by Samira Ali BinDaair

They ask me why I like Cairo
blankets of pollution, time worn streets,
crowds rushing to catch a moment of certainty
in a world woven with cotton threads of opaque arabesque,
footholds loose on shifting sands walking the desert of want,
searching for the promised Oasis to rest tired spirits,
drink the sweet waters of the Spring.
Alas, all is stained with the blood of martyrs.
They died with a smile on their faces,
hopes in their hearts
for the stars to shine upon their blazing trail of sacrifice.

They ask me what do I see in this shadowed city
full of pathos.
I see lips always breaking into smiles
that hide centuries of pain and struggle
from Tutankhamun to the new kings in military uniforms.
Tahrir square was not born today, I tell them,
as they look at me in perplexity,
each grain of sand a Kaleidescope of Nasser, Hassan Al-Bana, Saad Zaghlul, Nagib Mahfouz, Yahya Haqi, Tawfiq Hakim, Yusuf Idris,
and the list is endless.
Amina and Um Hashim piled the firewood onto the hot stones
and little Tareq Mona and Omar sat around the tray
to feast on mushaltit dripping with the honey of bygone days.

I walk on the banks of the Nile
and I see only the golden hues of the Sunset
and smell the sweet fragrance of the Lotus with my heart.
I watch Amr Alas sailing on the Nile carrying the great message.
Yes I see only warm hearts that went to many battles to save Palestine,
while their women toiled
in the winding alleys of Sayida Zainab.
The Bashas in Zamalek and Garden City sat shivering
in their designer coats,
afraid of the change knocking on their doors,
ruffling their luxurious feathers.

I hear the refrains of the song “Al-ard itkalam Araby.”
Alas, I look around the stalls in Al-Ataba
and see “Made in China” written everywhere.
I see the long queue of hungry souls, toothless,
waiting their turn for the bowl of ful mudammas and the bread full of gravel.
They do not mind.

The new Bashas sit at long tables stretching towards the horizon.
I forgive the taxi driver for taking extra guineas.
I see the long queue of young graduates standing at closed doors unrelenting in their merciless rejection.
I see the soul of Egypt being auctioned at international charity bazaars
as Faust’s Lucifer looks on with a smile
… 1948 … 1967 … 1982 become mere numbers
in the melting pot and loss of identity.
I see the long list of beating hearts lying crushed
in their prison cells.
As I sit in Fishawy sipping sahlab,
I look at the hidden script on the aged walls.
I feel helpless as I read the messages
from those who sat here before me and dreamt the same dreams.

Alas, times have changed,
the grey on my head is more pronounced.
I cannot answer their call
only sit here with nostalgia
wondering about what might have been.
I hear the familiar refrains from Umm Kulthum,
imagine her long scarf like our hearts
being ripped into shreds
as she sings on
and we ponder our fate
hanging in the balance.
I see my father smoking his pipe and listening to Sawt Al-Arab
as Jamal AbdulNasser’s powerful voice resounds
through the long corridors of the Arab world,
breaking the chains of bondage.

Will they obliterate the purity of Tahrir Square
awakened from the slumber of decades?
Can they erase the lines of history
that defy the lies of the landed gentry?
Can they arrest the flow of the Nile
that drowned the mighty Pharaoh while Prophet Moses passed his way.

Yes, I no longer see the shabby streets of Shubra and Bulaq.
I see the beautiful lush lands of Al-Fayum and Aswan.
I see the complex designs of the mashrabiyas that is as intricate as Egypt
as I walk incognito in Khan Al-Khalily
and friendly faces smile at me,
such an odd conglomeration of buyers, sellers, tourists,
and people simply there to escape loneliness.
I see the light shining on Al-Hussein,
the call of the Muezzin to prayer
allays the fears in my heart
and my lips form a silent prayer
as I walk on towards the new horizon.
I go to Diwan bookstore and they tell me its only a bookstore.
I tell them it’s a shrine of people
recording the past,
writing the future,
making the present bearable.
I go to Ain Shams and look beyond its littered floors.
I see the radiance of spirits and minds
which defy the present,
like chicks struggling out of the straitjacket of their shells.

Yes, this is the Egypt I love,
as my spirit comes alive on streets
that tell their tales of joy and sorrow entwined in an eternal embrace
defying time and space.
Yes, Tahrir Square was not born today
and will stand the test of time
as papi mami and tutti frutty become history and give way to Wael Ghunaim
and Salma Fatma and Nawara Hisham Algokh.

After all, can they take away the Sun?
It will still shine in the morning
no matter what.
Can they steal the stars from the sky?
They will still be there
as I cruise on the Nile.
Can they take away the oxygen we breathe
or change the colours of the flowers I see every morning?

I tell myself “al-dunya laysa bikhayr.”
I still do not know why I love Egypt,
so how can they understand?