Cairo changed my thinking about urban poverty and crime. When I first visited more than 20 years ago, I discovered a city in which millions of the poor lived in hard and grossly overcrowded conditions; yet it was possible to walk anywhere, at any time, without fear. This was so even in the City of the Dead, among whose ancient tombs half a million people lived: the most serious risk being that one would overeat from all the food proffered.
There were no Internet cafés in Cairo then, as there are now: and among other signs of modernization is the vulgarity of some of the advertising, startling in a Muslim country. Whether it is entirely wise for the Westernized middle class to insist upon flaunting its freedom so flamboyantly may be doubted, but despite my assumption that such modernization must bring an increase in crime in its wake, Cairo remains one of the safest cities of the world for a stranger to walk in, no more dangerous now than when I first visited.
It is a difficult place to reside in, however. I stayed with a middle-class Cairene family, comfortably off but not rich, whose daily life is a struggle against the heat, the dust, the noise, the traffic, and the lack of privacy. The charms of the crowded souk near the Al Azhar mosque and university, in the heart of Islamic Cairo, no doubt pall and soon do not repay the hour-long journey to reach them, through crowded streets and honking traffic, on overpasses that come within a yard of the windows of single-room tenements. Nevertheless, the ancient, affable sociability of the souk is a vision of what urban life can be.
There are deep tensions below the surface, of course. The posters extolling the achievements of President Mubarak—known sometimes as la vache qui rit on account of his uncanny resemblance to the logo of the French processed cheese of that brand name—would not be necessary if they weren’t. One manifestation of the tensions is the huge number of tourist police, somewhat down at heel but strongly armed, who guard every tourist site.
Egypt, heavily dependent on tourism, cannot afford another massacre such as the one at the Valley of the Kings a few years ago. The visitor finds himself torn between gratitude for the solicitous protection he receives and anxiety at the recollection of the way President Sadat’s own men mowed him down.
The tensions entered the heart of the family with which I stayed. My host worked in an executive capacity for a large multinational company, a chauffeur-driven BMW being among the perks of her job. Her sister, on the other hand, had turned to religion, had adopted Islamic forms of dress (like an increasing number of Egyptian women), and had married a man who regarded it as defilement to shake hands with a woman. One sister had been educated at the French lycée, the other at British and American schools. The human heart, as Somerset Maugham once said, is incalculable.
For the moment, the division in the family, as in society, is manageable. In the public sphere, a policy of live and let live prevails, protected by the undemocratic, if not fully dictatorial, Egyptian regime. A sensible compromise has emerged: a compromise I noticed on the Cairo subway system.
I got on a train with my wife and after a few moments realized that I was the odd man out—“man” being the operative word. I was the only male in the carriage crowded with women in Islamic dress. At the next station, I got out and tried to find a carriage for males. In fact, the next carriage appeared to be a male one. But I realized soon after that there were a few women in it. It was in that carriage that I experienced the only sign of hostility in my time in Egypt: a man in Islamic dress and skullcap, fingering his prayer beads, looked at me with deep hostility, as if I were the infidel incarnate.
The separation of the sexes on the Cairo subway was voluntary, not imposed. An arrangement had been found that should have satisfied everyone. Neither state-enforced full separation nor full integration could have done that. One can only hope that abstract ideas of what is right do not seize hold of men’s minds in Egypt and bring about a civil war of true horror.