Before coming to Egypt, I had often heard the traffic in Cairo described as “chaos” without ever really formulating an adequate image in my mind of what that “chaos” actually entailed. When I got here, I immediately understood what was being described, but I’m not so sure that chaos is the word I would choose to describe it. It’s true that there are more kinds of vehicles than I had previously known about, horns blowing everywhere, black smoke billowing into the air from countless homemade, uninspected engines running on who-knows-what, and music blasting at mind-numbing volumes, punctuated by shouts that ride the line somewhere between jubilation and fury. And it’s also true that things like lanes, street signs, traffic lights, and traffic laws in general are taken only as long-forgotten suggestions. But somewhere in the impossibly loud smoky haze of it, I had a vision, and suddenly it all made sense to me.
On the way into town from the airport, I saw a woman riding sidesaddle on the back of a motorcycle on the freeway. This would later become a commonplace sight, but the first one really got to me. The woman herself, however, was totally unaffected. She was casually looking down at her phone which she manipulated with both hands as the bike leaned this way and that, weaving through four-wide traffic on the two-lane highway, cutting between the jam-packed unofficial buses and ramshackle independent taxis at upwards of 50 mph. Watching her, I realized that whether she was consciously aware of it or not, she was having a kind of Zen experience. She had let go of fear, desire, and control, all the way to the very core of herself. Her natural body reflex was to trust in the rhythm of her environment. She had relaxed into the idea that everything around her was in organic harmony with itself. She wasn’t any more worried than I would be on the way to the local grocery store in the passenger seat of my father’s car.
I thought of her the next day when Leslie and I had our first adventures trying to cross the streets as pedestrians in downtown Cairo. No, there was not a system of lights and crosswalks. No, there was not a recognized place for people to wait safely or for cars to wait patiently. But people were crossing the streets nonetheless and nobody was getting hit. So the key was clearly just to adopt a different rhythm, a different posture, to hear the music on a different frequency. I watched for a little while, like a new player at the poker table. I tried to notice the body language of the other pedestrians, the eyes of the drivers, the number of honks issued by the cars that were slowing down versus the ones that weren’t. Soon I began to find the rhythm of the game, and I was strolling nonchalantly through the speeding traffic with the best of them. I remember saying, when I was trying to explain it to Leslie, that you had to imagine you were a little bit drunk to get the appropriate blend of chilled-out swagger and imperviousness. It reminded me of that magic window when you’re playing pool after exactly two and a half beers.
The next night, we were hanging out with Nini and her husband Hany at their apartment downtown, and they called a cabdriver friend of theirs to help us find our way home. It was our first time on our own in a Cairo cab, and we didn’t even know how to pronounce our address yet, so they wanted to make sure we were with someone they could trust to take care of us. A few hours later, when their friend arrived, he hung out with us for about ten minutes, during which time he slugged down at least two tall glasses of straight vodka, as well as something else that was served to him in a non-transparent cup. Then he gave Hany a hug and suggested with a large smile and a twinkling eye that we hit the road. If I were in America, I never would have gotten into the car. But it wasn’t an American street he was preparing to drive us down, so I decided to keep my mouth shut and trust his take on the rhythm. For whatever it was worth, his posture seemed totally natural. Once we got on the road, I was quickly distracted by all the sensory input. I stared out the window trying to catch all the wondrous new sights, and I deeply inhaled the strange and fascinating air. I watched the motorcycles go by and thought of the woman I’d seen that first night. At some point, I realized that I felt totally at peace. I turned to the driver and smiled. He smiled back, and I felt my entire body relax. I had finally achieved my Cairo traffic Zen.
A short time later, we got off the stretch of highway we’d been on and into a city neighborhood where we got stuck in a traffic jam at a giant roundabout. The roundabout served as the meeting point of a six-way intersection, with tiny side streets veering off in all directions. What was amazing was that we weren’t just cars in this traffic jam. There were carts pulled by donkeys and horses. There were toktoks, trucks, and motorcycles carrying families of five. One guy was weaving through the traffic on foot, leading a small group of goats. Another was standing in the middle of the roundabout roasting corn on a little hibachi and selling it to the frustrated motorists. There were teenagers leaning on some of the cars, smoking cigarettes and blasting music well past the point of distortion, and there were also several groups of seemingly unattended children and wild dogs running around. Our driver leaned out of his window and shouted up ahead to see what was going on. It seemed like a large truck had committed itself to turning down a small alley in which there were already several toktoks coming from the opposite direction. The truck didn’t have enough space to retreat back into the intersection and the toktok drivers didn’t have enough space in the alley to get themselves turned around.
