(In)visible cities: An Egyptian awakening

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

There she was, heading towards the airport exit. Shaken but happy, many thoughts raced through her head: was it the right choice to leave home, family and friends, to pursue her dreams and the career she wanted? There she was, in a City she had never been to, but which could give her so much. She got out of the taxi and was walking through the majestic, dizzying monumental towers of Bab Zuweilat, wandering aimlessly, prey to thoughts. She looked at the houses: the buildings and the granite greyness of modernity clashed with the variety of colours of fruits, handicrafts and clothes of the Khan el Khalil market. 

She let herself plunge in the complexity of the City, estranged from the present. She was thinking of the great past of that civilisation, of that territory, imagining life at that time, when suddenly the chaos of the Bazaar made her feel lost and confused amidst unknown, indecipherable voices. She felt isolated and excluded from everything around her. A seller was trying to convince her to buy a brightly coloured dress. Or so, she imagined. Oh, she didn’t speak Arabic! For the job she got, only English was required. 

Suddenly, she returned to reality, to the already great homesickness, and worries returned to her head. The shady, labyrinthine streets of the old City seemed to be getting narrower and narrower with no way out. Just as well, her conflicting and opposite feelings seemed to have no solution. She continued to let herself being carried along the streets at the mercy of her feelings and worries. All of a sudden, intense smells and spicy scents awakened her senses. She followed the scents past the crowded stalls, which offered all kinds of colours and perfumes. 

Bewitched by these scents, she was about to sit down and finally enjoy a fragrant dish when a heavy air, polluted by the traffic of the large roads lining the little streets she was walking along, overpowered and cancelled out every scent in which she had been enveloped up to that moment. She felt desperately suffocated and assailed by nostalgia for the tree-lined, bright streets of her village located in the green lung of Italy. Escaping from that suffocating and oppressive air, she found herself unexpectedly in the wide space of Tahrir Square, familiar yet unfamiliar. It was perhaps the only area of the City with which she felt the slightest connection. 

She remembered how, ten years earlier, the news of the various Arab Springs had played in front of the television and how the one in Tahrir Square had shaken her. She remembered the sheer number of participants and the courage of the proposals they put forward, the clear idea of a different, better future. Every corner of the City reminded her of a precise moment she saw on television or in the newspapers. She could almost hear the voices of the young, the old, all the demonstrators calling for change. She imagined Ramy Essam, the singer-songwriter of the protest, on stage singing. And then the sound of car horns, of the City’s frenetic confusion brought her back to the present, to the “hic et nunc”. The cars. It seemed almost strange to see them in that square, which in her mind belonged to people. She wistfully wondered what the result of the protests in the City had been, what had become of the ideals that had explosively swept the square ten years earlier. 

It was in Tahrir Square that Emma realised that the City could welcome her. She understood that Cairo, she could now call it by its name, was not just a place, but a complex entity, full of contrasts that coexisted with each other daily, like her desires. Emma felt understood. The sense of despair and confusion that had accompanied her in her first encounter with Cairo up to that moment was slowly dissipating, leaving room for calmness and a desire to explore other spaces, streets and alleys of Cairo. She took al-Muizz way, headed for her new home, ready and determined to embark on this new adventure in her life. She understood that everything in the world has its complexity, from cities to life choices.

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