Home Your Voices Oh Cairo

[Poem] Oh Cairo


Stepping out of the airport doors
Into the heavy night air,
I fill my lungs like a love-struck bride
At the scent of her husband’s cologne
Exactly as an addicted ex-smoker
At the scent of burning leaves
Or on entering a smoke-filled room

Oh Cairo, Ya Qahira
All of Egypt expands in my lungs
So heavily laden is your scent –
It is both noxious and obnoxious
Exhilarating and exalting
Addicting and sensuous as my husband’s cologne –
So complex is your corporate perfume

The warm grassy smell of fresh donkey dung
Permeates the carbon monoxide
And the alcoholic scent of rotting grapes
And the spicy sweet smell of sticky dried dates
And fish in all stages of life to decay
And the flowery scent of the golden guava
Whose smell tastes better than her flavor

It is an intoxicating, toxic perfume
Of donkeys and horses, sheep and men
All equally common in this congestion
Equally carrying his own right of way
Even on the busiest highways and byways
Spewing forth fumes from huge diesel trucks,
Minivans, motorcycles, taxis and buses

Wooden donkey carts painted brightly with flowers
Hauling mountains of pungent manure
Vying with tour buses, bikes and cars,
Pedestrians and tourists on scooters
And horse carts stacked with crates to the sky
Stuffed with cucumbers, lemons and tomatoes,
Oranges, persimmons, peas and beans, peppers and potatoes

And little boys tapping their sticks on the street
As they guide their huge herds of sheep
Claustrophobically close in musky huddles
Travelling like moving piles of dust
Transporting flies as they shuffle
Obliviously precariously bleating and crying
Through the chaotically crowded streets

Everything exudes its own special smell
Contributing to the corporate perfume
Of millions of closely-knit families
Of millions of husband’s colognes
Of musks and lavenders, jasmine and rose –
The incense of life burns day and night –
Burning trash, burning fields, burning passions

Burning tears in a poor child’s eyes
His clothes smell bad and he opens his hand
Begging for money, and speaking to me
I tell him by Arabic that I don’t know Arabic
And he looks at me like I am crazy
I haven’t a coin to my name at this moment
And I look back like I can’t explain

If I could speak his language
What would I say?
I would probably be just as speechless
I stand dumb-founded trying to imagine
What could possibly make a difference
Then my husband appears and shoos him away
With a coin and a word of encouragement

I link my arm in his arm and I smile
At his gentle face, his heart full of kindness,
His mastery of tough situations,
A smile of gratified satiation
It’s the smile of a love-struck bride
And then with a grin of uncanny understanding
He guides me off into the night

Islamic Relief USA