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Why Did the Cairene Cross the Road?

Author: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
July 17, 2007
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I owe my life to Umm Ahmad. Shortly after I moved to Cairo, a friend suggested I hire her to be my shaghaalah (maid). She did a great job of keeping Cairo’s notorious dust under control, but that’s not why she saved my life. After our first meeting, during which she took stock of my scant supplies, Umm Ahmad took me to a local shop to purchase a mop, broom, sponges, and a variety of cleaning fluids. On our trek back to my flat, as we walked the wrong way down what was supposed to be a one-way street in Cairo’s Zamalek neighborhood, a bus careened toward us. Umm Ahmad motioned me out of the way as the bus came screaming past us. It came within no more than 2 inches of Umm Ahmad, but she didn’t even flinch. She just kept walking. And so began my introduction in how to negotiate and, crucially, survive Cairo traffic.

To the uninitiated, Cairo traffic is ferocious and dangerous. (The July 17 New York Times described it as “chaos.”) Yet Cairenes think nothing of walking in the street (unavoidable, given the dilapidated or nonexistent state of sidewalks in many areas), darting across four lanes of traffic, and wading into masses of oncoming cars, buses, and trucks. Although Egypt has its share of traffic deaths (about 6,000 per year, not too much more than Turkey—a country of roughly comparable population—which averages 4,500 traffic fatalities a year), most Cairenes seem fearless.

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