As long as I’ve lived in Cairo, it seems as though every time I tune into the Western media I see and hear stories of violence, strikes, kidnappings in the Sinai and calls for the ruling military government to step down. At least once a week, my friends and I field frantic Facebook messages from well-meaning friends and family members asking after our personal safety, because “you know, you live in Egypt.”
Contrary to what the BBC would have you believe, life in Cairo isn’t all rubber bullets and tear gas. As a foreign student, I am the first to admit to having a different experience of this buzzing metropolis than the average Egyptian. However, through the unique perspective of a curious outsider, it is nothing short of remarkable to watch how life in Cairo continues as it always has in the midst of profound political upheaval. We, as study abroad students, are guests living in a world of vibrant juxtaposition; stories that my friends and I tell to friends back home and back in St Andrews reflect our everyday balancing act between the normal and the extraordinary.
Last November, I took a bus from campus to Tahrir Square, where I would grab a cab to the student dorms. I watched two working class women bartering energetically over fruit at a local kushk, or kiosk, while two blocks away, hundreds upon hundreds of riot police filled the square. That afternoon would mark the beginning of a week of violence leading up to the first round of parliamentary elections in which over 40 people would be killed, shot or suffocated by tear gas. Meanwhile, the women continued to argue over the price of these bananas or those mangoes and chat about their infant sons.
Around the same time, two friends of mine went to get foul, a savory Middle Eastern dish of fava beans, in the nearby neighborhood of Garden City, where both the American and British embassies are located. Upon leaving the restaurant, they began to stroll towards a main thoroughfare to catch a cab. As they watched, the street ahead of them was filled with billowing clouds of tear gas and shouts of “down, down with the military junta!” Needless to say, they turned on their heels to find a cab to take them in the opposite direction, but their story is a vivid reminder of how a casual evening of local dining can lead to watery-eyed coughing fit.
Despite the tragic events of Port Said earlier this month and continued student strikes, we in Cairo are far from the violence that marred the end of last semester. However, any St Andrews student who has studied abroad or lived here will tell you that life in Cairo is no walk in the park. It is emotionally exhausting as well: a simple walk down the street reveals a glimpse into the crushing poverty of Egypt’s lower classes.
Two beggar children and their crippled mother live on the sidewalk outside my friends’ flat in the upscale, embassy-filled neighborhood of Zamalek. Half-dressed and filthy, they hover around my crisply-dressed foreign friends, pawing and pleading with blackened hands barely cleaner than their snot-smeared faces.
Poverty in Cairo is unlike any I have encountered in any other sprawling metropolis of its kind. Its crushing severity is evident even in the ritziest neighborhoods, including Zamalek, where the sight of a five-year-old beggar girl in a tattered, once-pink dress clutching a drugged infant on the sidewalk outside a Cairo branch of The Body Shop is nothing unusual. Even after living in Cairo for nearly five months, I find this sight deeply unsettling. When begged, my friends and I press coins and bills into children’s dirty hands. In the face of such staggering poverty, what else can one do?
I am often asked how I live in Cairo. What do I do when I get lost? Encounter sexual harassment? Smell tear gas? Get food poisoning from a deceptively delicious dinner? My friends and I answer all these questions in like: to survive in Cairo, we keep our eyes open, our ears open, and drink in all the wonders that this loud, disorganized, filthy, and utterly beautiful city has to offer.