Cairo Tango


Cairo and tango, two words that should not be associated. Earlier today I was driving down Wadi El Neil street, approaching our old flat in Mohandesseen. At that point I had been in the car almost an hour, to cover the distance between El Rawda and Mohandessen, a feat that should normally take twenty minutes. The more I spend time in Cairo the more I realize that normally is a word that no longer applies to this eternally damned and glorified city. The weather that day was exquisitely rotten. The yearly Khamasin winds were in full display bringing sand from the Western desert. Fine grains of sand seeped everywhere, in to the car and on my skin. As if the Egyptian temperament, already disorganized yet fantastically conformist needed the yearly invasion of Saharan sands to dislodge it out of this seemingly hopeless recession. That didn’t work.

I was stuck at a junction waiting for the utterly miserable human traffic light to authorize me to move. On my right a man in a new Korean made car screaming to a decrepit microbus to shift a wheel. He wanted to bear right. On my left was a Fiat 132 that has seen better days. There were two passengers in the back, a woman probably of Asian origin and a man who might be American looking exasperated. The junction ahead of me was an unintentionally produced master work of cubism. Cars heading in every direction forming a perfect gridlock. I knew I was going to be there for a while.

On the pavement in the middle of the road several men in galabeyyas with earthen faces and wrinkled tanned skin where waiting for God’s mercy; maybe a rich contractor would pick them up for a days work and a few measly pounds. On the other side of the road small groups of school children were heading home, all dressed in washed out beige uniforms. Some how they managed to keep a smile on their faces.

Suddenly I was struck by the enormity of the contradiction. An exceptionally majestic tango piece was making its way through my car’s speakers. I remembered the only tango performance I ever saw. I was touched by the beauty of the music and the dance. An impossible mix of power, precision, grace and sensuality. A perfection of the human and musical form – everything that Cairo lacks. Cairo as a friend of mine once said is a soul without a body. True, but what has become of its soul? It has become morally and aesthetically tarnished. Cairo has never been an exemplar of order and organization, but in the past that somehow didn’t matter. There was enough to compensate; in the goodwill of the people, in the endearing submission to God and the unknown. That is all gone. Submission has been replaced either with a revolting dogma or a nauseating collective social conformity. As for good will; that is long gone. The disappearing middle class, the enlarging domain of utter poverty and the scattered islands of extreme luxury have left a collective sense of bitterness, and for the sensitive conscience a daily struggle to justify privilege.

But what is conscience? Is it just an overarching super-ego? Its much more. Conscience is what ties us to other people, it’s the guarantee that other people will figure in my decisions, actions and in the construction of my own identity. It maintains cohesiveness in a society. Conscience can sometimes lead to guilt but guilt never leads to conscience. Guilt is the defense of someone who lacks conscience. Guilt comes only after the act or thought, when its all done. It’s a sign of an inactive conscience. Guilt is solipsistic, it does not include other people, it only includes the subject. It’s a disguised form of self pity.

What I feel in Cairo is not guilt, it’s the deep unsettling pang of conscience. It’s the acknowledgment that I am more privileged and hence more responsible. Responsible for maintaining moral rigour, for keeping my eyes open and living with the pain of contradiction rather than inhabiting a self-enclosed illusion. Tango? Is not life, its an ideal, akin to the platonic forms and maybe it should remain just that. In a strange way tango touches you deep down yet if you really think about it, its not human. For to be human is to be flawed.

April 2007

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