It is the joy of a visit here that just when you think you must cry for its troubles, this city will teach you to laugh. It is the sorrow of all who know it that just when you have learned to laugh, Cairo will show you more reasons to cry.
Peace is now the dream of Cairo, peace and reconstruction and prosperity for all. Shall we laugh with the Cairenes for the unexpected joy? Or shall we cry for the hopes, the millions of hopes, that peace will not fulfill?
It is dusk now, in the City of the Dead, in the eastern quarter, where the tombs of Egyptians great and humble stretch on for miles to the base of the bare, dusty Moqattam hills. The call to evening prayers echoes from a mosque off the marble walls.
To the south, the garbage pickers' fires send columns of smoke, black and thick, into the dull orange sky. It looks as if the gates of hell were moved to the cemetery wall to be close to these hundreds of thousands of souls.
And then, in the half-light, there is the form of a child at play, darting around the edge of a tomb. From beyond comes the sound of a mother calling her young ones in. Two donkey carts creak by, their drivers asleep. The donkeys know the way, because this is home.
The donkeys and their drivers, the mothers and their young, are some of the thousands who live in the City of the Dead. The crypts and the tombs for Egyptians of another age have provided homes for uncounted Cairenes for the last 30 years.
In that time Cairo's population has grown from 2 million to 9 million. But Cairo itself has not grown so much as it has bulged. It is now, for the most part, an overburdened slum, with some living on the dead and more living on the living.
Old apartment houses hold families of eight in single rooms. New tenants are forced to live in sheds erected on the apartment house roofs. Last fall two Cairo buildings simply collapsed, and 55 people died.
One cemetery in the shadow of the 800-year-old Citadel attracted so many of the living that the government of Anwar Sadat was forced to build a post office and four schools there.
On a recent night, President Sadat was traveling to Ismailia on the Suez Canal for a peace talk with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel. In the City of the Dead, the hopes of the living went with him.
"God preserve the president," said Saadallah Biumi, in front of the tomb that serves as his home and workshop. He was winding off his wooden wheel the last of the rope he would spin that day. His 13-year-old apprentice, Mohamed Kinawi, ran with one end of the rope down the row of graves, leaping in a zig-zag over piles of rock.
"The president cares for the people's children," said Saadallah Biumi, spinning his wheel. "He knows we can afford no more war and destruction.
"Perhaps when there is peace, in-sh-Allah, we will have houses for all."
"When there is peace, in-sh-Allah, if God wills..."
It is a refrain so familiar it sounds like a prayer.
When there is peace, there will be houses; when there is peace, there will be more buses; when there is peace, the telephones will be made to work; when there is peace, the water will run throughout the day...
When there is peace, in-sh-Allah.
In a Cairo cafe, Mamdouh Soliman, a travel agent, said that the end of war was the key to economic development.
"Housing is expensive and the people live in huts. The transportation is very crowded, and the roads are all broken," he said. "If peace will be again in this land, the wages will rise with the money now dumped in the army. The money can be put into industries that the Russians built. They are not working now, with no workers have no work."
In a government office, Ahmed Fawsi Borale, minister plenipotentiary of commerce, echoed the theme.
"Peace is very important for us in this time," he said. "Of course, the foreign investment will bring a fortune for Egypt. We need it. This is the most important reason for peace."
On its face, it seems simple. Egypt maintains the third-largest standing army in the world. The annual cost eats up a third of the nation's budget. Make peace, and the army can be trimmed down. The money saved can be used elsewhere.
In fact, it is not so simple. The army in Egypt is a political force, and even Anwar Sadat can trim only with caution. The army is operating with Soviet equipment for which spare parts are not available, now that Sadat has broken with the Russians. Peace or no peace, it will require new equipment from the ground up.
Suppose some millions are saved in time. Will they begin to meet the needs?
Among the projects most urgently required to stem the decay in this city alone is a sewer system. That is one project among one thousand. An official at the U.S. Embassy notes that a new World Bank study predicts that a Cairo sewage system (if it is built, in-sh-Allah) would edge out the Washington Metro subway as the largest construction project in the history of the earth.
In the meantime, it is clear that nothing in Cairo seems to work.
Buildings are either half-constructed or half-decayed. In some cases, where the money ran out or the five-year plan changed, one building may be both.
The water system was constructed for a city one-quarter Cairo's present size. Electricity tends, like running water, to come and go. The telephones are pure chaos.
The roads that are paved are filled with holes. Pavement removed is not replaced. Unpaved roads become bogs in the rain. The lack of drainage can turn a street into a lake. Mass transportation cannot accommodate the people who want to use it. Automobile traffic is unbelievable, and the number of cars on Cairo's streets grows as fast as the population.
The native Cairene has learned to laugh.
One night recently, two university students driving an American to his hotel were struggling through the perpetual jam that is the Taalat Harb, a circle near the heart of Cairo.
As they accelerated out of the circle, the driver glanced to his left at an intersection where a group of workmen had just dug a trench across the width of the cross street.
"Aha," he said, and began to smile.
The other student followed the driver's glance.
"Aha," he said, and began to giggle. Soon, both were giggling so hard that the driver had to pull over to the curb. Finally, he controlled his laughter enough to explain.
