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Jack Smith

The nightmarish traffic and overflowing trash of modern Cairo bodes ill for the future of Los Angeles

June 18, 1987|JACK SMITH

Now and then I have complained here about the growing trashiness of Los Angeles.

However unsophisticated we might have been, we used to be one of the cleanest cities in America.

We are rapidly turning into one big trash bin.

I have a nightmare vision of the future in which we will hardly be able to open our doors for the trash outside, or walk down our sidewalks, or even drive our freeways.

Now I find that this nightmare does indeed exist. Cairo today is the Los Angeles of the future.

I have been reading David Lamb's new book, "The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage" (Random House: $19.95), and his description of modern Cairo is appalling.

Chaotic traffic clogs its streets, the multitudes swarm on its sidewalks, trash and garbage pile up everywhere, the din is deafening, the bureaucracy is hopelessly top-heavy and ineffectual, maintenance is non-existent, and the population increases at the rate of 1,000 a day--700 new babies and 300 arrivals from the countryside.

Cairo is simply out of control, and most of the large cities in the Third World are headed for the same fate.

The city is so overcrowded that 1 million Cairenes live in cemeteries, making their homes in tombs. Its most efficient garbage collection service is the private enterprise of 25,000 zabbaleen (rubbish collectors). These scavengers pay bosses, who also charge the residents, for the right to pick up trash and garbage. The hereditary zabbaleen live in hovels on a plateau above the city, sorting through the garbage for a living, and raising their children in their footsteps.

Over the centuries, Lamb says, so much garbage has been thrown into the streets that whole communities have been built over compacted layers of it, and today "one often has to walk down five or six steps to enter some old buildings that were once at street level."

Lamb describes the desecration that has overtaken the jewel of the Nile:

"The banyan trees lining the boulevards have been cut down to provide wider roads, and the patches of green along the riverfront have given way to high-rise apartment buildings that spill untreated sewage into the Nile. The streets of suburban Maadi are often knee-deep with trash and pocked by wide, deep potholes. In Liberation Square, out the back door of the Nile Hilton Hotel, the cluster of small gardens and the strips of grass have been paved over to make way for an outdoor terminal serviced by 54 bus companies. . . . "

A generation ago Cairo was the Hollywood of the Arab world, and had a dozen luxurious first-run theaters. Today none is left. "And in the flea-ridden theaters still operating, the seats are broken, the air conditioners don't work, the aisles are littered with trash. . . . "

Chaos rules the streets: "At every major intersection 15 or 20 illiterate policemen in soiled white, ill-fitting uniforms stand frantically blowing whistles and waving their arms, trying to unsnarl traffic jams they themselves have created. But the drivers pay them no heed, for Cairo's roads are an anarchist's delight."

Ironically, Lamb notes, though one may have to kick through layers of trash to reach a friend's doorway, the apartment or house inside will be neat and elegant. "The door would shut behind us and it was as if the blighted Cairo no longer existed."

Lamb asked friends why they didn't organize neighborhood block associations or an owners' association to clean up common areas. "They would chuckle and say, 'Oh, that would never work here.' "

And it wouldn't, Lamb agrees, because public apathy, economic mismanagement and an out-of-control birthrate have made Cairenes the victims of what is called the IBM syndrome: "Inshallah (if God is willing), bokra (tomorrow) and malesh (never mind.)"

What deepens the agony for Cairenes is the memory of what Cairo once was: "Wandering the streets of Cairo, poking through the dark alleyways that smell of urine and are strewn with trash, you can stumble on dilapidated villas where orchestras were heard in their gardens on summer evenings long ago. Handsome Victorian-era apartment buildings stand mirage-like amid rows of tenements, their wrought-iron balconies draped with laundry, their shutters drawn tight against the assault of noise and dirt. . . . "

It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that Los Angeles may become another Cairo; but we have enough of the symptoms that we ought to mend our ways before it's too late.

Trash is contagious; it multiplies exponentially; it is a product of monkey see, monkey do. He who throws a scrap of paper on the sidewalk has committed the first sin.

We are heading toward one big traffic snarl. Two years ago driving the freeways between the rush hours was like flying a small airplane over the landscape; now every hour is rush hour. The fun is gone.

A few years ago visitors from other parts of the country invariably noticed that Los Angeles drivers were extraordinarily courteous. They allowed others to enter their lanes. They observed rights of way. They didn't run red lights.

Today, I am beginning to notice a feeling of every man for himself.

Yet I suspect that, as in Cairo, if we were to enter the homes or apartments of most of our people we would find them clean and orderly, if not elegant. We might wonder, though, whether they had dumped a threadbare sofa on the freeway, expecting someone else to pick it up.

What's happened to our pride in our city? Are we also victims of IBM?

I don't know what the answer is, but it isn't inshallah .

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