I'm already approaching forty days and forty nights in Cairo. I haven't been remotely busy since finding my hole in the city's monstrous concrete sprawl, but I've been impressed with most of the other twenty million-odd Cairenes who seem to be getting plenty done. Whether it's slaving away in a grungy Egyptian kitchen like Mahmoud the neighborhood foul-packer, wrestling tiny metal objects into cataract-clouded eyeballs until 3AM like my ophthalmologist friend Dr. Ahmed Hathout, or riding 10-hour shifts on some of the world's most overwhelmed dump-trucks running the world's most hopeless litter patrol, few aside from myself seem to be taking much time off.
When the working day finally does end, generally a day spent constantly surrounded by lots and lots of other people, the chance finally comes for an hour or two alone, precious time to do nothing. But not so for Cairenes. Why do nothing alone when you can do it with lots of other people also doing nothing? And so, every evening across this town are millions of tired faces sipping shay and shisha, surrounded with friends and strangers in Cairo's ubiquitous coffee houses. Though the prospect is highly unlikely, in this town there seems to be a fear of being alone. This city lives, breathes, eats, celebrates, gets sad and goes completely mad together.
There may be no better recent example for all the above than soccer. A tragic series of games last month had the entire country in the grip. First everyone nearly died of anticipation, painting faces red, white and black, honking more than usual (which amounts to a great deal of honking), buying up more flags than Egypt has people and then pouring into the streets in mass ecstasy following a win. Driving from Zamalek to Mohandiseen and back to Maadi, every block was host to a spontaneous party that seemed to carry on until a few days later, just after the the next game, when it most definitely ended. From the final buzzer, depression shook Egypt with more force than even the dreaded swine flu. Smiles and laughter were virtually outlawed for the next few days, and a series of violent outbursts, from both sides, ended up forcing Egypt to recall their ambassador to Algeria. Around here, soccer is not a game, it's war.
I've mostly managed to keep myself out of the gears of the city, but in the last month I haven't been completely useless. I've spent some of my time exploring the grimy backstreets of Shubra and Dar Es Salam, sneaking into the pyramids disguised as a runner for a breast cancer awareness event, giving guitar lessons in exchange for Arabic help, nearly getting mistaken (almost fatally so) for an Algerian in Cairo's cemetary, getting rejected by the head monk at a Coptic monastery (no room at the inn apparently) and forced to hitch back to Cairo soaking wet with a van full of family reunioners, busing out to Bahariya in the Western Desert, wandering three nights along the shores of Dahab, booking a photo exhibit that I regretted booking as soon as it was booked, and finally, working as an usher in Sharm El-Sheikh.
The latter was probably the highlight of my stay thus far in Egypt. A group of twelve young Egyptians and myself loaded into a van one night and covered the bumpy road to Sharm by about 2am. Since most of my new Egyptian friends seemed to be high on the new-found freedom of the road, I only ended up enjoying my 5-star bed for a few short hours before pulling two 14hr work days. The job involved registering guests to the FOCAC Conference, a gathering meant to build economic ties between China and African nations. During the conference I learned nothing about Chinese-African relations but a decent amount of Arabic slang, including how to tell people to f*** off. (the name of the conference itself meant something not too far off in Egyptian, something the entire group found hilarious). Also, I met and shook the hand of the president of Namibia, who I must say is very charming.
One episode from the conference: A few of us suit-clad ushers are taking a break near the pool of the lavish resort serving as the conference's venue. Dozens of Chinese and African businessmen sit nearby smoking up a storm while secret service agents patrol the walkways and rooftops, clutching automatic weapons. Sunburnt Europeans from the far north wade lazily through the pool, lathered in not enough sunscreen. Everyone looks pretty bored. Suddenly, the YMCA song blasts through some hidden amps and a group of "animators" (foreign dancers responsible for shaking it in front of guests) rush poolside and start their shaking routine, all goofy smiles for a sunburned crowd of Euro-tourists. Seconds later, our gang of black suits shows up right behind the animators, doing all the moves to perfection. The red-skinned crowd goes wild. When the song ends the pool erupts with applause and all of us ushers scatter back to the conference hall to get back to printing African name tags while the secret service agents stand alert for the first time that day.