Cairo Song | Wiam El-Tamami | Granta

Cairo Song

Wiam El-Tamami

‘as in not much new /
as in no news is good news /
as in the war is over; has been for decades now /
– Victoria Adukwei Bulley, ‘not quiet as in quiet but’


Cairo. From my parents’ seventh-floor balcony I watch pigeons swoop and dive, as frantic as the city below them. Cairo is a relentless roar. A barrage of car horns, motors rushing and rumbling. Gangs of street dogs, barking, snarling, stalking the neighborhood. Scraping, drilling, grinding, vendors yelling out their wares, planes cleaving low through the sky. The air is an acrid haze, almost gritty, tinged with smoke.

There is a song about Cairo that my mother loves. It begins: ‘This is Cairo: the sorceress, the enchantress; the uproarious, the sleepless; the sheltering, the shameless.’ The whole song is an unfolding of love, of twisted tenderness, of impossibility – and all of it is true.


My mother. I’m lying in her bed, in the dark, my head in her lap. The last time I was here was a year and a half ago, in the summer of 2021; now it is nearing the end of December 2022. The darkness in the room was my request: I’m trying to soothe away a headache that has dogged me since I arrived. We have lit a candle and are listening to Erik Satie as she strokes my hair. My mother is a woman of strong and specific loves: mangoes; white chocolate; barbecued corn, sweet and dry and charred. And us. When I was a child, she was always able, with her firmness and efficiency and warmth, to make frightening things go away.

Now my mother tells me about things falling apart. She talks in a quiet voice about new banking regulations, the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, shops devoid of merchandise, the price of the most basic goods inflating beyond all recognition or sense. I listen as the piano plays, as the candle flickers.


February 11, 2011. Has it been almost twelve years already? That day, my mother and I were at a protest in front of the massive monolith of Maspero, the state television and radio building. The day before, Mubarak had delivered a speech declaring that he would not step down. We were continuing to protest, chanting our lungs out, en masse, among hundreds of thousands of others all around Egypt, others who were now brethren, in this uprising that had broken open our country and our lives: Bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity! The people demand the downfall of the regime!

My mother and I decided to take a break. We managed to find a taxi. It was late afternoon; the sun must have still been bright in the sky. We were sitting in the cab, listening to the radio, when the transmission was suddenly interrupted and an announcement came crackling through – the sonorous voice of the newly appointed vice president, a shadowy man named Omar Suleiman: ‘President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of the president of the republic . . .’

I remember hugging each other, something widening inside us. I remember being unable to speak, I remember the driver praying out loud, I remember my mother’s voice breaking through its usual decorum, crying out: Take us back, please, take us back to Tahrir!


Dream. Growing up, the news was constantly blaring out from the television. My mother had been among the first cohort of graduates, in 1975, from the Department of Journalism in Cairo University’s newly inaugurated Institute of Mass Communication. She had grown up in the Nasser era: a time of soaring idealism, of dreams that seemed within reach. Who was it that said that a cynic is an idealist who’s become disillusioned?

When the revolution broke out in 2011, I felt that, for my mother, it was a second chance at an old dream that had long been buried, that had seemed beyond rekindling.

I was twenty-seven. Mubarak had been in power for thirty years. That was just the way things were: greed, corruption, repression, brutality, stagnation, apathy. And then came the dream, and our collective surge toward it.

My mother doesn’t watch television anymore. Every independent voice has been squeezed out over the past years, and only a cabaret of talking heads remains.

Next door, in the living room, from the early morning until hours after midnight, the television blares.


My father. He makes me a large plateful of fuul for breakfast, with little dishes of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, arugula and olives arranged around it, and two round loaves of baladi bread. Egyptian flatbread is unlike any other: dusted with bran, the top layer thin and speckled with dark spots, the bottom layer soft and moreish. I smell the bread, the rough and sweet and grainy smell of it, my first in a long time. My father asks me how his fuul is, as he always does, every morning that I’m there – and he doesn’t take anything less than a compliment for an answer.

