A few days ago I stood in the center of a crowded metro car. It was around 95 degrees, hotter inside. Strangely enough with the open windows and rotating ceiling fans, the temperature was tolerable.
Sometimes it can be preferable in the aisle, rather than squeezed five across a four person bench. But generally it is better to sit, relax, and open a book. Otherwise I stand, keep balance, and open a book.
Save for the few with a Quran, I am often the only one reading.
Sometimes I am sheepish about the content, worried it might offend any one of the strongly held political opinions of the day. On this occasion, sadly somewhat paranoid, I pull it carefully from my bag, turn the cover inward against my body, and then open to read.
There are many Egyptians proficient in English, but generally speaking everyone on the metro minds their own business. Still, who knows if a troublemaker with wandering eyes wants to take issue with a foreigner? Especially when not reading, my eyes often wander as well, curious how others pass the time.
The best way to get a seat in a crowded metro is to move to the center and hope those in front of you get out at a nearby stop. It makes for a fun guessing game. Should I choose the family with small kids, or the young university students? Will it be the old man, or the fully covered lady?
This time I had no choice, and just filed into my spot. In front of me was a Quran reader intoning quietly, sitting next to a similarly aged young man playing Candy Crush on his smartphone.
At that moment a familiar sound emerged from the far left end of the car. “By God, please help me,” called out a medium-sized woman dressed completely in black. “God reward you for your kindness, I need food for my children.”
As she worked her way through the crowded car a few people slipped her a coin. But upon completion of her plea another familiar sound came from the far right. “Four pens for five pounds, and get the fifth one free,” the middle aged, somewhat shabbily dressed salesman belted. “Check them out, the best pens in Cairo.”
One or two people handed him the requested bill, but as they did with the covered lady, most ignored him. The two alternated cries as they moved down the aisle.
In the middle, all converged. The Quran and Candy Crush. Begging and enterprise. Middle class youth, lower class poverty, and foreign wealth.
Each was seeking something: a small profit, a trip downtown. For me the metro is the fastest way from here to there. At thirteen cents, it is also the cheapest.
But it is also a chance to learn in transit. Not just the book. The metro is a microcosm of society, a dose of reality piercing the bubble of a more insular Maadi.
Most travel in silence. But whether in hope or complaint, the face of the nation is witnessed clearly. Within it is a valuable lesson to Egyptian and foreigner alike.
The Cairo metro is home to all.