Neglected Elegance

Heather L. Pickerell

CAIRO, Egypt—The city is swarmed by people of all walks of life. Sitting in a café, smoking sheisha while drinking mint tea in Khan el-Khalili, Cairo’s most famous souq, often feels like paying a visit to the Mos Eisley Cantina (the bar in Tatooine from Star Wars: A New Hope for those who were wondering). I have spent hours sitting in the souq watching burqa-clad women hustle to prayers, young children try to sell me silver bracelets and German tourists struggle to haggle for sheishas using a combination of broken English, Arabic and German. But nothing beats the excitement of crossing the road in Cairo, a city in a constant state of rush hour and completely devoid of pedestrian crossings. Taxis race down the roads at breakneck speeds, and will only stop to convince you to change your course and to visit his friend’s perfume store or to book a camel ride through him.

But with the excitement also comes a touch of reality. Grand old colonial-style buildings, the legacy of Britain’s Mandate over the country, are surrounded by crumbling, unfinished empty buildings thanks to failed public housing projects. The streets are full of desperately poor children, who beg you to buy packs of tissue for a mere pound (USD 15 cents), enough to let them survive the night. While the sons and daughters of Egypt’s richest park their Lamborghinis in the garage of the American University in Cairo, people continue to fill Tahrir Square after Friday evening prayers to demand social and economic equality. The coffee shops are constantly packed with young men, fresh out of university, who cannot find a job due to the limited economic opportunities Egypt has to offer. My Coptic teacher occasionally bursts into tears in the middle of class at the prospect of her children being persecuted by Muslims under the new regime. The biggest lesson I have learned is that Egypt is not all pyramids and temples— this is a country that desperately wants to escape from the inequalities of the past and forge itself a new identity.