He plies me with fruit, with date cookies from the bakery. He brings me oranges, brings me pickles, brings me peanuts. I find myself gazing into his face, my breath held, trying and not trying to trace the changes. He walks more stiffly now, does not seem to go out much – maybe twice a week: a brief walk to the mosque on Friday for the communal prayers; another one to pick up fresh bread from the bakery, produce from the fruit-and-vegetable stall, and a few other groceries, if needed – cheese, lentils, olives, black tea – from the corner shop next door. Cigarettes were once a vital part of these rounds; he was a chain-smoker for much of his life. But he finally quit smoking after his kidney transplant six years ago.

He likes to tell stories, and he creates them (with generous embellishment) out of anything, even the modest fabric of his now-small life and the bits of news he receives from his siblings’ daily phone calls. On the phone, when I’m far away, he tells me about family news, about the football results, and about what’s in season. He waxes hyperbolical about guavas (like honey!), about gorgeous pomegranates and sweet green grapes. In the summer, he buys me mangoes, hoping that I will come. When I don’t come, he tells me that the mangoes he bought for me are in the freezer, waiting for me.

Now that I’m here, he hands me the telephone: your aunt wants to say hello. He hands me the telephone: your uncle wants to say hello. He hands me the telephone: your other aunt wants to say hello. They were once eight siblings: four girls and four boys, a tight-knit gang. Three of them died in their thirties and forties: accidents, illness. My youngest aunt has just emigrated to the US. Many of my cousins are now living abroad. There’s a contingent in California; a few others are scattered across the Arabian Gulf. Two are in Berlin, like me.

My father was once a beloved doctor. Now retired, his television is his temple. He watches football, and volleyball, and squash, and handball, and tennis, and swimming, and athletics; and in between sports, usually late at night or just after daybreak, he watches the talking heads – the ‘drummers’, as they’re called in Egyptian Arabic, el-tabballeen: the percussionists of the regime. He watches them closely, peering at the screen. He counts money, tallies up the football scores, watches the daily newsreel of state achievements and progress, reads the official newspapers, scanning every bit of information. He memorizes the statistics about all the new megaprojects, the new construction works, the new administrative capital, stores it all in his head.



Sara. When I get into the Uber to go see her, the driver glances down as the destination appears on his phone, then turns to me in alarm: Where are we going?

In the spring of 2014, in the aftermath of the military takeover that rendered our dream stillborn, I left Egypt. I moved to Istanbul, where I found myself in the wake of the Gezi movement. I found myself surrounded by people with whom I connected deeply and immediately, whose questions of life seemed to mirror mine. We had all experienced a living, waking dream: a utopia of collective power, agency, oneness – and now we were experiencing the nightmarish aftermath. And yet there we were, all of us who had been part of it, our lives forever changed, broken open in more ways than we could express or delineate.

In 2016, I found myself suddenly summoned back to Cairo: my father was about to have his kidney transplant. I ended up leaving my life in Istanbul in mid-air and staying in Cairo for almost a year, and it was during that time that I lived with Sara.

Since then, I have wanted to write about this apartment: this home that we once shared and which I was now visiting again. About the roof terrace bathed in sunlight, the birdsong and bougainvillea, the geckos darting across the walls. The frangipani that bursts forth with sublime flowers in the spring; the pomegranate tree that bears miniature fruit.

Inside, there are many more plants, cozy assortments of succulents, colorful cushions and rugs and books, pottery from a Fayoum village. A kitchen with fresh herbs and a turquoise wall.

Downstairs, the road is lined with smashed, disemboweled cars, vehicles coughing up their entrails, glass sprayed on the tarmac. Sara’s small road is barricaded, and at the mouth of the street is a checkpoint, guarded by several men with guns. Sara lives – we lived – next door to a police station. In the time that I lived in this beautiful home that was mostly a haven, I would often hear things. Shouting. Sometimes wailing. At least once, screaming.

