“To your left… Beauty”
Ustadh Lo said these words to us on a bus a few weeks ago. We were driving past Coptic Cairo, and the view truly was just that: beautiful.
It happens all the time on our trip. Everywhere we go, we see something amazing. The city is a mix of old and new. We are surrounded by ancient buildings, full of history. People have been living here for thousands of years, and they will still be here long after we are all gone. I have no doubt that the same is true for the inherent beauty of this city.
There is one problem though. If beauty lies to our left, then what’s to our right? Cairo is a city of contradictions. For every bit of beauty, there is a sordid sight as well.
This picture was taken at the Al-Azhar gardens. It’s an amazing place, an oasis in the middle of the city. I haven’t felt more at peace this entire trip than when I was there. From the top of the park we could clearly see the citadel, which is one of the most impressive pieces of architecture that I’ve ever seen. What you can’t see in this picture is the rest of Cairo. It looks like, for lack of a better word, a slum. There’s garbage on the streets and garbage on the roofs. Many buildings are poorly constructed and are falling to pieces in front of us.
The outrageous displays of wealth in the city are even more distressing than its poverty. Our group went to the Four Seasons Hotel once and it felt, for lack of a better word, off. Its obscene luxury is completely out of place in Cairo. I’d go as far to say that we weren’t actually in Cairo anymore. We were in a completely different place that had absolutely no connection to the rest of the world around us.
The contradiction transcends the physical aspects of the city. The vast majority of the people we meet are great. They are kind, caring and helpful. They tell us “welcome” and they truly mean it. I’m met with smiles and waves, and I feel at home here. In many ways I feel more accepted here than in some places in the US, despite the fact that I’m a foreigner, a visitor.
Of course, not everything is wonderful. I’ve felt jaded many times while here. Are the shop owners I’ve come to know actually happy to see me, or do they only appreciate my business? Do they like me or do they like my money? Early on a cab driver blatantly ripped us off. The meter was running way too fast, and a $15 dollar ride cost us nearly $50. We knew what was happening but couldn’t communicate with him. Our helplessness was infuriating, and I’ve approached every taxi since then with skepticism, never taking my eye off the meter. While this situation has never repeated itself, it’s sad that I don’t have the same trust towards some people. I always wonder if I’m getting ripped off.
Harassment, while rare, has occurred on this trip. We’ve heard about it and we’ve discussed it, but nothing can really prepare you to see it. It’s horrifying and sickening. While I won’t go into details I can safely say that a few days ago I had the single angriest moment of my life. Immediately thereafter, a man on the street came to me. He told me, “I’m Sorry. I’m Sorry. This is not Egypt. This is not the real Egypt.” I believed him because he was right. That wasn’t the real Egypt, but it made me wonder. What is the real Egypt?
It’s not a question that I can answer. It’s good and it’s bad. It’s ugly and beautiful. It’s a mix of old and new. Cairo is a city where time slows down. You don’t feel the need to always get ahead. In many ways life here is more my pace. It’s like gently floating down a river. Cairo isn’t a city that you can seize. It’s a place where life, with all of its contradictions, happens to you.
I don’t want this post to come off the wrong way. I love being here. I love the people and I love the very feel of the city. It’s hard to explain, but while I’ve been here I’ve felt more in touch with both others and myself. Life feels more real here than it does at Duke, where our biggest concerns are midterms, problem sets, and parties on the weekend.
I try reminding myself that the bad in Cairo is no different than the bad in the rest of the world. For all our talk about different cultures, people everywhere are the same at their roots. We all do good and we all do bad. As we go down our own roads we may very well see ugliness to our right. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t let that take away from the beauty to our left.