Getting into a conversation about politics or culture is as easy as getting tooted by a taxi here. Like the fine layer of dust and sand that coats every surface, politics and culture permeate every aspect of day to day living and all introductions, all personal histories, all observations about life in Cairo or the Middle East, come back to politics and culture.
In the past 3 days I’ve had an American, who has gone native and gained an Egyptian accent after 20 years living here, impress upon me the importance of the army in the post-Mubarak Egypt at a birthday party full of Germans I didn’t know, a South African freelance writer harangue me with 9/11 conspiracy theories 2 minutes after meeting me in a cafe, a hejab clad reporter for the Herald Tribune discuss modern Islamic thinking in Egypt in a restaurant in the leafy suburb of Ma’adi and Anglo-Egyptians girls relating endless tails of “concrete-headed” obstinacy exhibited by Arab males over cups of tea in one of the many Cairene coffee shops.
Everyone complains; everyone gets frustrated by the lack of logic and Kafka-esque thinking and everyone finishes a discussion about politics or economics or business by shrugging their shoulders and asking “How do you change a culture?” That Egyptian culture is broken, inefficient and hobbles along with a poor work ethic is obvious to them all. Twice I’ve heard the zen joke about the scorpion riding on the fox’s back in a river, as a fatalistic example of why things can’t be changed here.
Yet they all stay out here in this dirty, polluted and noisy city, living amidst a stalled culture when they don’t have to. It is a testament to the gravitational pull that the energy of the city has and the ripeness for change that the Middle East has pent up inside it that everyone is aware of.