I love Cairo in a different way than I love Doha. Where Doha is inorganic, Cairo is thoroughly organic. I feel more relaxed here, and am reconsidering my attachment to small cities.
Everything in Doha seems well-planned–the buildings, the institutions, the economy–but what Cairo looses in obvious planning it makes up for in confident community. Where drivers in Doha always seem riding on the edge of calamity, in Cairo the streets have a naturalness, a flow* which only comes of this much life, this compressed, for this long.
I believe it is both because of differences in size and culture, but I feel less worried in Cairo about how I look and dress and speak than I do in Doha. Using some truly mangled Arabic, I asked a security guard at the Egyptian Museum about the meaning of a word describing one of Tutenkhamen’s bracelets. He grinned at me, and answered in a mix of Arabic and English. I grinned back, not worrying for once if I was inadvertently coming on to him. Surrounded by the thousands of tourists (some of whom wandered around in micro-shorts and halter-tops) I was confident he was just being friendly–there were much better targets for flirting than I. Even though I’m wearing the same clothes in Cairo as I do in Doha, I am much less worried about putting my head on my brother’s shoulder when I’m tired in a restaurant, or talking loudly (there really is no other way to talk–it is gloriously loud here). I am willing to bet my nerves in Doha are not required, and have more to do with my own hysteria than unbendable requirements; but even so, I am less anxious here.
Living in Doha, I had come to the conclusion that I might be quite happy in a small community. Being back in a big city (20-23 million, depending on the time of day and year) I remember what I love about huge heaps of humanity. I love the anonymous kindnesses, the badly-initiated systems that work because people force them, the diamonds which come of this crush of humanity. I even like some of the dirt; at heart I’m a Peninsula kid and see cleanliness as a sign of under-use.
I’m not sure what I will do with this newfound affection; perhaps Cairo would be a good place to study if I could get a Fulbright. What I know now is that my interest in and attachment to this region reaches far beyond the Gulf.
*Our guide told us that street-signs in Munich are declarative, in Florence are suggestive, in Cairo they are decorative.
“I will not be triumphed over.”–Cleopatra