Cairo: City of Balm and Bedlam

It is from the vast emptiness of the desert, that you best see the special splendor of Cairo.

It is from the vast emptiness of the desert, that you best see the special splendor of Cairo. Fittingly for a city that provided the raw material for The Arabian Nights, Egypt’s ancient capital looks exactly like the cover of some old and priceless illuminated manuscript, its ocher gold patterns overlaid by a filigree of minarets and embossed by the glittering Nile.

“Dreams take shape in full daylight here”, the 19th – century French writer Gérard de Nerval said of Cairo. They still do. Alone among the great cities of the world, Cairo still retains an aura of improbable fantasy – the largest of all Moslem cities, the greatest of desert cities, one of the most explosively overcrowded places on earth. Coming into Cairo from the outlying airport is like crossing into a land of human frenzy.

The streets are crowded with small stores and bazaars, bookshops and travel offices, sidewalk stalls and newsvendors, pastry and confectionery stores, restaurants, and cafés. You pass buildings seeming to bulge with people. People jam the rooftops, hang from windows, pour, and out of doorways, flood the sidewalks. The buildings are ruinously kept. Laundry flaps from windows.

The cars in the street – mostly battered old Western models – are impossibly loaded, with people seated on the hoods, on the roofs. Many people ride on donkeys, camels, horses, or in carts. Buses roar past, swaying from the weight of their incredibly jammed human cargoes. And the cheap grade gas smokes up the place with an acrid exhaust, adding to the heat exhaustion of a host city.

Cairo is indeed hot. It is involved, in fact, in two terrible crises: the on-again, off-again war with Israel, and its desperate struggle to survive overwhelming economic odds. Yet in the midst of these crises, all the rush, all the bedlam, the people of Cairo – the Cairenes – retain their leisure, their grace, their zest, their exceptional good humor. At night the mood of Cairo’s dilapidated streets and alleys is suddenly soft and sensuous, filled with private smiles and charming manners.

The scent of jasmine hangs heavily as flower sellers plait them into garlands for the restaurant- and moviegoers. Ten thousand small fires glow along the sidewalks from the aromatic portable kitchens from which so many Cairenes dine on kebabs, fried yams, corn on the cob, dried pea soups and meat stews, rich cakes of honey and peanuts. And along the Nile couples walk, children swarm, oldsters eat ice-cream cones. It is a scene of easygoing leisure, which has few equals even in the Mediterranean.

All Egypt seems to want to come to the city: almost half of Cairo’s annual 4.6 – percent population increase represents migration. Every train from rural Egypt to Cairo bears its load of fellaheen, Egypt’s peasants. They bring their hopes, their children, and their debilities.

They pour in, drawn by the steel mills, auto plants, chemical and textile factories that have risen in Cairo since the revolution, as well as by its swollen bureaucracy, its remnant free enterprise, and because it has the best schools and hospitals. Here they see opportunities for their sons that they never dreamed of possessing Fellaheen and Effendis.

Buses in Cairo collect in huge desperate crowds at stations and stops and, as the buses slue past, they rush to seize their chances. Anyone lucky manages to grab the waist of a body already suspended from the vehicle, becomes airborne, and is hauled inboard, sort of. Evens, 42 percent of Cairenes go to work on foot, because they can’t afford the bus fare or because it’s quicker to walk than to wait and try to get on.

The fellaheen who come to town swarm the streets of Cairo in their loose cotton galabias, fatalistically accepting their lot as servants, waiters, street sweepers, and factory workers. But their sons go to school, perhaps university, get white-collar or technical jobs, and thereby move up to the middle class and are called effendi. Almost a quarter of the city’s population is registered as being government officials.

Enter any office building and you find the reception desk backed by a dozen or so men wearing jackets. Even the most minor jobs seem to be split between four or five people. Salaries are miserably low. But these people are proud of their graduation to effendi, and they have their eye on the life of the new upper echelon above them – the military officers, technocrats, managers, and senior bureaucrats whose rewards are well apparent.

From Moses to the Mamelukes, Cairo has never lived or done anything on a simple or ordinary scale as its history shows. Modern Cairo is just a sixth of a succession of great cities that have stood here on the Nile. Heliopolis was the first. Almost 5000 years ago it gave us geometry, trigonometry, astronomy, and the calendar. Moses studied here, as later did Herodotus and Plato. After Heliopolis came to Babylon, a fortress was built by the Romans on the site of a Persian prison.

Set in the thick walls of its remains you can still see the iron frames on which the Romans laid sheaves of wheat to keep them beyond the reach of Nile floodwaters when Egypt served as the granary of Rome. After Babylon came to a succession of three Islamic cities. The greatest of them was Fustat, built by General Amr- ibn- al-As, who conquered Babylon in 641 and made Egypt Moslem.

Cairo itself was founded by General Gawhar as-Saqali for the Fatimid Caliph Mo’izz, from Tunisia, in 969. Caliph Mo’izz built a palace that covered 70 acres and was surrounded by gardens that extended over another 70. Eighteen thousand women, children, slaves, and soldiers attended the Caliph there. There were 4000 chambers, including an Emerald Hall.

Royal coffins were made of rare wood imported from India and carpentered with gold nails. Horses had collars of gold and garlands of amber and gold, and silver rings around their fetlocks. When one of Mo’izz’s daughters died, she left 12,000 dresses. Almost every moment of Cairo’s existence since has throbbed with the unlikely and bizarre.

The Fatimids crumbled after two centuries when a young Saracen soldier, known to us as Saladin, founded his dynasty, which lasted some 80 years. Saladin spent much of his treasure on schools and hospitals; he made Cairo one of the great medieval centers of medical research. Its hospitals were famous for their organization and skill, also for having wards and providing drugs.

Cairo was next taken over by the Mamelukes, the white, often Christian – born slaves brought in by Saladin and his successors to serve as soldiers. The Mamelukes made Cairo the central market of the globe. Its 20,000 buildings, ranging from seven to 14 stories, were the first authentic skyscrapers. The Mameluke end was spectacular. Their leaders were exterminated in 1811 at a reception to which they were invited by Mohammed Ali, an Albanian who took power with the reluctant approval of the Turks.

He and his successors ruled the city as a virtually independent kingdom until it was occupied by the British in 1882. Not Whether but How. What of modern Cairo? Can the city survive its crush of war, of population, of poverty?

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