A Cairo commuter in Ramadan 2007

Posted 09.05.09

CAIRO, EGYPT | A Cairo commuter in Ramadan 2007 The best time to commute in the city of Cairo, Egypt, during the month of Ramadan is at the Iftar. Over the years, I've found that taking the Metro home at sunset, just as the day's fasting is finishing and being celebrated with an Iftar meal, is the perfect way to travel through the Cairo cityscape.

All over the city, people have gathered to enjoy the sociability of a shared meal after the day's fast. It's also a good time to get on the city metro and ride home because virtually no one is on the streets and for once in this overly crowded city of 17.8 million1, a Cairo commuter can enjoy the peace and quiet of empty streets and a noiseless city. One day a couple of years ago after I got home from such a commute, I sat down and wrote an account of the experience.

Fall 2007 -- Cairo

From my office on the eighth floor of the American University in Cairo's New Falaki building, I take the elevator down to the ground floor and go out into the deserted city streets. On the way out of the main gate, I pass the university security guards gathered around a table sharing their Iftar meal provided by the university. They are laughing and chatting animatedly in contrast with their somber behavior during the day. I say, "salaam," and someone answers back "goodbye."

On Sharia Sheikh Rehan, the roadway is nearly deserted. The early evening lighting is pleasing. The buildings along Sheikh Rehan are of the French colonial era and the twilight softens their dirty brown facades to a soft tungsten lighting that is reminisant of Cairo in her heyday as "The Jewel of the Nile" in the early 1900s.

An occasional taxi or private car late to a family Iftar whizzes by and the street falls silent again. Then I hear birds chattering away as they jostle for night space on branches of the trees I pass under on the way to the Metro station. I'm always struck by the quality of silence in Cairo at the moment of Iftar and for an hour or so afterwards. It's a thick silence that gradually settles softly over the streets that combined with the special lightening makes me feel as though the city is all mine as I walk alone.

On the Metro this evening, there are very few people. I usually ride in the women's cars, which are located in the front. Tonight there are just a few women. I imagine the majority to be home cooking or perhaps saying their Maghrib (sunset) prayers before sitting down to their family Iftar meal. The results of their afternoon labours are quickly devoured.

Some of the women I see on the Metro tonight are not veiled and I think they are like me, non-Muslim. I feel a sense of accord with them that I don't feel with the veiled women on the Metro. There are a few veiled ones but now that they've broken the day's fast with dates that someone in the car has shared, the veiled women have perked up and don't looked so tired anymore.

Each metro stop going south towards Helwan is quiet. Hardly anyone is on the platforms. The harsh dusty light of urban Cairo is changing to a glowing rose pink. I think to myself as the Metro speeds past the churches of Mari Girguis and the little shantytowns clinging to the rocks cliffs of Dar as Salaam, " I could really enjoy this city when it looks like this." Minus a few million people, Cairo wouldn't be bad at all.

Twenty minutes later, I get off at El Maadi, a bustling Cairo suburb once considered a country weekend get away for the well-to-do. Now, the old villas stand in the shadows of gleaming new apartment buildings mostly occupied by a large American and western expatriate population.

Maadi natives complain their formerly peaceful garden suburb isn't what it used to be with the long traffic delays these days on the main bridge leading into Maadi and the unending residential construction projects.

I leave that side of Maadi, and cross over the bridge to my side that still retains its old Maadi ambiance. There aren't many expatriates on this side either. The old Misr Hewan Road runs behind my building and for many years it was the main artery into the downtown area of Cairo from the east bank of the Nile. Direct access to the river near Cairo however, was controlled by wealthy landowners or foreign embassies like the British Embassy in Garden City, until Gamel Abdel Nasr built the Cornice right beside the Nile, making it easier for the peasants to bring their wares from the countryside to sell in the city.

To this day, you can see the occasional donkey cart piled high with vegetables competing for traffic space alongside trucks, buses, cars and government security transport vehicles.

The road outside the station this evening is deserted. The areas where the aggressive, horn-blaring microbuses vie for space every day are startlingly vacant.

The vendors selling sunglasses, hairbrushes, candies, tapes of Koran hadiths, pencils, pens, vegetables, and popcorn are also gone as they are off having their Iftar meals. The woman who sells an assortment of cookies, candies, and tissue from a large wooden tray balanced carefully on the lattice work of wooden vegetable crates is there however, sitting alone, occupied with her Iftar meal. She looks up and smiles.

I see her almost every day when I come back in the evening. Ever since she refused my one pound (Egyptian money) for a tiny bag of chips and demanded more money, I've had mixed feelings about saying hello to her.

She had said in Arabic, "Why are you giving me just this when I need more. One pound, bah! You have more to give than this." I was shocked because though I had given her the proper amount, I never thought she just saw me as a rich foreigner. I quickly handed over all the pounds I had in my change purse, ten maybe and left.

After that, I've always been leery of her and only very occasionally stop to buy tissue or candies. I know she needs more to survive on than the occasional pound I spend at her stand and that day I was actually contemplating whether to give her extra when she made the decision for me and I was embarrassed. I think the woman realizes she had gone too far but she still says, "Hello, Madam" when our eyes meet.

Like downtown, Maadi streets have a surreal quality about them during the Iftar hours of Ramadan -- no one is on the sidewalks or walking in the roads, there are no cars and there isn't a sound of anything. Just silence. I see the occasional feral cat scurrying out from under one parked car to another.

The walk home along the softly lit streets; Ramadan lanterns glittering in the windows above, is one I've done a million times; at least it feels like a million. Straight up Wadi el Nil, right then left, right, left and finally left to Road 199 to the Cornice. It's on this last road that I see people and it's here that I always feel like a real Cairene commuter.

I trudge along with Egyptian men in galabeyahs pushing their bicycles outfitted with baskets for delivery jobs and heavy set women balancing large metals basins on their heads that are filled with leftover salty white cheese or vegetables that they have brought to sell on the streets of upscale Maadi.

Everyone is walking towards the Nile to catch the ferry back to the Giza side on the west bank of the Nile. From my apartment overlooking the Nile, I've watched the little Giza ferry boat, chock full of workers coming and going as it makes endless trips back and forth from one side of the Nile to the other all day long.

Once as I was leaving the Metro station, a girl asked me if she could go through the turnstile with me on my ticket. I've often seen people either jump the turnstile or slip behind someone to avoid paying for a ticket. I said, yes, come on. After we went out of the Metro, she walked in front of me the whole way to my building, a walk of seven minutes or so. At one point she turned around and asked if she could carry my bag for me.

I was lugging a briefcase filled with student papers and I think I grunted out loud a few times in the effort. I refused her help though and she seemed to be sorry. After all, I had done her a favor by letting her go through on my ticket and she wanted to return the favor. But my American city instincts were strong and I did not trust that she would not run off with my $35 plastic briefcase. How silly.

Copyright © 2009 Kathleen Saville/Log Cabin Chronicles/09.09