It Is a Real Meat!

Posted March 6, 2007 at 11:44 am 3 Comments

For the past year I’ve divided my time between northern California and New York City, and people sometimes ask me how I would characterize the difference between the two places. I usually talk about how intense I find New York compared to the Bay Area, how everything in Manhattan is noisy and fast-paced and high-energy, and when I come back home at the end of the day, I feel drained. I love how many things there are to do in New York, but there’s something about the bustle and the crowding and the noise that can wear you out, and it’s nice to escape to the relative calm of Palo Alto for a while.

khan-al-khalili1.jpg

What amazes me about Cairo is that it makes even New York seem soothing. People call New York the city that never sleeps, but in my experience certain neighborhoods take the occasional catnap. Cairo appears never to pause in its caffeinated, adrenaline-charged frenzy. Spend a night wandering through the narrow streets of Khan al-Khalili and you’ll see what I mean.

You begin to notice the first time you step into a taxi. After an impassioned negotiation session over fares and routes, involving a great deal of scowling and arm waving (fortunately, we generally had Egyptian friends with us who could handle these deliberations on our behalf), you embark on what is sure to be a memorably death-defying adventure. Cairo’s road system was originally designed to accommodate 1 million cars, but there are 2.5 million vehicles on the road today. In the chaotic congestion that results, Cairo drivers seem to follow their own peculiar set of rules. el-fishawy.jpg
Iman and I hanging out at el-Fishawy, a 250-year-old coffee shop.

Stop lights are rare, and where they do exist, drivers consider their signals more as suggestions than commands. Lane markings are more common, but these are ignored completely; Cairo’s drivers make use of every available inch of space, so a three-lane road is often packed in six cars wide. Drivers dart to and fro through seemingly non-existent gaps, narrowly avoiding collisions mostly through liberal use of their horns, which seem to have much the same function as the echolocation chirps used by sightless bats to navigate in the darkness. Honking your horn in Cairo is an essential part of driving, and it can mean one of many different things:

  • I’m passing on your left
  • I’m passing on your right
  • I’m in your blind spot (just thought I’d let you know)
  • Greetings random pedestrian! If you try to cross in front of me I will probably hit you.
  • Hello nearby motorist/donkey cart/bicycle stacked impossibly high with gigantic pallets of baked goods! If you continue in your current trajectory we will most likely collide.
  • Greetings!

All told, the usage of the horn seems much more varied and meaning-laden than in the United States, where honking your horn typically means one of only two things: (a) move faster, asshole; or (b) fuck you.

I was impressed by the casual adroitness with which our courageous taxi drivers would navigate the maddening maze of Cairo streets. No matter which city you visit, taxi drivers are a special breed, but Cairo taxi drivers are clearly in a class of their own. I’m looking forward to the release of the English translation of the Egyptian bestseller “Taxi, Tales of Rides” by Khalid Al Khamissy. It’s a book based on many different dialogues with taxi drivers conducted over a year-long period. I find the idea compelling: taxi drivers come from many different walks of life, and interact with a broad cross-section of people from day to day. Taken together, I imagine that the stories give a fairly thorough picture of contemporary Egyptian life. One book review I read quoted Galal Ameen, an economics professor at the American University in Cairo: “No one person or group has the entire pulse of Egypt,” she said, “but a Cairo taxi driver is the closest to having it all.” ashodsburger.jpg
Awesome, real meat!
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Roughly 260 USD a month for a 1BR apartment.
One day we hired a friendly fellow named Aziz to take us around the city. He was a comfortably retired businessman who took people on tours because mostly because he enjoyed interacting with foreigners, and not because he particularly needed the money. He was well traveled — he mentioned having driven around the United States — and I recall discussing Cairo’s driving situation with him. I asked him if he found Cairo driving stressful.
“Well, of course,” he said, “but I find it more stressful in the US, because the police actually bother to pull people over. Here you don’t have to worry about that as much.”

This was an unusual attitude, I felt, but I chalked it up to the distrust Egyptians seem to have for their government and its staggeringly inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy. Near the Egyptian museum is a monolithic government office building, 10 stories tall and the size of several city blocks, and taxi drivers can apparently spend days navigating its labyrinthine corridors before they find the right sequence of officials to bribe in order to renew their licenses. While I was in Cairo a rather depressing article appeared in the New York Times (title: “In Arab Hub, The Poor are Left to their Fate“) that began to give me a better understanding the Egyptians’ lack of faith in their government.

While the Egyptian government is the country’s largest employer, it is by all accounts an utterly unreliable source of help for the average citizen. That combination, social scientists say, helps create a system that has stifled political opposition and allowed a small group to remain in power for decades.

So I suppose that if you look at it from this perspective, driving somewhere where there is a real threat of being detained by authorities might be more nerve-wracking than driving someplace where collisions are narrowly avoided every few minutes. This lack of faith in the system seems depressing, and the article as a whole painted a rather somber picture of the situation of Cairo’s residents.

Fortunately we got to see a lot of the more positive aspects of the country as well. I’m glad that we had the chance to spend some time with my parents’ colleagues — they were fantastic hosts, and it was refreshing to see people who believed in the future of Egypt and were working on making things better. They took us to visit the Association for the Protection of the Environment, a nonprofit that runs workshops for young women from the local community of garbage collectors, teaching them to quilt, weave, make paper out of recycled garbage, and most importantly to read and write. potter.jpg
Potter and kiln in Tunis.
We visited a girls’ school in Al-Fayoum, and stopped in Tunis, a small village on the shores of the Qaroun Oasis, to admire the beautiful pottery made by the community of artists living there. And we had a wonderful dinner with Marie Assaad, an anthropologist and activist who was profiled recently in a far more optimistic and encouraging Times article about the turning tide in Egypt in the struggle against female genital mutilation. girlsschool.jpg
Shakshouk Girl-Friendly School
pyramids.jpg So yeah, the pyramids that have survived for five millennia are now crumbling from air pollution, and there’s a Pizza Hut a stone’s throw away from the Great Sphinx, but there’s still hope for a brighter future. In the meantime, if you go to Cairo, be careful crossing the street.

3 Comments »

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  1. Whoohoo! I haven’t seen this place updated in a while. Good to catch up on some of this ish. Your trip to Egypt sounds amazing.

    Comment by Monzy fan — February 26, 2008 #

  2. Hmmm… traffic sounds fairly similar to Bangladesh, except there traffic lights are purely for decoration. Many vehicles have a brightly colored message along the lines of ‘please give horn’ painted on the back…

    Comment by peter — March 11, 2008 #

  3. The problem with Egypt’s government is the problem with all governments. See Harry Browne’s “Why Government Doesn’t Work”. The practical conclusion of government is bloated bureaucracy and inefficiency.

    http://www.jrbooksonline.com/PDF_Books/why_govt_doesnt_work.pdf

    Comment by Dan Patrick — January 14, 2009 #

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