Cairo: A melting pot of madness and red tape

Technology seems to have bypassed the  administrative nerve centre of the Egyptian capital, writes Hester Moore.

The imposing off-white structure sits calmly in the eye of Cairo's storm of noise swirling around Tahrir Square.

The building is the Mogamma. Officially, this is the capital's administrative epicentre.

Inside, the air vibrates with the harassed air of 18,000 public servants rifling through innumerable applications scattered across 14 floors of bureaucracy. 

Outside, another throng is fighting its way through cajoling street vendors to converge beneath an archaic unmonitored metal detector, and joining the Mogamma's massed chorus. 

All of Cairo seems to be squeezing through these tight and sterile corridors. Burqa-clad women press into slim moustached-Syrians, reckless Western children bowl into slender Africans clutching blue UNHCR refugee permits.

Everywhere there are voices drawn from every corner of society and culture.

Inside the Mogamma, corridors twist and thread through the building like arteries. Those rushing through them are its lifeblood.

The building is the heaving, undulating, chaotic embodiment of Egypt. It palpitates with a strange cry of life that for me, in my fifth week in Cairo, is an overwhelming and deafening roar. 

I'm heading to window 12, but am redirected to window 18 for a form. Can I borrow a pen, I ask the face behind the desk. She doesn't have one, she replies. I stare at her disbelievingly.


The Mogamma is a relic of a vanished clerical efficiency. Not a single computer exists in this place. All forms are processed manually. I know there are more pens in the Mogamma than in every stationary shop in the Southern Hemisphere but the face behind the desk stares back unblinking. She shrugs. No pen.

The crowd is incrementally closing in from behind, and it's suffocating. A very short Egyptian woman is gasping desperately into my back, being slowly asphyxiated, as I decide to retreat from window 18. I'm penless, and she is relieved. 

Back home life is regulated, polite, simple. In the Mogamma, however, my Western desire for control over condition is pointless and utterly perverse.

I'm now back at window 12, and I direct a persistent child straining to get around me to get in behind. There's a line, I state authoritatively.

He shuffles sheepishly backwards, and somebody jumps in behind him. I've started a line. It lasts about half a minute before it disintegrates into a teeming mass of bodies jostling for position.

I'm being thrown around by the weight of the crowd, my social experiment defeated decisively in a rejection of Western officiousness. 

This is one of the moments when Cairo becomes a melting pot of madness and confusion; episodes which usually coincide with outbreaks of extreme exasperation when the mercury hits 40 degrees, the heat starts compounding my overwhelmed brain and one more benign heckle sends me tumbling over the edge.

I'm overcome with a desire for normalcy, for social graces and the comfort of controlled surroundings. It's a malaise that sets upon me like a creeping, unfurling hand of tiredness that is slowly reaching forward. For a fleeting instant, I am harassed and defeated. 

I can't allow myself to wallow in this sweaty denouement. Survival here requires an ability to adapt, to learn and to listen. A reason for my being here swiftly arrives to ease these acute moments of stress.

It glides in on the back of the noise; times when the strange harmonies of Cairo rise with the city's brilliant desert light filling the city with an irresistible rhythm. 

Sometimes, it's the way the minarets sing Allahuakhbar, Islam's piercing call to prayer which flows through the streets with a pious, guttural hum. Sometimes, it's the rhythm of water pipes bubbling their liquid song in the ubiquitous street 

ahwas (cafes). Sometimes it's the triumphant shopkeepers, assaulting you with their abrasive calls to buy.

It's the sound of Arabic pop music blaring from kamikaze scooter drivers, or the squish of unwanted food lying on the hot concrete and compacting under the collective weight of fifty million feet. 

The heavier tones of traffic horns blasting down the street, not threatening but part of the city's art of assessing road space. It's the voice of an eight-year-old child requesting  25 bound for a beer before the disbelief arrives that an eight-year-old is actually serving you alcohol while he expertly rolls hot shisha coals around in his hands.

A woman sits derelict on the dirty street, arms outstretched to the crowds crying insha'Allah while Cairene life eddies around her. Her still, forgotten figure is washed up on the banks of the human river as it rushes continuously beside her. 

Meanwhile back in the Mogamma an employee returns from her morning break, rushing into her silo in a flurry of kisses and exclamations as everybody pauses to greet her. Work at window 12 resumes. Life moves on. 

I'm told to return the next day at 9am, no later or mushkila kibeera (big problem). The entire morning seems to have been marked by several mushkila kibeera, but perhaps I'm the only person in the queue to feel this.

It's all in a day's work for the Mogamma. The staff will fend off thousands of perspiring applicants today, tick off their final boxes at 5pm (using no doubt an endless supply of pens), and bid a leisurely goodbye to their colleagues. 

By then, I'll be walking quickly past the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, performing my daily dance with death as I navigate the chaotic streets.

A hell-bound scooter zips past me, too close, and I leap screaming into the side of a parked car, attracting odd glances from all sides. My heart is racing and my face is twisted with shock but both my feet are planted firmly on the ground, and all around me there is noise and heat and life.

I put one foot in front of the other and begin to walk again. Slowly.