Magazine article New Internationalist

Season of Uncertainty

Magazine article New Internationalist

Season of Uncertainty

Article excerpt

As the Cairo summer wears on, people's health and energy levels noticeably drop. Eating becomes difficult. It's not only the price rises that have transformed even the modest tomato into a costly delicacy, but the toxic blend of putrefying heat and lung-blasting pollution that is the average Cairene's nauseating lot. Even in winter, vegetable shopping is not for the squeamish, as everything is covered in mud or the grime gathered on the trafficjammed journey from field to town in an uncovered pickup. I haven't seen a white cauliflower in years. In summer it's worse: the available produce is just this side of rotten.

The crowded fridges in local grocery stores are subject to power outages. Cheeses and other foods are tainted with pest sprays used to control the onslaught of ants and other bugs. The bean slop sold on every corner, so sustaining in winter, seems particularly repulsive. Forget about meat; even those who can afford it have seen too many open-air butcher shops to stomach it in summer. Except for fresh-baked bread, the wheaty discs that form the staple of the local diet, nothing looks or tastes wholesome.

All this is complicated by the fact that Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, comes in August, and will continue to coincide with the summer months for several years as the lunar Islamic calendar gradually shifts forward. Under the circumstances, food is easily foregone through the daylight hours, but water is indispensible. Yet everyone, including children and the elderly, goes thirsty throughout the school or work day. I've tried it and understood how summer fasting transforms Cairo into a city of sluggish half-wits.

Five times daily, the call to prayer evokes a merciful god, yet no-one would dare propose that people be allowed to drink water, while observing the rest of the fast (abstinence from food, smoking and sex). Paying heed to the majority's straitened circumstances or their need to perform under punishing conditions - what a scandal that would be! President Mubarak recently announced that only god knew who might replace him and that furthermore, whatever god decided was all right by him. The nation breathed no sigh of relief. Uncertainty is another staple of the Egyptian diet. The growing concern with earning one's daily bread is compounded by the rising discomfiture over what the future might hold when Egypt's 82-year-old ruler breathes his last. …

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