A Walk down 17th Street
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.