Among the many Egyptians who extended some unusual kindness to me last year, was a portly woman on a crowded microbus; when I sat beside her near the door (which was broken and didn’t close) she unceremoniously hugged me to her side for the entire ride to be sure I didn’t fall out. Chatting one morning with a neighbourhood shop owner, he reached over, gently removed my (probably smudged) sunglasses and began cleaning them with his handkerchief. Returning home from travel one long holiday weekend when the banks were closed, I called Youssry, the grocer, to order some basics, apologetically on credit. A delivery boy brought the food and £E200 Youssry sent to tide me over. Each day, the little girls whose mother runs the snack kiosk beside my building greet me like some long lost relative, plying me with chocolates as if I were the child, not them. Admittedly, I am a foreigner, an increasingly novel sight on Cairo’s beleaguered streets. But where else do people do such things?
2013 was not a great year for Egypt, although it seemed for a moment it might be, in summer when the popular ousting of Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi might have opened the door to a more inclusive government. Instead, Egypt is at best treading water. Putting food on the table is the average citizen’s main concern with little left-over energy for politics. The young have enthusiasm but too few constructive means in which to employ it. In my downtown neighbourhood, the pitted streets are lined with teens selling T-shirts from makeshift tables, the only means they’ve found to make a living. Some sleep on their tables at night, so as not to lose their place.
I’ve lived downtown long enough to recall better times, when the streets were calmer, the sidewalks intact, the beautiful 19th-century building facades not yet fractured into garish storefronts, and when the morning air was not tainted with tear gas from protests in nearby Tahrir Square. The garbage-littered asphalt is not an uplifting sight, nor are the underpaid men in ragged green uniforms armed with brooms made of palm fronds, who manage to keep the trash from engulfing us. So why do I feel hopeful, walking in the pedestrian area surrounding the Cairo Bourse, where tanks stand guard beneath giant palms, through a maze of tables and chairs set out by café owners operating with little more that a hotplate set in a niche in the wall? Because until now, despite it all, most everyone is doing their best to keep things going. Everyone admits that this difficult time is unlikely to improve significantly soon, but still convey the sense they can outlast it, because they always have in the past.
Cairo has been rebuilding itself from its own rubble for ages. Even now, a cement mixer churns beneath my window, as workers put the finishing touches on the Cinema Radio next door, its façade restored to its original 1930s glory. A group of young men wielding adzes are tearing up old patches of sidewalk around the corner to replace with new. This year, as always, I encountered smart young people from around the world, in Cairo to study Arabic or some other subject, or to work on artistic projects. They find the city as engaging as I did when I first arrived in the 1980s. However much has been lost,however derelict its physical appearance and fraught its political landscape, the ineluctable intertwining of brick, cement and humanity called Cairo has survived the trialsof 2013 remarkably intact.