Today, as Sara and I hang out in the living room and catch up, we’re not sure if the ululations we can hear are coming from the police station – the family of a freed detainee? – or from a wedding at the hotel across the road.


Police Day. Police stations in Egypt are feared and loathsome places of possible torture, death, disappearances: nightmare incarnate. Police brutality was the initial impetus for the revolution, the spark that lit the great fire. In the summer of 2010, a young man in Alexandria named Khaled Said was beaten to death in broad daylight by the police. There were attempts to cover it up, lies about the cause of death, until photos emerged of his face in the morgue, mangled beyond recognition.

I was not political. It was the first protest I’d ever participated in. We all wore black and stood along the waterfront, in Cairo and Alexandria and other cities around Egypt, observing an hour of silence over the life and death of Khaled Said. We did not know until then that there was a ‘we’. And that there were so many of us. So many of us who needed so much to change.


Meal. Sara and I cook together, as we love to do. I bought some ingredients for our meal on the way; when I went to pay and the man at the cashier told me the total, I could not believe my ears, though I tried to keep a straight face. The food cost three times more than the money I had in my hand.

We slice aubergines, tomatoes and onions into a tagine, anoint them with oil and spices, and cook them low and slow, until the aubergines are succulent and falling apart. We make a salad with red cabbage, a mash of sweet potatoes, a dip with white beans and beetroot. We sit down to eat, delighting in the meal we’ve created. But as I look down at my plate, I feel something like shame – shame that we can still eat this way, can still fill our table.



Morning calls. Every summer as a child, I came to Cairo. Summertime meant waking up in my grandmother’s flat: the dappled light in the room, sun streaming through trees. It meant morning calls – each street hawker boasted a different one – in response to which my grandmother would lower her basket from the balcony to collect a few kilos of tomatoes or bundles of greens. A world thrumming with life, with noise and crowds, street markets piled high with vegetables, families weaving through cars and donkey carts stalled in traffic, the latest summer pop album blaring out of microbuses as the passengers dangled arms out of windows and wiped away sweat from their brows. An army of cousins and co-conspirators, and endless rounds of tea and fruit and sweets in between long family meals, people filling every nook of that apartment, the apartment that my father had grown up in.

It was the antithesis of the hushed, air-conditioned sterility of the place we lived in for the rest of the year: Kuwait, an oil-rich state in the Arabian Gulf that my parents had moved to shortly after they were married, seeking out better job opportunities. My parents lived and worked and raised their two children in a place where they could never belong, saving their money and dreams for the time when they would return to the homeland they had left when they were young.

My father would tell stories of his daily stroll as a student from his home to Cairo University among peaceful, tree-lined avenues. Of his adventures with his siblings: sneaking into the cinema, the sandwiches they would buy at a street stall afterwards, all for a few piasters. The family had eight children and humble means, but still managed to live well and eat well and share much of what they had with others: my grandparents’ small home was always open, the table always laid, the rooms always filled with innumerable guests.

When my parents finally returned – my mother in 2000, my father in 2010 – they returned to a different place than the one they had left behind: a country disfigured, a city almost unlivable, choked with traffic, ear-splitting noise, unbreathable air and 20 million people jostling for space. A country mired in corruption and repression and simmering with discontent – on the cusp of boiling over. Just months after my father’s return, the country erupted into revolution.



Disorientation. A feeling of disorientation has accompanied me every time I’ve returned to Cairo over the past years. This time, the feeling is more visceral than ever, because I keep getting lost. There are new bridges and flyovers blocking off and cutting through, into and over familiar streets, disfiguring old neighborhoods, like a perpetual merry-go-round. The garden running down the middle of my parents’ street, where street cats lolled and a few trees grew, has been removed, demolished by bulldozers, along with so many of the precious few green spaces and gardens, already so scarce, around the city – razed to the ground to make way for more asphalt and concrete. Meanwhile, there’s a glitzy new mall near my parents’ place: the flashing sign outside boasts a starbucks 24-hr drive-thru. The historic neighborhood of Korba, fifteen minutes away, is now filled with sleek new establishments with names like Cai-Brew and Nomadic Espresso Bar, selling green smoothies and specialty coffees for 60, 70, 80 pounds.

