In Cairo, bridges over the Nile double as lovers' lane

After a hot day in one of the world’s most crowded cities, many young Cairenes come to escape the heat as well as their parents’ disapproving gaze.

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    Bridge romance: On evenings in downtown Cairo, young couples are often seen strolling across the Qasr El Nil bridge.
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When the weather turns hot here, which it often does well into November, Egyptians make a point of staying indoors to hide from the sun. But when night falls, they flood streets and bridges to catch a cool river breeze and watch boats pass on the Nile.

Few cities are as hot and crowded as Cairo, and with more than 40 percent of its inhabitants living on less than $2 a day, few can afford to escape.

So they come to places like Qasr El Nil bridge, which comes alive on hot evenings with families and young couples. They come to lean into the breeze against its railings, chat with friends, and climb onto the giant gilded lions that stand watch over it from each end.

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For the young, the bridge offers the chance to hide in plain sight. They hold hands and chat in low tones far from disapproving families and neighbors, in a society where dating is taboo.

Watching the sunset from the bridge one evening, a young Egyptian man named Saad explains the special appeal it holds for him and Asmaa. He says they are newlyweds, but neither wears a ring. She stands shyly by his side, one hand discreetly but firmly clasped over the other in a way that hides the finger where a wedding ring should be.

They live in the pretty Nile-side city of Mansoura, a town with bridges and boardwalks of its own. But in the summer they travel here once a month to spend a weekend in the capital, where they sit inside downtown cafes by day and stroll the bridge at night.

"Even though Mansoura is pretty, too, we still come to Cairo because it is special to us. There is just a different feel here," says Saad.

"We go to other places, too, beaches on the coast, but Cairo is still a special vacation for us," he adds, looking over the water moving slowly beneath them. "Up on the bridge is an open space, and the wind is so beautiful at night."

By some estimates, almost 20 million people live in Cairo, and it is the largest city in both Africa and the Islamic world. While places like Qasr El Nil offer some form of privacy to couples like Saad and Asmaa, it is far from solitude.

Other couples line the railing down the whole length of the bridge, and a heavy stream of people parades behind them: young men and little girls, mustachioed police officers in dirty and ill-fitting uniforms, street vendors aggressively hawking individual plastic-wrapped roses and paper cups full of salty, wet beans.

The bridge rumbles and shakes under the weight of the cars and buses that whiz behind them. In the water underneath, motorboats with bright flashing lights take people on short river cruises, blaring raucous pop music through scratchy speakers the whole way.

Mohamed is older than many others on the bridge, and often comes here alone to lean his fishing rod against the railing. Once, his family would come to spend evenings with him here, but now his kids think they are too old for things like that.

"My kids are getting a little old for it now," he sighs, tugging on the line. "They've started to get bored now, but when they were younger we used to have a good time here, just walking up and down the bridge."

"I still come here whenever I'm off work, though, to fish or just to enjoy the view," he adds. "Fishing here is good, especially in the summer."

Walid is a journalist at a local newspaper, and likes to sneak away to the bridge after a stressful day at work. Office life here is hectic: Machines break, appointments fall through, and very little gets done. It wears him out.

"I like to come here after I finish a long day of work, but I can usually only get away for 10 or 15 minutes," he says. "I smell the fresh air, smoke a couple of cigarettes, and relax. It makes me feel like I haven't just been working all day."

The bridge empties into Tahrir Square, one of Cairo's most important public spaces. It is ringed by once-graceful buildings in a Euro-Ottoman style and is home to both the country's national museum and a 13-story tower that houses Egypt's bureaucratic heart. Between them lies a gridlocked sea of beat-up taxis and aging private cars.

Looking over downtown from his spot on the bridge, Walid likes to focus on the architecture.

"Looking at the architecture, and all of its history, is relaxing for me, almost therapeutic," he says, "It makes me feel like I am really living in Cairo, and not just in the middle of all this chaos."

But others on the bridge like the chaos that swirls around them, even here.

Marwa stops here every day on the walk from her office to the nearby subway. She takes vacations to the coast sometimes, too, but the bridge is special to her.

"Taking a vacation is expensive, but that's OK because whenever I leave Cairo I only miss it," she says, watching the cars race toward downtown. "I miss the pollution and the traffic and the chaos. I miss it because I'm used to it all.

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