This is a challenging city to figure out. In a quest for increased understanding, I am reading Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control by David Sims, which despite its title actually marvels at how things kind of work in what some people claim is Africa’s largest city. Sims offers some interesting explanations for what I observe every day, for example why it seem that 50% of the apartment buildings along the road on my 45 to 90 minute bus trip to the American University in Cairo are half built and largely empty. (The explanation is complicated, but has to do with how housing is financed, the lack of cars, real estate speculation, mass transit and poorly thought out zoning regulations.)
So I am still agnostic on whether this place works or not, though leaning to yes. That does kind of amaze me given the density of this quickly growing city of 17 million people and the fact that we are in the desert. And thought it can sometimes be maddening to try to get something done quickly, taking deep breaths and appreciating when things do work helps a lot.
When we first arrived here, I withdrew money from the ATM in our neighborhood, right in front of the Cairo American College where Noah goes to high school. I got my money, but alas my card was not returned. I stood around for a while, watched another person use the machine, and then called the phone number on the machine to see what I should do. My lack of Arabic did not help, though I think the man on the phone suggested that I wait a few days and go to an address down town. That seemed both complicated and a long shot, so I called my bank at home and they told me they would have a card Fed Exed to me in 5-7 days.
The next day, while on the AUC campus, I decided to stop in to the CIB bank where I had been earlier to open an Egyptian account. I saw the man who I had met the day before and told him my predicament. He listened carefully and began to repeatedly call a number that seemed to be busy. After about 15 minutes, he reached somebody, spoke for a while, and hung up. “Mr. Eric,” he said with a half smile, “I will have your card in a few days. Please give me your phone number and I will call you.” I hoped, and wondered, does this place work well enough that this will happen? I don’t know that it would have happened in Durham.
So as Sims concludes about Cairo:
And it is a near miracle that such a huge agglomeration has been able to grow from four to seventeen million inhabitants in less than fifty years on its own, so to speak, counter to government intentions and plans….[there are] efficient neighborhoods where two-thirds of all Cairenes live and almost half of them work, where housing is minimally acceptable and quite affordable….and a majority of inhabitants can live modestly respectable lives.
Back to me. I had grave doubts I would ever see my card again. You mean to tell me that in this city of 17 going on 18 million people, that somebody will find my ATM card at a machine that is 45 minutes from here and deliver it to campus? Please! Well, I stopped in to the bank every day on my way to the office, checked and he told me he would call me. And indeed, 4 days after I first made the request, this very kind bank employee handed my ATM to me. “Shokrun,” I gushed, “ma salaama.” It does kind of work, a little differently perhaps, but it does kind of work.
(Note: Just learned that Leah, on her way back from Ain Soknah on the Red Sea, is stuck on a bus with other AUC students at a stand still on the highway because of an accident that will not be cleared until tomorrow. They are turning around and going back to the hotel. OK, I did say kinf of work.)