I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us as its flora – precipitated conflicts in us which were hers and which we mistook for our own…
–Lawrence Durrell, Justine
I was awake for the pre-dawn azan. The noise that shakes Cairo day and night had dissolved finally into the occasional moan of a car horn, and the muezzin’s minor-key wail marked the hours I had not been asleep.
On this first hot night in Cairo in more than two years, the call to prayer was a reminder that some things will never change. More than any other, this place is layered with memories both episodic and atmospheric, some sharp and others lingering only on the peripheries of my consciousness. Perhaps because the times I spent here shaped so much the person I have become, even minor details in the landscape seem to carry great weight.
I awoke early in the afternoon and went out. I took silent inventory of what had changed and what remained the same, fitting myself back into the routine interrupted by my departure and the popular coup that preceded it in the summer of 2013.
One of Cairo’s cats – a shadow population nearly that of the human one – stretched lazily across the roof of a car parked outside, sunning its matted belly. I circled the statue of Umm Kolsoum who welcomes new arrivals to the posh island neighborhood of Zamalek with her signature handkerchief in hand. Then I climbed to the top of the bridge that crosses the Nile to Giza in the west, looking without seeming to look (lest nostalgia be mistaken for confusion) toward the houseboats of Midan Kitkat where friends once hosted parties late into the night.
No longer wedded to my $7-a-day budget, I planned to get a taxi on the other side. But when I heard the man shouting “GIZA! GIZA!” at the spot where I used to flag down the microbus to commute home from class, I hopped into the party van and we hurtled off down the Corniche. Microbuses are exceptionally cheap and generally not viewed as exceptionally safe – the drivers sometimes play earsplitting beats, swerve like maniacs, curse like sailors, and, rumor has it, are hyped up on stimulants. The door does not open from the inside, so when you want to get out – always while the van is still moving – it is necessary to reach out the window and open it from the outside. The vans themselves are often tricked out with flashing lights, stickers, hanging doodads, etc. These are also all possibilities, however, in a normal metered taxi that just wants to have a little fun while passing the day in traffic jams. And most microbus drivers are just normal guys with an exhausting job.
After hurling myself off the microbus into a busy intersection, I set off in search of my personal mecca, City Drink. It is hard to overstate the role this juice shop played in my life in Cairo. Near the cinema on Tahrir St., one of the main thoroughfares of the Dokki neighborhood where I lived from June 2012 to July 2013, City Drink welcomes customers with fresh sidewalk displays and fruity cornucopias. For under a dollar, a glass tankard of plum-apricot-mango wonder is yours for the sipping. (For those with an even sweeter tooth, there is the Twinkie or Boreo – not to be mistaken for Oreo — shake.) It’s also, like many things in Egypt, a drive-in: pull up at the sidewalk and one of the orange-uniformed juice boys will scurry to your window. I asked after my favorite juicer, Noss (“Half”), but he had traveled to Upper Egypt; I promised to return.
I cut across Tahrir St. to my side of the neighborhood, relishing the rush of yet another successful near-death street crossing. At Mesaha Square, beside my old apartment building, I padded past the wooden cart from which a leathery, toothless old man used to press on me his rotting guavas in exchange for (he hoped) his teenage son’s hand in marriage. The cart still occupied the same spot, but someone new was the proprietor. Another human fixture of the square was still there, his wares effectively blocking the same corner of sidewalk. “Baaaas-ket! Baaaaas-ket!” he would crow each time I stepped outside. A girl only needs so many baskets, I explained to him apologetically a dozen times.
Walking south from Medan El Mesaha, I felt an unfamiliar light breeze. In the static Cairo of my memory, I was always wearing too many layers, my long dress or jeans plastered to the back of my legs with sweat. I wondered also how I had forgotten the red-orange blossoms of the Royal Poinciana trees, striking in their brilliance against the muted grays of the cityscape.
I wandered to Orman, the botanical garden that always seemed to me one of the most poignant spots in Cairo – a forgotten patch of green whose scrubbiness only made its distant loveliness sadder. The first time I visited, a fellow student had taken a group of us on an urban safari for the elusive hoopoe bird. Later, I wandered among the invented landscapes of the annual Flower Market that revived the garden’s past for a week or two. The last time I saw it, on the day of the coup, I saw only the barrel of a long mounted gun blocking its gates. Now there was little to see. It was closed, and bulldozers were tearing up the grass.
I circled back to the metro station, where for the first time I passed through a metal detector to enter. Although there was a bombing farther toward the outskirts of Giza the same week, there is little else to suggest insecurity. Inside the stations, flat-faced yet resolute Nasser, Sadat, and Sisi stared out from a massive poster commemorating the expansion of the Suez Canal. Mubarak hasn’t made it back into the pantheon yet, but maybe one day he will. More unexpected, I found, was that Shohadaa (“Martyrs”) station, formerly Mubarak but renamed after the January 25 revolution, now plays a ringtone-like “Für Elise” to announce approaching trains.
I rode as evening fell to ‘Ataba and walked to meet my friend Reem at a new restaurant, Eish wa Malh (Bread & Salt). It is across from ‘Adly Synagogue, an unmistakably Jewish edifice long guarded by extensive barricades and military personnel. We ended that first evening at Rooftop, a Zamalek bar that – like most such gems of Cairo – is tucked away within a seedy, questionably operational hotel. But it has one of the best views in the city, best seen with an (Egyptian) Stella or Saqqara in hand: the neon lights of the feluccas dancing on the Nile and the twinkle of a handsome skyline whose grime is masked by night.
The question inevitably surfaced. Why do I keep coming back?
I arrived here ten years ago by chance, made friends, and learned a language. But why am I here 10 years later?
Sometimes I think it’s a nostalgia that I can place only in atmospheric details. Other times I wonder if Egypt was only a first love whose luster has faded, that it is time to find another. But in the end, I return not in spite of the contradictions but because of them. Each visit I try to pick away at this knot but it only gets tougher. My frustrations grow more profound, but so does my appreciation for its charm.