An old woman sits outside, crumpled over, begging.


Milkmen. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, I remember Cairo as a place of boxy old Fiat cars. There were still milkmen doing rounds of the neighborhoods on bicycles. They had large metal canisters filled with a disgusting substance that my parents first boiled and then made us drink: milk that had a skin and a smell. It was nothing like the milk we had in Kuwait, which came in cartons and was perfectly uniform, white and mild – almost as inoffensive as water. Unlike the huge, gleaming supermarkets in Kuwait, where nothing grew and everything was imported, there were only small grocery stores-cum-delis in Egypt, shops that smelled of rumi cheese and basterma. They sold, to our surprise and disappointment, no Twix or Bounty or Snickers, only locally produced BiscoMisr treats with faded wrappers. Fruits and vegetables were bought at markets and street stalls, and you had to squeeze and haggle and choose, and there were only certain things available in certain seasons. The fast-food chains we grew up with in Kuwait were nowhere to be found.


Commercials. Watching football with my father today, I make a note of the halftime commercials: ads for Cheetos, for KFC-flavored chips, for a new energy drink called Sting; for Coca-Cola (‘Burgers taste better with Coca-Cola’), Doritos, Mirinda; for Vodafone (starring Mo Salah) and Orange (starring Ahmed Saad); for nachos, and for Coca-Cola again (‘Pizza tastes better with Coca-Cola’).

Billboards engulf the city, lining bridges and streets, advertising junk food and cell-phone operators and gated communities. And hospitals. The last time I was in Egypt, the entire Alexandria corniche seemed lined with billboards for hospitals. Illness has become omnipresent here, in every household, in the young as well as old. There are 24-hour pharmacies on every corner. Egyptians feed themselves enormous amounts of medication every day. I am acutely aware of how much lower life expectancy is here than it would be in a European country. How six of my mother’s university friends – all in their sixties – passed away in the space of just two months last year, four of them from Covid-related complications.


Luxury. Cairo’s relentlessness is not new. But I remember, when I was younger, having a sense of some of these burdens being shared: everyone was stuck in the same traffic, the sun bearing down equally and mercilessly on all. Rich neighborhoods lay side by side with poorer ones. It was hard to turn a blind eye to the suffering. But over the past fifteen years or so, Greater Cairo has begun to sprawl far out into the desert in every direction: new gated communities, highways and shopping malls, private universities and exclusive schools. Nothing like the Cairo I knew; everything like the Arabian Gulf I grew up in.

There are whole generations of Egyptians now growing up like this, in these newly constructed satellite cities, these new gated communities – far removed from the realities of others. My cousin, Hania, lives in 6 October City. Her sister just graduated from one of the new private universities with a degree in ‘luxury brand management’. Hania herself is still at university, studying for a degree in business administration. She tells me she wanted to study political science and economics, but her parents talked her out of it: oh no, it’s not a good time to study that.



Disbelief. Inflation. Shortages. Debt. Everyone, everywhere, is talking about the soaring prices. In homes, in shops, at mealtimes, in phone conversations, on public transport, on social media: el-as‘aar. The value of the Egyptian pound is plummeting, the economy is in free fall, the country is in a crisis of foreign debt, which has tripled over the last ten years. Less than two weeks after I arrive, the pound is devalued yet again, the third devaluation in a year – it has lost half its value in the last ten months. For the millions of people in this country who live from hand to mouth, the burden is unimaginable. The price of the most basic goods is skyrocketing, with no end in sight. The price of bread, eggs, potatoes has surged in the last few days, is a ludicrous hike from last week: an unknowable frenzy of figures, like flickering cards in a slot machine. There are widespread shortages, even of basic staples such as rice. In my parents’ apartment, in this middle-class neighborhood, I hear an unfamiliar call from a street hawker, a man with a cart and a loudspeaker. I listen more closely and realize he is going around buying used cooking oil for fifteen pounds per liter. I have never seen that before; neither have my parents, but little surprises them now. My mother says he is selling it to restaurants, ‘so they can feed it back to us’. My father says no, no, they’re just selling it to factories for use in machinery.

