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The Street, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Donkey

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Last Thursday I stepped out from under American University’s main gates and saw something that I haven’t gotten used to: a grey and rather sad looking donkey with wooden cart in tow, tapping a quickstep down the street. I looked at my watch, wanting to time how long it took me to get between my new apartment and school. I registered the time, 4:27, and thought to myself, “If one owned a donkey cart in Cairo, what would one do with it?” Without anything better to do, I smiled and the cart pulled just beyond view. “Why not find out?” I thought.

So after the donkey with its two small passengers, a young boy at the reins and a younger in the back, I went. I walked quickly at first, breaking into a jog as I stepped off the curb and looked behind into the oncoming traffic to judge when it was safe to cross. These streets, among Cairo’s most busy, have no lane divisions beyond those in the minds of the drivers—and even those tend to shift on demand. Stop lights are also a figment of the imagination, making crossing the street vaguely reminiscent of the 1980s video game by Atari, ‘Frogger’, where the green protagonist steps and squeezes between cars and trucks all the while hoping to stay one step (or hop) ahead.

Oddly enough, this system that must have been designed long before the speeds associated with the internal combustion engine were imaginable seems to work quite well. Indeed, the regular half-dozen tourists one sees (myself included) spinning circles on the sidewalks or waiting patiently for a stop sign that is nowhere to be found are the only people having problems. In my own desperation to cross I’ve admittedly stuck close to the coattails of 85 year old men who know better then I how to navigate this dance. I figure this is one of numerous forms of Darwinian natural selection ala Cairo, and if they’re still around to follow behind, I’ve a better chance of making it as well!
I finally made it safely across the street and hurried to catch up with the donkey, switching between the street and the curb depending on the various cataracts.

One of the things (among many) that point me out as a foreigner is that I’m constantly trying to walk on the sidewalk. Normal, right? Not in Cairo. Walking in the street is the norm, and more often then not it’s because the street is the most convenient and consistent route as most sidewalks seem to have major sections removed and haphazardly filled in, making walking over them more dangerous than dealing with the cars.

Up the street I ran, hopping off the sidewalk to avoid the various groups of old men who seem to perpetually gather to reminisce with their tea, warn suits and crinkled smiles. A shoeshine man reached out to me, the years of crouching and bending polished into his crooked body, “La, shukran” (No, thank you) I said as I passed lines of motorbikes with yellow insulated boxes bolted to their back seats, each colorfully displaying which restaurant (or fast-food chain) they deliver for. Many times it’s impossible to get between cars without becoming intimate friends with both, and no matter how small the street, double parking (regularly both sides!) is almost as common as dark, sweet tea. Up ahead, my cart rounded a bend and then passed out of sight, just before a parent with a little child jolted in front of me and immediately slowed…

I couldn’t help but laugh to myself, knowing that no one else knew why I was in such a hurry, yet wishing I’d be able to get past…then suddenly I saw an opening in the cars, and an opportunity to get around the bend where more men stood below bright red Vodafone advertising hanging above a shop selling potato chips and sweets. Dodging the oncoming traffic I saw the tail end of the cart turn onto a side street I know. I slowed to a fast walk, I looking around, trying to keep myself out of trouble: a few stray cats, the odd pothole and regular waves of pedestrians. I moved off the busyness of the main street still in pursuit.

Soon I saw the cart and donkey stopped at the far end of the street at an intersection. One of the boys jumped out and ran into the nearest shop. Not five steps later the same boy came blazing out with a round and tied grocery-sized plastic bag in his hands, tossed it in the back of the cart and continued into the store on the opposite side of the donkey. By the time I was next to the group, the boy was back onboard and the donkey was moving. I caught my quarry…they were trash collectors. I wanted to keep following yet in my excitement I got too close—I’d surely have been noticed if I continued behind them—and since they were no longer going my direction I wandered on, looking over my shoulder as the team passed out of view.

I walked on, my attention being pulled to a shop that at once acts as warehouse, production facility and sales floor for what look like “genuine” oriental reproductions; chairs and chests, ottomans, statues and mirrors that tell the tales of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves with every carved scroll and turban. As I walked by I could smell the oil stain going on in thick dabs as a lounge shifts from weeks old to instant antiquity.

