First Impressions

Greetings from Egypt! I’m writing this from my very noisy hostel room above Abdel Kahlik Tharwat Street in downtown Cairo, where, per usual, about 50 cars are trying to jam their way through the nearest intersection, which has no traffic light, no stop signs, and, for the moment, no police officer to maintain even a semblance of order. So, in other words, a clusterfuck. And lots of blaring horns sure to last long into the night. Fortunately for me, I’m so indescribably tired and jet-lagged that within the next hour, I’m sure to pass out cold for the night. Maybe even in the middle of writing this. Hopefully not.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After all, it was just over 30 hours ago that I officially commenced my great Egyptian reporting adventure with a largely uneventful flight from JFK to Cairo. Ordinarily I’d skip over this banal detail, as I’m generally not one to fret about planes falling out of the sky. However this time I felt some justification in indulging my superstitious side; literally an hour after booking my flight a couple months ago, I opened up Steven Cook’s new book on Egypt to the part where he devotes, I could swear, half a chapter to the famous Egyptair crash in ’99 that killed everyone onboard. So let’s just say I was mildly relieved for the mostly turbulence-free flight. Not that I thought anything was going to happen or anything, but, you know.

I am, however, one hundred percent convinced that I’m biologically incapable of falling asleep on airplanes. And so, those ten hours of not sleeping left ample time to watch three entire bad movies as well as sample my first non-alcoholic malt beverage courtesy of a generous seat neighbor who was en route to Syria to visit family. After drinking, I could only presume that non-alcoholic malt beverages are an acquired taste.

Which brings me back to the traffic. When I finally arrived in Cairo around noon local time, I was, as after all overnight flights, a zombie. In fact, I vividly recall my maiden trans-Atlantic trip to Italy for a soccer tournament. Unfortunately wedged between the driver and translator in the front seat of the team van, I must have passed out at least a half-dozen times in the driver’s lap. I inferred by his wilder-than-normal gesticulations that he wasn’t too thrilled.

But as I hopped in the cab for the 40 minute ride across Cairo to my hostel, I quickly realized there’d be no dozing off this time. My driver zigged and zagged his way through a veritable horde of cars, trucks, motorcycles, camels, and pedestrians, never seeming to maneuver with any more than an inch to spare, jamming on his break about every five seconds, before accelerating wildly to squeeze between two cars along the lane marker. And the same went for just about every other driver on the road. I won’t say I was terrified–I had my seat belt on pretty tight–but moderately disconcerted would not be an overstatement. By the time I reached my destination, I couldn’t help but marvel that there aren’t multi-car pileups on the Cairo freeway several times a day.

Between the heart-in-mouth moments, I struggled through my bleary eyes to take in as much as I could of the city I’d now call home. And what struck me most of all, as it surely has many others, is Cairo’s sheer magnitude. Cairo, to put it mildly, sprawls. And when I say sprawls, I don’t mean that in the sense of a Sunbelt city with a few of dense pockets tucked inside a vast expanse of two-story colonials and shopping malls. You get the feeling that each and every inch of Cairo’s 625,000 square miles is absolutely teeming with life. Whether it was upscale Heliopolis, with its self-styled architecture, or the more slum-like neighborhoods spread out across Greater Cairo, the city seemed on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own chaos.

Yet when a few hours later I finally took a stroll through downtown for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to find certain logic, an intimacy even, to this cacophonous mess. Just after dusk, the sidewalks buzzed with the sounds of children’s cries and the banter of old men in between drags on their hookahs. Amorous young couples shared the sidewalk with fully-veiled women. Merchant aggressively, but mostly politely, hawked their merchandise to passerby. A few moments later, the Muslim call to prayer rang out in the eastern distance, enveloping the city in its hymnal beauty. Even in this unfathomably large and confusing and polluted megalopolis, there they were–the rhythms of everyday life, the heartbeats of an at once ancient and vibrantly modern center of civilization.

More to come…

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