I heard it before it hit the ground. A rustling above my head caught in between the leaves, a sound remarkably familiar and yet oddly distant. Then I felt the cold on my skin, just a few drops at a time, and realized it was rain. For the unfamiliar, it doesn’t rain often in Egypt. The days pass, one sun-dried afternoon into the next, with the disturbed dust from a million shuffling feet rising in the heat. I thought maybe with a storm Cairo could be cleansed again, renewed, its citizens able to breathe. Like a pregnant woman in need of that one satisfying meal, I craved the arrival of a storm, almost begging my joints to ache with a change in weather. But with any over-hyped event, I found my short moment of rain disappointingly anticlimactic. It came, saw and unfortunately failed to conquer.

What I asked from the rain was the impossible. I wanted everything dirty to be clean again. I wanted the burn in my eyes from the pollution to go away. What happened with the rain was the inevitable – dust and sand turned into a dark muck that stuck to the bottom of my shoes, following me as I tracked sandal prints into the buildings, the bus, my bedroom. The city had a matted look, soggy and wilted instead of revived. As I tripped over puddles formed in the holes of the broken sidewalks, I began to wonder, short of razing the city and starting afresh, what would it take to repair this neglected cradle of our world’s civilizations?

In the history books, on the Web sites, off the lips of tourists, Egypt is known as this famous “cradle of civilization.” You don’t have to look at the pyramids twice to know that extraordinary discoveries in mathematics and science were made here. Today, monuments paying homage to the great pharaohs of the ancient times are scattered throughout Cairo. They are the poised and dignified granite figures in the center of a traffic circle, in front of the museum, on the long stretch of road from the airport into the city. But Cairo no longer has the strength to faithfully support these monuments, these testaments to a time that have always been a point of pride for Egyptians. Surrounding these grand memories is a city slowly coming undone, its seams unraveling in the face of neglect and misuse. When I visited Cairo in my adolescent years, I remember asking my parents what the difference was between the good part of town and the bad part of town. Everything to me looked run down and unkempt, the equivalent of a poorer neighborhood in an American urban area. But now that I am older and spending substantial time here, I have been able to make the distinction between the different areas in Cairo – the rich neighborhoods are run down and the poor neighborhoods are really run down. A friend from Georgetown visiting me from his study abroad in Greece gave me his honest first impressions, “Yaz, Egypt is nice, but why is it so dirty?” He immediately proceeded to ask me where he could get disinfectant soap.

As to his second question, I could easily direct him to the drug store down the street. But to his first, I could only shrug my shoulders and give him the resigned reply of “I don’t know, it just is.” And then it hit me: if 70 million people are all approaching the condition of their country with shrugged shoulders and an “oh well” attitude, of course nothing is going to improve. Egypt is beyond repair. The only hope lies in the hands of the Egyptians but they have resigned themselves to indifference; they have become used to the sight of half finished buildings, to trash along the banks of the Nile, to the broken sidewalks and a hazy skyline amid a cloud of smog. “To fix the mess, it takes a sense of belonging,” said a family friend who is also an urban planner. “The people leave the sanctuary of their apartments and have no desire to contribute to the environment that surrounds it because they know that their work will not be maintained by others.” So, essentially, the situation is hopeless, right? “No,” she said, “not hopeless, but difficult. In order to succeed you need one of two things, money or a means of punishment. But in Cairo there is no money and certainly no rules.” She, however, continues to have faith, restoring neighborhoods and cataloging historic buildings in older areas. “Do you feel it makes a difference?” I asked her. “Yes, of course,” she said without hesitation. Her optimism gave me a renewed sense that yes, something could be done.

Somewhere beneath the many layers is a city shrouded in the memory of wide boulevards and clean streets, drowning in the history of the great villas that housed even greater Pashas. It is this Cairo that I’ve been searching for in my stay here but have failed to find; instead I stumble over the remains of crumbled buildings. Like furniture hidden underneath a sheet, I see it’s there, but of the aesthetically pleasing details I know nothing. For the Egyptians, it is enough that the city exists, why continue to maintain it when people have a memory? But it is all fading, the memory with the city and if the Egyptians continue to live their indifferent lives there will be nothing left for the rain to wash away.

Yasmine Noujaim is a junior in the College and is currently studying at the American University in Cairo. She can be reached at noujaimthehoya.com. SALAMAT appears every other Friday.

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