I wait for less than a minute before a white taxi pulls up by my side. ‘Masr al-Gedīdah min fadlak,’ I tell the driver, sliding into the sun-warmed leather seat. I roll down the window, swig a thick gulp of air swollen with heat and smog, and sit in anticipation of the eight mile jaunt from the ex-pat haven of Zamalek to the buzzing district of Heliopolis.
I’m in Cairo on a work project, and I brace myself for the daily commute in the notorious Cairene traffic. We begin well. To my right sprawls the Opera House with its seven theatres built in the late 1980s. The city’s former nineteenth century opera house, which staged the first ever performance of Verdi’s Aida, was entirely destroyed in a fire. I imagine the ghostly soprano voices resonating within its former grandeur – the building was intended to be an enduring symbol of the arts. Egypt continues to lead the Arab world in a spectrum of arts and culture, from opera to cinema, many dubbing the Cairo-based film industry as the ‘Hollywood of the Middle East’.
We soon leave the island of Zamalek, crossing over a watery fraction of the Nile’s four thousand miles, and drive past the burnt-out shell of the National Democratic Party’s former headquarters. The building is scarred from the flames of Egyptian discontent, an ashen monument to the ‘Friday of Rage’. Soaring into the skyline nearby are dog-eared election posters of Ahmed Shafiq. A girl from the office told me how her mother urges her to vote for him. Why? ‘Because he offers security, he knows what the people need.’ Her colleagues urge her to vote Mohammed Mursi – whom they dub the ‘lesser evil’. After nearly thirty years of iron-rule under Mubarak, and the eighteen day uprising that toppled him, I wonder what Egypt’s future holds where the two leading candidates have reputations marred with controversy and doubt: Shafiq was Hosni Mubarak’s last Prime-Minister, and reportedly continues to regard him as a ‘role model’, while the uncharismatic Mursi leads the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. And despite not being its first-choice presidential candidate – scepticism prevails about the Brotherhood’s true intentions and lack of experience. The voter turnout was lower than expected, with many queuing for hours but being unable to cast their vote. Their ‘revolutionary’ vote, as well as the ‘Islamist’ vote, an Egyptian student tells me, was split due to the large number of candidates in the first round of elections, leaving room for remnants of the former regime like Shafiq to break through to the second round.
The traffic lights go red. The cars thronging about my taxi look like they have emerged from a schoolyard scrap – scratched, bruised, half-falling off bumpers, wing mirrors with heads lowered heavy with shame. Veteran Fiats from the 70s jolt between younger, fitter Hyundais and Toyotas. Green light; a brief opportunity of space, and the taxi driver makes a mad Misri dash for it, dodging men with briefcases who run to jump onto crowded microbuses. We accelerate for a full 30 seconds before hitting 0kph again.
We crawl past an endless string of shops and mat’ams. A boy, not more than eight or nine years old, is busy ironing men’s shirts in a doorless shop-front. Further on, men languidly lurk in shadowy slivers, waiting for nothing; a young couple draw close, the boy’s lips near the hijab-covered ear of his beloved, whispering sweet nothings; fearless children flog tissue boxes at the traffic lights, their vacant eyes expecting nothing. These are some of the fifty thousand or more vulnerable street children entangled in the city’s maze, some are barely a few years old before they become victims of violence, disease and drug abuse.
The taxi makes its way through the legendary Tahrir Square, strewn with makeshift tents and litter from the night before that tell of young crowds who gathered to protest election results. In the background, the Egyptian Museum blushes a deeper shade of pink beneath the sun’s fixed gaze. During the revolution, artefacts were stolen or destroyed which led to some revolutionaries standing guard outside to protect it. A friend tells me even now, several items have mismatching labels, ‘nothing seems to have order,’ she sighs, ‘Egypt has changed’. Perched to one side of the square, a little kiosk bemusedly sells postcards of Umm Kulthum, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussain in a bizarre mix of nostalgia for the past.
Rolling on through Downtown Cairo on Talaat Harb Street, I snatch fleeting glances of French neo-classical style buildings. These were commissioned by Ismail Pasha, the grandson of Muhammad Ali Pasha – commander in the Ottoman army and widely regarded as the modern founder of Egypt. Through Europeanising the state, Muhammad Ali Pasha’s reforms included restructuring society, and forming a modern military base. I think of him now as we make our way through today’s military area, nearing Heliopolis. Two workers atop a crane basket are busy polishing a marble sign of the Egyptian flag, the weary eagle winks in the sun’s rays. Ever since the military took control last year, there has been a lack of order and a rise of restless voices – life has not improved for the Egyptian people. A large imposing poster resounding military propaganda shows a soldier with gun by side, holding a baby who looks quizzically up at his smiling face. The tagline smugly reads, ‘Jaysh wa shaab eid wahda’ – ‘The people and the army are one hand’.
We finally arrive at our destination. ‘Bi kam?’ ‘Talateen guinea’, the driver mumbles, roughly £3 for a forty five minute journey. My day in Cairo has just begun.