My mother shows me a post on her Facebook feed: ‘Runaway millionaire arrested!’ The mugshot shows a man clutching a crate of eggs and a bottle of cooking oil.

As I leave the flat, I catch a glimpse of something my father is watching on television: a conference about the Suez Canal, a government official rattling off facts and figures of soaring optimism, proof of soaring progress.

How can we bear this, a taxi driver says to me. How can we keep bearing this?


Disaster. I’m on my way to a swimming pool close to my parents’ place when we come to a roadblock. A paving machine had struck a gas pipe under one of the new bridges, and it exploded. Cars were set on fire; three people lost their lives.

That afternoon I hear my father telling a friend about the incident on the phone, in passing, before moving on to discuss the Mo Salah match that evening. Disaster is so common it has become almost routine. Buildings collapse, trains crash, bridges explode and burn, planes fall out of the sky.

There is such an inherent precarity woven into every day here, a sense of tenuousness, of the unknowability of even the most immediate future, of life always being lived on a knife-edge.



Weather. My father is watching the news, a litany of climate disaster. Torrential rains in the Philippines. Flash floods in Saudi Arabia. A state of emergency declared in New York. In Egypt, the season is unseasonably warm. Barbecued sweetcorn is still available on street corners. And because I had missed summer, the all-important mango season, my mother brings one home: a December mango. It is big and bloated, its skin flushed with a reddish tint: a strange variety we’ve never seen before.

On the phone, my aunt reminisces about those tiny strawberries whose scent will fill a room; sometimes, she says, it’s still possible to find them. I think of small, fragrant guavas; of yostafandi baladi with its wrinkled skin and citrus tang, so different from the watery mandarins and clementines that have flooded Egypt’s markets.


Crisis. Some of my closest friendships in Egypt now are those that were forged during the uprising and in the years that followed. Mona is a botanist who has been turning her attention to issues of food sovereignty and food heritage over the past years. When I go to see her, she’s in the middle of writing a report about Egypt’s food crisis. She tells me about exports and imports, about the conditions imposed by the IMF, about food subsidy cards, previously provided to 70 percent of the population, now reduced to 38 percent. About the price of bread, eggs and poultry doubling. About chicks slaughtered en masse because there was no feed; about whole harvests of potatoes left to rot because it was cheaper than transporting them. She tells me we import 70–80 percent of our fava beans now – our fuul, the national dish of Egypt – and 100 percent of our lentils, another vital staple. She tells me Egypt has become the number one importer of wheat in the world. The more I hear, the more my chest feels constricted, my lungs folding in. Doing this research has been exciting, she says, and heartbreaking.



Hunger. I arrived in Egypt with a clear mind, a lightness within. But the longer I stay, the more I feel submerged. I am waking up later and later. My body feels tense and painful, my shoulders tight as a fist. Everything is becoming muddied, bloodied with the mess of being here. At the beginning, I ate the things I had missed. I ate mahshi kromb, stuffed cabbage rolls. I ate my father’s fuul. I ate molokhiyya. I ate black-eyed peas with rice: Egyptian white rice, starchy and soft and buttery-sweet, cooked with little tendrils of vermicelli. But the longer I stay, the more my appetite shrinks. Though I’m a cook, I find myself unable to do anything but boil things. I boil potatoes, boil carrots, eat them with canned chickpeas, some olive oil. I don’t know how I feel anymore, my connection with my own body slipping away. I am not hungry and not sated. I am hungry, but unable to stomach anything. What kind of hunger is this?


