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A Walk down 17th Street

June 1, 2010

I often struggle with writing about Cairo because of how multi-layered this city is.  How can one capture in a few pages, or a few books, the seemingly infinite number of variables – histories, experiences, cultures – that make up this city?  At times I feel like I’m reading a novel with fold after fold of subtext just beyond my grasp.  I can feel them working, right there beneath the surface, but perception of them somehow slips away, always out of reach.

I walk a little before maghrib time, baby in stroller, down one of the straightest streets I’ve found in the city – 17th St.  I’ve never made it to the end, but along the way one can find Cairo, distilled and simplified.

A tiny girl sits on a huge pile of sand in front of a half-built ‘villa’, the word commonly used for large houses, often with more than one apartment inside.  She is beautiful – curly hair, bright brown eyes and a curious wide-eyed look, playing happily as cars drive by.

Some girls, in that awkward adolescent age where image and self-consciousness overtake almost everything else, walk by arm in arm, wearing skinny jeans, flats, shiny shirts and poofy, colorful hijabs in the new style that seems unendingly wrapped around the face.

A poor man lights a small fire on the corner of one block, sitting comfortably on the curb with a pile of corn next to him, shucking them and placing them precisely in the flames.

There are no sidewalks, so I push the stroller on the edge of the street.  I pass by a pharmacy, a womens’ hair salon, a corner store with bags of chips on display and drinks in glass bottles that you return after purchase.

Most of the people I see are bawwabs and bawwabas and their kids – the class of people who work as servants, cleaning ladies, car-washers and the like for those who can afford them.  This time, right before maghrib, is a peaceful pause between the business of day and evening.  Many are sitting in the front of buildings or on steps, taking in the cool air, chatting or watching their children play.  They wear, almost unfailingly, traditional clothing – the women wearing jilbabs and long, one piece khimars that come to their waists, or tied back bandanna style; the men wearing thaubs and loosely wrapped turbans.  The fact that the lowest class in Cairo wear traditional Arab clothing, while the wealthy wear anything and everything Western, is telling.

A motorcycle drives by with a family of four ensconced on the seat – the father driving, mother in the back in a dark green jilbab and hijab sitting side-saddle, and two kids  comfortably squeezed between them, enjoying the breeze and people as they zoom by.

I pass a third, then a fourth group of young men playing soccer between strategically placed rocks on the street, most wearing flip-flops that don’t seem to affect their skill and ability in the least.

An old woman sits at her open window, idly watching the goings on of the street.  One building over, a well-dressed man with trendy, thick-framed glasses leans on the railing of his balcony, chatting on his cell phone.

I pass by shacks, made of little more than odd pieces of wood or brick and even palm fiber roofs, where whole families live in the service of the residents of the apartment buildings behind them.  Next to one, a group of goats graze on a small bit of grass and watch us pass by warily.

We’re moving from the ‘nicer’ side of town to the poorer side, and the changes come slow and subtle.  The gates of buildings are less ornate, the dust becomes thicker, and the plants and trees become fewer and far between.  Soon villas are replaced by high-rise apartment buildings with peeling paint, laundry flapping from corded lines, and more litter scattered on the street.  Men sit around a store front drinking tea and watching a beat-up television, and next door people carefully pick out vegetables from baskets and place them in plastic bags for purchase.

Ahead comes a curve in the street.  This is as far as I’ve gotten; inevitably at this point I turn back and watch the transition from rich to poor go in reverse.

Two boys sit on a bicycle, one practically on top of the other.  The second precariously holds on with one arm, holding a cell phone in the other that’s blasting the latest Arab pop song.  When his favorite part comes he dreamily sings along, while the boy beneath him wobbles, rights himself, and then rides away laughing.

I pass by BMWs and rebuilt punchbuggies, the poor in the streets with wealth at their backs, dirty streets and manicured greenery, world weariness and childhood dreams.

The one layer that I find myself stuck in, again and again, like a record on continuous loop, is the gaping chasm between rich and poor, class, image, tradition, modernity, old and new.  It’s there, everywhere I look, sometimes overshadowing everything else.  In the bawwab’s shack in front of your beautiful building, in the little boys who play in the streets with plastic bags and broken slippers.  In the posh and glamor of gleaming shopping malls, where people drop two hundred dollars for a designer bag, while outside kids sell bunches of cilantro for half a guinea (10 cents).  In seeing my son stand next to the bawwaba’s, about the same age, with a world of privilege dividing one from the other.