Several people now began shouting and waving wildly at each other. Our new driver friend smiled again and assured us that everything was OK. Then he engaged one of the other drivers in what seemed like a heated debate. But within a few seconds, the other driver also broke into a reassuring smile and passed on some message to the person on his other side. It took about fifteen minutes of debating strategy, waving hands, and barking instructions, but eventually the mess began to untangle itself. One group of people helped the truck get backed up a few feet, and then another group helped a few of the toktoks sneak by across the landing of a café on the corner. Everyone worked together to figure out where everyone else was trying to go, and the crisis was quickly resolved. It dawned on me right then that without traffic lights or traffic police, people had no choice but to learn how to settle their differences. Otherwise they would all have to spend the entire night in that intersection, which none of them wanted to do. So the only way the traffic can organize itself here in Cairo is by everyone having to momentarily understand and assimilate the situation of the other: where they’re coming from, where they’re trying to go, and what they’re trying to accomplish.
This stands in sharp contrast to the way traffic is arranged in America, where we apply a system of rules so rigid, so universal, so enforced and unquestioned, that people are surprised any time they have to interact with another person at all. Whenever a traffic light goes out, or a city block gridlocks, or snow falls on a normally warm-weather road, people are plunged into disarray. One time I saw a group of motorists sit on the highway for two days because it was snowed out up ahead and it was illegal to turn around. We just aren’t used to resolving our own unexpected travel problems. We don’t have the habit of asking ourselves what the other drivers or pedestrians might be going through at a given moment and how everyone involved can best help each other meet their goals. We don’t communicate with each other or consider the feelings of other motorists at all. Almost any interaction with others on the road is considered an annoyance, an unwanted interruption of the fantasy that each of us is driving through a kingdom unto ourselves.
When you hear a car horn in America, you just think, “Some guy is an impatient asshole.” It never even crosses your mind to wonder what that horn was meant to communicate, or if the importance of its message might actually involve you. People in America have even talked about removing the horns from cars altogether because so many agree that they don’t effectively serve any purpose anymore but to distract and bother. In Cairo, though, the horn represents a whole communication system. There are horns going at all times, so it can be difficult to separate their meanings, like following a dinner party in another language, but I think I’ve begun to make a little sense of it: One short beep for, “I’m over here, just to let you know.” Two medium beeps for, “I’m coming through, and it will be hard for me to stop.” Several short beeps for, “I’m rolling through a place where I know someone might jump out in front of me.” And perhaps most universally, one very long beep for, “Oh fucking hell, are you kidding me? I’ve got somewhere to be!”
I can’t gloss over the system here entirely. There are certainly some practical drawbacks to unregulated traffic, and most people seem to have at least one story about a bad accident they’ve seen. But for the most part, in my experience, it seems like nobody ever hits anything. I’ve seen no helmets, no seatbelts, and for the first few weeks, I didn’t see any accident of any kind. I did eventually witness a couple of fender dings and bent-back mirrors, but never anything grim. And even the bad accident stories I’ve heard don’t outnumber the ones from back home. I think they are just more traumatic to their witnesses because they tend to be so gory when they do happen here. But they certainly don’t happen with the frequency you would expect when you’re just hearing stories about this town. When you’re actually on the roads here, you quickly realize that this is home to some of the most accurate drivers in the world. The Germans are the only others I could even imagine being able to make it here. They’re the only ones who are attentive enough, perhaps owing to the lack of speed limits on their highways.
In America, I don’t think of the drivers as attentive in the least. I picture them as generally lost in their own worlds: looking at their phones, playing with the radio, eating breakfast from their laps, reading the paper at traffic lights, adjusting their cup holders as they roll through stop signs, and popping zits in the rearview mirror. And we think the driving in Cairo is chaos? In Cairo, everyone is paying attention at all times. Everyone is awake to the moment and aware of each other. Sure, they might have conflicting motives and disagreements about how to resolve traffic disputes, but they are actually using the sensory alertness that has evolved in our species to improve our ability to survive. And they are also using communication to bridge the distance between themselves and their fellow motorists. That “chaos” that we like to think is controlled by Western traffic laws is actually only masked. Whatever chaos plays out on the streets of Cairo is the chaos of our differences, and it is equally present in all the carloads of people who don’t communicate with each other on the American roads. Order might be a system for sharing that chaos, but the chaos itself is woven, for better or worse, into our very nature. And if it’s woven into nature, then who’s to say it’s chaos?
Illustration by Jason Stoneking.