Cairo has a strange way of convincing you that anything and nothing is possible at the same time. What (to the outsider) may seem like pandemonium, is (to the learned Cairene) an organized symphony of chaos, whose promises are only limited by one’s persistence. A burgeoning metropolis of irony, so apparent, one can’t help but find it endearing. A river city in a coastal nation in which gas is cheaper than water. A timeless city with no regard for time. A city of 10 million drivers and one DMV. Cairo welcomes paradox with open arms and a warm cup of tea, while kicking logic squarely in the privates.
And so, in winter I found myself face-to-face with a paradox in a city which rewards such things—a flat tire, not my own, but nevertheless, in need of fixing. Western influence forced a hand to my coat pocket in search of a cell phone or an AAA card, while Cairo tempted me with unreasonable thoughts and a new-found courage. The words flowed without censorship, Of course I can fix it. The confidence was not my own, but rather the kindly gift of a city smothered in self-assurance. A city of ordinary pickup trucks whose payloads regularly towered three-stories, where expecting mothers rode motorcycles, and toddlers crossed streets at rush-hour. Yes, here, in this place, confidence was nothing short of viral.
The car sat lazily slumped to one side in a subterranean garage which doubled as an automotive museum. Vehicles of all generations and origin gathered in this place (like thousands of others across the city). All were carefully arranged in an effort to maximize storage and minimize efficiency. A man and his family (the guardians of this place) occupied a small room in the center of the underground repository. Dark and dusty, smelling of gasoline it was no place for a family, and yet here they were—relegated beneath a city where anything is possible. Between the shadows, I rummaged the trunk for all the essentials—tire iron, scissor jack, crank handle, and of course, a new tire.
With confidence building, I removed my winter coat and button-down shirt, and reached for the parking brake (safety first). The scissor jack placed against the steel mount nearest the tire of interest. The crank handle inserted and with the twist of an arm, what was once immovable with two hands (like magic) suddenly felt weightless. The lug nuts were removed with an emphatic umph and meticulously placed on the blackened cement floor to preserve their order. Grabbing the deflated tire from both sides, the wheel came unhinged from its axis and made a sudden thump to the ground. Taking a step back to admire my work, a mess of tools and devices laid before me. I contemplated how many of these gadgets were invented on the very soil that now covered my face and hands.
Affixing the new “temporary” wheel in place came naturally. I recalled that lug nuts should be tightened in a cross-pattern, so as not to compromise their strength. Without a torque wrench, I tightened to feel, and then retightened just to be sure. With a final twist of the tire iron, the melodic acapella of an imam could be heard echoing from the one-room home of the gatekeeper and his family—a celebration for a job well done.
To christen the new tire, we ventured upwards and outwards for an inaugural tour of a city that wouldn’t care if our wheels fell off. The streets of Cairo are a gathering place—where donkey, horse, and man can coexist. Where overt recklessness breeds a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings. Cairo is ironically safe. The sidewalks are a fragrance factory for an entire nation. Corn is grilled, tobacco is smoked, propane is burned, bread is leavened, sweet potatoes are roasted, and tea is steeped. In Cairo, your senses are stimulated then re-stimulated. On our inaugural ride, we searched for a mechanic to patch and salvage the old tire because Cairo is a city of use, repair, and reuse—no thing is disposed of until it disposes us first.
Repairing and replacing a timeless device in a timeless city requires adaptation. For those proficient in the art of surviving Cairo, prospects are only limited by one’s ability to adapt; adapt to change, circumstances, events, and (of course) traffic. At 11pm on a Tuesday, everything was open and business was good. Cars were double and triple parked out-front of the “Mostafa Ezzat For Tires & Batteries.” New traffic patterns were spontaneously formed to accommodate our need for curbside service. A cheerful attendant with an air-hose in hand emerged from the storefront garage. Unprompted, he began making his rounds, filling each tire in rapid succession. The manager yelled and barked from the storefront to the cheerful attendant who grabbed the old deflated tire and wheeled it inside. In a matter of seconds, the old tire was fixed and the “temporary” was replaced—undoing my entire night’s work at once. In Cairo, a city of “Whys” and “Hows” I was asking both questions.
It was an impressive display of efficiency and skill, which warranted the universal sign of approval—an enthusiastic thumbs-up. With a warm smile and inquisitive nod of the head, he asked:
“From where you are, my brahzer?”
“I’m from America and I want to tell you, you’ve done a very good job here.”
“Welcome, my friend. Welcome to Egypt.”