Living in a city with tens of millions of others means you are surrounded by people, noise, smells, dirt and buildings. From shacks to multi-star hotels, living quarters come in all shapes and sizes in Cairo and they form the background against which we live our lives. It is easy to forget that what is but a backdrop to some is the stark reality of life to others. Opposites abound everywhere you look, and not least of all in the buildings the city is made up of.
The Cairo skyline varies from tall, well finished towers in the more affluent neighbourhoods to crumbling third story rooftops in the poorer areas of town and everything in between. Walking or driving around Cairo you cannot help but notice the forests of satellite dishes and the random wires plunging down the sides and fronts of buildings, connecting inhabitants to electricity, phone lines and of course cable television.
The sand and pollution has turned most buildings a dirty greyish-beige, while painted balconies and shutters provide small splashes of colour amid the dreariness. Laundry hangs off dusty balconies, helped by the desert temperatures to win the struggle of staying clean long enough in the ubiquitous pollution to dry. While from above the similarities of the neighbourhoods would stand out most clearly, from the ground level the experience is very different.
Where I live gnarled old trees line the wide streets, providing shade and greenery and an illusion of being in a healthy environment. Large villas and mostly low-rise apartment blocks make up a neighbourhood that feels more like a suburb than part of the city. The villas are family homes for the more well to do Cairenes, as the collections of SUVs, sleek German cars and the latest modern versions of classics indicate. On weekends you can find foreign families walking down the streets with toddlers in strollers and predictable golden retrievers. All in all it feels a little like a soft drink commercial.
In another part of the city most of the streets are narrow and unpaved, the houses lean close together, often tilting to one side or the other and only the fronts of the buildings are plastered if at all. A lot of the apartments in the two or three story houses lack windows and have only shutters and the inhabitants seem to have a preference for mint green walls and fluorescent lighting.
Small carts and stalls sell street food and at any time of day or night there are many kids around who seem to move in droves without adult supervision, chattering while keeping to a pecking order that only they understand. Little workshops, tire shops and the occasional veggie stall line the streets and most men wear galabeyas while the women are predominantly veiled.
The differences between my neighbourhood and the second one could not be bigger, yet they exist only a mere two blocks from each other. A bridge clearly marks the boundaries between the two areas that live in stark contrasts side by side.
Another remarkable thing you notice in the taller buildings around Cairo is the gaping openings of windowless apartments. Some buildings are mere skeletons of floors and walls, patiently waiting for the next phase of the building process.
In many buildings though you will find an inexplicable combination of finished apartments, that from the wear and tear of mosquito nets and the fading of the paint of the shutters have obviously been in existence for quite some time, and the gaping holes of a building under construction. I have seen a building where a random third, sixth, partial seventh and ninth floor were inhabited, yet the floors and apartment below, above and in between were completely empty. I have been told there is a practical reason for this haphazardness; different apartments belong to different people and they finish it when time and finances allows.
Despite that reality, to me the division of full and empty looks both random and like an analogy of Egyptian society at large. Without being aware of the financial details of any particular building, the empty floors and apartments follow no order or logic. The insulated, completed apartments exist like small islands connected to all conveniences yet surrounded by a sea of emptiness. It is in this bareness that many struggle to survive, without protection from the elements and in Egypt the weather is only the beginning of their problems.
The corruption that is associated with the handing out of permits, arbitrary decisions from those in power and complete disregard of safety regulations have lead to the collapse of many buildings; in only the past few days many inhabitants died in the rubble when their homes collapsed.
The obvious lack of a logical plan to fill out complete floors before moving on to the next one reminds me of the illogical decisions those in power make to try and solve problems that have already arisen and then for the short term only.
Where and how we live says something about us, as well as about the society we live in. Maybe it is time to listen to what stories they tell, as rooftops fill with rubble, walls crumble and complete buildings collapse.