Letter from Cairo October 2012

By Maria Golia…

Cairenes are not fussy about appearances. People, cars, shops, streets: everything is a bit run down, especially these days when the public’s attention is divided between following political developments and putting food on the table, both complicated tasks. It’s hard keeping track of it all: the chess-like power struggle between the Islamist president and the military, the question of how the next constitution will be written, and when the elections (yes, more elections) will take place to restore the recently elected but now dissolved parliament.

Meanwhile the price of necessities keeps rising: rice, bread, cooking oil, vegetables, simple things you can’t do without. People are worried; even during the big feast following the Ramadan fast (a grueling endeavor in the heat) you could feel the strain just beneath the celebratory surface. Politicians are jockeying energetically for position, but no new jobs are on the horizon. Water shortages, electricity cuts and unattainable food: the stress adds up and renders people’s behavior erratic.

Last month I took a carpet to be cleaned. It was a gift from the oasis of Siwa, beautifully hand-woven in stripes of alternating white and red. The dyes aren’t colorfast, so I had to cross the river to the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek to find a dry-cleaner. The person behind the counter examined the carpet and said ‘no problem’.

‘Not washed, no water’ I emphasized, ‘of course not’ he said and named a price, 25USD, not cheap, but the rug was filthy.

A couple of weeks later I brought it home, unfolded it and noticed something strange. There were unnaturally white patches in the midst of the white stripes, which were still a dirty grey. I touched them: it was chalk.

Someone had taken the trouble to scribble with it here and there to imply whiteness. The carpet hadn’t been cleaned at all, only shaken, or from the defeated looks of it, left as Cairenes sometimes do, in the middle of the street for cars to drive over, as opposed to beating it themselves.

At first I marveled at the naïveté of this quick fix, which even someone with poor eyesight in a dark room could not fail to notice. I recalled the recent power cuts, great swaths of the city left in fan-less darkness for sweltering hours, and felt pity. Then I got mad, because I’d spent time and paid money. But anger was pointless. I knew what had happened. The man didn’t have the right equipment but needed the money and figured he’d find a way to do it and did, as far as he was concerned. There was little point in hauling it back across the river to argue. So I did what most Egyptians would do in my situation, something we’ve all done countless times before: I let it go.

I relate this story because in Egypt this kind of acquiescence extends to politics, indeed to anything deemed beyond one’s direct control. Egypt’s leaders, people will say, may not be perfect but we must do our best with what we’ve got. And if the results are disappointing, well, nothing new there. Indeed there is sense that despite the last 18 months’ tumult the country is somehow back where it started. The dream of some great renewal, a quick fix, has receded and people once again grateful to just survive.