LETTER FROM CAIRO, APRIL 2014

Several old friends have left Cairo recently, both Egyptians and foreigners who had lived here for decades. The situation had become too messy, owing to the demonstrations, tear gas and traffic or else their jobs or projects were finished and they no longer had a compelling reason to stay. Even at its best, Cairo is a demanding, unhealthy city, and it has not been at its best for quite some time. Nor is it the bargain it once was; prices here for food and rent rival those of major European capitals, even though the quality of life in terms of cleanliness and functionality is far lower.

I am one of the stalwarts, attached to the city like a barnacle on a shipwreck. Under the circumstances I’ve been the grateful recipient of a number of items from my departing friends’ dissolved households, some of which I decided to send to Upper Egypt. Since the haul included furniture, I had to engage the cousin of a neighbour who lives in Aswan and makes a living driving his truck back and forth to Cairo carrying things for people with family in the south. I also needed a sturdy team of workers, known as shialeen- removers – to carry the things down ten flights of stairs and load the truck.

I put out the word in my neighbourhood and was soon put in touch with Mohammed, who promised he could organise the men and showed me pictures on his cell phone of an upright piano he had once moved, as testimony of his experience and professionalism. I told him I wanted to wrap some of the things in plastic and cardboard, which I had heard were sold in large rolls in Old Cairo. Mohammed offered to send a small truck and a driver who knew the area and would help me acquire and transport the material. That Friday, Mohammed sent Ahmed, who had only just arrived in Cairo from somewhere in the Delta and was apparently somewhat shaken by the experience if his trembling hands were anything to go by. We nonetheless managed to find the place and accomplish our mission.

Mohammed also promised he would bring some professional wrappers, who turned out to be himself and Ahmed, neither of whom, it was soon apparent, had ever wrapped anything larger than a sandwich. Fortunately my neighbour Rania had offered to come along and she and I managed to humiliate the men into performing at their version of peak efficiency. “Women are more practical than men,” I could not help remarking. After a long pause, Mohammed replied “But men can do things women can’t” and I had to concede the point when the time came for Mohammed, Ahmed and six more associates to carry things like couches and giant wardrobes slung on their backs with hemp ropes, down ten flights of stairs, a process I barely had the courage to watch.

When everything was down on the street I looked at the truck which suddenly seemed very small. But between them all by the end of the day the truck was packed solid, its high load bound with blankets and rope. No one was hurt and everything arrived in Upper Egypt with only a few dented lampshades. I was amazed yet again at the resourcefulness of these people who lack skills and opportunities but still manage to work with whatever they have at their disposal, be it only a strong back and a bit of rope. Sometimes it seems Egyptians do everything with nothing and one what can’t help wondering what they might accomplish if they only had something instead.

Maria Golia

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