“What’s Cairo like?” people sometimes ask me. At first I felt there was really nothing in my experience to which I could compare this city. But then I had a thought: it’s like the Bronx, times a bajillion.
In the higgledy-piggledy quality of the streets often full of neglected garbage, in the presence of animals one doesn’t normally associate with cityscapes (a friend and I once looked at apartments in the Bronx on a street with chickens running freely at our feet next to a mechanic’s garage; yesterday on the way out the Pyramids Road the taxi I was in got passed by a donkey cart heading up the ramp to the expressway), but especially in the quality of the light in the afternoon as it forces its way through the pollution. A hazy golden yellow that would be charming in its syrupy nostalgic quality if only you didn’t know what was in it to make everyone around you look so sallow.
Cairo is like the Bronx in the vibrant life, the unusual shop names (the Bronx: The People’s Barber Shop, which we decided was a front for the communist party because they had a red sign. Cairo: Bubbles, Your Get Way to Fashion), the neon frontages on the most unlikely enterprises (the car wash?! inside the taxis?!), and in the complex after-dark dynamics. It is like the Bronx in the street markets, the unexpected murals, in the sudden and startling discovery of something poetic: in the Bronx Edgar Allen Poe’s house, once surrounded by rolling pastures in a farming district outside New York City, now hemmed in by hulking tenement blocks, the Grand Concourse, and the raised subway line where the 4 train rumbles by at close intervals. In Cairo on one of the busiest and dustiest city streets, the beautiful glittering mosaics on Cairo University’s Faculty of Arts building; the carvings adorning the Agricultural Museum.
Cairo is chocablock full of people from all over the world, all different walks of life, poverty rubbing elbows with privelege. So too with the Bronx. I could go further and descirbe how Zamalek is like Manhattan and Maadi parallels the exclusive neighborhoods of Westchester, but really the whole gigantic sprawl of Cairo has become to me the older and greater sibling of the lively, noisy, dusty, alternately delicious and foul-smelling, usual and unusual concrete-jungle-hemmed-by-Botanical-Gardens splendor of the Bronx.