Sunday, 20 October 2013

Reflections on Cairo

Walking through what used to be the most elegant and beautiful neighborhoods of the city, I try to imagine how they must have looked like in the 40's and 50's: expensive shops with the best fashion has to offer, gold stores, shoe shops with beautiful leather creations. Along the clean sidewalks, women in dresses would be walking along with men in suits and shined shoes. Instead of cat calls and obnoxiously disturbing, loud music thumping from stereo's and cellphones, you'd hear people's conversations in Arabic, Greek, French and Italian as you pass the occasional coffee shop playing Oum Kalthoum. Newly build villa's standing as proud tributes to the architects who built them, lush trees and flower gardens separating one from the other.

And I imagine the slow decay both in society and its outward manifestations, more and more ugly cement Nasser-era buildings. Shops and factories formerly owned by Egypt's large expatriate community nationalized as their owners left the country they had grown to love. One at a time, the beautiful villa's would be left to fall apart, until in the 80's and 90's their owners would demolish them to build high apartment blocks. Streets not designed for all the inhabitants of the newly built blocks of concrete would become overcrowded as street vendors would occupy the side walks.

As the country lost battle after battle, failing to reach modernity, the city would slowly suffocate from the inside. Millions would come from the country side, leaving behind their lands for dreams of a better life as government employees in the capital. Slums would become the burying ground for their hopes and some eventually moved into the city's cemeteries where they would share their life with the dead.

The weight of war, defeat and arrogance would take its toll on the people and society would soon reflect the decay the old villa's and luxurious department stores had faced. Extreme Islamism and terrorism would show its ugly face in the 90's and the sick ideas behind it would soon spread to all corners of the land.

Under the crushing weight of the state bureaucracy, the suffocating, ever present pollution in the streets and in the minds of the people and the corruption, Cairo breathes heavily. As you walk its streets, finally reaching the corniche where the ancient Nile runs through the city, you catch a glimpse of what used to be and what could be and you sigh, along with Cairo, under the burning sun.

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