I’ve been a sick weakling here in Egypt. The first day in Cairo, I spent in bed, hot. I called a couple of friends, and one of them made concrete plans to see me, while the other flaked out. I was starting to remember that this happens a lot here.
My second day, I woke up feeling a little better, though with a wicked cough. My childhood friend Sandy, whom I’ve known almost all my life, took me to the Azhar Gardens, a new park in Cairo which overlooks the old wall and the Saladdin Palace.
We had coffee there and then went to a place over the Nile for drinks. Nothing short of heaven. Later that night I met with another friend at Diwan, where we bumped into author Bahaa Taher. I went home that night thinking I was all better.
I woke up on Day three with a high fever and a scary cough. I pulled myself out of bed at 6PM to buy water and antibiotics, then went back to bed again, where I stayed for two days. At the end of the second day, I forced myself to go to El-Hossein, the old bazaar. I drank cafe at Mahfouz’s old haunt El-Fishawy and got my hands hennaed by a Sudanese refugee who was squatting in front of the mosque in the square. The next day, I took a train to Alexandria, watching from my window the Egyptian country side with horror and love, and hacking into a handkerchief.
In Alexandria, I slept in my mom’s childhood room, in a building that was built in 1935. My grandpa has lived in this apartment for 55 years. My cousins live there now, too, with my aunt. Alexandria has a new mayor, and every time we went out I noticed piles of rocks or sand everywhere. I discovered this was part of the new mayor’s city renovation plan. Except nothing is being renovated, and the city seems depressed.
I was unable to swim in the Mediterranean, but I looked at it from my grandpa’s balcony every morning when I took my tea.
I spent every afternoon listening to my grandpa tell stories. (Pictured at left in 1952.) He talked about his village’s version of baseball and field hockey, which they played with rag balls. He talked about visiting Russia in the Sixties, and how efficient their train system was. He told me about theater in Egypt in the ’40s and ’50s; how it used to cost 37 cents to go, and he’d sit and watch the different acts: a monologue, an Eastern dance routine, a song, then drink with the performers. He said everyone used to go, ordinary people and British soldiers. I detected a wistfulness in his voice when he told these stories. He lamented one morning that he’d never learned African history. “We’re on the continent, yet we know nothing about its past. We only learn about Islam and Arab history.”
On Friday the entire city was praying, or listening to the call to prayer. My cousins and I made lunch, the prayers broadcast outside, and inside the kitchen, we played the new Amr Diab cassette. “That man gets older and cuter every year,” my cousin said, flicking a match into the oven.
I took the train back to Cairo and gawked at the galabeyya clad scarecrows in the neat, green fields. A deaf Saudi man sat next to me with his two wives, and they all signed to each other in a frenzy all the way to Cairo.
In Cairo again, I reunited with some old friends. I’ve been staying in Zamalek, the bougie island. My friend orders groceries and pharmaceuticals over the phone. It’s a far cry from the villages without water just a few miles from here. Yet I’m learning to understand and love the dichotomies of Egyptian culture.