Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 8, 2004 Zamalek.

The project Iím working for is looking for a couple of full-time people for the next year. Not really me, but it got me thinking about what my life would be like if I actually lived in Cairo. Not, I hope, like the lives of most of the Americans I know here, living in leafy suburbia in Maíadi Ė hardly suburban by US standards, but definitely so by Cairene norms. Hanging around the American school with their children, going to the Maíadi Club to watch movies, shopping in the western stores in Maíadi, and going downtown only for excursions to the Egyptian Museum.

I think Iíd get a little apartment in Zamalek, which seems to be where childless foreigners live. Zamalek is a dense urban neighborhood at the north end of an island in the Nile. The streets donít go anywhere except around Zamalek, since itís an island. Except for Shariía Sitta Ashreen Iulio - 26 July Street Ė which crosses the river on both sides of the island and spans the island on a flyway. The street in the shade of the flyway is a mob scene all the time. Itís lined with shops, some conventional Cairene ones but others definitely catering to people like me - other foreigners, and Egyptians whose tastes run to things foreign.

Today I stopped in a coffee house on Sitta Ashreen, which as Iíd been warned had quite mediocre coffee, but clearly aspires to be an Egyptian version of something very western. Starbucks, perhaps, or PrÍt Š Manger, an English chain that sells sandwiches and fresh-squeezed orange juice. In some ways it succeeds. For one thing, thereís no smoking Ė itís amazing how much difference that makes. That means itís actually a pleasant place to hang out with my laptop, even if the coffee is lousy. Maybe half the people there were foreign, but they werenít tourists; this wasnít the cafť in some big western hotel. If I lived in Zamalek Iíd probably go there often, because I fit in. Not the Vanagon me, or the professional me, just the me that likes to hang out in coffee houses with my computer, no matter which role Iím playing.

Zamalek is vibrant enough for it to be fun to go outside. New York itís not Ė I loved being at my momís and going out in the middle of the night and finding life everywhere and everything open. But you know, maybe Zamalek is like that too. This is a nocturnal city, especially in the summer when itís too hot in the day to enjoy being in the streets. The shopping mall at my glitzy hotel hums until midnight or later, and even at one in the morning the corniche is packed with cars and lights. Especially on weekend evenings, when everyone is out and about instead of sleeping early for work the next day. So perhaps Zamalek is like that too. Certainly down on the corniche, where the restaurant boats are moored along the island, itís busy all the time.

Zamalek is an old part of Cairo. Not ancient, but 19th century. In the middle is a grand palace that was built to house the Empress Josephineís entourage for the celebration that marked the opening of the Suez Canal. Now its glory has faded Ė itís a Marriott Hotel, where Iíve stayed on many trips to Egypt. But even with two dreary hotel towers and a swimming pool, its gardens are still a gracious oasis in the middle of the city. And absolutely the place to see and be seen if youíre part of Cairoís young glitterati. At eleven on a Thursday night Ė the start of the weekend here Ė the cafť in the Marriott garden is packed with stylish Cairenes sipping coffee, flashing huge jewels, modeling chic fashions, stretching high heels from under sleek black robes, shining heavily mascaraed eyes through the narrow slits in full black headscarves that cover nose and mouth, lighting cigarettes as they chat on their cellphones.

Behind the Marriot is a neighborhood of elegant mansions and fantastic 19th century apartment buildings designed to keep the heat out and the cool air in, with immensely high ceilings and huge French windows. Most of the mansions are no longer homes, they are embassies, schools, and upscale offices. The old apartments buildings are all there, though rather prosaically there is laundry hanging from many of the windows. North of Sitta Ashreen the neighborhood extends for close to a mile before the island comes to a point, heading down the Nile like the prow of a ship gliding down the river but never getting to the sea. The grand old buildings are mixed with new high-rises, with splendid views of the river and the opposite banks. On a clear day you can see the pyramids looming on the western horizon, though such clear days are rare in Cairoís choking dust and air pollution. Back on the ground in Zamalek, the residential streets are dotted with cafes, restaurants, small markets selling bottled water, cheese, olives, canned goods, laundry soap, cookies, and ice cream pops. Juice bars hang bags of fruit above their doorways to show what is on offer Ė these days mango juice is the best option. Pastry shops on Sitta Ashreen display trays of sesame seed cookies, pans of honey-soaked sweets, and lavish gift platters wrapped in colored cellophane and ribbons. Cool air-conditioned flower shops sell elaborately-wrapped bouquets decorated with papyrus and trimmed with bows for just a couple of dollars. In front of McDonaldís and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut are rows of motorcycles waiting to bring fast food right to your door. On the west side of the island the corniche is lined with clubs and waterside restaurants and a big playground where children are bouncing on a trampoline.

Even in Zamalek, I donít know if I could really live in Cairo. I feel like a square peg in a round hole here. I donít have a comfortable place to be. I think thatís because I donít know Cairo well enough and I canít speak the language. I watch it all and donít understand most of it. So I am struck by the visual contrasts Ė the horse-drawn watermelon wagon surrounded by cars and buses Ė rather than seeing them as all part of an integrated place. Perhaps an outsider to the US would see the hotdog men on the streets of New York as anachronisms, or would see Greenwich Village as a unique relic in the modern city. For me all of those things make up a single whole, none presents a jarring contrast. Perhaps thatís how Cairo feels to the Cairenes, itís all part of what makes up the city. And more importantly, whether they are the man driving the watermelon wagon or the modern young Egyptian planning business meetings in English on her cellphone while catching lunch at the Zemalek coffee house, they all feel they are an integrated part of the city and they belong there and fit in. If I were ever to be comfortable living here, something would have to change. Certainly not Cairo, and probably not me either. But I think Iíd come to know it well enough to see where I could fit into the mix. Iíd figure out how the city molds itself even around the square pegs, so I could be comfortable there as well.

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