Sunday, March 30, 2008

rant's end

To soothe my bleeding-heart pinko-commie liberal conscience--and to do justice to the last week's experiences--here's the rant's end and the beginning of an ode to Cairo.

Contrary to southern Egypt's tourist economy, Cairo is a real city full of real people many of whom are remarkably eager to take time to help confused foreigners. Advice or directions are almost invariably followed by an "ahlan wa sahlan, welcome to Egypt" and if you've been chatting to someone for a while, they may insist on buying you a tea/coffee/bus ticket, refusing any attempt to pay them with the explanation that such a purchase involves only "small money"--never mind that a normal teacher's salary of 300 EL (ca. 40 Euro) will seem like "small money" to Europeans.

Moloch that it is, Cairo is doubtlessly one of the world's great metropolises. A city whose beating pulse you feel as you walk down its jam-packed bustling streets, it has the raw energy and the critical mass to offer sheer endless sights, sounds, and 24-hour mayhem.

Its size is mindboggling. You can easily spend an hour in the car driving from one "central" neighbourhood to another and never get anywhere near the city's perimeter. Indeed, from where I am sitting now it is difficult to imagine it ends anywhere. Even out at Giza, Cairo surges around the ancient monuments, leaving only a long strip of desert to connect the Pyramids to their "natural" habitat.

Its pollution deserves similar superlatives. The second most polluted city in the world, Cairo is working hard to snatch that title from Mexico City. International organisations are so concerned by pollution, that some--such as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung--give its employees in Cairo additional holidays during which they are expectedm to leave Cairo and--quite literally--get a breath of fresh air. With its perennial traffic jams, smog, dust and smoke, spending a day outdoors in Cairo is supposed to be equivalent to smoking more than a pack of cigarettes. Add to that the fact that it can seem as though most people in Cairo do smoke at least a pack of cigarettes every day and you have one of the highest rates of respiratory disease worldwide.

But both of those things are almost invariably forgotten when you walk down one of Cairo's bustling streets, marvelling at the incredible range of neighbourhoods, people, and encounters that make up this city.

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