Letters from Cairo

May 6, 2011 1 comment

Date: Wed, Apr 6, 2011 at 2:08 PM
Subject: The Cairo Metro experience

During the week that followed the “Revolution”, one of David’s Egyptian colleagues was bemoaning that week’s limited shuttle service to AUC and how was she going to get to the main AUC Tarir Square stop from where she was living in Garden City, what with all the re-routed traffic, etc. Surprised, because he knew exactly where she lived, David pointed out to her that she had a Metro stop not 3 blocks from her home that would take her right to the Tarir Square campus. And then David was even more surprised, when he discovered that she had no idea that there even WAS a Metro stop there! A few weeks later, David mentioned this in passing as we were having coffee with an Anglo-American friend (that’s another story! someone we knew in College Station TX and might never have run into– dog-walked, actually–  had we not stayed for the Revolution) . “Ah!” and she chuckled the knowing chuckle of one who knows, since she’s lived in the Middle East and Egypt for many years. Of course, David’s colleague wouldn’t know where it was– no matter how convenient, no matter how fast, no one here is going to take the same form of transportation as one’s maid.

And now that I take the Metro downtown on a regular basis to meet my AUC assigned Arabic tutor at the Tarir Square Campus, not to mention taking it with David, when we go to 7AM Latin Mass on Sunday at the chapel of the German Borromean Sisters, or the occasional trip downtown, I have had ample opportunity to observe the absolute truth of Fran’s observation. Indeed, except for being jostled against (woman’s car only for me unless I’m with David) an adorable Western style college student– she’d just moved back with her family from Dubai, spoke accent-less American English and shared a chuckle with me over the uncomfortable but speedy trip– we agreed that a cab would have taken us 3x longer, IF there were no traffic tie-ups and it was well before 7:45AM (rush hour starts about then and stays that way for the rest of the day)… except for this obviously affluent and attractive and independent young person, I have not a seen a single person (Egyptian, expat, tourist, young/old) of anything approaching my socio-economic level at any time. Except for yesterday on the way downtown, when a professional bureaucratic-looking sort of person got on for a brief stretch of a couple stops, understandable because I’ve notice that a lot of government office buildings are clustered around the intersections where there are Metro stops. A couple urchin-ish little boys were running amok in our car, the mother, with a toddler and assorted packages on her lap yelling and gesticulating at them, obviously a familiar scenario for her fun-loving offspring, since were utterly oblivious to her reproaches.The professional woman, a social worker?– very office casual American/European style (no head covering) in dress slacks and blazer,with briefcase-y shoulder bag– intercepted the boys who were by now throwing things –bits of these oddly bulbous red “flowers” that are now falling off the trees, banana peels– with a very self-confident authority,  and then had a polite but very intense talk with Mom. Of course, all the passengers in the center of the car with a ringside view looked on and listened in ( all chit-chat ceased) with unabashed interest, but that interest was clearly deferential and supportive
Despite it’s efficiency, and the fact that it costs only 1 Egyptian pound,I will admit that the return trip from Tarir Square, ie, at any time approximating rush hour conditions for school or work reasons, is the kind of experience that would daunt the most democratic feminist wishing to share in the lived experience of her Egyptian sisters. To be fair to the Metro system, at least a third of the cars are reserved for women riding alone– women accompanying men can and do ride in any of the non-reserved for women cars, and women are certainly free to ride in them alone– which I’ve seen happen if a woman risks missing the train altogether and is in a hurry– pretty rare however, and seems to me, so far, to be a decision based on one’s more advanced age and less attractive personal appearance. Yesterday’s ride home was certainly quite the experience, the sort of experience that had me reminding myself that I was getting home in a fraction of the time that it would take a taxi, not to mention spending that time being asphixiated by the blanket of carbon monoxide that would envelope me for almost the entire trip.
