The big landmarks? - those multilevel flyovers/bridges, the breadth of the corniche, the river itself, the Tower and the most historic manmade structures towering over everything? But those are not the things I miss the most. It’s the smaller stuff, the unremarkable, the everyday things that change irrevocably once one moves. That’s what I miss. Inexplicably. Sometimes intensely.
Like the sounds of Arabic on the streets, the loops and dots and diacritics of the script on the signages. Cities are not id-ied by their random street corner conversations, their vendor calls or what the waiters/cabbies/parking attendants speak, but they should be. It determines what life there is pegged to, its all-important background score. Whether one understands or not doesn’t signify, the cadence of the language primes and changes one, slowly draws one in to its mystique. It has always felt to me that their words are pronounced from somewhere deeper inside the chest, somewhere much closer to the heart.
The tamr hind juice seller in the alleyways of the ancient market, with his shiny metal cymbals and fez. A guy on a bicycle balancing a large wooden pallet of bread on his head, early one winter morning, his breath misting in the cold. That’s another thing – properly cold winters, not these sham, jumped up seasons of 25s and 22s masquerading as cold.
The unevenness of the cobblestones in the Yellow Alley under my feet in the early February morning. The centuries old rivets on the massive wooden Gate of Conquest. The ‘marching soldiers’ crenellation of the boundary wall around an ancient monument. The stained glass in an 18th century merchant residence. The view through a mashrabiya, a minutely latticed window made of turned bits of teeny tiny wood fitted into each other like a complicated puzzle. The sunlight slanting in through the oblong openings of the roof cover of the tentmakers’ street.
Young schoolchildren playing football at 2 a.m. in the morning at the meidan in Kafr Nassar as I return home from a late night dinner. The huge banyan in Zamalek and those jacarandas, laden with mauve blossoms in season so that not much green is visible. Ditto the rows of flamboyants in 6th Oct.
The melodious voice of the neighbourhood muezzin and his azaan slicing the day into five neat segments. Four actually, because I was asleep most times when he gave the first call. The shape of the arches in the oldest mosque, the wide sweep of the desert just beyond the range of the balcony, the curve of the wrought iron railings in Downtown, the arrow-straight grace of the minarets piercing the sunset from Ahzar Park.
The triple height loaded pickup trucks on Ring Road reminding me of Rajasthani ladies with three tiered water pots. A car blithely reversing into the Juhayna roundabout at top speed. A silent old man with rheumy eyes offering household wares for sale by the roadside after the revolution dried up the tourist trade. A young boy in a torn singlet flying a green kite during Shem el Nessim.
The angle of the light as it hit an old glass lantern in the old city. The angle of the light as it hit the floor in Emerald, where some earlier resident had stubbed out a cigarette and left a burn mark on the wooden veneer. The bookshops displaying Naguib Mahfouz titles in two different languages, where suddenly finding a book by Amitabh Ghosh had made my heart race. The seafood chowder at Chef called Viagra soup for some reason I never did find out during so many dinners there.
Just some of the things from a city that was home once but isn’t anymore, yet still feels as though it is and that it should be.
Because I was comparing Fiji with 70's Nigeria, and that led to a long thread on what we, the ex-Naijja expat children, miss about that life. That naturally had to bring to mind the other city in Africa I've lived in, for longer than I've lived in Bauchi and Maiduguri individually.
i carry your heart with me (i carry it
in my heart) i am never without it..... ~ e e cummings