Two streets later I was on Tal’at al Harb square, a six direction free-for-all roundabout, wondering how to go about crossing…I couldn’t see any elderly people nearby so I left it to fate and started moving. Halfway through the intersection I look up at the street I was heading toward, the one my apartment is near, and who did I see? A very distinctive grey rear-end connected to a brown cart with a child at the rains and one in back! I couldn’t help but laugh as it disappeared down the street behind an Air France advertisement!

I was back on the trail! I weaved through crowds and onto Mahmoud Basyuni street, keeping my eyes on the cart as best I could while still avoiding the cars parked brick-a-brac on either side. Alas, there’s nothing in its path and who would have guessed a donkey with a cart and two children can make pretty good time through the city, giving ancient black and white Peugeot taxis a run for their money. Suddenly I was at my street, smiling and out of breath. It was 4:37, ten minutes since I had left the University and the sun was heading toward the horizon, framed between two buildings while a bright pink set of turkey feathers fanned hot coals underneath roasting corn on a makeshift grill at the mouth of my street: Sa’id Taha.

Cairo Cliché

Monday, January 8th, 2007

I’m sitting in my room, playing out what must be a Cairene custom with a pedigree bordering on the cliché, right up alongside smoking sheisa (what American’s call ‘hooka’) and walking in the street in the pantheon of Cairene traditions. From my room, the first thing one notices is the cacophony of car horns coming from Tahrir square, some seven floors below; short bleeps, repeated honks, sustained blurts and my favorite, the joyously tuned ‘da, dadada’ that makes one think the unknown driver must be reveling in something, maybe a wedding or a successful soccer match—another unavoidable national pastime.
Something else can be heard though. A lone muffled song lovingly sung, momentarily calming the car horns, is almost romantic in what sounds like a lamenting note: a call to prayer settles like a blanket over the street, softening but not stopping the craze.
In my hands are two things: a collection of three novels by the beloved and recently deceased Egyptian Nobel-laureate Naguib Mahfouz and a plastic spoon digging into a take-away container of a local favorite: koshery. Koshery is a fantastic working-class food, and by the hand of Abou Tarik’s, where this is from, it’s taken to an art form. Abou Tarik’s is an institution here in Cairo, indeed each of the three people I’ve asked so far about the best koshery in the city have pointed me toward it.
The dish has the feel of a creation out of necessity, as if some long ago Egyptian mother asked “what’s left in the kitchen to throw in?”, and ended up with koshery. This leaves it with a homey, feel good, stick-to-the-bones, if-you’re-sick-reach-for-this feeling. The purposely luke-warm dish has quarter inch cylindrical pasta as its back bone, with white rice and spaghetti (both white and whole-wheat) thrown in. Next comes some lentils, a few chickpeas, some shaved fried onions and finally a tomato-herb sauce of which just enough is added to kiss each of the elements, leaving an aroma of sun dried tomatoes in each bite. Egyptian comfort food!
The Mahfouz story I’m reading also leaves a feeling of relief and satisfaction, a welcome respite from the street out the window. His control, mastery of style and ability to portray the unique flavor of life on the Cairo street leaves me feeling like life here isn’t as different as one might ostensibly presume. The novel, titled Respected Sir, concerns ambition and the struggle to balance happiness with success in an (initially) young bureaucrat trying to propel himself from poverty into the firmament of bureaucratic heavyweights, all the while living an austere, monastic life reminiscent of his humble beginnings. Maybe the drive for individual success isn’t as unique to America or the West as some would make it out to be.
Out the window the light cast from the setting sun has lit up the thick cushion of pollution to a vaguely purple hue, turning green and finally grey-blue at its height. It’s sad to say, but in my short time in Egypt, nearly a week, I have yet to see an area lacking the affliction of this layer. Luckily I have time to see more of the country, insha’allah (lit. if God wills it, but used as everything from “definitely” to “there’s no way!”).
Not only does the pollution leave a legacy on the untouched furniture and floors of my room (I can see a good indication of my travels between the carpet, my bed and the door), but grime seems to have become a way a life. One finds it equally on the skin and in the eyes as on the cornices studding the belle-époque buildings who passionately stand their ground despite the change of so many ideologies and faces in power.
Welcome to Cairo.


Monday, January 1st, 2007

Hello, and welcome to my blog. My name is Mark Balmforth, and over the next 5 and a half months I will be posting experiences, stories, sketches, poems and photos of my time spent in Cairo, Egypt as I embark on studies at the American University in Cairo’s Arabic Language Institute. Enjoy!