Other Cairo Musings

The Unravelling
My dearest

How are you my sukkar? Are you able to enjoy the stirring spring breeze upon your cheek as you walk along the haphazard broken streets of what used to be my home too? Ah, such a long time, it seems, since I drank hearty amounts of Stella beer in the place called Freedom, ha.. what a sorrowful paradox.

We, the errant writers, would gather and bemoan, mourn, laugh outloud. We would have our affairs and our loneliness, ah yes always our loneliness pushing us forward with its bittersweet fingers. We roamed the city and the city roamed our hearts but our hearts kept pushing through the concrete, pushing through into what we envisioned as Life yet in truth often it was our own selfishness.

Tomorrow was always another day – the key state was nostalgia for so many or otherwise unreachable hopes. Yet just enough money, some good food and a feeling that we had an artful tribe took us far. Ah, but I am talking of what was, yes, you know why I left, I left because the city herself had left. She was persecuted and cut into and as those defending her burnt fires into the night she finally took what she could of herself, but we only see a glimpse in spring with the red leaves reminding us of the blood and the Nile with her troubled eloquence.


She heard a fight taking place in the street and moved from the letter to the window, watching the various herds of men joining in the drama until it was several small disputes – some becoming more heated than others. There was the usual self tugging of their own tshirts and at one point a man took off his shoe and shook it in the face of another. How pathetic they were, yet how dominant. What an irony that these idiots moreorless ran the streets – taking money off anyone parking their car, watching over the comings and goings of those in their own houses, looking for bits of money at all times whilst doing nothing of consequence.

She sighed and turned away. What now? Either a day at home trying to make the most of her time and organising many things via the computer, being irritated by the doorbell that will certainly ring maybe three times today and each time be nothing to do with her but she will either have to help some other inept man find the correct floor and flat for his delivery all conducted as a shouted conversation through the closed door or leave the door unanswered and know he will keep ringing the bell stuck into some type of fixed behaviour even with no answer. As we all were.

Or gather the impetus to go out – into the madness of the streets, the unpleasant chaos – walk with one's gaze straight ahead but slightly down, seal off all response, be dressed in a way as to invite the least attention, look like one knew exactly where one was going – don't look at anything, don't relax, don't.. Yes. This is how it was. A list of do nots. The survival guide. And yes when finally one reached one's destination it was enjoyable, a bubble away from the dysfunction, a time to reclaim the idea of oneself, one's own identity, to laugh – to be able to laugh with friends and let go of all that tension. Yet.. then there was the journey home eventually – thrust back out into the nightmare.

It hadn't always been like this. There had been a year of high spirited fun when she had first moved there. Parties, lovers, outings, galleries, bars – and life had been easy and navigating the city although always something to steel oneself for had been more lighthearted and less predator like. Yes, she could easily take a taxi alone across the city in the early hours of the morning before, or take the metro to so many areas and there were always people to meet, invitations to accept. Yet this last five years had burnt everyone out and her existential crisis was nothing compared to the actual deaths, torture and lack of freedoms taking place. But. And. There was now a psychological grip upon everyone, it permeated and gagged the light. And it shrank her down.


My darling, my life

You could never be reduced, for your river is blessed and I kiss your hand a thousand times for the love you have brought into my heart. Do you know my darling that before we met my heart was closed, an iron shutter across its beating, my heart was as imprisoned as the 1000s in El Tora and my view was as deathly as those stinking stone walls. Yet, when I saw you that day, graceful as a gazelle, your smile childlike yet womanly, I became yours in that instant and all defences fell away from me. I know you struggle there my love, but take strength in that I am thinking of you always. Always. Always.


She took a long hot shower and tried to sing. Oh how she used to be so playful, to sing and dance around the house. Ha! She remembered telling friends how lucky she felt to always feel content when so many seemed to suffer from depression. And now.. now the days seemed long and she was permanently tired and she hardly ever sang.

As she came out of the bathroom one of the women ran across the hallway, a quick black flash, yet something in that dark dash was humorous, carrying an irony – but what? She had first seen these women in a dream; the three of them all wearing black veils and abeya had come to the door and upon her opening it they had pushed forward as one being. She hadn't allowed them in, in that dream, yet for the last months she had seen them in her waking moments and she couldn't but help wonder as to whether there was a message trying to get through. But was it really necessary to wait for a message? Wasn't the reality enough? Here she was in this stricken city, in a country broken from near civil war, in a place where she had no softness, no embrace, where noone had her back. Why on earth was she staying for even one day longer?

She knew why. Because it seemed, even now, even after all this time, to be like a betrayal of those that had gone, or been taken, or who were forced to stay. And because hope is such a strange entity that can continue to live even when all circumstances for its survival have long since died. He was never coming back. There was no fairytale and no miracle.

'Elee shooftou, able ma tshoufak eineya' - What I have seen, before, have seen you, my eye. Yes, the ghosts, they still lived inside her, their hands still upon her heart and she saw them, their beings, there in her apartment, sitting in the chair, smiling from the balcony, embracing her in the bed. They even watched now as she wrote, as she cooked, as she existed in the aloneness.