I often come back from these walks melancholy, full of the images I’ve seen, wondering at this place I live.  There is much more for me to learn, perhaps, before the subtext can be read.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2010 1:08 pm

    That was so amazingly naguib mahfouz like!!! Loved it!! Keep writing!

  2. mariam permalink
    June 4, 2010 11:57 pm

    wow dude. brought back a flood of memories, some i didn’t even know i have. i don’t know if it’s possible to provide a better description of Cairo. My exact sentiments upon return.

    Jannah – what say you we call her Naguiba instead of Shazia? :o)

    • June 8, 2010 5:51 pm

      dearest mariam,

      I will only accept being called NaJiba. Thank u. 🙂
      Actually, I have yet to read any of his books. InshaAllah, I plan to in the summer.

  3. hufaizah permalink
    June 8, 2010 5:03 pm

    salam sister shazia.

    subhanallah. sister, you’re in cairo after u went to damascus?

    I did that too! only that i am back in my own country now,after staying in cairo for three months, all because of the reason that Al-Azhar University did not accept my Ta’heeli cert; ‘ghair mu’aadalah’ they said.

    I wish you all the best there, sister! and i miss cairo too as much as i miss damascus.
    May Allah bless you. (:

    • June 8, 2010 5:49 pm

      wa alaykum as salaam wa rahmatullah Sr. Hufaiza,

      Thanks for your comment! Did we meet in Damascus? What year were you in the Ta’heeli program?

      Yes, as far as I know al-Azhar does not accept any certification from other institutes. Pretty much everyone that I know has had to take placement exams and start in their high school program (even if they had already completed programs somewhere else and even at the university level!) Alhamdulillah ‘ala kulli haal. May Allah accept from you your studies and I hope that your ‘ilm is a source of khayr for you and for others 🙂

  4. hufaizah permalink
    June 9, 2010 11:09 am

    Syukran jazeelan for the du’aa, sister.

    Al-Azhar did recognise some of the institutes in my country and my friends got into the 1st year. Another friend of mine in Ta’heeli too got a place in Alexandria’s Al-Azhar. You know how the ‘systems’ change in a blink of an eye in the Middle East. (: All in all, alhamdu lillah Im grateful I got to see thee historic places in Cairo eg. shrine of Imam AsySyafi’e, Sayyidina Husein etc.
    Alhamd lillah thummal hamd lillah..

    I think we did not get to meet, but a friend of mine namely Wardah, recalled a girl who could not survive a day without a soda. Was it you? (:

    Thank you for sharing sister! Barakallahu feek.

    • June 9, 2010 11:02 pm

      LOL yes I have to confess that must be me. I’m not much of a tea or coffee drinker so that’s what got me through the early hours of the ta’heeli program 😉 Wardah is a beautiful sister who I remember and think about often. Please give her my warmest salaams and ask her to pray for me! May Allah bless you sis. Take care 🙂

  5. Mario Mustache permalink
    October 12, 2010 1:30 am

    Man I don’t know who you are, but that post brought tears to my eyes. Masr is so beautiful in the sense that you see old and new, rich and poor, ancient and today…all in the same place. It’s jarring at first but then you realize that it’s just jagged pieces of a puzzle that align themselves comfortably. Only this can happen in Egypt…where else can you see a beat up car next to a Benz, a polluted street in the horizon, a gaping backdrop of pyramids. You brought back a wave of nostagia for me…I went there this past summer and I already miss it.

    You know what is also intimate to the fabric of Masr? The car beeps. You know in the states or any other country…when you hear a car beep, it goes like “BEEEEEP.” But in Egypt, it’s so different but absolutely hilarious! You see a ginormous truck, or a tiny black n white taxi…and without fail…they all go “mmmmmmBIP!” Or you might find the occasional bus that goes “BAAATEETEETEETEETEEEDOOO.” I don’t know why but it always cracks me up!!! Only in Masr, only in Masr… 🙂

    Thank you for your post. I read about this from Muslema Purmul. May Allah bless you, now and always 🙂
    Your sister from the state of Maryland 🙂

  6. Peach permalink
    January 16, 2011 11:02 am

    For me, that is the loveliest thing about Masr….everything comes together, all the spices of life…old and new….a warm sun.

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