SAT-7 Egypt journalist Mary Joseph reflects on a summer when Cairo’s bustling streets went abnormally quiet. While many Cairenes flocked to beach resorts, those who stayed behind faced a strange new reality.
Four months on since the coronavirus made its official appearance in Egypt, the summer heat still soars, while the relentless virus-related WhatsApp messages have cooled off. Summer, a season I look forward to with longing, has been lonelier than ever in Cairo.
A two-word sentence blinks in my head: “Skip summer.” Just as a click of a mouse skips ads and intros to online videos, so this year’s summer seems to have been skipped over – at least for me. No beach, no outings, and no family gatherings. I couldn’t even attend a wake held for my late uncle, for fear of infection through gatherings.
Some others in this city of ten million have also spent the summer this way, preferring to stay within the safety of their own walls.
But a contrasting reality has been visible, too. Thousands of Egyptians flocked to the shores of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean after the government opened public and private beaches. Suffocated by prolonged enforced isolation, by the coronavirus hazard, and by their children’s lockdown irritations, many families took to the beaches to uncork months of bottled-up frustration.
This left Cairo’s streets calmer than normal. Instead of the unnecessary car honking over parking spots, the congestion of one-way streets and traffic, there was a new hush. The three months of summer have always been quiet in the capital because of school and university holidays, but this year has been even quieter.
Staying in the city, while possibly sensible, has been trying. Social distancing seemed to meet its match in Cairo’s popular café culture. Even at the start of lockdown, when the streets were deserted, I saw a lone couple searching in our area to find an open café, seemingly oblivious to what the whole world was going through. When venues began to reopen, young people poured into cafés and restaurants, while I gazed down from my balcony.
Meanwhile, the “home safety” summer package came with daily sad news on social media of people still becoming infected or dying of COVID-19. A pastor at our church was among those to pass away after struggling with the virus for a month, and many elderly people fell victim despite being hospitalised. One example was the famous 85-year-old Egyptian actress, Ragaa el-Gedawy.
From where I sat, it has sometimes felt like I was the only one who was still taking precautions. My trips to the supermarket, which were once enjoyable, became agonising as I tried not to touch my dampening mask sticking to my face and dodged people as they walked close by.
Looking back over this unusual summer has made me wonder how people of one nation can have such contrasting reactions to the same world catastrophe.
But God in His great kindness sent consolation my way in the form of the Church. At one point, I heard a famous Egyptian preacher tell the presenter on a SAT-7 programme that he also wasn’t ready to go out and still preferred the quiet of his home.
It was reassuring to hear that a Christian leader shared my sentiments. I continue to use my time at home to learn from his informative Christian teaching. I have also maintained social media contact with the few I know are still at home, to stay connected digitally during social distancing.
As this strange summer enters its homeward stretch, I start to feel less like an alien species in my city. I am about to return to the office – and face with deepened faith the challenges of the next season to come.
Cairo resident Nancy blogs on a previous Egyptian summer when families headed for the beaches of Alexandria and the Red Sea after a time of political upheaval and tension.