To Discover a City, Walk

I walked the near-empty streets of Cairo on an overcast Friday afternoon and was floored by vertigo. The wind was blowing dust and trash around, transforming the street into a khaki colored dystopia. Plastic bags and sand flew across each deserted street I meandered through. The distant sounds of Friday prayer came at different angles from various mosques, reminding me where the people were. Stray dogs had their hold over the street. The Potato chip bags, cigarette butts and plastic bags that lined the street were interrupted by the occasional, used hypodermic needle. I started to feel queasy. I had never felt this way before in Cairo, but that’s because I had never walked its streets before. Tourism once accounted for 75% of Egypt’s economy, but its I wonder who would want to come here on vacation now.

I had to unlearn Egypt. It’s been a satellite in my life, orbiting and shaping me, but something I’d hardly come in contact with. My parents immigrated to the States from Egypt, and I’ve been visiting every year since I’ve been born. My visits usually only consisted of car trips but to and from family homes. I’d eat the food, and talk the politics but I was always experiencing the country from an insulated distance. I’ve recently been discovering my full-time home of New York City through aimless walking, and thought I’d do the same with Cairo.

I’d never dialogued with the living, breathing Cairo until this visit when I started walking. The first thing I’m struck by is the texture of the air. The post-revolution malaise of a disappointed optimism adds a palpable texture to it, and you can see it in tangible ways. There’s an unbelievable amount of unfinished construction. Bricks, sand, and mortar often appear in mounds near construction sites with no workers. It’s unclear if these projects are paused, or never to be completed.

Unlike construction, the informal economy is booming. In a city with few traffic lights, unemployed youth have elected themselves as de facto crossing guards. They stand in the middle of traffic directing flows for tips, having few prospects anywhere else. They stand in any parking structure, guiding cars in and out as well. They stand in the middle of four-lane highway traffic selling Kleenex, Roses and Santa hats with an insistence and a fearlessness that is shocking. The informal economy and Cairo as a whole revolves around cars, which is why walking in it is so revelatory.

I’m not sure if I was too ignorant or too young to see the grievances that led to the Arab Spring because they are painfully apparent to the walker. The tension and electricity that people felt in 2010 have been replaced with placidity, people have resigned themselves to the way things are and to the fact that they won’t change. There is no shortage of finger-pointing. Depending on who you ask Hillary Clinton, The Muslim Brotherhood, Barack Obama, Israel, the United States at large, the Egyptian People at large, Saudi Arabia or any combination thereof are to blame for the state of Egypt.

The country’s dramatically high inflation rate is one metric to see the crushed optimism. There is, of course, a contradiction. While the dereliction and failing economy are evident on the streets, Cairo maintains well-insulated pockets of wealth. There are the gorgeous gated communities just outside Cairo, the highly sanitized hotels on the Nile, and the exclusive Italian restaurants where waiters properly pronounce ‘Funghi’ form a parallel escape for wealthy cosmopolitan Egyptians to live in. They love an Egypt, just not the one that exists now.

I don’t suppose to know how to fix the country. Safety is the primary focus of the current regime, but safety alone won’t bring back the tourists. Cairo needs serious reforms, to clean up the streets and educate the population. The high unemployment certainly seems like a good solution to the garbage problem, or vice versa. If I had Abdel Fatah Al Sisi’s ear, I would tell him one thing: get out of the car every once in a while, and walk. Then you will start to see.

About the Author

Ismail Ibrahim is a student at New York University studying Journalism and Politics. He grew up across three continents and hopes to continue establishing new homes across the globe. Ismail writes about travel, urban planning, and politics; and loves walking, public parks, and cooking.

Photography and story by Ismail Ibrahim