Monday, May 30, 2005


Viewed from above, Cairo assumes a large verdant knot along the tenuous thin stripe of life interposed within the stark lifelessness of the surrounding wasteland. As the aeroplane lands on the tarmac and you are bused to the terminal, a shudder of recognition flickers in your eyes. This seems to be an exact copy of the old Athens airport at Ellinikon, replete with grimy unadorned concrete walls and pillars and nonchalant personnel who wave you through customs unchecked, all the while yawning. Indeed, save for the all-pervasive heat one could very well be in Athens, not the plasticky, western-approved, squeaky clean Athens of today but the dirty, chaotic, abandoned to the will of God and the fates Athens that I loved, prior to the Olympics and the Great Cultural Assimilation.
There is something unidentifiably special about cities that were once the hub of great empires. Though they may diminish in power, like old spinsters, popular and pretty within their time, they retain a certain dignity and grandeur even if, in the case of Cairo, they have altered face masks so many times that their face is now a cracked mosaic of their life, mouldering away unnoticed. Some cities rise to grandeur only once in their lifetimes and are forgotten. Not so Cairo. As Memphis, it was the religious and political centre of the Egyptian Empire. It continued thus under the name of Heliopolis, then in Roman times as the city of Babylon in Egypt (the Orthodox bishop of the city is still known as Bishop of Babylon) and later simply as 'The Headquarters' (al-Fustat) of the conquering Islamic armies and finally Cairo (al-Qahirah) under the Fatimid Sultans who extended their sway throughout the Middle East, only to be replaced by the Mamelukes and the Albanian dynasty of Mehmet Ali, ruler of Egypt, Crete and Syria. Cairo's last claim to dominance lapsed twenty years ago, with the dissolution of the United Arab Republic along with its dream of being the epicentre and capital of a United Arab world.
Traveling through the streets of Cairo, one is confronted with the logical extension of Athens' traffic aspirations. Here, four lanes of cars fit seamlessly into three. Though it may take a while for the denizens of this hypermetropolis of some eighteen million people to arrive at their chosen destination, they weave and negotiate their way through innumerable obstacles with the dexterity of a carpet weaver. "Here is the palace of President Mubarak" intones our taxi driver, "President Mubarak is the saviour of Egypt. He is brave and capable. He is very fit and eats gazelle for breakfast. No don't take photos. You might be arrested." The palace is vast but not nearly as obtrusive as the thousands of Mubarak portraits that adorn the exterior of buildings along with signs in English that read: "Egypt is the leader in world peace."
Beyond these, twenty to forty storey high jerry-built apartments whose decrepitness again would make old Athens squirm with inferiority mix it in with low lying shops and workshops. Village fellahin dressed in long robes, skull cap or kafiyeh rummage through the rubbish, cultivate garlic or onions on the nature strips or banks of the Nile, or cart their wares to market on donkeys while nouveau riche youths, their hair slicked back and their windows wound down, pass them in their flashy cars. Despite the stark dichotomy in class relations and their unembarrassed juxtaposition to the public view, Cairo hides one surprise for the visitor that he is unprepared for. Cairo is fragrant. The odours of incense and various other spices pervades the air, recalling the sensuality of a Cavafy poem, though one would think that Cairo is too starkly eastern to appeal even to that jaded orientalist, ensconced in his armchair in western Alexandria.
Leaving the tacky neo-nationalist monuments built in ancient Egyptian style to vanish in a haze of smog and 'Cairo love perfume no. 23' bought from Rameses Perfume Palace, one exits the city centre and finds themselves in another world. For kilometers, one can see nothing but the tall pointed domes of crumbling old buildings, with tall thin minarets extending skywards, as if gasping for air. There are 40,000 mosques in Cairo, on city streets, on rooftops, everywhere. This city marks the triumph of Islam over monophysite Christianity and its muslim inhabitants make sure that the visitor knows this. "These are the tombs of the Mameluke sultans," our taxi driver explains. The Mameluke rulers, like their pharaoh predecessors believed that one should go out with a bang that all should remember. Thus, they built a vast necropolis in Cairo replete with tombs and mosques so that their memory could never be forgotten. To view the tombs at sunset is to be transported into a tale of the Arabian Nights, especially when a crescent moon arises in the sky. Today the tombs have been rifled and ransacked. They play host to thirty thousand homeless immigrants from nearby villages, despite government efforts to clear them out. Further out, on top of a citadel constructed by that chivalrous scourge of the Crusaders Saladin, a vast mosque looms. Its architecture is strangely out of place with the oriental feel of the city. "That is the mosque of Mehmet Ali," the taxi driver explains as he returns to the taxi bearing hibiscus tea for his passengers. "He never forgot he was from Kavala. He built it to rival your Agia Sophia."
