It’s the peculiar rules of hectic Cairo traffic, the ones seemingly unknowable to anyone not born within earshot of the horns and shouts and screeching brakes. It’s the way the city flats seem one with the desert, a manmade Arches and a thousand times more bustling. It’s the incessant, joyful, rhythmic siren song in every square singing, “Wilcome to Egypt.” It’s the way swarms of men in public spaces flock to you and insist you need a taxi, need to buy a postcard, need the most quintessentially Egyptian thing.
It’s the way the delta cuts through the wilderness, interrupting an inevitable wasteland with pyramids of green. The way everything living here—from the street cats to the palms to the people—lives because of the blue thread of the Nile.
It’s the beauty of dust. Where else on the planet could mere observation convince one that from dust we came and to dust we must return?
It’s the obvious oldness of everything. The way things that look dry and dead still move with the vibrancy of Friday prayers. The way sand here is not a coffin; it’s a blanket to keep warm the whole swirling world.
It’s the way the fruit man, wrinkled and galibaaya’d on the street corner, taps the watermelons to find the best one, listening for a sound you didn’t know existed in your part of the world, before he lets you sample the dates.
It’s the inescapable fact that you are never more than a few meager words away from being invited to shaay.
It’s not that Cairo is a nice city. At least, not in the way we might recognize in the West—which only says every man, tribe, and country skews the world to become the measure by which all others are judged.
It is nice in a new way, which is an old way.
The beauty is a rugged, smoky kind. The way some abstract, heavy paintings are beautiful. The way a desert is beautiful for its own harshnss. And the beauty is the people—which is the best kind of beauty anywhere, and Cairo has it by the streetful.
The thing that is perpetually nice about Cairo is the seeming familiarity of it. Even if you’ve never been before, it’s a people’s city. People are people anywhere, nowhere more than in the throbbing heart of Tahrir, on the reeded banks of the river Nile, and in the long brown shadow of Giza stone.
It’s from here that the world’s first great civilization rose up from the dunes and into the sky. Where some of the bitterest foundations of medicine and law, writing and ritual came first and swept poetically between the riverbanks and altars where ibises were given up to the gods. Where the past is chiseled into the walls and the future written in millions of young faces. Where math was made to make pyramids that still stand. Where Mark brought the gospel and the gospel made a church that still stands, too. Where the rest of the world can look with admiration and call the land her fitting name, Oom al dunya—Mother of the world.