Thursday, October 28, 2004

Ramadan Heroes

I was invited to a company iftar the other night that meant my driving into downtown Cairo. This is something that I really don't usually like to do these days, since my driver's license is expired and my car license went missing. Both are supposed to be back with me on Saturday, inshallah. But then, I've been hearing that for some months now. So I try to restrict my driving to my country lanes where most of my neighbours probably don't have licenses either.

Driving in Cairo, as I've noted before, is not for the faint of heart. The phrase "hell on wheels" was invented here. But if it is an extraordinary experience for the drivers, it is also stressful for the Cairo police. A bit of background will help here. Most young men in Egypt must serve their country for two years in the military or the police. The better educated boys are officers or find ways of fiddling themselves out of the obligation...same as any country, witness George W.'s military record. Boys who are only sons are also exempt from service so as not to leave a family without a male heir, a serious problem under Islamic law. We have all sorts of police here and it takes years to figure out which are who, so to speak. Black uniforms with black hats are the internal security forces, and you don't want to mess with those guys. Khaki uniforms with red hats are the military police.

The normal everyday police wear black wool uniforms in the winter and white uniforms in the summer. They can be seen all over Egypt, on any major corner in any major urban center. An interesting aspect of this is that often the lower ranking personnel are posted to cities other than those of their birth, making them utterly useless if you are lost. So are they, and it's highly likely that they will speak an interesting dialect of Arabic that leaves them totally unintelligible. I don't know how long their shifts are, or when they begin or end, but the job is unenviable. Standing in the sun, day in and day out, sandstorms, traffic jams, and during Ramadan fasting as well...let's just say that the waiting line for this position is pretty short.

We have traffic lights in Cairo, in fact, as far as I know they'd just been installed when I first visited in 1977, but the puzzle of them is that they do not function without human accompaniment. Egyptian drivers, on the whole, do not recognise that green means go and red means stop, so there is always some poor traffic cop standing there trying to translate red and green for the motorists. As I noticed while driving to my iftar VERY CAREFULLY so as not to attract undo attention to my licenseless state, the traffic from approximately 2 pm until the call to prayer at about 5:20 pm simply gets more frenetic and tangled as the time goes on. I left home at 4 pm putting me in the midst of the pre-iftar madness, partly having been held up by household chores and partly with the theory that at 4 pm no one in their right mind would set up a license checking roadblock.

Most of my route was on the Cairo Ring Road, a highway that circles the city. In a few years it will be an Inner Ring Road, but let's cross that bridge when we come to it. From my home to the Pyramids Road traffic wasn't too bad. I had to dodge the usual water buffalo being led down the main road attached to donkey carts, but that is easy. Once I hit the major arteries of Faisal Street and Pyramids Road, traffic slowed down to a crawl, giving me plenty of time to ponder the fate of the hungry, thirsty men who were trying to avoid total gridlock at the intersections while calming impatient drivers who either leaned on horns or attempted to drive down sidewalks. It's right up there with air traffic control at La Guardia, or O'Hare or Heathrow for tension and stress. I'm sure that plenty of them would have loved to take out a raygun and simply incinerated whole lines of traffic.

The government puts on extra police for the pre-iftar rush and these guys actually do a brilliant job of keeping the traffic moving. I made it from Abu Sir to inner Mohendessin in about 45 minutes in traffic that was flowing with the speed of a drain clogged by window putty, but at least it flowed. At dinner I found myself sitting next to a Swedish woman who was here for business with our airline, on her first trip to Egypt. One of my companions was talking about the traffic that they'd endured getting to the restaurant, and being a Brit, was complaining about the lack of discipline among the motorists. One of his comments was that the police don't really do anything here. To a very large extent, he's right. I'd love to see what would happen if you dumped about 100 thou of Toronto's finest here. Before they all had nervous breakdowns, they'd have a field day giving out summons for improper driving, bad vehicle maintenance, you name it.

There's a possibly true story about Cairo and urban planning. At one point, it is said, the Egyptian government asked the French and the Japanese to evaluate the city of Cairo and offer their best suggestions about how to improve it. The two groups went off to study for about 6 months and came back with their suggestions. The French reportedly told the Egyptians to empty the city, turn it into a museum and start over somewhere out in the desert. The Japanese told the government not to touch a thing. As far as they could see, the city was working although by all rights it should have been at a standstill, so anything that would be changed might destroy it. Probably both assessments were right.

So in the meantime, my hat is off to the poor fellows standing in the intersections trying to keep the buses from running right over the Fiat 127's, while explaining to the horsecart driver that he really shouldn't be there. It's a nasty job and someone has to do it. Thank heaven it isn't me.


Charlene said...

You are truly an incredible writer. I love to read your writings.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting to here what living is like in Cairo, even if it is only about the traffic. From New York City - Julius

Anonymous said...

One "quirk" I've noticed about many Egyptians is their use of the word "taqreeban" (=almost/nearly), they love it, they use it all the time and if you think you asked a question that calls for a yes/no answer, think again because you'll most certainly hear "taqreeban" instead. Mechanics and all repairmen are especially fond of it as I recall :)

Anonymous said...

Actually, I would challenge any capital in any country on any continent to tolerate so much motorised traffic on roads so badly maintained with so little casualties. I have no idea how many people commute daily into and out of Egypt, but I am certain that the number of people heading home at Iftar time is probably in the several million mark.

We were stuck in a car park on Guy Fawkes day here in the UK. 10,000 people with cars (estimated 3,000 vehicles) and we ended up standing absolutely stationary for well over 2 hours. Perfectly still, not a inch of movement, to such an extent that I lef my 14 month old daughter out to play amongst the cars. The traffic was so bad, it piled up to a major motorway nearly 8 miles away.

Something like this would never happen in Egypt. Why? Because in Egypt, there are very few traffic laws, and therefore very few limits on their driving 'creativity.' Seriously, you have to give it to people who drive in Egypt: top marks for ingenuinity.

Thanks for an entertaining piece :)

amigocabal said...

Very entertaining indeed! I lived in Mansura for about a year. And once I drove my mother in law, who spoke no English,(I speak shwaye Arabic), along the agricultural road to Cairo, (I had to follow the main road to Alexandria for about three miles in order to find a U turn. In that space of time my mother in law almost fainted, since she could read that we are going towards Alexandria, and there was no way I could tell her why I am going that way.

Even after we turned around, the lady was scared that I was leading her astray, not until she saw the familiar landmark we had to cross to get home could she settle down.

Jenny said...

I just found you Maryanne, while, believe it or not, trying to work out what time Iftar fell today so I could take out some food for our Guard.

I live in Cairo, in Zamalek, and also keep a blog,

Jenny Bowker