It says much for the vitality of this fertile region in which it is fabled that everything you plant sprouts overnight that even the necropolis is alive and bustling. The same could also be said about the bulky and imposing necropolis of the pharaohs at Giza, now a suburb of greater Cairo housing some seven million people. Photographs of the pyramids are deceptive. They lead you to believe that they are located somewhere out in the remote desert. Yet life has extended its tendrils around this city of death so densely that it is but a mere park on the outskirts of a city groaning under the Nile's lust for pure existence. It is for this reason that the weary pyramids seem, as they suffer the indignities of the ever-encroaching sand to say: "Go away. We are trying to be dead here." The same could be said of the Sphinx, the bemused expression on whose countenance has not so much to do with the loss of her nose but with her wondering whose silence she is guarding considering the multitudes of tourists who visit her and her masters' abode every day, cruelly but short-sightedly rejoicing in their own vitality and the inexorability of life.
Life and death too are the subject of discussion at one of the traditional Arab coffee shops of Khan Al Khalili, the old market where cheap trinkets catering to the tourist market can be located along with more expensive items such as drugs and human souls, if only one knows where to look. We sit on some low carved benches, rest our wares on a carefully inlaid mother of pearl table and sip the aromatic fumes of the narghile as we watch the world go by. The regular denizens of the coffee shop look upon us with detached interest as a swarthy young woman, her face disfigured by venereal disease approaches us in the tow of a jolly and rather corpulent friend and promptly attempts to sell her to us. "This girl," she says, "is really good. You can ride her like a camel, she is like a dog to your desires." "What can they do?" the coffee shop owner asks raising his hands skywards as they leave. "Everyone has to live."
The exact same words are repeated to me at the Coptic Orthodox monastery of Mar Sabba by the parish priest. The Copts, the original descendants of the ancient Egyptians and among the first peoples to adopt Christianity number some ten million in Egypt. Traditionally traders, politicians and artisans, their fortunes have declined with the advent of Arab nationalism and not a day goes by where a Copt is not killed or a Coptic girl kidnapped and raped, then forced to convert to Islam. Though they preserve the historic tradition of the Holy Family's sojourn into Egypt, Copts are wary, frightened people who hide their faith and their lives behind huge walls in the laneways and side-streets of the city. The day I visited them, making my way through the Coptic neighbourhoods teeming with life, I was stopped at the Church entrance. "Today is Muhammad's birthday. No tourists allowed." "But I am a Christian," I responded, "I've come to pray." "Not today," came the answer of the priest. "Everyone has to live and the Muslims can attack us here at any time." The Copts are still very much alive but their hope for the future, in the face of extreme persecution, is well and truly dead.
Dead too is the Patriarchal Cathedral of St George, seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. It was under this sumptuous building, the only four-storied church complex that houses some twelve churches within it that St George is said to have been martyred. Both muslims and Christians attend the church to pray to St George and wear the iron collar that he bore, around their necks as a blessing. The church is extremely old, its lower storey, now inundated by the Nile was built in early Christian times and it is a repository of Christianity and Greek history. Outside, in its grounds, the sumptuous tombs of the departed wealthy Cairo Greeks form a Mameluke necropolis of their own. Yet the dates on the graves are old, most are falling apart. "There is no one left to tend them," the priest whispers as we enter a nearby church which marks the spot where the Holy Family hid during their flight into Egypt. "Everyone is gone, everything is finished." Today there are one thousand Greeks remaining in Cairo, living in European 1920's style apartments that are slowly falling to pieces. They are as elderly and as dignified as the city that houses them.
As I stood before the grave of recently departed Patriarch Petros, my backpack filled with aromas and oils, tacky souvenirs and the nonchalant yet at the same time vigorous attitude of its inhabitants, I was glad that at least in this quiet place, life had no power. Outside the church, a fellow traveller, an old inhabitant of the city evicted in the fifties by Nasser's Pan-Arab policies, was desperately asking passersby in broken Arabic, "When I was young, we called this area thus. What is it called now? When I was young, the best nightspots were at such and such a place. Where are they now?" He then turned, looked at the church, remembered it in its heyday milling with the life of thousands of Greeks attending festivals and services, remembered his own dreams being spawned under the vast expanse of its dome and reflecting on his own mortality and the final absoluteness of Hellenism compared with the vital dualism of Egypt, sat upon the steps and began to cry.
First published in NKEE on 30 May 2005