In summer, Cairo’s broader bridges become pavement cafes. The perennial huddles of anonymous illicit lovers facing the water are joined by families and groups of friends parked on plastic chairs. A ten year-old in beaded belly-dancer’s headgear courses through the crowd chased by her brother and sister, all watched by another kid seated by a cart selling Termes, a cat stalking a fly. Unable to leave the cart he alternates between watching the children play, filling plastic cups with termes and squirming out the precious and relentless energy of childhood, stuck in a plastic chair.
Cars, buses, taxis and motorbikes are the animated backdrop to all this. The bridge shakes with their passage. The ground is littered with the confetti of Termes skins. When the breeze stops briefly the air smells vaguely of vomit and shit. Can it be true that sewage pipes are attached to the bottom of bridges? Why in Egypt does the underworld, the dirt and the darkness, constantly threaten to usurp the happiness above?
On another part of the river Ghanem is shepherding his plants in a nursery. His right arm is full of faded tattoos, a picture of what looks like Christ is bordered with illegible writing on his shriveled skin.
A beautiful plant with pink flowers is selected. How much? 12 pounds says Ghanem. We give him 15. We wait for change. Some baksheesh for us ya basha, Ghanem says. We request the change. Saloo 3al naby [pray for the Prophet] he says, stalling. 3alayh el salah wel salam [peace be upon Him], we say. Money so we can drink tea, he says, something for us, and suddenly it is no longer just business.
In an almost deserted bar downtown an American film is being shown on a television while in the real world below three women work. One of the woman is almost middle-aged, though she has tried to mask this fact with dyed blonde hair and lycra. Another girl seems still to be a teenager. The third is wearing her coat. All are leaning over men, one knee on a chair, suggestive. The man who seems to be in charge says you can photograph anything except the women. Enty fahma tab3an. [You understand why of course].
At one point the youngest of the woman, the girl, addresses the blonde with ‘mama’.
Somewhere in Mexico a kid falls sick, a genius somewhere else decides to call it Pig Flu, and that’s that for Egypt’s pigs who are filthy, dirty, disease-carrying obscenities, and condemned to death swiftly, and without hesitation. Strange that this particular obscenity should take precedence over the hundreds of ages-old others, command this much attention, this many resources.
Every new crisis, every new tragedy in Egypt is a reprieve, a fresh start, another chance to put things right. It’s never taken. Things are always and inevitably ballsed up, and back we are dragged to zero. Kids go on wiping windscreens at traffic lights, pensioners beg for your loose change and everywhere there is the sigh of failure and defeat. This is what is really obscene.