Pool. Every other day, I go swimming. I swim to stay afloat. To be held. To be weightless.

It’s women’s day at the pool today. I watch a group of women, young and middle-aged, dancing by the side of the pool. It’s a Cairo version of a Zumba class, the music a mix of mahraganat and shaabi. I watch them delight in dancing, I revel in the music, I want to join them, and I find myself crying. Crying at these hip-rolling rhythms, this capacity for joy and pleasure and laughter and playfulness and life that is so immense in this country, despite everything.

I see this everywhere. The creativity, resourcefulness and incredible talent for improvisation in Egypt. An aliveness that exists and persists, despite everything. It’s a conversation I’ve had with friends in the past: is it possible that the enormous burdens of life here become a kind of resistance training? Part of me is buoyed by this idea, and part of me can no longer bear to hear it. Over years of living here, I saw how hard my body had to work to filter out so much, how my energy and capacities were slashed down into a fraction of what they could be. And I am one of the more privileged ones. How much of our life energy and potential do we have to give up in order to keep pushing against a system and a state that are brutally and perpetually pitted against us?

That is why I left. I could no longer bear to live within a system that is actively rigged against people, against life, against human flourishing.


Familiar and unbearable. In this awful and bewildering and relentless city, I am beginning to feel once again like I am in purgatory. What if the closest place, the underside of your own skin, is also the most unbearable?

And yet I have missed this so much. Tripping into conversations with strangers, warmly, spontaneously. How quick Egyptians are to laughter, to jokes. And then there is the anger, the aggression, the heaviness, the crushing weight of everything, a cynicism so deep, built up like sedimentary rock over generations of suffering. And then there is a lightness, a buoyancy despite everything, an abiding faith that somehow, God will take care of it all, and life will go on.

I cuddle up to my mother’s warmth and we watch a comedy show together that I missed last Ramadan and I am laughing again. Afterwards, I still feel chock-full of tears.



Writing. It’s been several years since I have published anything about Egypt. I was thrust into the silence of perceived danger. Thrust into the silence of how I could possibly begin to explain. And yet, and yet. In the words of Charles Bukowski: ‘Often it is the only / thing / between you and / impossibility.’


Silence. There are an estimated 60,000 prisoners of conscience in Egypt’s prisons. Enough people to fill an entire city, languishing under lock and key. Dozens of new prisons have been built in Egypt over the past ten years. And how many tens or hundreds of thousands of others are in exile, unable to return? And how many tens or hundreds of thousands of others have left of their own volition, but not willingly?


Yes, but. So many of us wanted so much to change, and now everything
has changed for us. Society was broken open by that time of dreaming, of reaching. Spirits broken, hearts broken, lives broken, and yet also barriers broken; barriers between ourselves and authority, between ourselves and action, between ourselves and power; between who we thought we were, or what we were capable of, or what lives we thought we were expected to lead; between ourselves and society, between ourselves and received ideas, between us and our own sense of self; a broken, brittle awakening. And we are still here, an enormous web of connections that has been formed, forged. There is still a sense of allegiance, a sense of belonging. We still follow those of us who have been imprisoned. We still mourn our dead, of which there have been many – those who have been killed, along with those who have died suddenly and prematurely, lost to illness, heart attacks, suicide. A kind of community remains, which, for now, exists mostly in a realm we call virtual. I am reminded of James Wright’s words: ‘We know we are shining, / though we cannot see each other.’

The poem – ‘Yes, But’ – begins with these lines:

We are not exhausted. We are not angry, or lonely,
Or sick at heart.
We are in love lightly, lightly. We know we are shining,
Though we cannot see one another.
The wind doesn’t scatter us,
Because our very lungs have fallen and drifted
Away like leaves [. . .]
Long ago.