I asked you to free the bears from the zoo
all the animals
but only if you could guarantee them safe passage to a Promised Land
it reminded you of your dream, an elephant that walked to your left then right
It had escaped you said
It's your memory I said
and for all the fears and the talking
won't you just feel my lips place a true kiss upon your scars and scarecrows
Don't you know for you I would open the Gardens of Babylon
for I know where their lush green lies, the map is within each poet's heart
with each fresh spring divined

Let me take you by the hand to the healing temples of Sumeria
to be consecrated by sacred water
and given back your song

Why would I do this you ask?
Because we have seen the moon together and for a moment became one being I said
even though your dark rememberings still push you underground


That was just one of the poems she'd written for just one of the lovers – it seemed impossible now, all of it seemed impossible.

The doorbell rang. Another wrong address to be sure. She wouldn't answer it. 'Another wrong address' – she smiled wryly at where the phrase took her, at how many times she'd been the wrong address.

Ah, that damn doorbell. How she hated the sound of it and how it always incited her to feel a rise of panic. It was programmed to sound like a bird call; beginning with a flurried high sound settling to a lower stutter of the last few notes – as if the battery was failing. It was also the standard Cairo doorbell, so even in others' homes she was subjected to it.

Whoever had rang the bell shuffled off and she heard the sound of the lift door banging shut. Now she would go to the balcony and look over to see who it may have been. So much was involved even when one didn't open the door. So much engagement in dis-engagement.

It was then she remembered that the cleaner was coming, she had her own key – so it was necessary to at least be dressed modestly enough for when she arrived. Another irony of this country where one employed someone to help yet that action required one to put effort into one's own ease. No matter how lovely the cleaning lady was it still became exhausting – listening to the endless dramas of her life and that of her large extended family, being party to endless phone calls that she had on her mobile when she was supposed to be working, and even when she retreated to a room to work and to let the cleaner get on unobstructed and unwatched she would be fetched several times to come see this or that cleaned item or area and then have to give some praise – and as she knew it was often towards the hope she would give some extra money for such a fine service; though since she was already paying a western size wage, nearly 3 times the amount of the local wage, she only paid extra when extra was truly due. It wasn't just forced involvement in the cleaner's life, it also meant being subject to many opinions about her life: how it would be good for her to take another husband (but only if he had a round face not a thin face and various other necessities), how she should eat more of this or that food, how she should demand the landlord buy this or that new appliance. She knew that if and when she left this country she would have to do it in a way that necessitated as little dialogue about her decision as possible – because she knew there would be hysterics, or at least colossal upset, if she decided to go and daily phone calls about how and why she should stay.

The Unravelling is a work in progress - it will be added to - so keep checking back for updates



The men were mainly dressed in dark suits; akin to funeral attire and their collars were a little tight at the back of their necks so that their skin was reddened and pushed outwards a little. Those who took their jackets off revealed crisp cotton shirts, the type that cost real money and underneath one could see their vests. They had polished shoes, and undoubtedly the best shoes were worn by the ambassador – Italian leather most probably with handmade soles and craftsmanship. Perhaps a fine Milanese artisan working from a family run shop or a craftsman in some obscure Flemish town banging shoes into shape and wiping his sweaty hands on his apron. The eminent doctor, so named as this is how he was referred to, made an extreme outward and exact movement with his left hand in order to read the time on his watch. He swung his arm out so it was extended to his side then brought the wrist back into view, read the time, then put the arm down again. I looked at all of these men and imagined them taking their coffee, eating their dinners – each beverage, each meal prepared just as they liked it. For years. Attended to. They were so used to having authority they saw it as their right, the way things should be, the order of things. Of course they had all taken a wife (more of the wives soon) who fulfilled the needs of the marriage. She could run a household, make social talk at important events, be seen, know when to turn a blind eye, be a bag to hold their glasses' case, a diary to remind them of schedules, an accessory, a social necessity, and of course perform her wifely duties such as occasional sexual acts and bear children (the first role becoming less after the second role and of lesser importance as each man established their mistress or other outlet for 'that'). The ambassador sat between his wife to his left and his personal assistant to his right. The wife was capable – everything about her said that – and she was also provided for. The personal assistant was not so young but not so old that her skin had lost its allure and her hair had lost its sheen, and her legs were fresher and her heels a little higher and he turned to her maybe 4 times and passed anecdotal chat in her ear, chat she laughed at in a small, stylish, warm way. He did not turn to his wife once. She did not look at where he was looking. She knew where not to look.

The women.. the women were all as if out of a magazine for European management trainers – they all either wore slightly above the knee skirts and bare legs, not paying attention to Mary Quant's adage that the knee is where one shows one's age or they wore linen trousers and flouncy blouses. They had sensibly squared heeled shoes in greens and beige and their jewellery was big and clunky but in natural materials. They looked like no nonsense ladies, ladies that could be depended upon and organise their husband's lives until the very end.

