Several summers ago, a Tunisian friend visited Cairo with his son, who had enrolled at a music conservatory. They stayed at a hotel in central Cairo. One day, they were walking along Talaat Harb street past 3 am when they came across Radio Cinema. The son appeared shocked that the box office was still open at this hour. His father suggested that they watch a movie, but the worker informed them that the movie had already started and asked them if they would like to catch the one at 5 am. Days after experiencing the city firsthand, the son told his father that this constant state of being awake cannot be random. The residents must have organized shifts to keep it awake at all times!
The Egyptians are a fun-loving and pious people. They pursue their entertainment and carry out their worship in the open and as loud as possible. Those having fun and those worshipping cross paths randomly eleven months of the year and then comes Ramadan, when they all come together in the same space. They become one person who pursues fun and worships with the same energy. Restaurants and cafes of al-Hussein and Sayyida Zeinab come alive and then the dawn prayers signal the end of a night of heavy fun in the same space. Even the dead are not left in peace as cafes in the middle of cemeteries are filled with night owls, who wait for suhour and then head for prayer at the Sayyida Nafisa mosque.
Cairo has attracted pilgrims, invaders and tourists. They loved it so much that they forgot about returning home and instead became “Egyptianized”. Nothing remains of their western roots by probably their family name or their eye color. The city is a pro when it comes to having fun, so much so that it is now home to a quarter of the country’s population. It may be the only capital in the world where a visitor can not tell when it is time for an employee to clock in and clock out because it does not have rush hour as every hour is rush hour. It is this congestion that poses a threat to its calm state of mind and living.
Cairo never knew the harshness of history like Baghdad and Beirut. Ever since the days of the pharaohs, Egypt has adopted a strategy of meeting its enemies beyond its borders. It only feared German and English air raids during World War II that ruined Sayyed Ahmed al-Jawad’s (hero of Mahfouz’s trilogy) mood and limited his ability to stay out late.
Confrontations with the Israeli enemy took place in Sinai in 1956, 67 and 73. The only thing that reached Cairo from them was not fear, but the sadness in defeat and joy in victory. It wasn’t until the war of attrition that followed the “naksa” that fear spread from the battlefronts and forced residents of Cairo and other cities to paint their windows blue. Novelist Adel Esmat recalled this fear in his novel “The Days of Blue Windows” that was published just days before the coronavirus invasion.
The safety of living in Cairo allows the young to dream of excitement. So naturally, they came up with creative names for their sandwiches: A heavy mix of meat or falafel with various fried add-ons are named after rockets and explosives that were used in regional wars, such as the Patriot, used in the Gulf war, and the dynamite, used in the new wars.
Cairo’s memories of deadly epidemics are filed in the history books. It experienced the plague in the 14th and 19th centuries and cholera in the early 20th. The most recent general fear experience by Cairo was the earthquake of 1992 that left 542 people dead.
In contrast to earthquakes when people can leave their homes for safety, the coronavirus is an intangible threat that demands that we stay at home, which is a challenge to Egyptians. Fear is there, of course, but not in the same magnitude as in other capitals. Restaurants and cafés have been emptied, but some have defied the curfew and allowed loyal clients in behind closed doors. The pursuit of enjoyment for the rich and the necessities of life for the poor put fear in its place.
Traffic in Cairo, which used to move at 11 kilometers an hour before the virus struck, has now reached humanly possible limits. The choice to remain in self-isolation is being laxly implemented during the day and turns into curfew at night at the order of the prime minister. This has weighed heavily on nighttime internet traffic. People have clamored to send and receive information about the pandemic, but above all else, they exchange jokes in order to break the barrier of fear.
Someone suggested that we send off 2020 after so many disasters have taken place in such a short period of time. Another joked that the coronavirus’ next victim should not forget to turn off the electricity and gas and leave the keys of his house under the door mat before he dies. Another joke sees a company advertise secret wedding for those staying at home. The company says it will send representatives to forcibly carry the group to an ambulance for 2,000 Egyptian pounds. The stream of unending jokes flows throughout the night until the early hours of morning when life returns to normal with just some fear and a sense of defeat.
In Nasr City where I live, the roaming street vendors continue their struggle with life and licensed vegetable sellers. They roam the streets with their small carts, calling on clients on their loudspeakers. Traditional pie and black honey vendors are also still there. The vendor of second-hand items still insists on visiting the neighborhood with his cart twice a day. I look out the balcony, which is now my substitute for a park, to find his perpetually empty cart. I realize that we have not yet gone too far in letting go of our old possessions. The man hollers for clients and waits expectantly at silent windows and balconies. He is banking on our despair, while we are banking on hope.
*Ezzat el Kamhawi is an Egyptian novelist.