Listen closely as Cairo speaks

June 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Last week a friend of mine, who had never been to an Arab country outside the Gulf, came to visit Cairo. As I was showing him around, I allowed myself to imagine how an outsider might see the city, contrasts and paradoxes became clearer. Instead of introducing my friend to Cairo, I ended up trying to introduce myself to the city. The city saved me much of the effort. Cairo, as always, was trying to speak.

The city's flags flew on street lights all the way from the airport to downtown Cairo. The flags held the city's symbol; the Mosque of Mohammed Ali surrounded by the walls of Saladin's Mountain Citadel; nothing could have been more representative.

Just like Cairo, the citadel is a place of extreme contradictions. Being the citadel of Saladin, the man who liberated the Arab East from the Crusaders, it is a symbol of freedom. But it was also Cairo's main prison for eight centuries. The citadel hosted the palaces of Cairo's rulers for the same eight centuries, yet today, the "Citadel Quarter" is one of the poorest and most devastated quarters of Cairo. If one stood over the citadel's walls, one would see the huge Islamic cemetery of Cairo, one that hosts thousands of Egyptians, not dead, but living there out of poverty.

It is said that the reason Muslims chose to bury their dead there goes back to the very first years of the Arab conquest. Amr Ibn al-As, founded the first Arab capital in Egypt, he called it Al-Fustat, which simply meant "the Camp" where he garrisoned his soldiers. The city was built in the location of today's Cairo, just at the head of the Nile Delta triangle, so as to control the river's flow to the fertile fields in the north. Amr also chose to build the city on the eastern banks of the Nile in order not to have a water barrier between his forces in Egypt and the central command in Arabia. The place is flat, except for a little hill, completely barren, without a single tree on it, now called Al-Muqattam. The head of the local Copts asked Amr to sell him the hill. Amr asked the local leader why he wanted to buy such an infertile piece of land. "Because God promised to adorn this hill with trees from Paradise!" explained the old Copt: "When God intended to talk to Moses, he told all the mountains of the Earth that he will be talking to one of his prophets on one of them, every mountain rose its head in pride wishing that God would chose it, except the mountain of Jerusalem, it lowered it shoulders in modesty and respect for God's glory. As a reward, God asked every mountain on Earth to donate some of its green to the modest mountain of the Holy Land. Al-Muqattam was so generous that it donated all of its green to Jerusalem. For that, God promised to crown Al-Muqattam with the trees of paradise."

By all means it was a nice try, but the conqueror knew that the trees of paradise can only be a secondary motive for buying the strategically located hill that overlooked his new camp city, especially that the hill lied to the east blocking the way of any reinforcements coming from Arabia.

"Well, honorable sir" said Amr, "if this mountain is promised to host the trees of paradise, paradise and its trees are promised to host the believers, God must have meant it to be so!" and the place became the new city's cemetery!

Today the cemetery hosts the dead and the living alike, still waiting for the trees from paradise. The place is full of desperate attempts to make the promise come true with mortal hands; the Mamlouks built gorgeous schools and mosques in and around their tombs, the walls of which are decorated with gorgeous tree-like figures. Mamlouks, who made their living off the labor of their poor subjects, still wanted to save their souls by the same manner. They ordered schools and mosques to be built around their tombs so that students, sheikhs and simple worshippers would pray for their souls, because they believed that with every prayer arising to heaven from those schools one or more of their sins would be forgiven.

I took my friend to the Citadel; the place was full of blond tourists. My friend and I were almost the only Arabs in the place. One cannot help but think about the Crusades when walking around the walls of the Citadel. The old city of Cairo, right at the feet of the hill was devastated, struggling in the rubble, between life and death, unfulfilled promises and unforgiven sins. The Citadel, built to protect the city, is full of Americans and Europeans giving tips for the locals. The locals are trying to make a living off selling cheep artifacts. My friend and I, were as alien as native. Cairo, as always, was trying to speak.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::