I live among ghosts. Ghosts of hundreds and thousands of years ago. And ghosts of days not so far off that I can still see the shade where light shone in their last days.
I share my nights with them.
I walk the narrow, winding streets and hear them rushing around, adjusting the new gas lights in their ballrooms or setting the candles to light their way or dressing up for fancy gatherings and worrying about their city, their Cairo, their world, a world that long ago vanished.
I live less than two long streets from the Nile. The river that runs through Egypt’s soul rushes by within a quick step of where I live and I often pause to thank the cool breezes it brings.
I walk in a trance in Garden City’s streets. Lovely old mansions and palaces of the self-appointed and royally anointed rich. Houses carved out of stone and wood with imagination and humor and great ambitions. Grand ballrooms and grand entrance ways and large windows that look out from wooden balconies that lean out onto leafy streets from behind delicate wood and metal lacework.
This is what Garden City was when it was planned in the early 20th century. A strange piece of a fantasy from another place– a verdant Europe – imposed on the sun-baked, dusty, wind-swept banks of the Nile; and on the other shore of the city that stands not far from where Pharaohs ruled and built their pyramids so they could descend into permanent life in the underworld.
While Cairo bakes, it is cool in Garden City because of the rows of trees: palms and rubber trees and everything kind of warm climate greenery that you would imagine.
While this giant city of 18 million roars with an onslaught of horns and shouts, the streets in Garden City are hushed except for the birds atop the trees that somehow still find enough water to flourish. While the crowds pass on nearby streets, it is impossible for them do so here. The streets are too narrow, too winding and they go nowhere.
Where there are fancy new suburbs that could be anywhere, and breathless bare brick slums collapsing and slammed together on dirt alleys that have not changed since the days when Cairo was a city protected by thick walls, Garden City is a fantasy left over from a special moment in Egypt’s long history. Paris on the Nile, it was. London and Rome and who knows what other cities were models for its fantasies, too.
When I meander, I look up and wonder who danced in that empty ballroom. I look through the metal gates and wonder what that driveway once looked like. I peer over the thick cement walls of an estate and ogle the lovely greenness on the other side. I stare into a wide open doorway, struck by the lush setting of chandeliers and marble. I count Art Deco and Greco-Roman and Victorian and every kind of design possible. I also count drab, grey and crowded slabs of buildings mixed among jewels of the past. I wonder where they have gone: the people who built these places and who spent their childhoods here. The people who worked here, sweeping the steps and serving the meals, who built here, who fell sick and died and who were born here. I wonder what they would think if they return.
Sometimes they tell me. But that’s our secret.
When I walk at night on the streets with only a few lamps, I watch the birds in the tall trees next to my apartment house flying in the night-time light that is a brown hue because of the desert’s dust swirling in the air, too. Hamseen time.
I live among the ghosts and dust from the desert and the wondrous, thunderous morning call performed by birds in broad old trees eternally swabbed in dust.
I live in the Garden City in the desert.