The entire scene made me wonder how any of that happens and thankful that it never happened to me. The respectable coupledom cufflinked and without a modicom of charm.




The October Day 
A morning tea with two interesting older ladies, sat in a sumptuous Zamalek residence with the most beautiful classic furniture in woods such as yew, walnut and oak - shipped from England many years ago, a portrait of a time when men wore suits and women wore hats and gloves and people sent letters by post. An apartment offering many gifts to those sipping their drinks, handing them a stunning view of the Nile in all her grandeur and uplifting spirit, the green life of trees and the wild climbing roses abounding the balcony. Eating delicate orange scented morsels hand made by a graceful Japanese girl and drinking the most fecund mango juice in the world proudly created by Mr Ahmed at the juice bar and brought to us by the maid.

A walk through streets of cats, dirt and cars and a meeting with a vegetarian friend new to this carnivorous place– we go to the roof bar and our eyes drink the river whilst we peruse the Chinese menu and are served by the waiter that looks like Gael García Berna and has changed from a shy and quiet young man looking at the floor in April to one who is proudly speaking in English and doing everything to serve us as well as he can in October. We share our stories, eat our noodles and muse on the opportunities of life then part for other compass points.

The taxi home drives past a street lady who once danced by the Dokki metro, an old lady then in a flimsy dress, swaying to an inner music. A precious bird with a brave yet beating heart. Today she is wearing a bright galabeya and an exotically wrapped head dress. And she is laughing, thank god she is laughing. The young taxi driver is speaking to his girlfriend and by his talking I can deduce that she is asking him how much money he has made and where he is and where he is going and I wonder if he is telling her the truth but then I drift off and start to look up at the leaves of the tree against the sky and how fragile they look, how graceful, how beautiful, how unpart of the this mess of a city they are, this glorious insane mess, this Cairo.


The Coffee

His laugh was sharp. Angular with agreement yet betraying in its high fakery. But what did he care? He had his good watch, the car outside, the girls around him. He had the Whats App msgs coming in and no commitment going out. He had the future wife in place in his knowledge, in its surety – that was no issue. Yet his vocal tone outed certain levels of anxiety. Perhaps it was because even with the TV channels routed to propaganda it wasn't so easy anymore to completely screen out the realities; his bank balance was like his laugh; falsely confident. And whilst he did everything he could to feed his schisms he was finding himself bored by the hair and the make up and the demands of his many girls, yet since he had so little within himself he wasn't capable of an honest relationship with a person who had much more to give – and yet – sometimes in some tiny part of himself – he ached for it. But then the iced mocha arrived and he got a msg from Mona to say she had just picked up a cologne for him from Duty Free – and he relaxed, checked the time on his Omega and smiled.


Car Ride

The perfect winter sun shone upon the poverty, the dirt, the dog running along the highway, the fuul carts stood in pitiful places of black mud and trash, the roadside chaos. By the tiny kushks men stood huddled, feet upon cardboard whilst the street unwound a bracelet of qahwas, broken plastic chairs and worn out faces sucking on shisha. That winter sun shone upon the miracle of life force, at its yearning to stay alive at any cost, the amputated trees along the corniche serenading the Nile whilst by old concrete walls stood worn out horses and vegetables displayed in carts. And there upon the cracked pavement a man suddenly drew a gun, standing splayed in a star shape, his right hand bringing the revolver up, the look on his face, of someone dazed, in another place, somewhere far from here. The endless traffic went on, passing the banners of the martyrs, the grafitti now all in honour of the army, the microbuses touting for their misery rides, the gangsters, the women in black abeyas, in colourful galabeyas, in cheap western clothes trying to look as good as they can in the midst of everything and all along the cats with matted sickness crying to the day.


The Hunger Games

The cold had stripped the streets and anything left upon them was framed by the absence of other. It was early; early enough to see the isolated dull hardships of each body under sodden, dirty blankets upon the street. Their few possessions gathered near. If they were lucky, plastic sheets or cardboard under them. Otherwise just the concrete eating their souls. These bodies perhaps had more human allowances before, or perhaps they had been born into such circumstance; children of poverty. Most of us will not know for we will not stop to enquire, our own souls impoverished through knowledge of daily tragedies; each one numbing us further. The pain breaks us all and pushes us aside, splinters our hearts and silences our tongues, prevents us from putting out our hand.

The taxi moved on and I watched young boys harassing young girls that they did not know, passers by on the street, splashing them with cold dirty water and trying to surround them. I saw an adult man alone hungry for something, moving towards one woman by the park who was talking with a couple then seeing the young girls who escaped the boys he began to move towards them instead.

We drove past security guards outside embassies, standing weakly, cold and damp, clutching at the lead of the guard dog that itself was shivering. The automatic rifle was the only sleek strength; power over, always power over.

And I considered the irony of a night out to see the film Hunger Games when down on the street the real hunger gnaws.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely describing paradoxical cairo.. i do relate....