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