Ahdaf Soueif Reflects on the City of Cairo

Cairo—a sprawling, resilient city—suddenly belongs to its citizens again. Moises Saman / Magnum

For 20 years I have shied away from writing about Cairo. It hurt too much. But the city was there, looking over my shoulder, holding up the prism through which I understood the world, inserting herself into everything I wrote. It hurt. And now, miraculously, it doesn’t. Because my city is mine again.

Well, not completely mine, because the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—which promised last Feb. 11, with tanks on the streets, to protect the revolution and oversee our transition to real democracy—has turned out be an enemy of the revolution and is impeding it in every possible way, including by killing us. Still, far more mine than it has been since 1971, and we’re working hard to reclaim it.

For 40 years Cairo was being constantly downgraded. Despite the new luxury multipurpose blocks, the marble shopping malls, the $15 million apartments, the city was disintegrating. Streets were dug up and left unpaved. Sidewalks vanished. Prime and historic locations became car parks. Streetlights dimmed. Old houses were torn down and monstrous towers built in their place. And in a noose around the city they built luxury gated communities on virtually stolen land, adorned them with water-guzzling golf courses, and called them “European Countryside” and “Beverly Hills.”

We’d wake up one morning and find a just-finished underpass dug up again, more marble and ceramics brought in to line its walls. We’d check out which M.P.s traded in marble and ceramics. Traffic signals were burnt out, and we’d wake up another morning to find the city had sprouted plastic palm trees festooned with winking red and green lightbulbs. They dammed sections of the Nile to create new waterfront residences, and land was sold from under residents’ feet to foreign “investors.” A quarter-million children lived on the streets, and some people set up shelters for them, and some made films about them, and some stole their kidneys and corneas. Police officers ran protection and drug rackets. The top judges of the country stood for two hours in silence in the street outside the Judges’ Club with their sashes and ribbons and medals on their chests. We knew then that judgment would surely come.

And Cairo unraveled with bravado. Every thread of that once tightly ordered pattern breaking loose: blue and green and red and black and every shade and texture, all sprung away from the tapestry, in disarray, tangled, knotted, vivid, sizzling, present. The city stayed awake longer, put more people on the streets. It threw up new haphazard districts, and when the government would not supply them with water or electricity, people stole them from the mains.

Small art galleries opened, and tiny performance spaces, and new bands formed across the musical spectrum. Mosques and cultural centers clutched at the derelict spaces under flyovers. Green spaces vanished, but every night the bridges would be crammed with Cairenes taking the air. We suffered a massive shortage of affordable housing, but every night you’d see a bride starring in her wedding procession in the street. Unemployment ran at 20 percent, and every evening there was singing and drumming from the cheap, bright, noisy little pleasure boats crisscrossing the river.

Trees that were not cut down refused to die. They got dustier, some of their branches grew bare, but they grew. We looked out anxiously for the giant baobab in Sheikh Marsafy Street in Zamalek, for the Indian figs on the Garden City Corniche, for what my kids called the Jurassic Park trees by the zoo. If they cut a tree down, it grew shoots. If they hammered an iron fence into its roots, the tree would lean into the iron, lean on it. If a building crowded the side of a tree, the tree grew its other side bigger, lopsided. I knew trees that couldn’t manage leaves anymore but put all they had into a once-a-year burst of pink flowers. And once I saw a tree that seemed looked after, that had just been washed: it couldn’t stop dancing.

Cairo is unique. And her streets, her Nile, her buildings, and her monuments whisper to every Cairene who’s taking part in the events that are shaping our lives and our children’s futures as I write. The city puts her lips to our ears, she tucks her arm into ours and draws close so we can feel her heartbeat and smell her scent, and we fall in with her and measure our step to hers, and we fill our eyes with her beautiful, wounded face and whisper that her memories are our memories, her fate is our fate.

Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: My City, Our Revolution was published by Bloomsbury Press in January.