Timeless Cairo

If all of Cairo had to be distilled into one distinct impression, I believe it would be Fishawi's cafe.

It is a dusty, run-down place, really just a series of cubicles adorned with baroque chandeliers, mirrors, and half-torn mesharabiyyas (Arab wooden screens) which hang from grimy thresholds.

Far from the glass and concrete high-rises of downtown Cairo, it is tucked into one of the back alleys of the medieval city, surrounded by the looming forms of the neighborhood's sagging Fatimid and Mameluke monuments, neglected relics of the golden period of Islam in Egypt.

Fishawi was the cafe's owner in the early part of the century, and a picture of him hangs in a dark corner of the cafe.

It is a terrible painting. Fishawi, a heavyset man with a curling mustache, is seated lopsided on a horse, wearing a gallabiya and a tarboosh.

The proportions are all wrong and the execution clumsy, but the portrait seems peculiarly suited to its time and place.

His cafe was at one time a meeting place for the greats of modern Egyptian literature - Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris, Tewfik Hakim - who would sit for hours , arguing and discussing literary and social themes. Fishawi is dead and the great authors have aged, or have been driven away by the tourists. Now they frequent the newer and more posh cafes by the Nile.

I meet Ali, a friend of mine, often at Fishawi's. He has a PhD in English literature, and by day works at an American establishment downtown. By night he sheds these perplexing attributes and becomes a Sufi mystic, writing strange, abstract stories in Arabic.

One of Ali's friends at Fishawi's is Nazira, the resident sheikha. She dresses elegantly in a black velveteen peasant smock, with a white kerchief wrapped around her serene, wrinkled face. Her faded eyes are ridged with kohl.

Nazira listens to the troubles of young university girls who seek her out in the cafe and passes out candy to the customers from a burlap sack.

There is also a man at Fishawi's who, wearing his dirty gallabiya, walks two steps and bows to Allah, over and over, working his way through the cafe, oblivious of his surroundings. There is a husky shoeshine boy who everyone knows is the police informer, and a beggar who chases little boys with his stick when they imitate his walk.

It is a timeless world, almost, where Abdul the waiter brings mint tea on battered brass trays to customers who have come to Fishawi's for years.

One is almost unaware of Egypt's problems here. There are so many, and they are all so complicated and intertwined.

At first glance, the streets of Cairo are bursting with food stands, sweets, fruit vendors. Only when one passes a government cooperative, where people line up for hours and inch their way inside the dilapidated premises for their share of subsidized food, does a starker picture begin to appear.

Egypt, the richest agricultural country in the world in Roman times, now cannot feed itself, and imports at least 40 percent of its food. Every year that percentage increases as the population grows by more than a million.

Shortages crop up periodically, more often for the poor. For one six-week period we could not find rice, sold only in the government co-op. Another time it was sugar. Then soap or lentils disappear.

Summer is here and a suffocating layer of heat has descended on this dust-coated city, caught in a vise between two desert plateaus. Sometimes, with the heat and car horns, exhaust fumes, and the relentless crush of bodies, you feel you are living in an anthill.

The mundane business of day-to-day living in Cairo can be sorely trying. For foreigners, finding a furnished flat at an affordable price is not the nearly impossible task it is for Egyptians. Maintaining a flat in Cairo, though, is no easy job.

We were fortunate to have a telephone in ours. Egyptians speak of waiting up to 14 years to have a phone installed, because of the dire shortage of phone lines in the country.

The garbage is collected from the building's dirty and hazardous central shaft nicknamed the ''zift garden'' (garbage garden) by the Zabaleen, or garbage children, who sift through the refuse by hand for anything reusable.

Water and electricity shortages occur frequently in summer. For some reason, more sewers are bursting this summer than in previous years, flooding the streets with raw, smelly sewage. In a poor area in old Cairo recently, people waited for three days without water in a river of sewage for the municipal authorities to come and clean up the mess.

No one did anything and, fed up, they rioted. The governor of Cairo sent a spokesman to calm them down, but they pelted him with stones. When the riot spilled over onto the corniche road by the Nile and the rioters set up barricades, the governor finally sent in high-pressure pumps to clean up the sewage.

The prime minister is now proposing that construction of new buildings in the city be postponed for two to five years while the municipal authorities try to get deteriorating water, sewage, and electricity services under control.

In the early months of the Hosni Mubarak presidency, my Egyptian friends were in high spirits. Here was a new man, they said, with integrity and determination. Poor problems are on their way to being solved.

Now as the months drag on and the government fails to present a new program, and new government appointees turn out to be the same gray faces passing through the bureaucratic turnstile, a dispiritedness has descended on them.

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