Dan Morrison traveled the length of the White Nile, through Uganda, Sudan, and pre-revolution Egypt, while researching his book, The Black Nile. In this excerpt, he leaves behind the militia gunfire and secret police for a different kind of sensory overload.
Cairo was a riot. A party. A slum. A traffic jam.
In Africa’s biggest city, the elevated expressways were just another road. Working people and students crossed concrete pedestrian barriers to stand on the highway and hail taxis and buses. Craft sellers piled their wares on blankets on the side of the slow lane in the hopes that a hand-crafted ebony and mother of pearl jewelry box or a platoon of colored glass water pipes might catch a passing tourist’s eye, as low Toyota pickup trucks, their beds packed with cattle or sheep, swerved around them on the way to market. The billboards overhead advertised Samsung mobile phones and luxury condos in Mecca.
At street level the 19th and 21st centuries collided with less irony and considerably more iron. In 1991, at the time of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Cairo had 2.6 million cars on its streets. Sixteen years later, there were 7 million. Needless to say, neither the traffic system and nor driver education had kept up. The average automobile speed in Cairo is just 10 kilometers an hour – rush hour runs from seven in the morning to seven each night – but the city boasts the shockingly high rate of 58,000 road deaths a year. Riding in from the Ramses train station, my taxi missed by a sliver colliding with a gray BMW pushing its way into traffic, a disaster that might have brought the driver a beating in addition to financial ruin. “Bismillah,” the driver said moments later as he punched the gas to fill a five foot gap between us and the next car. “By God’s grace.” Cairo’s taxi fleet was a polyglot collection dominated by stately black and white Pugeot 405’s, with a handful of Fiats and Soviet-era Ladas thrown in, many still running on leaded gasoline and a few burning clean compressed natural gas. (Cairo’s traffic police – whose job it is to regulate traffic the way stop lights do in other countries – have six times the globally accepted level of lead in their blood, more than any other group in the world save, perhaps, the men who actually mine the stuff.) The taxis vied for space with an explosion of privately-owned cars carrying their owners home to gated satellite cities in the desert with names like Dreamland and Utopia, overloaded diesel city buses, sardine-packed minivan taxis, swarms of motorcycles and scooters and even the occasional and exceedingly brave bicyclist.
In the affluent island neighborhood of Zamalek where I stayed, the main east-west street was thick each morning with traffic and exhaust as local residents joined the flood of commuters heading into Cairo’s even more crowded precincts for work. July 26 Boulevard had six lanes on the ground and four more on the expressway above and in the middle of this each morning I would turn my head after buying the International Herald Tribune and catch sight of a ghost: A pale man, white as pearl, pedaling hard between the lurching cars on a heavy black bicycle, one hand on the handlebars, the other steadying a six-foot-long wooden plank resting on his head like a surfboard, a tray piled with flat loaves of Egyptian bread. I saw this delivery man more than a dozen times, his cheeks and brow rendered spectral with flour, his concentration keen as an astronaut’s, and never once did I see the traffic get the better of him. Not once did he have to stop and somehow recover a fallen piece of bread among the honking cars.
It was a city of near-miss artists. Careering drivers could calculate to the millimeter the amount of space that would keep them from collision. On the streets, beefy men fought in bawling slapping matches, a sight that never ceased to shock, and yet this too I came to see as a calculated avoidance of real violence. In a country with rising inflation and falling subsidies and wages, choking pollution and nearly full underemployment, people needed to blow off steam. The powers that be watched the frustration grow and tried where they could to divert it. Eighteen million people were crowded here on the Nile, trapped by thirst and trapped by dependence on a government that couldn’t do much with efficiency but break heads. Police and internal security forces outnumbered the army and they filled the streets in great black-uniformed phalanxes at the first sign of a mild liberal protest. The rais, President Mubarak, was very old, and his son was gearing up to replace him and nobody could really think of an alternative regime that could actually govern the country – not that the country was being governed now. The liberals were crushed like beetles and, as the only game in town for young comers, the ruling party vacuumed up most of the new political talent. The Western powers simultaneously tsked at and embraced this status quo. And even as their cousins in Sudan completed their 17th year in power, the Egyptian Muslim Brothers were in a state of perpetual cull, their leaders facing trial before military tribunals even as hundreds of thousands of people depended on them for social services the government was too incompetent to provide.
This standoff between the authoritarian government and the few bold or organized enough to challenge it was an old one, and that’s what stung about Egypt, the sense of a place trapped in amber – though amber at least acts as a preservative. Egypt felt like some slow-decaying element.
It was all a bit difficult to contemplate, what with the young man wagging his ass in my face.
