One of the real pleasures and frustrations of being a writer is reading other people's excellent writing. It's a pleasure because writers are in love with words and it's a frustration because someone else wrote something you wish you'd written.
Such is the case with a book called Cairo: City of Sand. I found this gem and started reading it just before leaving for Cairo. I was so amused and enthralled by the writing that I contacted author Maria Golia to tell her how much I loved the book.
To make a long story short, we had coffee in Cairo just off Midan Talat Harb in the midst of downtown. Maria is a tall (6 foot), strikingly attractive American expat who has lived in Cairo for about 20 years. Her insight into the lives and survival instincts of the Cairenes is so remarkable as to be favorably reviewed by two Cairenes on Amazon. She certainly captured the Cairo that I've experienced on multiple trips there.
We spent about an hour discussing writing and Egypt and the warmth of Egyptian culture. She also talked about the many changes she's witnessed in two decades of living in Egypt. Among these is Cairo's ever-increasing population and pollution. Two days in this fascinating city will have you coughing and popping lozenges to soothe your scratchy throat.
As to the population, as Africa's largest city with somewhere around 16 million inhabitants, Cairo never seems to be as crowded as I'd expect it to be. Yes the traffic is sometimes horrific in its self-organized, slug-like flow. Yes you can feel like you're going to be crushed in a crowd at a local outdoor market (Souq al Gommah). But in general the streets don't seem crowded and it never wears on me like I would expect. I felt the same to be true in Tokyo.
I once asked an Egyptian why no one paid any attention to the traffic lights scattered around Cairo's intersections. Without hesitation he replied, "They are just for decoration."
That same man, whom I've known for over ten years now, provided another bit of Egyptian wisdom last month. We were talking about Cairo and what a great city it is. I remarked, "Om el donia," (Mother of the World) which is what Egyptians sometimes call Cairo or Egypt as a whole.
Yasser replied thoughfully, "Yes, om el donia." Then after a moment he said excitedly, "No, 'om el donia' in the past, not now. Now 'om el donia' for what? 'Om el donia' for pollution? 'Om el donia' for crowding? No, I think not 'om el donia' any more."
Alas, I seem to see a different Egypt each time I visit. More development, more tourist infrastructure, more depredation to the monuments (60 huge tour buses parked on the Giza Plateau within 100 meters of the Great Pyramid), and a more obscured Cairene horizon. It makes me wonder where it will all end.