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Slide buried woman's past and her future

DISPATCH FROM CAIRO

November 11, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Fleishman is a Times staff writer.

CAIRO — Her suitor had the ring, but she lost her dowry.

It was buried beneath the fallen limestone cliffs that smashed her home and smothered her neighborhood two months ago, killing at least 200 people. That morning seems long past, but there are still funerals and newly made orphans when the digging men pull another body from the rock and grit. It goes on like this, names whispered in alleys, hearts broken.

Sana Amr's heart cracked four times: The evening after the earth trembled they found the body of her brother; the next day they reached her dead father, a Koran pressed to his chest; 40 days later they unearthed her sister, lying face down, lifeless but barely blemished, except for bruises on her cheeks and stomach. Amr's dowry, which included a refrigerator and a washing machine, vanished too, and with it the hope of marriage any time soon.

A poor girl's worth is in her dowry, not in her charms. Amr knows it is not the time to marry Ahmed, a truck driver and soldier in the Egyptian army. Her other sister, Sumaya, her dowry also lost, has put off her wedding too. They live with their mother and brother in an unfinished two-room apartment provided by the government. There is no furniture, no pictures on the walls, no scent of family history, only borrowed mats hiding a concrete floor.

"This abaya is the only thing of mine that survived," Amr said. "I even lost my slippers."

It is a pretty abaya, a black robe embroidered in silver and red. Her stout hands slip from its sleeves, sometimes rising to her lips to hide a smile, when a smile comes, which isn't often.

She's 23 and never went to school; she tried teaching herself a few times, but it was hard and confusing. Her father talked about hiring a tutor to educate the family; now he's gone and it's not likely a tutor will ever come. Learning arithmetic won't bring back her dowry, won't stop her mother's tears.

"I spend the whole day trying to distract myself," she said. "I keep doing laundry."

Millions seek distraction in the slums and poor neighborhoods that rise on Cairo's edges, grow at its heart. They live in houses and apartments illegally built decades ago when migrants from the Nile Delta and the southern deserts followed stories of fine clothes and wealth. Most found the city of 17 million too crowded, too stretched, a brick-and-mortar maze of car horns, staccato heartbeats and smoky alleys rattling with tin shops and looms.

Shantytowns such as Amr's, a slump of buildings beneath cracking cliffs and seeping sewage, were flimsy, balanced on desperation. When tragedy strikes it is complete; there is no insurance, no bailouts, only scribbled papers from government clerks with promises no one expects to be kept. In a city where more than 40% of the population lives in slums, the poor get lost between the call to prayer and the latest government report boasting economic growth.

Amr sat on the floor the other day with Sumaya and their mother, Faragallah; outside, down the hill, backhoes clawed at boulders searching for more bodies from the Sept. 6 rock slide. Thousands of people, many of them homeless, live around the rubble, women holding babies, barefoot children running, men on motorcycles selling propane canisters, Ho-Ho wrappers blowing in the dust, Nile fish dully glistening on dirty ice.

Amr's family lives on the $18 a week her brother earns from carpet making. Her father used to run a sandwich shop. The money was never that good, but it bought food, dowries slowly accumulated. Faragallah, whose abaya was not embroidered like her daughter's, was proud of what the family had saved.

"It was tough even before all this happened," said Faragallah, her silver hair slipping from a black hijab. "Some days we'd find cheese, other days not. The days we had no money we'd eat beans. But we didn't envy anyone. Our house was furnished and we had dowries for our daughters. . . . It's all gone. I lost a man. I lost two children."

She lowered her head, cried into her hand. She had known the danger. The cliffs had been groaning, but they had been groaning for decades. Last year, while Faragallah was walking to market, a shard of falling rock knocked her down and cut a long gash in her right arm. The family didn't think of moving. Where? How?

Metal clanged in the distance. Women gathered outside the door; they had stories too, about tumbled homes and crushed children, like the two pulled from the broken brick the other day and handed to their mother. The tales echoed over dirt lots and in stairwells and apartments that had no furniture and no carpets to soften the sounds of the city.

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