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Alex and I have just arrived in Cairo from Poland, where as Peace Corps Volunteers we wade through the debris left over from the collapse of Communism two years before. We squeeze together on a twin bed. It’s okay, we tell Mark and Gayle. Our relationship is young; we still need to feel our bodies entwined, even in the depths of sleep.
Then there’s the call to prayer. 4:30 am. The first we’ve heard. The plaintive cry starts in our dreams, and then pulls us to the surface. We fight for breath. Alex trembles in my arms. As she did (I like to think) the first time we made love. But now? I hold her tighter, trying to coax the fear from her bones. Maybe. Or I cling to her, anything to alleviate my own night tremors.
Mark needs to take out the trash and asks me to accompany him. Where? I wonder. From the living room window, the mud-colored apartment buildings of Cairo fade into haze. Here and there, like adolescent trees in the jungle, minarets reach for the sun. Somewhere beyond is the Sahara. On every flat surface (all the apartment buildings) stand volcanoes of garbage, their slopes ever widening with rivers of tin cans, plastic bags, the detritus of lives below.
We don’t go to the roof. Outside his luxury apartment, a few yards down the hall, Mark opens the door to a stairwell. Beyond the door? Stairs, yes, but also decaying orange skins, stripped chicken bones, moldy bread. Piles of it all and more, on each step, down into the darkness of the emergency exit.
Cats. A handful of the millions of strays said to live in Cairo. In ancient Egypt, the cat or miw (to see) was venerated. Statues of them stood outside doors to ward off evil spirits. When a favorite cat died, the owner shaved his eyebrows in a show of grief, and then mummified the pet, placing alongside in the tomb a bowl of milk and some mice or rats.
Mark dumps our dinner scraps in front of these 20th century cats. They don’t dive for the opened door, just lick their chops and go to work on the offering.
Mark once sent me a hand-drawn map of Cairo. He and Gayle live in Garden City, the section of the Egyptian capital that hosts most of the embassies. On the map the city center rubs against Garden City. These combined areas are about two inches square. Around them, filling up the page from edge to edge are childish scribbles. In the maelstrom Mark has written in big, black letters, “CHAOS.”
He takes Alex and me into a bit of that to look for a medieval mosque.
The unpaved streets are still muddy from the rain. Houses emerge haphazardly from the ground, walls of cracked particleboard and the odd bits of tin, windows (if any) of plastic sheeting. The better houses sport roofs of corrugated metal. Scabrous old men draped in thin, dirty burkas shuffle by, rattling their beggar cups. Child versions of them kick a deflated basketball. Mothers, bent over in the doorways to the unlit houses, wait for us to do something, say something, make a move worthy of gossip. We keep walking, kicking away plastic bottles and crinkled sheets of newspaper sticky with spoiled meat or human waste, we can’t tell. In the middle of the street two mongrels fight over a chicken, one with jaws clamped on the feet, the other on the head, pulling, growling, tearing. There is no King Solomon here.
Mark makes a sudden turn to the left, up another street just as miserable as the last.
“What’s down there?” I ask, pointing down the street from which we turned away.
“We don’t want to go down there,” he says. “It gets really bad.”
Initially, the suburb of El Fustat looks like the city dump, but no, this area is prosperous. The residents make the clay bowls used for houkas in tea shops all over Cairo. Their houses are rounded mounds, like igloos, but instead of blocks of ice, they’re constructed entirely of aluminum cans. As we pass through, dogs wag their tails and well-fed cats laze in the sun. A smiling man sticks out his head through the perfectly square opening in his soda can house.
“Come!” he says, waving us over. “You want to see?”
We peer in. It looks comfy in there, with a small table and benches, and bed rolls against the walls. A woman, head uncovered, grins at us while she peels a cucumber. A boy squats next to her and jams his thumbs into a ball of clay. Underneath lie woven carpets, like the ones for sale in the souk.
The man holds up a tea pot and asks us to please come in. We beg off; I don’t remember why. Maybe we had to be somewhere. Or maybe we suddenly felt self-conscious. As we toured this place we tripped over crumbling terra cotta pipes that ran water to the houses that occupied this space 1500 years earlier. (Who once lived in those houses, or why they left, is still a mystery.) In 1991 the man who offers us tea has no running water; the pipes were long ago broken. We don’t know how far he walks for water. Certainly we felt foolish with our day packs and half empty plastic bottles sloshing their contents.
There was sun, there was sand, but what I remember now of Cairo is the rain, thick curtains of it opening rivulets in the ribbons of tamped earth woven around the streets of Garden City. By the time Mark suggests a late dinner, it has slowed to a trickle, but the water still stands in ankle-deep puddles. In the dark we step gingerly, seeking the hold of concrete.
“This is not typical,” Mark tells us.
We flag down a taxi and slide in. When it’s clear the driver sees no difference between street and sidewalk, between green light and red, I shut my eyes and dig my nails into Alex’s wrist. We jolt to a stop near the convergence of streets at Tahrir Square.
The streets glisten with rain, sparkle with the reflection of lights. There are no hawkers here, just a few people milling about at this time of night. A neighing horse pulls a wagon, however. Steel-clad hooves clop on concrete, ricochet off the walls of banks and department stores. The horse’s driver, cowled like a monk in his winter burka, brings his load closer.
Before we turn away, towards the restaurant, the horse falls. Horseshoes are not for paved streets. One moment the horse is trotting, the next she’s on her side. The wagon tilts, taking the driver with it. Sacks of something spill to the ground. The driver hops away and lands nimbly on his feet. The horse struggles to right herself. Great gusts of air chug through her flaring nostrils. Teeth bared, she manages to plant a front hoof on the street, but the moment she puts the weight of her body on that one hoof it slides away and she once again thumps to her side, her legs tumbling to the street like firewood.
We watch and wait. Still silent, the driver steps up to the horse. He whispers something. Her heaving chest settles for just a moment.
Then the driver notices us, the three Americans. No burkas but jeans and sweatshirts. After the briefest pause he tears his gaze from us back onto the horse, and starts shouting. Egyptian Arabic? We assume, but it sounds nothing like the twittering pleas of the hucksters in the souk. The horse starts thrashing its legs. Still shouting, the driver reaches down and plucks a horsewhip from the spilled contents of the wagon.
Even in the dark I can see the orb of the horse’s upturned eye. We all three jump and gasp when the whip comes down on that eye.
Not just once, no. Again and again, the whip, a shrieking whistle, slices the air. Still the driver shouts, but now in one word sentences, each thwack across the eye an end stop. The horse’s legs, resigned to fate, no longer stab at the air, but with each strike lift away from the pavement in concert before falling again, wooden and still.
A hand grabs my shoulder, roughly steers me away. Every drop of moisture has evaporated from my throat.
“Why?” Alex cries. “Why?”
Mark is between us, pulling us down the street.
“The horse shamed him,” he said. “In front of us.”