Friday, October 8, 2010


There is a Radiohead song called Reckoner. The movie Countdown to Zero, which warns us of the threat posed by nuclear arms, uses this song in its ending montage. I liked the choice, I felt it was appropriate given the apocalyptic implications of nuclear war. I found myself thinking about this song the other day.
Chatting with my expat friends, it seems somehow the same theme arises again and again when talking about all things Cairo. Strange as it sounds, that theme is the apocalypse. Now I realize how melodramatic this may sound, but it's really not supposed to. Almost as an afterthought in considering our city, we mention this phenomenon as if suddenly remembering the correct word to describe something. My friend Chris once said out of nowhere, "If I ever had to choose a place to film a low-budget, post-apocalyptic film, I'd choose Cairo." Everyone contemplated this for a second and then agreed. The city does not reek of tragedy or disaster, but there is a quality to it that makes my friend Tim, for instance, claim that "Cairo is what I imagine the world would look like after it ended."
I can think of two reasons for this. The first, is aesthetic. Beautiful buildings, mosques, and palaces still stand, but they are covered with layers of dust built up over decades. There is therefore a constant reminder of splendor lost, yet enduring. The second reason is a bit more political. Every day we encounter worse traffic than the day before. It's so bad that we now refer to it as wrath-ic. And so we find ourselves coming to the same conclusion at the end of each day, which is that the way of life here is unsustainable. It would be my guess that life as we know it here will eventually cease to exist. It has to.
The message here is perhaps unclear. Admittedly outsiders must give the city credit for continuing on with its daily life despite our convincingly Western label, "unsustainable." Still at the same time, as with anything, a city that does not adapt will not survive. Perhaps certain American cities can get away with ignoring environmental and social realities a bit longer because they are smaller. But with 22 million people living in one city, there is no where for the evidence to hide. I've always thought that it was our urban environments that should do the most to embrace a sustainable future. Cairo, one of the world's largest urban phenomenons is no exception.

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