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.