Maydan Sayyida ‘Aisha
We jumped out of a microbus and into a frenzy of people and traffic. This was Maydan Sayyida ‘Aisha, or Sayyida ‘Aisha Square. It lies partially under a bridge and is basically a hub from which you can find a bus to just about any part of Cairo. It’s located in front of the historic masjid in which a descendant of Imam ‘Ali, Sayyida ‘Aisha, is buried, which is where it gets its name.
As we got off our bus we found ourselves immediately caught in the hustle of traffic moving in seemingly every direction. Microbuses cruised by with drivers hanging out their windows shouting out destinations for potential customers – “Abbasiya! Abbasiya!” – as people of all sorts navigated through the crowds, or sat or stood behind tables selling their wares. Businessmen walked by with briefcases, and young men with slicked back hair and narrow jeans waited around for someone or something. An old woman in dusty clothing balanced a large plastic package on her head as she walked, her eyes barely visible in her sun-weathered face. A well-dressed man effortlessly carried a toddler in one arm as he talked on his cell phone and walked rapidly away, with the little boy trying to look everywhere at once. A teenage girl in a glitter-bedecked jilbab tottered by in clunky heels, her nails painted a cherry-red to match her lipstick. I spotted a young boy weaving his way through the crowd, his hands full of a silver tray with small glasses of hot tea with the steam still pouring out.
Crowded, noisy and dusty, tables are set up along the curb with all kinds of things for sale. I saw fruits in neat piles, the bruises carefully turned away from buyers’ eyes, with little wooden signs poking out listing the price. An old man sold men’s shoes, each pair perfectly aligned in his little space of street, with one shoe angled over the other. He adjusted one just so as the young man at the table alongside him smoked with bored eyes and an attitude of wanting to be somewhere else. The cheap cotton shirts the young man sold were stylish in that British punk way, but with indecipherable English phrases on them. They were proudly displayed on two mannequins set up wearing jeans and with bandannas wrapped around the bottom half of their faces, like they just walked away from protests at the G8 Summit.
One family sat on flipped over crates next to their humble table of wares, eating something out of unfolded aluminum foil, taking turns drinking from a water bottle with the label long-since worn off. They were in their own world, in comfortable conversation, and didn’t even blink at the chaos and noise around them.
It’s memories like these that I think I will take back with me to the U.S., that some years from now I’m sure will shake loose, like a long forgotten quarter at the bottom of a coat pocket. While waiting sedately at a traffic light in suburbia or inspecting another perfect apple at a soulless grocery store I’ll remember the microbus driver who snarled at one passenger to get off, and then kindly told an old woman, ‘Take your time momma’ as she got on; the man with his sibha selling fruit, in his own world as traffic sped crazily by him, or the horse that I stared at wide-eyed, kept behind a little fence inches away from busy traffic, looking back at me just as perplexed with me as I was with him. Over well tended pavement I will remember the dust and the dirt of this square and this bit of Cairo life, and in the quiet I’m sure I’ll recall the crazy Arab pop music ringing in my ears as I got on the next bus, zoomed through traffic, and prayed for a safe arrival home.