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THE WORLD : DISPATCH FROM CAIRO

A spring night ideal for people-watching

May 05, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — The boys sat in front of the train station, sipping orange soda, watching, as the girl, so pretty in her embroidered head scarf, long denim skirt and makeup just right, slipped out of a car driven by a young man who smiled and drove away.

She walked toward the ticket booth, stopped and turned. The man's taillights were gone. The girl wasn't getting on a train, not this night; she headed down the street and disappeared beneath the trees, perhaps to a secret rendezvous with a lover, or maybe just to meet some friends.

The boys with the orange soda could only guess, but they laughed anyway because on a night like this, clear and a chill in the air, that's what you do in Cairo. You watch people hurrying in and out of the train station in a city so crowded that lives seep into one another without anyone really minding; a big, loud family clamoring for a sliver of space in the desert.

Like the man in the dirty tunic selling vegetables in crumpled bags, or the young cleric reciting from the Koran as he slips through the turnstile, or the suit with the briefcase and brow of sweat, or the mother shooing flies from the baby in a blanket, or the guy with no money and nowhere to go except into the night, because, if you don't dream too much, the night is free. You can skate along the Nile, wander the alleys, and, if the smog shifts, you can glimpse the Pyramids in the distant spring sky.

That's when she came, squeaking at first. The boys with the orange soda noticed. She was an old woman, dressed in black and wearing a plain head scarf. She was holding groceries in one hand and pushing a wheelchair. A young woman, legs thin as reeds, sat smiling in the chair, its rusted spokes not even glinting in the headlights of taxis that battled for space near the man selling newspapers that, as the moon rose, were starting to feel like history.

The old woman put down the groceries; she lifted the young woman and set her on a brick wall. The young woman teetered, but gained her balance as the old woman, stout and firm, pushed the wheelchair toward the sidewalk. She strung out a chain and locked it to an iron fence. She walked back to the younger women and helped her down from the wall; the younger woman was as unsteady as a newborn foal. The old woman held her with one hand, grabbing the bag of groceries with the other.

They walked toward the ticket booth in a practiced rhythm, maybe the cadence of mother and daughter, or maybe just the shared shaky amble of two poor friends in a poor city.

The soda boys watched as the young woman got tangled for a moment in the turnstile. The old woman steadied her as the two stepped onto the platform and waited for the train, which came quickly and took them away.

The boys got up. There was a lot of night left, and if you kept yourself moving, there were a bunch of stories to see too.

--

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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