KH), shouts the farmer as he leads his horse and carriage down the street. H
is cart is overflowing with ripe watermelon. Honking busses and women selling freshly baked Aish (Egyptian pita bread) are the first sights and sounds I wake up to in Shoubra, a middle-class neighborhood. This is an average day in the city of Cairo. I never thought that loud Arabic music, shouting neighbors, and hammering nails would be my new normal. The Islamic call to prayer, which would startle me at 4 am every morning has become another sound in the background of this boisterous city.
Cairo is, what I would call, a city that is alive. It has a pulse as if it were a person of its own. Not only that, but it’s a person with a lot of energy that seems to never run out. They say New York is the city that never sleeps, but I’ve been to New York and it definitely has a bedtime. Cairo, on the other hand, is truly a sleepless city. When you can still find restaurants, cafes, and gaming stations open and crowded at 6 am, you know that Cairo is the land of the night owls. It is common not to start your day until 3, 4, or even 5 in the afternoon (this is particularly true during Ramadan).
There are many reasons for this phenomenon, one may claim that it’s a pivotal part of desert culture. However, it is a key factor in why Egypt has struggled during the pandemic outbreak. With this in mind and without adding more negative news feed, I wi
ll discuss my experience in Cairo during the Covid-19 crisis. As we all know, due to the novel virus, the social order and global economy have altered drastically, disrupting the flow of everyday life in a way that may change the world forever.
But for your average Egyptian working for his daily bread, it means reduced work hours, long lines, and, for some, losing their only source of income. Since March 21st, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed to a sweeping 10%. In addition to that, an already struggling economy has tanked due to the ban on tourism and lack of remittances. The situation for the home of the Great Pyramids is far from thriving.
I first arrived in the country in mid-February to wait out the virus a few weeks and return to my teaching job in Beijing, China. Little did I know that I would stay the entire spring semester. Egypt seemed to have escaped the novel disease until, in early March, an American tourist was found with the virus. Failed attempts were made to contain the new disease aboard a Nile cruise ship and German traveler became the first fatalit
y. Slowly it spread from the city of Luxor to the rest of the nation. Numbers gradually started climbing from tens to hundreds of cases per day. At this point, the Government decided to intervene. They began to shut down the country slowly. It started with the closure of public entertainment centers like movie theaters and bowling alleys. Then businesses and restaurants were told to reduce their hours. Nothing was changed drastically until they decided to close the borders. No more international travel in and out of Egypt. The country was completely closed off. Then the official lockdown began. All restaurants were closed completely, schools shut, mosques and churches locked, work hours
reduced, and a curfew enforced from 7 pm-6 am. Cairo became a ghost town.
Everyone thought it would be a quick two-week fix but now three months later, we are still here. For the first month, we cooked everything at the house and would only go out to buy groceries at the local Carrefour or street market. We were taking all the precautions seriously, staying home, washing hands, going out only when necessary, etc. But the neighbors acted otherwise. You could see people continue to greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. Kids took their school closure as an excuse to play on the street all day. Egyptians were treating the Covid-19 pandemic like a corona-cation more than anything. The word corona became something they joked about. With the closure of all public spaces (parks, malls, churches, mosques, schools, restaurants, clubs, cafes) people didn’t know what to do with themselves. In Cairo, most people live in apartments less than 70m big with at least 4-5 other people. With a city of over 10million people, enforcing strict home quarantine and curfews is next to impossible. Gatherings were forced out on the street.
This started to become a serious issue during the month of Ramadan. The Islamic period of
fasting required followers to refrain from food and drink from 4 am till 6 pm every day for 30 days. Meals were allowed only during the night. Many believers just switched their schedule and sleep during the day. In a normal year, you would see hundreds upon hundreds of people take to the streets. The crowds are so big that it becomes faster to walk than drive a car. Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, this situation would lead to a public health disaster, one that Egypt economically and industrially would not be able to handle. However, even with the strict 9 pm Ramadan curfew hours, people still gathered on the street late into the night.
One day, we took a store
run at 1 pm and the streets were completely empty but when it hit 10:30 pm it was bustling with activity. Only once the police started picking up people did anyone start caring about the mandatory curfew hours. It was comical to watch the police van drive down the road and send everyone home to, then 5 minutes later, see people come out on the street again. Can you blame them? In apartments slightly bigger than shoe boxes, who can stay long without feeling claustrophobic.
I definitely had my fair share of cabin fever. This quarantine living was particularly difficult for me when the temperature soared to a whopping 104 degrees. With only one small room with AC, we piled in 4 people. Resilience was the only way to survive those 5 days, in addition, to ice-cold showers. Sometimes we would just drive the car to get some AC.
Although, it is far from a pleasant experience, quarantining in Cairo was not all negative. I learned to cook Egyptian food and finally had the chance to learn Arabic. We managed to clear off the roof and create an extra space to spend the late afternoons and evenings. I was determined to make a workout space and did not allow myself to make any excuses. The roof became my new gym. I also learned a powerful lesson in gratitude. When you are stuck with the same 4 people in a less than 70m apartment, you never have your own space. I struggled and complained about this until I realized my error. I was acting like a spoiled woman from a rich country. It was a gift and a luxury to have personal space. I was privileged to ever have a living area to myself. When I let go and accepted my lack of personal space, I learn to tolerate and love the people I was around. There is no avoiding an issue. It must be dealt with. The quarantine helped me appreciate another dimension of the first-world privilege that I had always taken for granted. Again, it was another lesson in resilience. Over time, I became closer to the family I live with even to the point where it feels strange to be in a room alone.
Egyptian Easter Meal
Today, more restrictions have been lifted. We can order food delivery and pick up. Curfew hours start at 9 pm instead of 7 pm. We take daily walks. Normally crossing the street is like playing the game Frogger where you are the frog. Since there are no crosswalks here, you often need to run across the street in order to not get run over. But in order to keep my sanity, I make sure to get that daily walk in. Since there are still fewer cars on the road so I don’t need to dodge so many.
However, after almost three months of shut borders, closed public places, and curfew hours, I do not see Egypt opening up any time soon. In fact, the case numbers have increased to a
bout 1,500 per day since the Eid holiday. (This is mainly due to the widespread traveling from the big cities to villages.) To be honest, it’s hard to know if those numbers are accurate since most people do not go to the doctor. The situation may be like this for some time. However, people still gather on the street and pile into minibusses. Without any online working platforms, many people who still have jobs need to go into the office every day.
On top of that, Egyptians hate rules. They will do anything to resist or avoid restrictions simply because it is a rule. I saw a man who refused to wear a mask when entering a bank. The doorman insisted and the man kept refusing. The irony was that the man did have a mask on hanging around his neck, but he would not cover his mouth with it. This is exactly the attitude you see here. Sure, people will go home for the 9 pm curfew just long enough for the cops to drive by their house. Then they will go right back out again. However, this is not true for all Egyptians. The more educated classes have the wisdom to stay home but at least 80% of the population still needs to go out every day to put food on the table. Safer to ri
sk catching corona then not have a meal. They really have no choice.
At the end of the day, there was not really a “quarantine” in Cairo. If you met a typical Egyptian, you would see why it’s close to impossible to keep them isolated for long. But although a true quarantine here is next to impossible, the government still did the impossible. With the closures of shops, entertainment centers, and nighttime curfew hours, the streets at 4 am are left dark, empty, and silent. For the first time, Cairo finally went to sleep.