How can Egypt be so spectacularly cruel and yet so alive, so vital? A thousand little deaths – ordinary tragedies – take place every day, unremarkable and ignored. It is as if the dividing line between happiness and misery here is less distinct than elsewhere, almost as if in being forced to find happiness in the midst of never-ending sadness and hardship people have made these emotions co-exist contemporaneously, in the very same moment. Humour dilutes the pain, making disaster after humiliation after endless injustice bearable, but this necessarily works the other way, too: the pain takes the edge off the ability to laugh and forget, even if the famous Egyptian sense of humour is grounded in a healthy dose of bitterness.
El-Hussein is a stark reminder of this paradox, its skyline a wonderful serenade of minarets while down below the scene is chaos. The main square’s mosque and accompanying buildings are imposing, solid, beautiful, but to reach it from the other side of the main road you must descend into one of several airless, harshly-lit underpasses stinking of stagnant piss, dirt and trapped pollution, in the process stepping over the Chinese wind-up toys which spin round like rats at the entrance, mocking the white-clad figures with impossibly shaped legs sitting on the spit-covered ground with the crutches displayed before them like trophies. And all this to the echo of an invisible beggar or a madman lost somewhere in one of the other underpasses, his voice – like him – caught in the underworld.
But come out of the tunnel and there you are, in the midst of history, and you are perhaps briefly reminded of how rich this country’s past is. And the square buzzes with energy, with the voices of a hundred men entreating anyone and everyone to eat or drink in their establishment which has the best views, the best prices, the best fare. Their repertoire consists of jokes, flattery, beguilement and bullying: there is something compelling about the insistence, the assuredness, the momentum of it all. Once inside and customers are subject to a never-ending barrage of vendors, selling assorted motley items such as: plastic toy keyboards, wallets, recordings of the Quran, Golf visors, dolls, belts and henna tattoos. You might see a middle-aged woman in a dirty dress with a drum, beating it half-heartedly and attempting to sing through the space left by her missing teeth. With her is a thin young boy, perhaps 12-years old. He will take over the drumming at some point, and laughingly sing el 3inab el 3inab while a family claps and sings and makes a baby dance in their hands above their heads. During all this the woman is there, but entirely absent, her eyes looking vacuously into the distance. It seems odd somehow that this sad empty woman should be delivering joy, but yet it is entirely normal.
The cafes which line el-Hussein’s narrow lanes provide a unique atmosphere created in part by the bustle of people, the movement, the colours and the smells, and in part by the fact that the gender segregation common to most (non-fancy) coffee shops in Egypt does not exist and you will see women, families and men sitting together. Couples whisper while groups of young men will suddenly burst into clapping and song to the accompaniment of a tabla they have brought with them while one of them launches into a spectacularly sensual belly-dancing routine in the middle complete with shaking hips and hands twirling like birds in flight. His friends will laugh and clap, delighted, while elsewhere men smoking shisha look on impassively and coffee shop staff go about their business. Look down at your feet however, and you will see the apparition of a young woman with flip flops on the palms of her hands propelling herself slowly on the ground, her thin, lifeless legs splayed uselessly in front of her covered in the filth she has picked up dragging herself around. Her appearance only very slightly disturbs the atmosphere, causes the briefest of pauses before the merry-making continues because after all, everyone has their pain, carries a burden, visible or not, and God will provide.