Thursday, June 5, 2008

Thoughts on Cairo

I've spent the last four weeks mostly in Cairo. It's an enormous and bustling city with great diversity and quirks. The city is so big it operates independently of and indifferently to its inhabitants. I wouldn't say that I love it, but also don't dislike it, it's been a fine place to be and do some research, so the feeling is mutual. There have been a number of fantastic or noteworthy things here though. Reflections on Cairo:

  • Cairo is a city of cats. Of all the world capitals I have visited in my travels this year (Mexico City, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Delhi, Paris, and Rome) all but Cairo and Bangkok have been cities of dogs. The mutts roam the streets looking for food, fornication, or to cause trouble. The city cats however play a quieter role in city life - peeking out from below mail boxes, grabbing scraps of food dropped along the side walk, or reducing the giant cockroach population. Here, I have easily seen thirty cats for every dog. I am a cat person, and I thoroughly appreciate that this city is too. So dignified.
  • One of my favorite things about Cairo (and probably Egypt as a whole) is the use of hand signals here. While you might think that basic hand signals are universal - there has been a degree of variation throughout my travels. My favorites are here. The sign for getting your check at a restaurant in most places is to pretend you are holding a pen and make a motion as if you were signing your name on the bill. In Egypt apparently that doesn't mean much. Instead you make a hand motion that looks like the 'time out' signal - a sharp chopping onto one hand with the other - as if to say 'cut me off, I'm done.'
  • The other hand signal is to indicate size. In most places you ask for something big by holding up your hands a relatively large distance apart, in Egypt you hold one arm out as if to measure the length of something, then make a chopping motion with the other hand on the pit of your elbow. So much excellent hand chopping.
  • Various forms of purdah or hijab are surprisingly ever-present here. Egypt is seen as one of the more liberal countries in the region - but in two informal surveys (simply counting as I walked from one place to another, once in downtown Cairo, once in the outskirts - a poorer region) I counted 91 out of 100 and 88 of 100 women wearing some sort of veil. I have had very little interaction with women here - comparable, but even less than India - and the few I have spoken or worked with have been in international organizations.
  • The police in Cairo are ever present. Any building which has any significance has several guards posted and a truck or two of extra police ready to swing into action... or sit around eating sunflower seeds. They direct traffic, sleep in plastic chairs, and recently, have begun to enforce law. Returning from a meeting one day I was walking through a back alley and saw a phalanx of clothes racks, covered in brightly colored second-hand polyester shirts, running down the street towards me. Each had a pair of feet rushing the clothes down the alleys further into the small, passageways for an unknown reason. When I came upon the main street - and what is usually a market for used clothing spilling off the sidewalks - it was near deserted - save the policemen in a large pick-up truck pilling every clothes rack they could into the back with their shocked and betrayed owners standing by. I suppose it was some sort of crackdown on the informal markets here - but why this one and why this day was unclear. Since, I have seen several other selective examples of law enforcement... and lots of not law enforcement. Attempts to make people cross the street at crosswalks are nothing but comical.
  • Every country you go to where it's clear you're a tourist and you're in a tourist area, people talk to you, even if English isn't the dominant language . Lots of 'hellos,' in India 'one pencil please' was the refrain from children of any age, caste, or class. In Egypt the phrase is "Welcome to Egypt!" nearly always shouted with bravado - but sometimes as if to attract attention by contrast, barely whispered.
  • I don't like taxis. Never have. As a bike rider, they very much intentionally try to run me down as sport. As a commuter, they invariably charge too much, try to stop places I don't want to go to make a commission, or try to generally destroy my faith in humanity. There's a law here (that must be it...) that if a white person is walking down a street and a taxi drives by - irrespective of if you are walking the other direction down a one-way bridge or the taxi is full of cheap suits and several passengers - they are required to honk. I do my best to ignore. My aversion to getting taxis has meant me walking three or four hours in the midday heat to get to places not serviced by the metro or tram. Take that, taxi! Just wanted to let you know, taxis in Egypt are no exception, no matter how high the mercury rises. (And, re-reading this, that I have become a bitter, old man... apparently.)
  • As I depart from Cairo, I look at the weather forecast: "91. Sand." Yes.

1 comment:

Eloise said...

I am confused. What if you need to indicate the size of a thing that is not the length of your forearm?

I think girls maybe get different things said to/shouted at them in the street. I get "guerita" all the time, sometimes in a "well hello" tone, but often in an observational kind of way as people pass, as if maybe I hadn't noticed I was blonde. It is odd.

And I am amazed by how many Egyptian women wear the veil. Awesome that you counted!