Egyptian Insights II - Cairo 2000



roof turned floor

on cardboard boxes

red brick cubes framed

in concrete matrix

dust whirling in the mid-afternoon sun

light brown icing on a

colony of carmine cubes

antennae protruding from

unfinished roofs just incomplete floors

on top of other people's ceilings

like a hive of upturned

quadrangular ants their legs sticking out

and unmoving in the hot air

maybe in a year or two or ten

someone will have the money to build

another floor fresh metal feelers

curiously peeking out of concrete pillars

the present ones already rust-baked

and dust-covered buried in the walls

of the flat of the new inhabitants

another floor turned

roof fresh bricks eagerly awaiting

the afternoon for their initiation with

Cairo's ubiquitous yellow dust brought in from

the western desert.

How many more floors until the first one gives way?


Between Nasser and Sadat

The Metro's rhythmic rattling mingles with the

chattering of a hundred women's voices

words tumbling through the thick hot stale air

with efforts trying to reach their recipients

hands whirling through the air, gestures

telling stories instead of faces

behind black blue green veils

every story enhanced becomes

a thousand times more important

accompanied by waving arms and

yelps of excitement, annoyance or sadness

when a moment of silence like

an invisible bubble of utter

speechlessness manifests itself framed in bright orange of

a carriage door at the end of the aisle, just a small

moment a black-veiled woman, black gauze even

covering her eyes, her black-gloved hands holding

a book clad in worn black leather

golden lettering spelling out Qur'an - in

the rattling wind of open train windows all sound gone -

the moment of silence only disturbed

by what sounds like a butterfly

buzzing in imitation of a fly, words

fluttering at the edge of perception twirling

in a low voice

lingering in the silence as if all the chit-chat of women's voices

had been blocked out by a single woman's voice

reciting holy words in the morning in the first carriage on a Cairo Metro train.


'ala tuul! (Al-Qahira taxi ride)

"Habibi" squealing from a worn-out speaker

one of a dozen tapes scattered on a dusty carpet of blue plush draped around a gloves compartment without lid

a small golden ornament with Arabic squiggles on it suspended from a once-golden cord safely tied to the rear mirror turns and shakes and tingles with little bells probably praising Allah and asking for guidance -

in obtaining money from tourists, avoiding crashes and maintaining the car and your sanity

three people sweating in a black and white taxi that has surely been around for a while has seen better days surely during last century

happily the driver, singing along to his favourite tunes on tape, changes lanes - from the far left to the far right, all four, on a street that only has two lanes

car's horns like muezzins - after a while you try to ignore them works fine for calls to prayer but the honking around you just seems to go on and on and on and on another language another one that I can only understand in tiny bits sometimes you understand what tune the driver has to honk in order to tell the one in front to get out of the way RIGHT NOW and sometimes you can tell him directions - 'ala tuul, straight on!

but then the world of understanding collapses again into unintelligible chaos of horns and shouting plastic covered seats, the pride of your driver - you can wash them with a sponge! stick to your butt only seconds after sitting

down toxic fumes crawling in from outside through open windows that have long since lost the ability to close again eternally open

suicidal driving you might think and the first five minutes are the worst, but then insh' Allah! you get used to it

christmas tree tinsel and blinking multicoloured lights adorn the back of the car and if you are lucky to sit in the back you can also look at the beautiful photos sealed in the seat condoms in front of you

bumpy ride and nothing for the faint of heart if the goal was chasing pedestrians every one of the battered black and white tin boxes on wobbly wheels would be a winner

Allah looks after his children - they might shout and run and curse but don't get run over

Allah aleyk! another favourite tune the driver wails along to and starts clapping his hands nearly misses a bus


Cairo the Merciless

Mummies at the Museum don't frighten you?

Long dead kings, queens, commoners,

tastefully displayed in low-lighted specially made glass cases,

right temperature and combination of gases supplied,

and no one allowed to utter a sound at this

pious display of human transience

change of scenery

back alley in Cairo, downtown

but no tourists ever visit this place without a name

one among countless unnamed alleys connecting

two of the main streets many fashionable places lining them

places to be and to be seen at,

in that alley rubbish heaps rub against run-down houses' walls,

ankle-deep dust covers the ground

made of century-old trampled mud,

rotting vegetables and plastic bottles line the path,

and in a corner lies

a mummy.

A shock for sure, as the little cat must have died weeks, months, years ago

of exhaustion maybe some unknown sickness

looking like a sleeping kitten

were it not for the shape of its corpse. The bloating

of dead bodies long gone, all that remains

now flat like an inflatable toy forgotten in a corner

of the garden in summer discovered on a cold winter's night

the cat lying on its side

a perfect little mummy unwrapped with its

slightly ruffled tabby fur and its little head

resting against an empty plastic water bottle,

"Baraka", blessing that is, even the bugs and maggots are gone.

Just an empty husk of what once was

the object of veneration for a whole country

Bastet the Great, what has become of you?


The Hour of the Happy Cleaning Folk

I've had another hard hot day

of lurking about in Al-Qahira, the city

once more victorious in defeating cold European logic

hustlebustling brimming with life in the evening and now this -

the airport at night, in preparation

for an early morning flight

strange people scattered in the looming hall,

some sleeping on benches

some on their bags or in bags

apparently been sleeping for a few hours already

the minutes seem to play backgammon with the seconds in a timeless coffee-house of stretching hours

I struggle to stay awake

I left my alarm clock with my maid at the hotel

small stupid gift but she was so happy

cleaning people start pouring water

from big buckets on the floor, two scrubbing,

two mopping up in a bizarre ballet,

four men and four brooms in an endless puddle of

increasingly dirty water when

one of them comes sliding towards me on my lonely bench

at the edge of the hall I notice

he is happily singing to himself "Allah aleyk!"

that song again

seems to be a big hit around here

totally oblivious to his surroundings

skidding across the wet floor

like an ice skater in blue dungarees

and worn-out sandals trying to impress

invisible judges

probably the minutes and seconds

along with the hours playing dominoes now and

again this city makes me smile to hell with European logic


Midan Midnight

Terminal silence at the midan

as a longlong train crawls through a clutter of cars like a giant rectangular metal caterpillar pushing through a battlefield of freshly killed tin bugs at night.

Twenty minutes.

And pandemonium starts again.


Back to Poems Main Page