Last night, Cairo went off. Off, I tell you, going into overdrive in the days before Eid, the three-day holiday. It is pumping down there in the streets. Thousands of people in the squares, drinking tea, eating sweet biscuits and honey cakes, smoking sheesha. They will go until dawn, damn them and their car horns. And they’re already warming up for tonight, where apparently the city will ring to the sound of fire crackers. I can hear them now, and the sun is only just setting…
I stayed out till about 1am, drinking tea occasionally on my own and occasionally with lots of strange people, mostly men (“my wife she stays home and watches the television and the children”), and eating in an insane amount of sugar. It really is the drug of choice in Egypt. Especially now, as they can blame the end of Ramadam for their excesses – as they devour kunaafa and a honey and coconut biscuit that’s awfully like a macaroon. Unfortunately, you can’t just buy one. And that’s not my inability to control myself, but they sell everything only the quarter kilo, minimum.
Eid is a time of not only mainlining sugar, but also giving gifts, so the streets were packed with young guys selling carts of clothes on the footpath. There might be seven or eight in a group, roaring out their wares. Faux Diesel, CK, lots of weird pseudo-surf brands. And the women’s clothing shops were packed while the pastry and cake shops had crowds spilling onto the streets, It was like the night before Christmas in a one dollar shop.
Interestingly, I had a couple of exchanges (non-verbal, of course) with women last night. One was with a couple of little kids in a real, grungy part of Cairo, up near one of the main stations. They were practicing their English with me (they knew almost as much as my Arabic) and there was a woman, quite young, with her baby, who was watching and gave me a big smile, and then another woman, who was fully veiled, with just her eyes visible – and even then, there’s a piece of fabric between her eyes, almost like a hawk’s mask – and we were being squished by the crowd, and she’d smiled at me. I could see her eyes crinkle upwards, it was a strange, but nice moment.
I also had a more substantial encounter this afternoon with a very glamorous acquaintance from my last visit in Cairo. A Coptic Christian, she doesn’t fast, doesn’t wear a veil (instead, terribly chic trouser suits and lots of Bulgari jewellery) and, interestingly enough, doesn’t identify herself as an Arab. We had high tea in one of Egypt’s best hotels (from pension to five-star…it’s all about adaptability, you see) and talked about an article in one of the English language newspapers about women who want to go to taraweeh, the evening prayers held during Ramadam. Apparently, some women want to go but their husbands want them to stay home (watching tv, watching the kids). But the women are saying that it is better to go to the mosque, because you’re in a sisterhood, and young women have a chance of marrying better if they hang out at mosques. I had never thought of it that way.
If I peer over my little balcony, I can see into a small mosque. With an aerial view, it looks like a coal bunker, a long, curved arch. There is always a green carpet out the front, as it gets packed, here in Downtown, which is an enclave of poorer Cairo. My glamorous friend is very keen to take me over the other side of town, past the expat enclave of Zemalak to Mohandiseen and Agouza, to show me that parts of Cairo are as sophisticated as any other city in the world. And what’s with the camels, she asks me. Camels are for the desert. They weren’t used to build the Pyramids. So why are they synonymous with Cairo? That’s a very good question…