I sat down at a table on Orabi Square watching the men on the corner lay out their mats and pieces of battered cardboard to pray. Towering above, leftover fingerprints of Khedive Ismail’s rule slouched under the weight of years of grime. His ornate beaux-arts facades of the Belle-Époque taunted the crush of Downtown’s now overstuffed roads. Ismail had created a luxurious marvel of a city where any French count or countess would feel at home. His rule had been viscerally ugly and yet vast boulevards and avenues, villas decorated in a glorious pastiche of Paris architectural fashion had rose from a Nile swamp to become the new centre of the city. Another Jekyll and Hyde master of Egypt, he had ploughed cotton revenues, made off the sweat of servitude from Egypt’s fellaheen to raise Cairo from a middle-ages slum to a capital of European grace. His masterpiece could do with a power-hose these days.
Balcony balustrades, slicked black, sagged forlornly from windows bordered by chipped pediments. Wooden shutters half hung off their frames. I squeezed my eyes half shut and tried to imagine 1860s Cairo alive with the swoosh of crinoline and parasols and the creak of cart wheels on the road. It was too difficult a vision to conjure completely with the orchestra of car horns rumbling passed. The horse and cart was still here though. On the curb a skinny horse stood swishing at flies with its tail while its owner yelled out the price of watermelon from atop of the cart. Great mounds of green fruit, piled with pyramid precision, looked in danger of avalanching off the top.
I remembered lunch with April at this same spot a year ago. A flock of sheep had appeared around the corner and bound down the pavement of Alfy Bey Street trotting past our plastic table and bleating mournfully. We had lowered our forks back into our koshary bowls and sat and watched amazed. Behind the sheep, a leather-creased man in a pristine white gallebeya strode by using his shepherding stick to guide the last of the stragglers along. Modern Cairo had submerged for a minute, time had unravelled and rewound. When the flock had disappeared out of view, swallowed by traffic further down the road, April had arched her eyebrow and shook her head.
“There’s a flock of sheep,” she said slowly, “going down the road.”
You never knew when medieval Cairo would reach out from the grave and smash through the modern era’s gates.
The Khedive Ismail had set his heart on modernising his capital. Like all of Egypt’s leaders he imagined himself another Ramses the Great and sunk the country into debt with his exuberant overspending. Ismail’s most lauded achievement, the Suez Canal which sliced through the Sinai to become the world’s most important waterway, would empty the nation’s pocketbook. Loans were called in and Egypt was bled dry. Great Britain and France claimed the canal as payment for their debt. Downtown's grand facades of folly, now accessorised by a blanket of ugly concrete flyovers, were all that were left.
I sipped iced-hibiscus juice and watched the condensation slowly slip down the edge of the glass. A cyclist balancing a tray loaded down with flat rounds of pita on his head threaded a path through the concertina of a traffic jam that had now backed up to the square. The watermelon vendor shouted about his fruit. At any minute, I thought, that shepherd could appear around the corner herding a flock again.
Soaked in history, frustratingly Byzantine, the new post-Mubarak era beckoned Egypt forward but this was a nation which would always have one foot nailed to the past. Modern Cairo was a jigsaw puzzle of a city where some pieces would never match.
Every time I pass by Cairo’s Newspaper Building (a horrid piece of architecture that screams modern folly on Ramses Street) I smile and remember my tour leader friend, Muhammad’s tourist spiel he used to do there. Before the revolution, on the right hand side of the building, there hung a massive portrait of Mubarak that took up nearly the entire side of the wall. Hosni was looking out into some blue-sky yonder as if pondering Egypt’s future; his chin raised high to appear thoughtful and fatherly and stern and serious.
“You know who that is, right?” Muhammad would ask his tourists who huddled around him in a fresh-off-the-plane and shell-shocked by the petrol-fug daze.
“The man on the billboard, the one wearing aviator shades. The guy who looks like a Mafia boss?” They shook their heads.
“Well that’s our president.”
The tourists looked at Muhammad and then looked back at the billboard.
“Really,” They always answered, “Really?”
Then they’d look back up at the poster, eyes squinting in the sun, in disbelief because he really did look more like a Mafia boss than a president.
On the last day of the revolution, as I came back from Tahrir Square, I walked past here and saw the poster had already been torn down. A great gaping wall was all that was left behind. I stood there for a full five minutes looking up at the plain grey stone.
It didn’t take long for it to be covered up again. A huge, hastily printed patriotic montage now sits where Mubarak used to muse. Hussein Tantawi is pictured at the bottom with his hand to his head in military salute. I notice the artist has pictured him staring off into the distance as well.
The weather has turned to a Cairo-boil; a sweet and sticky fug that settles across the city like a blanket. It’s so hot it hurts to breathe and moving is a physical discomfort. I dream of air conditioning at night as I listen to the shuddering of my ancient, wobbling ceiling fan as it tries to whip up a breeze. On the street I look like some kind of straw-haired scarecrow compared to the Cairo girls. Me, all sweat and frizz and shining face, in my loosest cotton tops and baggiest pants; the Cairo girls all turned out in hipster-cool with carefully applied eye makeup that never seems to run.
The lycra top rules the female fashion roost of Cairo. Look around on any street and you’ll see. Skinny jeans on the bottom and then that body-hugging tight top. And over it a rainbow of t-shirts, tops and dresses that could be as easily paraded in London or New York. The trouble is to be fashionable in Cairo and still manage to obey the Islamic tenets of conservative dress, the impractically hot skin-tight lycra top is an essential wardrobe staple. It’s high necked and long-sleeved which means that any of the low-necked, spaghetti-strapped, scooped backed tops of Western apparel can be layered over it without causing offense. But I can’t even imagine how stifling it must be when the temperature roars to over 40 degrees.
“Aren’t you hot?” I ask Aisha.
“Yes, too hot!” She confirms.
“Well why don’t you wear something less tight?” I point at the lycra. “That cannot be comfortable in this weather.”
Aisha shrugs. “I love fashion,” she declares, “I adore it.”
I teach her the word ‘shopaholic’ and she rolls it around her mouth with glee. Then she grabs my hands and ‘tsks’ at my unvarnished nails with one eyebrow cocked. I’ll never be Cairo-cool.
Walking home I remember going clubbing in London in mid-Winter and the massive queues snaking around the block to get in. We stood and shivered in our miniskirts, hugging our jackets around us to try to generate warmth as our legs goose-bumped from the chill. We were trying to wear as little as possible in sleet and rain, the Cairo fashionable are trying to cover as much as possible but still look good. It doesn’t seem to matter what culture or religion we come from. We women will always lock ourselves in a fashion-cage.