March 15, 2012

Journey from Cairo Airport to the center of the City

Cairo Egypt | Africa's Largest City
There is an ancient Egyptian proverb that says “Whoever drinks of the waters of the Nile will return repeatedly.” I could not help recalling this saying when, in the spring of 1975, after being gone only a short time, I found myself again visiting the fascinating city of Cairo.

Cairo Egypt
Cairo seemed to demand that I come back. I did not even have much trouble getting through the formalities at the airport, even though Cairo is notorious for its tough immigration procedures. Handing out slightly flamboyant greetings learned from Egyptian friends in my far-from-fluent Arabic, I was through in no time at all. I was so happy to be back that the splendid moustache sported by the authoritative and serious-looking immigration official seemed to my mind more a symbol of friendliness than one of dignity and power.

Once outside the airport terminal, I looked for a taxi. Taxis in Cairo tend to be black with a distinguishing white stripe, and are generally either big Mercedes Benzes or the smaller Fiats. I was looking forward to the comfort of riding in one of the big Mercedes, but here the luck I had had with the immigration authorities ran out, and the only taxi I could find was a small, old jalopy. But it was better than nothing, and somehow, forcing my legs into an area far too small for them, I got in and sank back into the seat.

Unexpectedly, a policeman got into the front passenger seat beside the driver. He was a big fellow, and as he got in I heard the seat groan and watched the taxi fdl up. He seemed quite pleased with the prospect of a free lift into town, but I was not at all pleased with the fact that he had said nothing at all to me. With a rage that was probably intensified by the fierce sunlight, my temper began to rise.

“Oh, I take it you’re going to pay half the fare!” I demanded, trying to make myself sound as hostile as possible.
“I’m a police officer. I’ve just come off duty, and I’m on my way home. I live in town and you’re going in the same direction, so what difference does it make to you?” was his reasoning. It didn’t happen to be mine.
“I hired this taxi, and I have the right to ride in it where I like and how I like!”
“You’re already in the taxi, so you’re not going to lose any¬thing,” he answered. It was clear that this chap had no intention of backing down.
The altercation continued for a few minutes. I was furious, but what could I do?

Suddenly it dawned on me that during the short time I had been away from Cairo I had forgotten how to relax and enjoy myself in this city. In Tokyo or New York, the workings of society are finely tuned. One goes as far as the contract states one should go and no further. In Cairo, the cold, practical approach does not take one far. Cairo society is different. It is down-to- earth, easygoing and sometimes a bit lacking in delicacy. It is as though people here, who have lived close to the harshness of the desert and the historical remains of thousands of years, recognize deep in their hearts how powerless the individual really is. As a result, there is a strong sense of interdependence and the importance of helping one another.

Cairo Egypt - Egyptian Museum
As these thoughts occurred to me, I closed my eyes and resigned myself to the situation. I was definitely back in Cairo. I am certain that the Arabic word maareish must have been created for just such an occasion. Maareish implies the attitude of “Why worry—it can’t be helped—it doesn’t matter.” Maareish has been inbred in the Arabs for at least 1,300 years. If a foreigner in an Arab country does not find and cling to the spirit of maareish, he will wind up with frayed nerves and ulcers. As I sat in the taxi, the down-to-earth, common sense atmosphere of Cairo gradually came back to me.

So I paused and muttered “Maareish” several times to the police officer and agreed to drop him off at his home. With that the atmosphere in the taxi brightened.

I sat back in the seat, looking out the window. On both sides well-tended palm and eucalyptus trees lined the road. Crowds of Egyptians in long, kaftan-like robes called galabia flashed by our vehicle. We reached Cairo Station, with its huge statue of Ramses II, some ten meters tall and weighing sixty-three tons, welcoming visitors to Egypt the way the Statue of Liberty does in New York Harbor.

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