GUIDE TO THE NEW MILLENIUM: All in a world of its own




Cairo is the pinnacle of chaotic civilisation, a rich city of who knows how many people

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 6 December 1999

Drive high above it, perched up on soaring bridges, or plunge deep into it and melt into the dynamism of its slums and palaces, its churches and mosques, its bourgeois districts and graveyard slums.

Cairo is the world, the definitive city, the crossroads of civilizations, the beauty and ugliness of the gathering centuries, all crammed into a living breathing museum, which never ceases to be amazed by its ability to wake up every morning as the mist drifts through its heart along the lifeline of the Nile.

Of an afternoon, the “grande dames” of Zamalek will come and go and talk of Michelangelo, or gather in sun-drenched drawing rooms to discuss the latest news and gossip in a muddled mix of colonial English, Napoleonic French, and throaty Arabic thrust in for effect.

Meanwhile, at the universities, in the newspaper offices, or buried in the booklined studies of grand apartment blocks, intellectual Cairenes ponder with passionate engagement the issues of the day, pronouncing with millennial passion on the causes which make Cairo and Egypt the centre of Arabic thought and Arab causes. Trotting along the streets outside, donkey carts daily haul 5,000 tonnes of rubbish from Cairo’s homes, offices, factories and streets. In ghastly slums beneath an overhanging mountain, the “zeballeen” relieve Cairo of its refuse, thousands of gnarled old hands recycling what the city has thrown away.

Is it 6m people, or 10m people, or 18m people who live here? Who knows? Who cares?

There are officials in government offices rising high above the streets of Talat Haab and Heliopolis, counting and counting, as Egypt’s population rises by 3,444 people per day, or 2.4 people per minute. Somewhere, somebody is always about to take their first step into the city which hasn’t slept since Amr ibn al-As brought Islam to Egypt and settled on the river at al-Fustat in AD641.

In AD973, Fatimid invaders from Tunisia led by al-Muizz proclaimed the founding of al-Qahira, “The Victorious”, the city that remained under their control until the great military commander and tormentor of the crusaders, Saladin, founded the Ayyubid dynasty and built a vast empire which he ruled from Cairo.

By 1340, Cairo, the Mamluk capital, was the richest city in the world. Home to 500,000 people, a city of palaces, the world centre of Islamic learning at al-Azhar, of turretted walls, palm groves and riverside gardens.

Invaders, from the Ottomans to the British, urban planners from Baron Haussmann to the revolutionaries of 1952, all have left their mark. But it is modern Egypt which is now shaping Cairo, a city where royalists still sceptically ponder the whims of the republican soldiers with  pharaonic pretensions who today pull the strings of the leading Arab state.

Cairo crumbles and soars, while one street may be clogged with unmoving traffic, a few yards away old men in cafes will be calmly smoking apple-flavoured tobacco as if the countryside were just around the corner.

Vandals tore down the house of Egypt’s passionate musical spirit, the great diva Oum Kelsoum, to erect a grotesque tower built on credit and designed to horrify. Meanwhile, the elegant riverside gardens are mostly closed, for fear they will be damaged by too many lovers tempted to break social codes among the flower beds.

The emergence of the collossus of Cairo has become a little stunted, sent awry by a wayward polity which has given the ladies in their salons and the thinkers in their studies much food for thought. Now, they are all wondering whether it will be reborn, with the same ramshackle mix of freedom and diktat which has cradled it for more than 1,000 years.

“Just as ambitious ancient Egyptian dynasties maligned their immediate predecessors, defacing their monuments, latter day regimes are prone to do the same. The ‘pharaoh complex’ we call it,” says Samir Raafat, local historian and commentator on the life and times of ‘le tout Caire’.

“Which is perhaps why Cairo should be treated as an urban history catalogue, a city authored by several mighty pharaohs, and not as a city which was built up through a process of civic evolution,” he says.

Evolution is barely discernible, in a city where the poor who have nothing still rub shoulders with the billionaires who have more than they can count.. The donkey carts and Rolls Royces, the plush apartments and the grimey basements which lie beneath them, the sporting club and the ramshackle troops from the Nile valley who guard the tennis courts and lavish children’s parties – all move or stop together in the same swirling mass.

But then at around five o’clock, the tone will change.

The muezzin summon the faithful to prayer. The radios of the inumerable taxis interrupt the songs of Oum Kelsoum to relay the tones of the chanted koran. Time and place stand still. The depth of the city, the layers of time and history, the ambitious plans for greatness all launched, foiled and reviewed over the centuries, are unearthed and exposed by the believers who give the mosques and minarets their real purpose. Cairo is not an art, but a world moving at the pace set by the poetry of everyday life.


© Financial Times