early morning, when the sun rises over the towering buildings, casting beautiful shadows on the otherwise monotony of dusty grey-brown; Boozy evenings in time warped hotels of Cairo’s downtown – an enigmatic, grubby yet glorious district, containing relics of a bygone era of Egypt’s belle époque; Evenings spent in rooftop bars overlooking the Nile, drinking Stella beers (the local version, not the Belgian variety), but in Cairo’s blazing summer heat, provided my beer is chilled, I’m not complaining). All of these pleasures make up for some of the city’s frustrations.
As for my efforts to learn Arabic in Cairo, these have been as erratic and inconsistent as life in the city itself. After an initial burst of scholarly enthusiasm (I was lucky enough to spend three months in a full-time language study when I first moved here) my gusto for language study gradually petered out when I took on full-time employment. Learning any new language is tough but I also very early on realised that, with its distinction between the notoriously complex classical Arabic (fuhsa) and the vastly differing dialects across the Arab region, study of the Arabic language is a lifelong pursuit, requiring real commitment and perseverance. Not ideal then for an impatient, capricious individual like myself. Inherent stubbornness leads me to persevere nonetheless and my long-suffering tutor listens patiently to me each week as I bulldozer my way through ameya, the rich and playful Egyptian dialect. Unlike my experiences, once learning French, I’ve discovered that a little goes a long way with the warm, friendly, and supportive Egyptian people.
Egyptian culture and society are rich and nuanced, with a notoriously complex and layered class system, which, even after a year, still continues to baffle and confuse me. One group I do know well though (namely because I form part of it) is the expat world of Cairo – a weird melting pot, infused with clandestinely imported foreign alcohol and pork products. Amongst them you will find: curious and/or adrenaline junkie journalists, humanitarian do-gooders wanting to save the country, earnest and enthusiastic diplomats at the beginning of their posting, jaded diplomats nearing (or wishing they were nearing) the end of theirs, the occasional Egyptologist (something of a unicorn), international teachers, cynical academics and some other lost souls and misfits (yours truly included), who find themselves washed up on the banks of the Nile. Yet despite being in a city of 25 million people, the probability of running into a fellow expat in an average day, whether physically or virtually (yes dating apps have made it to Cairo…) is near certainty, and remaining incognito is near impossible. Cairo, I quickly discovered, for better or for worse, is the smallest big city in the world.
Cairo is a place of chaos and contradictions at every turn. But it is also a place of palpable energy, soul, and beauty, which can make appearances often at the strangest and most unexpected moments. All I can say is, fasten your seatbelt (if you can find one), brace yourself for the chaos, and you’re in for one hell of a ride!
Flo W xxx