By Karma Pippin
Cairo is where sand and dust become one, the finest sand blowing into the city from the desert while the city slowly grinds itself into dust. A combination of these particles comes in from the balcony to cloud the surface of a table in as little as three hours.
Each day I would remove a little of the desert from our home and shove it back outside, until I began to suspect that I actually recognized specific particles, restless to return. Suddenly, housework in this city seemed a ritual of little use: each day I removed dust from one spot and throwing it down a few feet away and afterward, felt relieved.
There is much sweeping of the outdoor dust in Cairo, leaving patterns from the long-stranded brooms on the city’s narrow streets and sidewalks. These sporadic attempts at neatness stand side by side with embedded rubbish and odd bits of garbage ground year after year into the broken pavement. Outside the city, at the step pyramid at Saqqara, I once watched a young man pointlessly sweeping the sand before the tomb of the vizier Mereruka with this same kind of long broom, diligently getting rid of the cigarette butts.
In the thoroughfares of central Cairo, workers can be found sweeping or shaking large carpets, dodging buses, abandoning the mats, returning to them when they can. We once saw a boy wading through the general dust, avoiding carts, leaping in for a shake, then out quickly, during the gritty khamseen wind of a spring season’s sandstorm. From eight floors up, we would watch cars at one of the city’s busiest intersections running over the carpets of the Harpers, an American University couple, across the street. Carpets must be put out in the street so that wheels can mechanically beat dust out and make them black with dust ground in. Black, then white again. Traditionally Persian carpets are blacked in the street, we were told, to soften the nap.
We lived in Cairo for fifteen years from 1965 to 1980. My husband, Gene taught English and comparative literature at the American University in Cairo and I took classes there. Our first apartment was downtown just opposite the major newspaper, Al-Ahram, and later we moved to Garden City, one of two embassy neighborhoods, where our apartment overlooked the Greek and Indonesian embassies. We often rose in the very early morning to explore the medieval monuments in the historic quarter as it awakened and occasionally taxied out to the pyramids at Giza just as dawn was breaking, when we could have them all to ourselves. I studied Egyptian hieroglyphics for a total of six years. Classes on Islamic architecture and art at A.U.C. included the very buildings we saw in our explorations. The medieval city is considered to have more monuments than any other worldwide except for Rome. And modern Cairo holds 1001 cafes.
Cairo is a shifting city. There are no archeological layers, as one finds, so strikingly, in Rome where a Baroque basilica is likely to have been built over an ancient crypt over a temple. The Cairene sand is too giving to support these hidden sandwiches of time. What you see on the surface is all there is. When I visited in 1985, pavements downtown were so broken that one glimpsed the sand just underneath, as if the city were about to pack up and move once more, and pitch tents further on. The first city, Fostat, had been a camp-city and when not reusing the splendid buildings of their predecessors Cairo’s early Islamic dynasties tended to march north to fresh ground.
Sand, someone once observed, is ‘pulverized history’. The dust of the city is composed of mummies, Coptic cloth, Islamic walls, ancient bronze rings. My husband collected these antique rings in Athens and then in Cairo. If one is dropped, it shatters and the interior looks like granulated sugar. The past is not as sturdy as one might expect!
In Athens, I had missed the way Italy assaulted the senses with colors, shapes and textures. In Cairo, I looked back to the way Athens was at every moment coming to you, its music and its emphatic white buildings and evergreens, so stark in that amazingly clear air. That clear air of long ago. Too visible, this city sometimes seemed as if everything it had was exposed to your gaze and being very Greek, performing its Greekness for you all the time along with its vivid neighborhood dramas. Cairo was not clear, not visually. Dust was dulling things already a dull-earth hue. Our artist neighbor in the penthouse opposite, Verda Harper, commented that one could paint all of Cairo—domes, minarets, monumental gates, the Citadel, and the modern city as well as the mud brick villages up and down the Nile and sometimes the Nile itself—with only tubes of brown.
Of course there is that eternal thread of greenest green flanking the river, the famously fertile fields running thickly, thinly, almost continuously from the Delta in the north to Luxor in the south, separating the Nile from the desert.
During the khamseen season, the “50 days” of potential dust storms, the sky grows darker, sometimes almost topaz. And just before dawn at any season a mist rises from the river. This haze over the already indistinct outline of the city suggests the hidden, complex. One can never get to the bottom of Egypt. Not because it is “eastern” but because of the complexity of its layers and its many conquerors.
Then there are the layers of Cairo’s acoustics. I could hear the swish-swish of the street sweeper going about his work nine flights down and often jumped out of my chair with the sense that he was standing right behind me. Other times, I could pick out the cadence of my husband’s sneeze from the cacophony in the street below. That’s the city’s aural clarity. Bits of sound carried on endless bits of dust.
Years ago we heard a charming scientific theory: Stones absorb the sounds of everyday life. They are thus repositories of centuries of conversations, which no one, as yet, knows how to release. Would their pulverization set off a rush of ancient babble?
No other spot on earth could provide a richer mingling of human voices from the past than this ancient land. The intellectual exchanges of Napoleon’s savants, the calls to prayer, the professional storytellers in the cafes, workmen’s calls, a clamor and cacophony of chattering and shouts in Latin, Greek, Persian, Armenian, Albanian, Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, Italian and other tongues. And out of town the ancient priests might be heard chanting before the ka-statue of the Pharoah who is entering his pyramid and eternity.
Karma Pippin lived and travelled in the Mediterranean and Middle east for nearly twenty years, though the 1970s. Upon returning to the United State, she worked as a senior cataloguer at the auction house, Butterfield & Butterfield in 17-19th century travel, and latest as an archivist in the performing arts collection at Mills College.