The cab driver extends his pack of Cleopatras. “La Shukran!” I reply — no thank you in Arabic — a phrase I’d already uttered 15 times that day to the kind strangers who offered to “show me Cairo,” “make marriage” and “give me exactly what I’m looking for.”
The cab driver, with one hand navigating us through the lane-less streets, holds the pack steady, waiting expectantly for me to …
Okay … fine … I guess I’ll take one.
“Shukran,” I say.
He smiles, lights it and, as if shaking hands, we meet eyes. No words pass between the cab driver and me as we rip through the city, past donkey carts, pita vendors, a man with no legs and a man who, yup, just reached in through the open window and squeezed my shoulder.
The car continues through the illegible soundscape of honks, screeches and Islamic prayer, amplified from a hundred mosque minarets. But the cab driver and I become beautifully synchronized in this dizzying backdrop by the rhythm of our inhalation.
Smoking — my summer love, how sweet you were in my newsroom workplace. How elegant when riding down the Nile, admiring the neglected tenement blocks and world-class hotels that line your banks. How neat that the pharmacist was getting a nicotine hit as he offered me an unsolicited, but excellent, deal on Xanax.
Cigarettes have never had such a powerful stench of romance as while strolling through Cairo’s Garden City, the leafy streets lined with Venetian palladiums and Art Deco villas — the embassies that mushroomed during the colonial rule of the ’20s and ’30s.
The exhales of expats and officials commingle with the pollution, dust, sand and poverty that has transformed these buildings into decaying carcasses of bourgeois splendor.
“It’s so weird that there are shitty buildings for every country in every country,” remarked my traveling companion as we toked arm in arm.
Tobacco consumption has long been a popular pastime in Egypt, since they exported their homegrown product to Europe and the United States in the late 19th century. Camel and other American brands counterfeited their exotic flare, the Virginian tobacco sealed with a pyramid and a palm tree.
Cairo seems to have lost its colonial sheen at the same time as the rest of the world realized Egyptian cigarettes aren’t actually good and so stopped importing them.
On the way to the airport, I passed by a 12-year-old on a motorcycle, a cigarette dangling from his lips. How exciting!, I think. The adventure, the danger here! The thrillingly low life expectancy!
Like most summer romances, mine left me with a heady buzz, a faint aching in my chest and the bittersweet knowledge that the relationship was totally unsustainable. I’m sorry, but this just couldn’t work out in the developed world with its taxes and bans and “health conscientiousness.”
But love, I have learned, can be addictive. And the duty-free cigarettes in the Cairo airport were $1.20 a pack. Adieu dear Cairo, Shukran.