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Mar 2003 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Clean Sweep
By Christine Hegel-Cantarella
Photos by Luke Hegel-Cantarella

Cairo, Egypt, February 2003

Ah, the suburbs. How I love the clean and careful lawns. The shiny cars parked askance on sloping driveways. Super-sized houses that give new meaning to the notion of personal space, uniform enough that there is never a question as to where the bathroom might possibly be when visiting the new neighbors. The tastefully coordinated décor with beige berber throughout. The outdoor play centers, where my future children might someday engage in 'healthy play' without injury through the miracle of durable plastics. Imagine, if you will, the verdant chem-lawns of Fenton or Chesterfield and you'll know the stuff of my dreams. Not even Webster Groves measures up. From my days there as a student, I still remember a few overgrown lawns in Webster Groves, a few broken shutters, even a duplex here and there, for Christ's sake. No, there is nothing quite like the spanking newness of the real suburbs.

But wait...why would I, with my urbane sensibility, my love of creaking floors and of public transportation, be dreaming of such things? I'm a New Yorker now, I love the cramp of a one-bedroom, the Spanglish shouting next door, and the mysterious former lives revealed in the peeling paint of my bathroom. I normally hate the airless purity of places with meaningless names like 'Windcrest' and 'Shakerview.'

What in heaven's name would ever alter my resolute stance on the 'burbs? Cairo.

A car protected from the grime of the city by a grimy car cover I've traveled to Cairo twice now for semi-long periods of time, and each trip it takes about a week before I find myself fully in the pitch of suburban lust. There is something about the urban grime of this city, dating in certain areas to the B.C.s, that sets me to moping and missing the glaring newness of American suburbs. There is no grime in the suburbs, inside or out, and I personally think it has nothing to do with the teams of Merry Maids that descend weekly. It's something about gutting a place of trees and all other life forms and then building homes out of entirely synthetic materials; I think the suburbs are grime-repellent by design. Although rationally I still believe that living in the suburbs would be tantamount to personal hell, when I'm in Cairo my heart tugs for uniform architecture and big-ass cars. This, my friends, is culture shock.

Cairo is a city constantly at war with dirt and trash. Shopkeepers sweep in front of their stores from dawn to dusk, fighting off the creeping sand and garbage that march toward the entryway. City workers brave Cairo's streets, where chaos reigns and honking is akin to speaking a complex tonal language, to gather up the roadside trash that collects at a shocking pace. Landlords and storeowners repeatedly toss buckets of water over the cement and the dirt in front of their buildings — can you really wash dirt? Cairenes sweep their apartments incessantly, sometimes tossing the dirt out the window to the street, where the next sweeper in the cleaning food chain takes over.

It's almost as if people fear that were they to stop this perpetual sweeping the dirt would creep up at no casual pace to cover the city entirely. Visitors might one day reach the city limits, point to a 10 square-mile mountain of rubbish and sand and say, "There lies Cairo, once a city to be reckoned with. One day the people ceased to sweep." Sand-strewn Cairo would be a parable for the children of neighboring cities whose workers continued to daily keep the dirt at bay. It's even crossed my mind that the pyramids at Giza, mere steps away from an overcrowded working-class neighborhood, might be an ancient illustration of creeping trash principle.

Keep sweeping! The funk isn't just building up around the shoes of Cairenes. It seeps into their lungs with every gasp. Cleopatra cigarettes sell better than pita bread and a petty bribe will get any aging Pinto around the already sub-par emissions standards. Some side streets of Cairo are memorable for the special stench that arises from a magical combination of discarded fava beans and chicken bones, standing water, and the blazing summer sun. Even the Nile is notoriously covered in a layer of ooze — the ancients may have bathed in her waters, but no Egyptian in her right mind would take the plunge. So the grime doesn't just pile up, it wafts and gusts, seeping into every pore. Stepping out of my apartment momentarily to buy vegetables or run to the drug store is inevitably an occasion to shower again. And although I feel that a Kleenex shouldn't turn black when I blow my nose into it, and that smokers' coughs ought to be reserved for smokers only, these are the quirks of life in Cairo.

But I give it a couple of weeks. Like the last time I was here, I don't doubt that this lust for suburbia will pass. Because after a couple of weeks, I will forget to notice the debris. I, too, will silently remark on how clean the dirt looks in front of my apartment building where the landlord has carefully hosed, and I will merely step around piles of rotting produce with nary a glance. I will in fact think it strange if the water doesn't run black when I wash my hands after an outing, and I will casually remark that my hacking cough must be due to 'allergies'.

Because Cairo is at least dirty in a way that reminds you it's alive. The grime is there because the people just keep streaming in and having sex and having kids and making it through another day. Cairo is bursting at the seams with the trash of 17 million people co-habitating on the same sandy soil where King Tut and Saladin threw out the trash (or at least their slaves did).

So I guess this is the thing. It's not that I love grime. And some days I wish hard for Lysol spray and silence. But my momentary lust for suburbia will always be momentary because in the suburbs you can think, as you sit serenely in the rec room on the sectional, that you're all alone in the world. But in a city like Cairo you can never forget you're just a little speck o' dirt — no more, no less — and you might just get swept up if you're not careful.

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