Jerusalem tips its hat to Cairo

Adventures of the Cairo bag, part one…

It was, to start, just a really pretty canvas bag that was useful to have –stuffed in the bottom of some other bag–for groceries, an overflow of books, market finds and the like. As it travelled with me through Europe and the Middle East, however, the little bag called Cairo took on a bit of a life of its own, and seemed to tell a story bigger than its self.

More than just a reusable canvas sack, the little Cairo bag wanders the world eliciting reactions and creating stories that tell a lot about how places and people relate to Cairo.

Beyone than Cairo though, the bag seems to come to symbolize something that seems lost; lost connections, lost friendships, or a lost golden period where Cairo seemed the centre of the world, umm ad-dunya…home to Umm Kulthum, Arab Nationalism, and maybe most importantly, the locus of optimism exported to a whole region.

With its simple calligraphic script spelling out the name of the Middle East’s largest metropole, the little bag called Cairo became more than a carrier of things, and more (as I often used it) than an invitation to speak to me in Arabic on the streets of one capital or another.

(lost on a train in Italy with a flight to catch, for example, a Tunisian man asked me what time it was in Arabic on account of the little bag called Cairo hanging from my shoulder… he helped me find the train I needed –Italian is nothing like French, Arabic, or English, so, I was utterly lost… and we chatted Middle East politics (he really had a love for Yasser Arafat) and what it was like to be Tunisian in Italy (up and down, he said) until his stop came.)

Take, for example, its first few weeks in Jerusalem. With no car and a penchant for all things market-related, the weekly grocery shop took me down to the Old City where I would fill the little bag called Cairo with the fruit of the season, roast nuts from Salman’s, and fresh taboun bread from the bakery (or, when they have it, the mysterious cart near the top of Salah Ad-Din).

Wandering around with a sack full of goodness, I began to notice that the little bag had a big effect. You see, there is not so much back and forth between Jerusalem and Cairo, at least not anymore.

Older gentlemen, the tweed hat wearing crowd, tended to read the name of the city from the side of the bag under their breath, and then nod at me solemnly. And I’m not talking just one or two gents. It came to be what felt like every fifth person on the street. Little bag called Cairo was eliciting quite the impact.

With the shabab too. Young men under, say, 25, would not so much read under their breath but either yell out loud, “Cairo!” or tease: “where is the Palestine bag?” No matter the reaction, though, there was always a reaction.

Walking through a quiet residential area, trying not to interrupt a street soccer game, the kiddo about to make a penalty kick whips his head around, grabs me by the arm, and asks with a bit of a heartbreaking urgency:

“You’re from Cairo?!” (I don’t think he’d looked at my face, which, is rather a quick giveaway that I’m not from anywhere near Cairo)

No sweetie, I’ve just been for visits.

Oh.

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