Thursday, November 25, 2010

Travel Log Day 1, Late Night: Cairo

Coming back to Cairo was like seeing an old lover on the street. Familiar, yet surprising after so long. Comfortable in one way; painful in another. Painful because old lovers invariably change, and so do big cities, and you can never have them back the way it used to be.

We landed at 8:40 on Sunday evening. The man sitting beside Tarek, an Egyptian worker of maybe 35 years old who was returning to Egypt to celebrate Eid Al-Adha with his family, couldn't read or write so Tarek helped him fill out the entry form.

If you've seen 'Asal Eswed, a hilarious Egyptian movie about an Egyptian-American returning to Cairo for the first time since he was a small boy, you will be able to picture Tarek's reaction when we stepped out of the plane perfectly:

He took a big step out of the plane onto the staircase down to the tarmac, and drew a deep breath: Ah, finally here!

And then COUGH! Pollution. Lungs contracting. Dust. Night air humidity. Gasping for his breath.

"Oh my God, it's exactly like the movie!"

"Yes," I said. "Welcome to Cairo."

You get used to it. The car fumes, the dust, the dirt, the smog. You get used to it, or you overlook it, I'm not sure.

We were held at the airport for the better part of three hours for no other reason than Tarek being Palestinian. After a number of expensive international phone calls to people who know the Egyptian embassy in Palestine, we managed to get his passport stamped and left the airport and headed into the city night.

Cairo's streets are the same, but yet somehow different. The billboards advertise new planned cities out in the desert surrounding Cairo's crowded, polluted neighborhoods.

Come Uptown, to the New Heart of Cairo! 

Invest in 6th October south of Cairo! 

Move to Medinaty, a new planned city with everything you could dream of!

There are more newer cars, and many of the old flea-bitten black-and-white taxis have been replaced by new, shiny white ones whose drivers actually put the meter on.

And there are traffic lights. Who would have thought?

True, it is not rare to see cars that run a red light, but at least they're there. And looking fabulous, mind you:

Why doesn't the rest of the world have as instructive, pedagogic traffic lights as Egypt?

I was happy being back, but couldn't help but feel disconnected from the pulse that used to run through the veins of the city into mine. I had been away for too long.

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