Sometimes, perhaps often, we are exhausted. Angry, lonely, sick at heart. But most of us are still alive. Still working, wondering, creating families and friendships. We are still feeling, listening, thinking, speaking. We are still living, and sharing our lives. We are still watching. And what we have experienced and witnessed, created and been part of, continues to ripple through our lives, and through the world, in waves traceable and untraceable. And our dream was not new. What we fought for, reached for, tried for continues to be fought for by so many others around the world.


Hania. I am thinking of my cousin Hania, who is twenty years old, the one who wanted to study political science and economics and is now studying business administration at a private university. I remember our conversation, when she took me up to the roof of her house in 6 October City and showed me a public park nearby, which has been taken over to make way for some exclusive new development for the ultra-elite. She tells me the news about Cairo Zoo, one of the few green spaces remaining in Cairo, a popular destination for couples and picnicking families. It was recently announced that it will be closed for ‘development’. She laments how they’re going to ‘modernize’ it, open a chain cafe, and raise the price of the tickets, making it inaccessible to most of the people who used to frequent it. As Abdullah, their driver, said to her, ‘Now my children will never get to see the animals.’

I ask her if she’s able to talk like this with her university friends. She says she can only speak with a handful of her friends, and they have to be careful not to be overheard by the others. They know they cannot speak publicly about these things or mention them on social media. And yet she knows. She knows.



Departure. I land into an empty flat in cold, rainy Berlin. In my neighborhood, the bars and restaurants are full of people: people still consuming, able to buy things – I am momentarily startled by this. The morning after I land, I send a message to my friend Soraya, who also left Cairo a few years ago and now lives in Amman. Lots of love from wintry Berlin. Some kind of enormous body relief to have made the transition between the two worlds. The last day in Cairo I felt such overwhelming fear, as though I was in mortal danger. I didn’t know how I would do it, how I would leave, just go up into the sky. I tried to put one foot in front of the other, I kept praying for help. And then I boarded the flight and arrived here and the first day was shock and exhaustion, emptiness. I hope and trust it will get better. But for now still anxious – am I safe now? – and trying not to feel bereft.


Balcony. My mother is taking drawing classes. She draws portraits of my sister and me from photographs, draws boats in the sea like the ones in Alexandria, draws three old women dancing in the rain. She sends me photos of her artwork, and of the flowers that she grows on her balcony, that seventh-floor balcony overlooking the roar of Cairo. She sends me photos of two tiny eggs that she found in one of her plant pots, laid by a recurring visitor to her balcony. And a few days ago, she sends me a picture of two tiny doves, furry and brown, newly hatched.


Cairo song. ‘This is Cairo, the sorceress, the enchantress; the uproarious,
the sleepless; the sheltering, the shameless. This is Cairo, the radiant, the redolent; the luminous, the benevolent; the pure, the poetess. This is Cairo, the mocking, the mighty; the patient, the portentous; the revolutionary, the triumphant. Whispers echo through the chaos and crowds. An aching loneliness in the gathering’s midst. Here is loving and lying and pretense. Money and cheating faces and injustice. Here is love and truth, mercy and grace. We’re caught in your vortex . . .’


All names in this essay have been changed.

Photograph © Ebrahim Bahaa-Eldin, Al-Haram area as seen from the Ring Road, Greater Cairo, Egypt, 2022

Extract from ‘not quiet as in quiet but’ from Quiet: Poems by Victoria Adukwei Bulley, copyright © 2022 by Victoria Adukwei Bulley. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, and by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd. All rights reserved. Extract from ‘Writing’ from Betting on the Muse by Charles Bukowski. Copyright © 1996 by the Estate of Charles Bukowski. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Extract from ‘Yes, But’ from Above the River: Complete Poems by James Wright, introduction by Donald Hall. Copyright © 1990 by Anne Wright. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All Rights Reserved.

Wiam El-Tamami

Wiam El-Tamami is a writer, translator and editor. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Granta, Freeman’s, Social Movement Studies, Jadaliyya, Banipal, Ploughshares Solos and Craft. She won the 2011 Harvill Secker Translation Prize and was a finalist for the 2023 Disquiet Prize.

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