As I get ready to travel back to Vancouver, Canada, the same emotions that engulf me every time I’m about to leave Cairo are tickling my senses again. I’ve lived all my adult life abroad. However, in the last 20 years or so, I shifted schedules, courses, and life in general so as to spend a good portion of the year, in particular winters, in Egypt. Having yet again spent winter in Cairo for the umpteenth time, here I am about to leave. Today I contemplate my goings and comings, my attachment to this city, and my emotions in general.
You would think that someone who had lived all her adult life elsewhere would’ve by now distanced herself from or forgotten about the birthplace called Cairo. Quite the contrary as the years go by, this intangible, unexplainable bond grows stronger and stronger. I used to think my visits were connected to family and parental obligations and devotion. At least it isn’t so now since most of my extended family passed away. Is it age related then? Is it childhood memories and school friends? Is it attachment to a birthplace plain and simple? What exactly makes Cairo such a dear place to my heart?
Let’s be honest, Cairo, to onlookers, definitely has its drawbacks; in fact, it is not the most inviting city. I won’t go into explanatory details; this is not today’s topic. Suffice to say Cairo lacks much.
Having said that, Vancouver, Canada, has been my home for a good thirty years now. It is the most beautiful city on earth; it holds one spellbound by the spectacular scenery: the mountains transcending the ocean and the pristine inlets zigzagging amidst breathtaking lush greenery complement an astounding panorama. This while those who live in Vancouver leave it pleasingly immaculate, very appealing to the eyesight.
And yet, year in year out, I pack my bags and venture on a 24-hour trip across oceans and lands to spend my winters where? In chaotic Cairo. As I head there, I’m all excited; as I head out, I’m not as excited. As Canadians find solace in cabins far away from civilization, I find mine amidst one of the noisiest cities worldwide. Why?
Well, under the layers of formidable challenges, Cairo has a charm like no other. It’s a city that does not sleep. One may wake up early or late depending on the person himself or herself, but sleep Cairo does not. In no other city does the thick of things occur in the late evenings such as 8 or 9 p.m. Then, its monuments, its history, its souks, its inhabitants, its noise level and its vibrancy are unparalleled anywhere else. As for the sun, well, it is there, all the time; ok, let’s be fair— 99 percent of the time.
The truth of the matter though neither history nor souks hold me close to it. I wouldn’t go off to visit the Pyramids or Khan El Khalili on every trip if at all. Besides, the night life does not attract me one bit, but a deep-rooted connection exists nonetheless. Again, how come?
Still, venturing out into Cairo’s vibrancy is like no other experience. Here’s a glimpse of a trip along a typical Cairo Street. Nozha Street, a few blocks from my apartment building, is, at any point of the day, throbbing with activity and pulsing with commotion. Adel’s fool and felafel store could be the first stop: one can buy not only sandwiches but also fried felafel and fool tubs to last forever. Then Amm Ahmed, the vegetable vendor, comes next. Catch him early in the morning before he gets frazzled. Buy zucchini, its florals on; the biggest cauliflowers, or cabbages; the most-flavourful tomatoes; and blood oranges—all dirt cheap.
Continue walking. Buy ground coffee at the coffee grinding store next door, get a set of keys cut at the key cutter, fix your watch, and get the darn in your blouse fixed, all at stores within a short distance from one another. Scrutinize the fish displayed at the fishmonger. You can call later to get the catch of the day delivered—prepared. On your way back, stop at the pomegranate seller sitting at the curb. She sells it peeled and ready to eat or juice.
You can also have all this delivered if you are not the wandering person. Talking about delivery, in no other city can you have just about anything you want delivered: vegetables, groceries, meats, medicine, lab tests, ironed and dry cleaned clothes, and just about anything else you deem necessary. Om Sabah delivers arugula, spring onions, and parsley to the door. If her regular customer is out, she hangs her delivery on the door knob and leaves.
These wonderful attributes aren’t available anywhere else, but there is more to Cairo than all this. In Vancouver, I live a precious nonintrusive life; rarely does anyone knock on my door. I fill my life with the stuff that I personally find special. If I am an athlete, I’d be immersed in that domain; if, an avid writer, I’d be engrossed in that; if, a gardener, I’d be in heaven.
In Cairo, you are rarely alone; you are surrounded by helpers, busy bodies, a support team, friends, and relatives. You are accompanied on your shopping sprees, on your doctor’s visit, and while walking around the track at the club. In Cairo you socialize like in no other place. Hence, you need to make sure you have enough decent outfits, you are always groomed and presentable, and you are willing to place things that you always do alone on the back burner. And on these errands and amongst these folks, you are at ease and uninhibited.
I realize that many Cairenes would consider my love affair with Cairo somewhat of a hallucination, but I assure them it is deeply felt.
Cairo, I will miss you. Until next year.