He was a doughy boy, maybe 20, and a half hour of dancing inside the humid confines of the riverboat nightclub had cast a dark vertical band of sweat down the tight cleave of his cream dress slacks. The young man wore his hair in short oily curls and his tongue on the outside of his mouth. While his bottom shook to a complicated rhythm that would intimidate a Cuban bandleader, the boy’s arms sliced through the air in a fast but simple one-two beat. Nearby a 30-piece band was playing a rhythm and blues instrumental that sounded thoroughly Egyptian with its tiny cymbals and fretless lute and also, with its ripping tenor saxophone, indistinguishable from the music of James Brown’s backup band, the legendary JB’s.
There were dozens of other boys gyrating among the crowd. They wore matching suits and each moved as if possessed by an especially lascivious djinn. The audience of upper class Egyptians – necktied fathers, bejeweled and headscarved mothers, girls in their finery, little boys in little tracksuits – was transfixed; some of the women sported grins of mild embarrassment, others of absolute wickedness. And then the music stopped and the dancers froze and there was a thunder of drums from the ten-man percussion section and a booming chant of Salaam Aliekum, or “Som Alekum” filled the room. Saad El Soghayar had arrived, illuminated by a single spot light pointed down from the VIP balcony. In contrast with the formal garb of his 80-odd dancers, drummers and sidemen, Egypt’s most popular shabi singer was sporting a yellow t-shirt and tight no-brand blue jeans. He took the stage in small punctuated steps, a wireless microphone in his right hand, short bursts of machine-gun lyrics popping from his mouth as the dancers went wild again.
Shabi has been described as Egypt’s version of hip-hip and the comparison, while inapt, is the nearest available. It was slum music – low culture infecting the high. Played with speed and brevity, its topics were at times naughty and uncomfortably political in a country where the reins of culture had been in the hands of the government since Nasser’s day. It didn’t seek to extol the nation or set an example. It was earthy and fun and consequently banned from the national airwaves. But not even a five-decade national security state could keep a good beat down. Despite its absence from the radio, shabi was in demand, and so here was Saad performing in front of the swells, who had paid more than the average Egyptian’s monthly salary to be there. It was past three in the morning and this was his sixth show of the night. Five weddings had preceded it.
Across the table from me, facing the stage, sat my host, a pale and lanky man with straight white hair, pale blue eyes, and a smile that said he’d seen it all and still enjoyed most of it. I didn’t know Miles Axe Copeland III when I was a boy, but I loved his work: As the founder of IRS Records, this namesake of one of America’s legendary spies had brought the world The Police, R.E.M. and Wall of Voodoo. Miles’ father, a former jazz trumpeter from Alabama, spent a career manipulating, advising and overthrowing Middle Eastern governments (and wrote a dictionary of colloquial Syrian Arabic along the way). Now his son was marketing Arabic popular music to the West, and Saad was one of his discoveries. Copeland was back in Egypt looking for new talent and had stopped to say hello to Saad, who was just now prowling audience, standing on tables and singing Al Hantour, or The Carriage.
Hey, you there! Hey you there on the carriage!
Hey you, swaying back and forth!
Whoa! Yeah! How I wish to ride in the carriage
And sway back and forth.
And who wouldn’t? The song contained a few simple metaphors for sex and also lyrics of almost courtly romance (“I’d put her hand on my arm and we would link arms and sway/and we would stop on either side [of the road] and get down to eat grilled sweet potatoes”) and the beat kept on its bum bim! bum-bum-bum-bum bum-bum bim! rhythm of drums and tambourine as Saad shimmied and come-hithered the women with wolf eyes until, quite without warning, he plopped suddenly down on my lap, straddling my left thigh, and began to grind his pelvis into my leg with a pole dancer’s enthusiasm. The spotlight followed. When Saad grew bored of embarrassing me, he leapt up, spun around, looked my wife in the eye and gave his right nipple a twist, posed for a photo with Miles, and moved on to the next verse and the next victim.
It was only a matter of time before Saad and his band eroded the audience’s middle class reserve. Some of the fathers, a few bearing the dense and raised forehead callous that marked Egypt’s devout (but that didn’t seem to occur among their peers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Jordan or India) stood up to dance beside their seated wives in that spastic Egyptian way, and a half-dozen little girls took to the stage show off their bellydance moves. The girls were cleared off after a few minutes save one, maybe nine years old, dressed in a white terrycloth pantsuit, who seized the spotlight and arched her back so her long black hair might touch the floor, hands held out level with the stage, her child hips moving ta-ta, ta-ta. Miles shook his head. “People in America wouldn’t understand this,” he shouted across the table. “They think the Middle East is nothing but veiled women and angry men. That’s the image they get – violent shrews who don’t have any fun.” We stumbled out of the club after six in the morning, got into a taxi, waited while the driver tipped a police officer with a Cleopatra cigarette for the privilege of idling there, and sped into the dawn on nearly empty streets, swerving near the Four Seasons Hotel to pass a donkey cart hauling chickens in wooden cages.