Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reflections on Cairo: Galavanting in the Grotto

After much pestering, prodding, my girlfriend finally convinced me to go to the Grotto.  I remember hearing my parents wistfully recall the glories of Cairo's Grotto Aquarium, with its collection of rare fish, manicured lawns, and neatly identified species of flora.  For them, the Grotto's fall from grace stood in for Cairo's own.  And to be honest, they had a point.  We found the Grotto Aquarium had become a misnomer, with the only living fish to be found being a lowly Nile catfish alongside the bloated corpse of an erstwhile turtle.  Had we taken up the advice of the man at the door who accosted us with offers of a private tour of the Grotto, we may have encountered more, but we thought we'd try it out on our own.  True, there remained some labels on the various species of trees which inhabited this, one of Cairo's few remaining green areas, but with their Latin binomial nomenclature and Egypt's literacy rate at around 70% (just under 60% for females), one had to wonder what was the point?  Rather than crowds of Cairo's good and great perambulating throughout the park, parents walking hand in hand while excited children ran ahead, gawking and pointing at the next exciting new species of fish (this is how my parents recall it, though I imagine there is some romanticized revisionist memory at play), the Grotto was instead peopled by young couples.

Young couples were everywhere the eye could see, assuming the eye in question squinted into the many dark corners, nooks, and crannies which have made this the favourite place for amorous youths to escape the omnipresent glare of pesky parents, nosey neighbours, and stringent societal mores.  Once the reserve of Cairo's elite, the Grotto is now the refuge of Cairo's frisky.  

And what of it?  My parents are right, this Grotto does symbolizes Cairo at large.  Like Cairo, it has a certain adaptive, chameleon-like quality which has allowed both Grotto and City to weather what storms may come.  Constricted by an overbearing, conservative society where dating is something done either only "over there" (the hedonist West) or by those with loose morals, Cairo's young couples have sought sanctuary along bridges, dimly-lit sections of the Nile's banks, and here, at the Grotto, where boys in jean-jackets and slightly dated haircuts can freely clasp hands with girls who struck me as nonetheless coy and demure.  Perhaps because they know that society regards them as the vanguards of their most valued possession, their honour, and that their merely being here threatened that, the girls at the Grotto seemed somewhat more ill-at-ease than their male companions.  I wondered then, as I do now, if they felt power in their subversion as well.  Interested to get his take on the Grotto, I casually mentioned to my cousin, who is in his late twenties, that I'd been there.  "Oh?" he said, with raised eyebrow, "and what did you think?"  He did not stop to hear my answer before continuing "It's full of couples, youths, but lost youths."  My cousin, it seems, did not approve of the lurid goings-on he imagined occurring there.

Yes, Cairo, like the Grotto is the worse for the wear.  But one thing that recently struck me in the course of reading Max Rodenbeck's Cairo: The City Victorious (required reading for all denizens of this city), is that Cairo has been through a lot, much of it even worse than this.  Cairenes complained of pollution and overpopulation as far back as the 11th century.  And while it's impossible to tell what Medieval Cairenes would make of today's smog-filled city of nearly twenty million, it helps to keep things in perspective.  Cairo's recent history is but a hair's breadth on the timeline of this truly great and ancient city.  Despite our pretenses, as far as this Cairo is concerned, we are mere blips, destined to come and go like so many before us, while the city trudges along.


At 2:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I too have no home and feel we may have some useful discussion to undertake.

I too have worked in Libya and now working in Saudi Arabia.

I am 36, MA in International Relations, married and my name is Septimus. You can contact me by writing to septimus7@hotmail.com


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