A few weeks ago I left town to visit family and friends. It is always nice to take a vacation, but over the years the adjustment period to what used to be my home takes longer and longer. I left Cairo behind in a haze of sweltering heat and stepped into a world where boots and sweaters were no luxury. It took me days to adjust to the sunlight lingering until after ten at night, the full palette of green wherever I looked, the cleanliness of the streets and the disciplined way the shiny cars adhered to the traffic rules.
By the time I stopped noticing everything that was so different from my normal daily surroundings, it was time to get back on the plane. I was looking forward to go home, but on my return I found a very different city than the one I left behind. And I am still trying to adjust, yet again.
The oppressive heat of the Cairo evening and the smell of the polluted air evoked a sense of coming home, but as soon as we left the airport it was obvious things had changed. Cairo traffic has always resembled a surreal videogame with its players entering the fray displaying a stunning combination of determination and idiocy, with an added dollop of kamikazian tendencies. For many years I did not think it could get worse, but how wrong I was.
I am used to how every inch of imagined space on the road, which in no way contributes to getting to your destination faster, is hotly contested. Cabbies erupting in unsolicited angry diatribes against anyone who is perceived to deserve the blame for the ubiquitous traffic jams do not faze me. Parades of minibuses, trucks and the occasional bulldozer or two in front of a gas station, patiently waiting for non-existing diesel, had become a familiar sight, but things have deteriorated in my short absence.
These days the lines of cars in search of sustenance take up half the streets, starting hundreds of metres before gas stations, because the fuel shortage is now affecting everyone. Finding a cab to work has become a daily struggle; whereas before a driver or two might decline to take me because it would take away hours of their day, these days they want to have nothing to do with me because they do not want to waste their precious fuel on a long trip. Many a morning sees me standing at a street corner, talking to car after car like a lady of questionable morals.
Traffic jams have taken on epic proportions, but strangely enough the accompanying anger and irritation I was bracing myself for is not there. Cabbies gaze sadly out their windows as we crawl past the waiting cars, knowing full well that before long they will be joining them.
The conversations we have are different too; instead of asking me where I am from, how long I have been here and if I am married, the last question has now been replaced with an admonition to get out of town. As one succinctly put it after he heard how long I have been here: “by now you are half Egyptian, but it is time you use your other half and get out of here.”
Another thing that is very different from a few weeks ago is their view of protests. In previous times leading up to planned demonstrations, drivers would either be full of vim and vigour to join in and make their voices heard, or I would be treated to a litany of complaints about young hotheads who should find something better to do with their time. The latter half was convinced that everyone should go home and let things take their course, because all the protests did was disrupt day to day life and adversely affect their business.
Since I have been back, however, I have been warned by Egyptians from all walks of life that the upcoming first anniversary of the presidency is going to bring trouble, of the bloody kind. I have been advised to make sure I have enough food and water in the house if I decide to not leave, to make sure my locks work and maybe add another one and to not venture too far so I can get back inside quickly if needed. And as the day is getting closer the messages of doom are increasing.
The strangest thing of all is that every single cabdriver I met since I returned has ended our conversation with the same phrase, something I never thought I would hear. Make sure to be careful, they tell me, and take this seriously because we are afraid. All of us are afraid.
I never thought I would have to adjust to that.