Sunday, May 4, 2008

A place to breathe

Whenever we have guests and we drive around the city, they ask the same question: "Are those buildings half built or are they falling down?" It's funny what you notice and what you end up accepting as normal when you live in a place long enough.

I will be the first to admit that Cairo is by no means a beautiful city. And, I've had my recent issues with it (see previous posts about airport unpleasantries). I needed to get over my unhappiness with the corruption and get back to the city that I was growing to love. Showing the city to a guest seemed to do the trick.
Driving around, answering our guests questions, I realised that something had happened to my perspective. Instead of seeing crazy, haphazard chaos, I now saw peoples' ingenuity at work. Where there was space to build, people had done so. Where they could best spend their hard earned money they did. It seemed utterly pointless and frivolous to me actually, to waste money on the outside of a building considering the harsh climate and crazy sandstorms that seem to invade Cairo without warning. Those puzzle-piece, half-built basic buildings looked sensible and reasonable to me.
I can wholeheartedly admit to desperately needing a break from Cairo and that my relationship with the place is increasingly love/ hate (see my two previous, unhappy posts). We can afford to travel and get away from it when it gets too much. And it is that break that allows the love to come back. But what about the average Cairene? What sanctuary can they seek from the madness of the city?

Sitting on a hill, facing Salah-Din's Citadel is Al Azhar Park. It is a huge, multi-level, thoughtfully designed park that is an oasis in the middle of Cairo's chaos. There are flowing fountains everywhere, cafes, rolling green grass, flowers and colonnades of palm trees. A gift from the Aga Khan, it is a much needed escape from the urban sprawl. Sprawl that you can see extend to the horizon from every angle in the park.

Cairenes take full advantage of the space. Children play in the water, getting soaked. They roll down the grassy hills laughing their heads off. Families sit under the shade of trees to enjoy a picnic. Young lovers hold hands and talk closely on benches. Just before sunset, everyone seeks out a place on the grass to watch the sun dip into the horizon. And as the sun sets, all of Cairo, with its tightly packed homes, mosques on every corner, minarets popping through the cityscape and the din of 20 million people is drenched in gold light (remarkable what pollution can do to create breathtaking sunsets) Sure, the park is manicured and well-kept, but Cairo life abounds within it's groomed hedges. Cairenes LIVE in this city, where ever they are.

All photos and text copyright Sufia Lodhi 2008

Friday, May 2, 2008

It sucks to be back: Airport Rage continued

Barely back from Kenya, I tagged along with my husband on his recent business trip to Doha.

Doha passport control was a polite breeze, accompanied by a friendly: "Welcome to Qatar, we hope you enjoy your stay."

Return to Cairo? Not so much.

We arrive at the same terminal where the baksheesh incident took place less than 4 days before. Once again, my passport sailed through and when they got to YK's, they asked what his nationality was. YK said Canadian and I (because I cannot control myself) said rather snidely: "That's why he has a Canadian passport." Duh.

The passport guy had already called on a gopher to come get YK's passport. It was deja vu. Except this time, they didn't have the element of surprise or intimidation because we already knew what they were after. And they weren't going to get it on my watch.

This time, as he took the passport, I stopped him and said: "If you are taking this in the hopes of getting a baksheesh, you can give it back right now. We aren't going to pay you anything."

He looked at me blankly and walked towards the end of the wickets. I followed him, my blood boiling. He told YK to go back to the other side of immigration and something in my brain snapped. I held YK's arm and told him to stay put. I think all the protective Lionesses and Mama Elephants on safari had had an effect on me... all of a sudden, we were in "Mean Girls" re: how this would be settled in the animal world.

Insanely angry me: "There's nothing wrong with his passport or his visa. It has already been stamped and checked. He is not going anywhere except out of this airport and home. And you (insert culturally inappropriate finger point) are going to give his passport back right now."

I was, admittedly, blindly tired and reaching off the charts rage, which explains my clear lack of prudence. Rarely am I so ballsy -- especially around people in uniforms with the power to detain us or worse. Clearly, my exhaustion was getting in the way of my better judgement. But stay tuned, perhaps my insanity was the key to success in this country...

Passport gopher: "Hindia?"

Not this again.

Me: "NO. Canada -- see?" (waving passport manically in his face)

YK was trying to get me to calm down, but the scene had begun and there was no stopping me now. They were not going to get away with this two times in one week. I suddenly felt a real bond with Michael Douglas's character in "Falling down" in MacDonalds when he's had this terrible day and wants breakfast at 11:02 but they stop serving breakfast at 11:00.

Me: "This happened to us two days ago. There is NO reason for you to hold this passport or delay us. We are not going to give you a baksheesh, so give back the passport now."

Uniformed officer: "Please wait -- no English." Insipid smile.

Postal Me: "No English? Nice. (flash of obnoxious fake smile) Well, me: No Arabic. Give me back the passport now."

The uniformed officer held up his hands in a "calm down, don't shoot me" gesture, laughed a little and gave YK a look of pity, as if to say: You poor man having to live with such a crazy wife...
But he gave back the passport, no money changed hands and we went to baggage claim.

It's a few days later and I am STILL so mad. I hate that the only way to avoid this is to go back to having the University people take us through immigration and customs. So much for trying to transcend a stratified society. We should have stuck to our station instead of trying to be down with the people and clearing customs on our own. Lesson unpleasantly learned.