"They had just closed," he announced, as solemnly as he could, "one of the busiest streets in Cairo for an indefinite period of time."
Westerners learn to laugh, or leave.
In the Cairo office of an American firm, Elly Darley, a 30-year-old Philadelphian, was holding the receiver of a telephone in her hand and wondering aloud why she had held it for 10 minutes without receiving a dial tone.
"On a Friday? It's a holiday, you see. It should work," she said.
"Oh, come on," she urged the phone.
Then, to no one in particular, she added, "Very frustrating. Very, very frustrating."
Miss Darley is no stranger to the frustrations of Cairo. She has lived here for the last three years. Only recently has Cairo begun to get her down.
"I love it, really," she explained. "But the whole system is in-sh-Allah, if God wills, and I just feel I can't take it, I stay late at the office here to catch a ride home because you can't really ever get a seat on the bus. And now I've started to come early because there's less chance of a power cut then, and if you're riding the elevator and there's a power cut, well, you're just in there and there's nothing you can do."
She turned to the phone again. "C'monnn."
Miss Darley is lucky that she deals with phones only part of the time – it is a stressful experience. At one point, the government hired a Swedish firm to come in and straighten out the telephone mess. The company canceled out of the project when the chief engineer suffered a nervous breakdown.
Now, Telefunken, the West German firm, has been called in. The Germans reportedly are doing better. But the work goes slowly. Someone misplaced the list of underground telephone cable locations.
Miss Darley will leave while she is still sane. But she won't return to Germantown, which she left after high school. Instead, she will go someplace far away, like Singapore or Mexico City.
"I've got to leave now because you just can't get along here without a lot of patience and a good sense of humor, and I'm losing that," she said.
Then, once again, to the telephone, in the sweetest voice she could muster:
"Please, come on, be a dear little phone. I know you can do it. Come on."
Too many of Cairo's own, and in too many cases its best, have left. They leave for Europe or the United Slates, or for the oil-rich Persian Gulf states where the salaries run five and 10 times Cairo scales.
"No, I will not stay to work," said a physics student in a Cairo cafe. "There is no opportunity here to specialize. This is not the place for me."
It is certainly not that there are no jobs. In fact, under one of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser's great leaps forward, every college graduate in Egypt is guaranteed a job in the public sector.
The results, as in so many things, are both sad and funny.
College graduates taking the jobs earn 25 pounds, or $37.50 a month. At that rate, their entire salaries could easily be spent on rent.
One public agency is siad to be paying college graduates to sit on benches in the zoo.
And the Ministry of Agriculture, one of the favorite placement spots, now has more than 160,000 employes – most of them, it is freely admitted, doing next to nothing.
"We have a new element in the five-year plan," said a cynical official in the Ministry of Commerce. "We are going to pay the college graduates to leave Cairo and go (exercise their bowels) in the desert. They are worth more to us as fertilizer."
In a street where the dust and fumes made the sunlight look as if it shone through waxed paper, a few thousand vehicles of all description were inching their way toward an intersection.
The car and truck drivers were keeping busy with their horns. The drivers of wooden-wheeled donkey carts were practicing their Arabic and whipping on their beasts, reaction time being everything in the battle for available inches.
In the cross Street, a trolley – packed inside, with a dozen young men hanging on the outside and a few more on the roof – made it just into the middle of the intersection when its poles were knocked off the wires above by second set of wires cutting across.
A conductor jumped out and tugged at the poles to try to set them on the wires again. But the wires were jiggling crazily from the jolt, and he had to wait for them to calm down.
The motorists really got busy with their horns. It turned out that one of them knew the conductor's mother, and he hopped out of his car to say so, adding more uncomplimentary things about her anatomy. There ensued a heated discussion.
Later, a victim of the massive tie-up asked an official why the wires could not could not have been joined so that the poles were not knocked off each time the trolley crossed a perpendicular set of wires.
"Yes, there are plans for this," he said. "When there is peace, in-sh-Allah, the transportation sector will receive much attention."
In another street, another file of traffic was swerving around a stunted, crippled man, who was hauling himself backward with his hands, his useless legs dragging behind him, making a sound on the dirty pavement like that of rags being torn.
"If there is peace, effendi? If there is peace?" He began to laugh a high, thin, mirthless laugh. "Do you think they will forgive me my military service?"
His high, thin laugh faded in the traffic noise as he bumped and scraped away. It sounded but for a moment like a wail, before the noise of a passing bus drowned it out.
In the City of the Dead at night, there was another laugh.
Mohamed Mushin, swathed in gray wool against the chill, poked his old, wrinkled head out the door of his home – the tomb of the Pasha Khorshid, who ruled Egypt at the time of the French Revolution.
"Don't look for poor people here, young gentleman. We are not so poor," he said. "Look," he said, and stepped back into the crypt where his family was relaxing by an oil lamp's light.
"Here lies the richest man in the world," said Mohamed Muhsin.
"Pah," he cried, and he stamped his foot. "Now we dance on his head."
And Mohamed Muhsin began to laugh, a laugh that was as old and dry and enduring as the bones of the Pasha Khorshid.