Traffic. I feel as though I’d be leaving out a pretty significant part of my Cairo experience if I didn’t write about it: the hours spent making my way through the city at around the speed of pudding oozing its way across a countertop, the thrill of dodging mopeds and stepping out in front of buses to get across the street, and the gorgeous sunsets that only smog can produce. Yes, traffic is a defining part of the Egyptian experience.
At first glance, it looks like utter chaos. All the rules you learn in driver’s ed in America are thrown out the window. People create four lanes where there are meant to be two, completely disregard stoplights, turn left from the right-most lane, don’t turn their headlights on at night, never wear a seatbelt, and rarely use their turn signal. Markets spill out into the roads, microbuses stop in the middle of the street to pick up passengers, and donkey carts trot along amid the fray. You can see the evidence of attempts to create Western order: lane lines, stoplights, speed limit signs, one way signs, signs that say no double-parking… But Cairo has developed a system of its own. It’s not there is no order; it’s just not the order that the colonialists had in mind when they designed the roads years ago.
While life and traffic in other parts of the world are more akin to a dignified waltz, in Cairo, they have a dance all their own, more like a jazz. The rhythm is complex and the steps are always changing, and if you have never danced it before, you are likely to get your feet stepped on. At first listen, you hear nothing resembling the conventional three-beat flow of the waltz, nor do you recognize any of the steps you are familiar with. You may try to waltz all the same, only to find yourself lost in the jumble of screeches and honks, bustled and bumped by the other dancers who do not seem to care much whether their dancing makes sense to you. But just because they do not waltz does not mean they do not dance.
What sounds like a cacaphone of meaningless honking is actually the basis for a fascinating communication system. Drivers use combinations of beeps to mean “I’m passing you on your right!” or “@#$% you!” or “make way for the bride and groom!” In fact, I have observed that most drivers seem to navigate by sonar, using the honks of other drivers to determine where they are in the stream of traffic and thereby figure out when it is safe to pass or merge or turn. In vehicles where the side mirrors are the first things to go, such a system actually makes some sense. It is then easy to see why such things as turn signals have little use.
And though it may appear as though drivers are constantly thoughtlessly double-parking each other in, what is actually at work is a clever solution to Cairo’s parking problem. When drivers cannot find a place to park, they double-park but leave their handbreak off so that whoever is parked on the inside need only push the car out of the way before backing out of the parking space. And so the dance goes on.
Nowhere is this dance more apparent than in crossing the street. At first, it might seem an impossible task with no crosswalks to be found and no real breaks in the flow of traffic. None of the steps you’ve learned in your waltzing lessons will work here and one misstep can be dangerous. But if you watch an Egyptian make his way across the street, you’ll see that there is some method to the madness. The crosser steps off the curb with confidence that the drivers coming at him will find some way not to hit him. Rather than waiting for the entire street to clear (an almost impossible thing in this city), he takes it one lane at a time (keeping in mind that lanes are shifting things), stopping in the middle of the road to wait for the next gap, dodging mopeds, while microbuses weave around him without skipping a beat. Just like any dance, the whole process hinges on the follower being able to interpret what the lead wants—something I don’t have completely figured out. More often than not, I weave right when the moped coming at me wants me to weave left and we only narrowly miss a collision. But those who have been dancing since they were children make the whole thing seem effortless—and kind of beautiful to watch.
Learning to cross the street is a pretty solid allegory for learning to do life in Cairo. All the zaniness might be hugely intimidating at first, and not much of it is likely to be familiar (even with 12 years in Morocco under my belt, I was taken aback by how different things are here). But you have to eventually step off the curb in confidence that though there might be some near misses, you won’t be hit. The people here will look out for you; some may even grab your hand and help you across. They’re always happy to teach you Arabic and show you how to get around. But what makes them happier than anything I think is when you show humility and a desire to learn, when you accept that they do dance even if it’s nothing like what you’re used to, you stop trying to fit your steps onto their rhythm and you just let them teach you how it’s done.
The Cairo dance is not the most efficient or safe way of doing things—not by a long shot. But it is totally unique and fascinating to learn. I’m far from mastering it but I’m giving it my best effort. And despite my clumsy feet, the Egyptians just smile graciously and dance along.