Cairo, meri jaan

When I think of Cairo, I think of the sober days and colorful nights during the holy month of Ramadan. I remember the endless rows of tables laid out for the evening feast. People would pause only a moment after the last prayer ended, and then wolf their food down hungrily. I remember the taxi driver who offered dates to my team mate F who was also fasting.

The bustling sweet shop where huge pyramids of busbusa, kunafa and other pastries abounded: delicious concoctions of sugar, filo pastry, honey, rose essence and pistachios; the little stands in Downtown where huge skewers with shawarma were displayed; dark restaurants that served koshery, the only recourse for a vegetarian eating out; the mad traffic on the 6th October bridge; hijabs in the brightest colors worn in the most fashionable styles; oh-so lovely girls with the peaches-n-cream complexion and dark dark kohl-lined eyes; a family with 4 little ones steadily working its way through monstrous McDonalds burgers with fries and Bebsi (the Egyptian way to say ‘Pepsi’).

One of the sights I will always remember is that of blood gushing over the courtyard tiles of the little house outside our apartment complex when they slaughtered a goat and a cow during Bakri-Id.

Cairo is the city where I got my hair colored for the first time. And the only time thus far. One of the ladies from work was really enthusiastic about taking me to her hairdresser and getting my hair colored. I went along, and at the end of a conversation rapidly conducted in Arabic and punctuated with wildly moving hands and laughter, my black hair had a million gold-brown strands threading though. It looked better with time, and yes, I was mistaken for an Egyptian girl many a time.

The people at the bank gave me a new name, Basma. Now, I forget what that means.

I remember, the first two days that we lived in Downtown, a colleague N wanted to see the Nile. Neither of us thought that the river would flow through Downtown. But we asked and asked and asked. Everyone told us to keep going straight ahead, and then we saw the Nile. Flowing gently under the two bridges with shiny boats and lighted barges and cruises… the only river in the world that flows from South to North. In Luxor, we took a felucca ride over the Nile, and the boatman (who spoke excellent English) made for us black tea, the ubiquitous drink of Egypt. Spiced with fresh mint and sweetened with lots of sugar, that glass of tea marked a point in time where everything seemed tranquil, simple, and right. The Nile was calm, and so was I.

Cairo is such a vibrant city. Its sights, sounds, fragrances, seasons are unforgettable. But what touched my mind, my heart, and my very soul every day, five times a day, was the call for azaan. You could hear it no matter what part of the city you were in. Come that time of the day, and the devout few at the office would gather in the corridor, kneel, and offer their prayers.

The word for God in Arabic is Allah; they have no other word. The faith is that simple, unquestionable, and all-abiding.

Cairo is the city where I lost a little part of myself… and it took a while before I found it again. By then it had changed vastly, and so much for the better.