Quickstop in Cairo

By NEssim Stevenson

A direct flight from Geneva lands me in Cairo, the elder sister of the city I grew up in, Beirut. After sailing through customs despite all the camera gear I was carrying, rehearsed answers to their potential questioning still buzzing in my mind, I stepped out of the airport. Greeted by a waft of warm dry air and the customary hail of ‘Taxi?!’, I made my way to a friendly looking face and asked if he would take me to Zamalek, an island at the heart of the city. My attempt at bargaining over the fare was useless - ‘Inflation!’. Recognising defeat, I threw my 21kg carapace into the back of Moussa’s car and hopped in. 

As we navigated our way through the crowded airport carpark, I prepared myself, for high-adrenaline Egyptian driving. At the exit of the parking, two lanes merged into one. A car to our left, level with ours, refused to let us pass, resulting in a slow crunch of a collision. Moussa leapt out of the car furiously bellowing, a police man standing by told them both to get back in their cars and move on. Moussa obliged, slamming the door shut and pressing down hard on the accelerator. Ahead a pedestrian made his way unsuspectingly across the street, his companion had to pull him out of our way at the very last second. Moussa rolls down his window, lights a cigarette, and with thick Egyptian sarcasm and half a grin comments ‘Switzerland must be nice!’.

At the press centre the next morning, our press passes weren’t ready for us to pick up. They needed to be stamped by the director, and the director wasn’t in yet. We crossed the street to visit the Egyptian museum - one of my favourite places in this city. We walked from room to room, all of which are full of astonishingly intricate and beautiful pieces of ancient art. A cat slept lazily on a three thousand year old sphinx. Back in the press centre, we were ushered into the director’s office, which had low windows overlooking the glittering Nile, pale avocado wallpaper peeling. The moodir (director) sat at his desk smoking a cigarette, spewing smoke into the airless room. After questioning us about our video project for a while, he remarked that I looked tired, I replied that I’d had a big lunch - Mouloukhiyye. We spoke about Egyptian food for a while, he then stamped our passes and handed them to us. 

After a surprisingly smooth 4-day shoot, my time in Cairo had come to a close. Walid, our driver for the past week, manoeuvred his way through dense Cairo traffic towards the airport. After listening to the radio for a while, he reaches over and switches it off. ‘Are you married?’. ‘No I’m not, I’m still young, only 24’. He replies that if I was Egyptian I’d be married already. 

This exchange launches us into a long discussion comparing marriage and love in Europe and Egypt, he told me about how he met his wife and asked her father to marry her. ‘In Egypt you don’t always marry for love, it’s not just your decision, the family and the community also decide.’ We showed each other photos of our families - his nephew is an officer in the army.

After six months living between Amsterdam and Geneva, it was good to be back in that part of the world. The early summer heat defrosted my bones, and the warmth of the interactions, blunt communications, chaos and character rekindled a part of me that felt as if it had been in hibernation for some time. There’s so much more to a place than ‘functionality’.

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Nessim Stevenson