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Documentary : Captivated by Cairo : The Mideast's emotional magnet is crumbling but still beautiful. After 10 years, much has changed and yet much remains the same.

August 01, 1995|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — I went looking for my old friend Mahmoud and found him as I had last seen him 10 years ago, sitting at the same desk in the same dreary government building, sipping tea from a glass, unchanged by time, poverty or the assaults of Cairo.

Mahmoud rose from his desk in surprise and greeted me with an Arab embrace--arms around my shoulders, a kiss on both cheeks--and we sat for an hour, smoking and drinking tea. The warmth and humor of which Egyptians have such a boundless supply had not deserted him, though he had not accumulated the resources to take a bride or buy a car or leave his parents' flat.

Of the crumbling yet strangely beautiful city that had once been my home, he said, "Ah, Cairo, yes; you will find Cairo is very different but it hasn't changed much."

The comment kind of tumbled out and I'm not sure he realized how astutely it captured the timeless and contradictory character of Cairo, a city so appalling and compelling, so exhilarating and debilitating, that when you are here you can't wait to escape and when you are gone you can't shake loose thoughts of the place, until finally you understand that one day you must return, to the Nile, to the Pyramids of Giza, to the potholed streets built, layer upon layer, over civilizations stretching back a thousand years.

In Arabic, Cairo is called Al Qahira, which means victorious. It is to the Middle East what London is to the English-speaking world: an emotional magnet.

Unlike the sterile capitals built by oil, Cairo throbs with life, its round-the-clock coffee shops full of gossip and quiet pensive men, its nightclubs pulsating to the whirl of belly dancers.

Even when Egypt was ostracized for making peace with Israel, the Arabs never abandoned their love for Cairo and they continued to arrive from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf each year by the thousands, filling the hotels and the apartments they keep in pleasant neighborhoods of Zamalek, Mohandessin and Heliopolis.

The muezzins' call to prayer jarred me awake at 4:07 the morning I was to hunt for Mahmoud. It rolled across the city as a summons back to simpler, less threatening times: " . . . Come to prayer. Come to success. God is most great . . . "

The city stirred. An occasional car horn sounded. The peasant garbage collectors bounced through the streets in their donkey carts. Women made their way to the banks of the Nile with their laundry. And again the call, and the promise: " . . . Come to success. God is most great. There is no god but God."

By the time, a few hours later, I had collected my wits and gone forth to face the day, Africa's largest city--a place designed for 2 million residents but bursting with 14 million--was in full bloom.

The morning rang with a cacophony of blaring horns and raised voices. Pedestrians, bumper-to-bumper cars, men in wheelchairs, vendors, children selling boxes of tissue paper to sweating motorists and--on the 6th October Bridge--a herd of camels competed for the roadway and sidewalks, with none coming out the clear winner.

Overcrowded buses rumbled by and were boarded on the run, with commuters leaping for the rear step and a dozen hands stretching through the open door to pull them safely in.

I grabbed a taxi, bickered over the fare with the driver--he said he had a degree in electrical engineering and given the high unemployment in Cairo, I believed him--and rode to Nasr el Nil Street, passing Romanesque stone doorways, sand-colored mosques and apartments with wrought-iron balconies reminiscent of Paris. Everything was darkened with age but still carried the hint of a once-grand past.

"You American? America very good. Welcome. You are very welcome to Cairo, my friend," said a robed young man who glided up behind me. He took my arm, trying to steer me into a jewelry shop. I managed to retrieve a few words of Arabic, enabling me to escape.

When I lived in Cairo, survival skills could be summoned forth by instinct. Coming back now, for the first time in 10 years, those skills had deserted me, and outside the TWA office on Tahrir Square, I hung back, trying to remember how to cross the multi-lanes of helter-skelter drivers who blocked my way to the Egyptian museum and the treasures of King Tut.

Cairenes did it with grace. They waited for the slightest break in traffic, then like ballet dancers flew across the first lane, sucking in their breath to make themselves as thin as possible. Lane by lane, they would signal cars bearing down on them with flicks of the wrist, indicating whether they intended to pause or venture on.

I followed them across, with nary a harrowing moment, and some of the old confidence returned.

Mahmoud was right that Cairo had changed. The phones worked well; no longer was a completed call across town cause for celebration. The sewer system had been upgraded, and I saw no human waste spilling into the streets.

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