The half hour difference in my departure time from the Tarir Square stop, now that my tutor wants to meet 2X per week from 12-2, previously 3X from 12-1:30, means that I go from rush hour conditions– ie, squeezing on for standing room only, but at least being able to reach out to a hand ring or rail for support, to having no  need for said hand ring or rail because I am so tightly packed in against all my fellow feminine passengers that I’m in no danger whatsoever of losing my balance.  The first train that pulled in as I came through the turnstile was a wash– there was that last moment of opportunity before the doors closed, but even the most hardened riders stepped back to wait for the next train. In any case, I had been a come-lately for that train, so I simply positioned myself as strategically as possible for getting onto the next one. There’s an art to this, since the idea is trying to worm oneself in along the outside edge of the door against the opposing flood of exiting passengers without getting pushed out of the way altogether. Still, it would be quite a challenge, since the car was already full to almost overflowing, but I, and a few more intrepid types managed to wiggle in and around the standees already crowded at the door, happy to have a squashed 8 sq ” or so of space to barely accommodate my 5’1 3/4″ self with purse and book bag clutched to my torso. The gentler sex? Don’t you believe it! Think there’s not a centimeter or inch of space to spare? In push the heggab-clad older ladies, who manage to make room where there isn’t any by galvanizing all their heft and throwing into a violent push, nicely supplemented by very sharp elbows and some great technique (you know that head-down arm extended to ward off the opposing players that is the classic pose in football art)  that an American football coach might want to study in the interests of the refinement of the sport.
One of the advantages, if you could call it that, to such a intensely crowded travel experience is a sort of cheerful party-like atmosphere,especially, it would seem, at the homeward-bound direction of rush hour.  Of course, I am noticed as an obvious non-Egyptian of a certain age, but probably by virtue of the fact that I am doing what I’m doing, I’m not an object of paricularly intense scrutiny. So occasionally, as we’re all squashed together, a girl or young woman will catch my eye and we will smile with mutual amusement at our experience. The crowd conditions also temporarily halts the non-stop activity of the train hawkers (male or female) who mostly, it would seem, work the ladies’ cars. Lipstick, eye make up, bandaids, superglue, lottery chances, candy, you name it, including beggars (some really sad looking cases here) with their token packs of tissues. They sweep through the cars chanting their wares and dropping an item in the lap of every passenger too distracted, too inattentive, or just plain too slow to ward them off. If you’re not going to buy, the drill is to hold out the item in a very obvious and deliberate fashion, whatever it is — after passing down the length of the car, the hawker returns to finalize a purchase, but more often to take back his/her unwanted wares and move onto the next car. I’ve gotten pretty good at heading them off at the pass, but not perfect. And, since practice makes perfect, some are faster than the proverbial greased lightning: A couple weeks ago, there we all were, an entire car, holding out our gayly colored tubes of Egyptian life-savers. I have notice that there are usually a couple purchasers, depending on how useful the item is, but it’s hard to see how the hawkers make enough money to make it worth their time….I do have to hand it to the hardy resourcefulness of of one hawker (female) last week when I traveled home in the conditions as described in the previous paragraph. Accepting the inevitable, if temporary immobilization– the Hadayak Maadi and El Maadi stops do seem to bring the Helwan bound trip back to some semblance of normal crowded conditions–  but but not defeat, she had staked out a position at the central exit of out car, and holding aloft, for all of us to see, the eye makeup she was selling, she proceeded to give her spiel from what I hoped for her sake was at least a strategic stand-still…

” Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me”….so goes the sappiest vintage 1970’s  novus ordo church song ( not to be confused, or dignified, with  the term “hymn”) which, sung in church, has always made me cringe, but  would have furnished excellent and soothing background music for a little public excitement that I, and my fellow lady Metro riders at my end of the car, witnessed a few weeks ago.

To be continued

…..going to take Frodo out for a spin….also, need to do some Arabic lesson, no matter how fruitless it seems to be….I’ve been reading French books anyway– mysteries are good for easier reading and for vocabulary, and wanting to know who-done-it, is a definite incentive. And I need more Eysh (not sure how one would transliterate this), my Egyptian “pita” bread from my favorite “artisanal” spot — the kind of place where the baker, with lightning speed, pulls out the dough by the handful and slaps it down into a disk– how can they all be so amazingly uniform in size?– from a flour and dried-dough encrusted trough. Once risen they get sent through a revolving oven, just like the tortilla machine we used to visit in Brian, TX, and are caught on a wood version of a cooling rack as they come out.

Categories: Metro-Cairo