Retracing the streets of a familiar city is one of my favorite pastimes. Reliving old memories and reimagining years past—is it really how I recalled things or did my memory discolor reality?
I arrived back in Cairo last month and it has been like walking through a dream, meeting old friends in new locations and new friends in familiar ones. The past blends into the present and, in some ways, I feel as though very little has changed. Then I turn a corner and nothing is the same as it once was.
I have not been to Cairo since December 2019. In the intervening three years, the city has battled the COVID-19 crisis, a currency collapse, and a steep fall in foreign reserves as external investment drops and import bills rise and rise.
Back in late 2019, the Egyptian pound clocked in at around USD 1 to EGP 16, today USD 1 will stretch to EGP 27.5. Looking around, there are countless new buildings, new restaurants, and even new e-scooters. Yet, despite all of these changes, the city has endured for millenia; three years are unlikely to make a dent in its long and winding road.
Several nights after I arrived, I had dinner with a friend overlooking the Giza Pyramids and we chatted about everything and anything as colorful lights shone over the 5,000-year-old royal tombs. My Egyptian friend said he wouldn’t want to leave Egypt. Nowhere else could compare in terms of the people, adventure, and excitement.
At lunch, several days later, another Egyptian friend told me she has never felt such friendship, warmth, and community anywhere else in the world and, now that she lives abroad in Europe, she misses her family and is frequently homesick.
What is it about Cairo that keeps drawing me in?
I am not sure I could put my finger on it exactly. This is my fourth time in Cairo and hopefully my longest stay. I visited in June 2018 for a four-month internship, then I returned again for the Winter holidays later that year, then again for another few months after I graduated in 2019.
The first time I arrived back in the summer of 2018, I was picked up by a lively driver and dropped off at an empty apartment on the outskirts of the city. I anxiously waited for the other participants of an intercultural exchange program to join me, a mixture of Egyptian and European students. I should not have worried, as they were the friendliest and most welcoming people I had ever met. We became fast friends during the next ten days, and almost five years later, I’m living with one of them and still in contact with several more.
It is not just the people: the layers of ancient Egyptian history and vibrant modern culture pull me further in, the mix of old versus new. The way Egyptian artists blend Nubian folk songs with Western ballads, how the language continues to evolve with expressions encapsulating Egyptian-ness, and local movies holding a mirror to the unique idiosyncrasies of modern Egyptian society.
I cannot get enough of classic Egyptian cinema or contemporary music; never have I learned a language so fast or enthusiastically. I studied Arabic for years at university and made slow progress, but when I came to Cairo my Arabic improved rapidly as I learned new words and expressions every day.
Other Egyptians and foreigners have told me it is the food, the opportunities to travel easily in the country, or the weather which entices them.
As I find my feet again in Cairo, perhaps I will soon be able to give a clearer reason as to why I’m here and why I want to be here so much. However, for now, it is time to rediscover the city and all the wonders it has to offer.
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