Exhausted Again in Cairo

Didn’t cross many streets today but spent most of the day near the souq and the el Hussein mosque with Saadia and her brother and sister. After doing a bit of shopping, getting great prices thanks to Saadia, we spent three hours at a cafe right across from the mosque. We spent the time eating chicken, smoking sheesha, and talking more about Sudan, the Middle East, and humanity’s urge to conquer and control. At one point, a woman stopped to henna a nearby woman, and Saadia noticed the Sudanese henna style. She asked the woman to come over to our table and decorate Laura’s hand. It was beautiful.

All the while beggars and cons approached us selling everything: shoe shines, wallets, pillows, lanterns, water pipes, watches, sunglasses, plastic hats, photos, peanuts, belly-dance head pieces, and much more. Professional beggars (with official “Licenses to Beg”) came to our table, and Saadia explained that there is no health care in Egypt. Therefore they have to beg to get by. Earlier that day, in the souq, a woman pushed a man in a wheelchair and looked at us in disbelief when we wouldn’t give money to her.

So again the hustle of all the poor of Cairo, trying to work out a few pounds by any means that was mostly legal (police would occasionally make them leave), wore me out. Even with three people who spoke Arabic, sitting at our table and walking with us, Laura and I where still overwhelmed by the crush of poverty in this crumbling city.

Cairo has about 15 to 20 million people living here, almost two-thirds of Egypt’s population. Many here are illiterate, uneducated, and live in makeshift dwellings across the city. A recent NY Times article states that “while a private job might pay $90 a month and a public one only $35, the government job would carry a guaranteed $15 pension, which felt like insurance against destitution. Only a government job was considered real” in the eyes of desperate Cairenes. That’s just for those lucky enough to have connections to get those jobs.

The drive to and from Giza yesterday was revealing. I saw canals used as open sewers, buildings of brick made whenever someone could afford to build another level (earthquakes happen here and those buildings had nothing in the way of retrofitted design). On an overpass back to Downtown, half-finished buildings stretched across the landscape, while farmland, still worked by Cairenes, seemed to float between homemade apartment buildings like green pools. In this huge city, we saw flocks of goats eating on garbage piles, mule-driven carts on the freeway, fishermen working the polluted Nile, and random articles of large debris (a rotting ox carcass, a burned-out bus, etc.)

According to the NY Times article Nasser’s socialist leanings created these problems in Cairo. “Egypt’s arthritic economy and its deeply corrupt public administration were much more salient problems for” the politician that was interviewed for the article.

This megacity, teeming with poor people amidst ramshackle and rundown buildings is the future of neocapitalist civilization. At the same time, out of control and released into anarchy, Cairo as a living organism of humans may indeed be the future of every other large city in the world. Is this here the United States is headed?

Sure Egypt is a totalitarian-socialist state, but only a small percentage of the population holds all the wealth. Its one-party rule means that money talks and mostly floats up to those who have the most. Egypt’s military dictator suppresses speech, religion, and open elections, mostly to keep fundamentalism at bay. But almost everyone seemed to hustle for what little they could get to hopefully get ahead. Though a middle class must surely exist, the tourist class is the primary source for Egyptian cash withdrawals.

Laura and I finally gave up on being nice and have quickly hardened our shells to the friendly come-ons of the locals. “We know the real price!” we yell at cabbies now. “You had to bribe a policeman to pick us up? Not our problem!” “You think that’s a good price?” We just walk away if they don’t reconsider.

Last night I broke down from all the touting. Our “friend” Adam did indeed hustle us for money. What was supposed to be a night of live music the next evening, turned out to be a stand-up for us. Adam had no intention of a second date after taking our money the first time, so I got angry, sad, and frustrated.

“The next person that tries to take my money is going to get knocked down!” I said, holding back tears. “I hate feeling this way about a culture that I want to appreciate! The only Egyptians I trust died thousands of years ago!”

I was done with this city so dressed western this morning, still pissed at being a sucker. Laura and I took an intense Metro ride (pushed into the train by the rushing mob without touching the ground) to the train station to buy tickets to Luxor. In the tunnels, we got turned around a bit trying to find the right exit. A man stopped, asked “where you go?” Hardened and bitter, I asked for the train station with the expectation of being herded off for more tea and touting. He just pointed where to go and walked away.

At last, a human in Cairo who connected without needing anything. This small interaction made the day better in the souq and at the cafe. Still, tonight, I’m ready for a shower and bed!