An Egyptian friend of mine once told me about her return to Cairo, having spent a year studying abroad in St Andrews. In the taxi home from the airport, she became engaged in conversation with the driver, who asked her how she felt now that she had returned home after so many long, cold months in Britain.
“I’d forgotten,” she said.
“About what?” the driver asked.
I had been told by British and American friends who lived in Egypt that Cairo is dirty and Cairo is loud, but nothing could have prepared me for the intense olfactory experience that day-to-day life in today’s Cairo presents. Once you step foot out of the air-conditioned, alabaster lobby of the brand new international arrivals terminal of the Cairo Airport, the city swallows you whole. The first few weeks were completely overwhelming as my friends and I struggled to adjust to the sights and the sounds of the metropolis.
As time went by, we began to become accustomed to the rhythms, rituals, and unspoken rules of the city. My friends and I slowly started to pick up the street slang and within the first month had even learned the most important lesson for a foreigner to know in Cairo: how, when, and when not to give money to beggars.
One night during Ramadan, a friend and I took a taxi to the City Stars mall in Heliopolis, one of the larger neighborhoods of Cairo. We were waiting for a third friend on the fresh, unbroken sidewalk outside the mall, people-watching giggly teenaged girls in hijabs stroll past with their boyfriends. Suddenly, I felt a hand touch my elbow. I looked to my left, but saw no one. I looked down.
A small boy with curly dark hair and pronounced gaps in his wide smile beamed up at me. He began chattering in unintelligible Arabic, pressing pages of the Koran into my stomach in what he seemed to think was an infallible sales tactic.
I frowned as the boy extended his palm and squared his thin shoulders confidently.
“Wannabound!” he repeated. I wondered how old he was. Five? Six? I explained to him as best I could that I spoke very little colloquial Arabic and did not understand. “Mish fahima,” I said. He frowned, and disappeared into the small crowd waiting at the bus stop. He was not gone long, though.
When he returned, he came with a gangly girl and a squat toddler in tow. All of them held crumpled pages of the Koran in their tubby fists and soot streaked across their round faces. They encircled my friend, their voices indignant as he too explained that he couldn’t understand them.
Finally, the girl rolled her eyes and extended a dirty hand to my friend.
“Wanabound!” she said with the same decisiveness as the first child.
My friend laughed. Just the day before, he had marveled at the English-speaking abilities of the entrepreneurial men and children who hovered around tourists at the Pyramids in Giza. Now, it was his turn to train the next generation:
“One pound,” he said slowly.
“Wanbound!” repeated the children. The crafty little things knew this was an important lesson, and watched my friend very closely as he repeated the vocabulary again.
“One pound.” This time, he deliberately emphasized the ‘p’, a letter which does not exist in Arabic.
“Wan bound!” sang the chorus.
I reached into my pocket and distributed pound coins to each child (one Egyptian pound is about 10p, but is still considered generous). My friend and I shooed them away with an “imshy!” and grinned as they scampered up to a pack of newly arrived, well-dressed mall-goers stepping off a minibus.
Not everyone in Cairo finds street children and beggars so endearing, and eventually, neither did I. Some beggars – especially the professional beggars who appear on street corners during religious holidays – are intolerable. During Ramadan in Cairo, it is possible to be solicited by well-dressed men for “just 50 pounds” (the average beggar is happy with 25 or 50 piastres, or 5p). Street children, on the other hand, often find themselves living on the streets after fleeing domestic abuse and poverty, or are simply abandoned by their parents.
Whenever someone asks me what my initial impressions of Cairo were, all I hear in my head are the echoes of “wan bound, wan bound!”