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Published on August 23, 2002

Nowhere to run

I had been eager to go to a mulid for a long while but the chance had never presented itself and when it did something that always seemed more important took priority over the evening. But the proverbial saying goes, "robba sodfa khair min alfi mi'ad" (one coincidence may be worth a thousand appointments), and that often applies -- at least it did on Tuesday, 9 July.

Tuesday is a very heavy day at work. Last Tuesday was particularly awful as the day had also involved trying to find a parking space for about 50 minutes as I went around and around in circles between Ramsis and Galaa Streets at 2.30pm. My car and I were not the best of friends on Tuesday; in fact, I resented every minute I had to spend behind that wheel. However, another true proverb says "When it rains it pours" and it was to prove these words right, it seems, that Tuesday provided such an unforgettable experience.

I had left the office at around 11.30pm, taking my usual route home through Opera Square in order to take the bridge down to Al-Hussein, when I found the bridge closed by a row of red plastic cones and a couple of tea-drinking traffic officers. For a moment, on a very unconscious level, my id urged me to just drive straight ahead and fulfil my ultimate desire of crashing on the sofa after such a heavy day. "You know these cones won't harm you or the car. Come on: rebel. What could be more important than your basic right to get home and rest? You paid your dues: you worked a lot, you were kind to everyone, you even picked up the sandwich's foil wrap when it missed the bin and aimed better the second time. Just press the gas, ignore the soldiers, try not to kill anyone and CROSS THAT BRIDGE." Such was my id. But I chose to be civilised and resign myself to the fate of all others who had seen the cones as they headed for the bridge; and so a sudden swerve to the left and I found myself stuck in seriously heavy traffic around Ataba Square, with cars packed like sardines and too close to each other for either comfort or safety.

My stereo was playing an international mix of "feel- good" songs that I specifically compiled to assist me in my daily struggles with Cairo's traffic. Normally it works rather well. Tuesday night, however, every song got on my nerves as it was drowned out in a cacophony of honking horns, yelling taxi drivers and angry pedestrians. I could sense an emergency feeling in the air, as if we were all caught in a pre- or post-disaster state, and was wondering if an important edifice had just burned down, if there had been an earthquake that I missed -- what? There must be a reason for this chaos -- any other possibility was too scary to contemplate.

I looked to my right and saw a stand with dozens of water cups being distributed to passers-by; I looked to my left and saw a man handing out sandwiches from a huge plastic bag; I saw some itinerant carts piled with flashy conical hats of every colour being pushed by a singing, fez- wearing seller. Families were streaming onto the square from every direction, walking with determination toward a specific location that seemed to be getting farther rather than nearer with every step, judging from the sheer magnitude of the concentrated crowd. It finally hit me -- I was right in the middle ofmulid Al-Hussein.

My immediate thought was to park the car and enjoy this longed-for mulid experience -- Al-Hussein's no less. But park where? We had not even moved beyond first gear before all the cars were forced to stop once more. I realised that the situation was quite serious as vehicles seemed to have been allocated a mere two per cent of the road while the remaining 98 per cent was taken over by a crowd of such proportions that our cars appeared like isolated rocks in a sea of human flesh.

Nerves were tensing on all sides. We had now come to a complete halt. We were literally stuck, maybe until the wee hours of the morning for all we knew. Pedestrians hated us with all their hearts, and so should they. I hated myself for being such a nuisance among people who had traveled perhaps quite a distance for the mulid, honking my horn, pleading with my eyes for a chance to move an inch. I had reached the bottleneck. There was nothing left to do at this point. I saw the water temperature indicator pointing horrendously high. My car was overheating and there was no credit left in my phone -- definitely not good. One thing left to do: turn off the engine and just enjoy. A simple mental leap and I could not care less when or how I got out of there. All I wished for now was for El-Sheikh Yassin El-Tuhami to be singing somewhere close by. My ears were trying to single his voice out of the multitude of sheikhs, all praising the prophet or sayyedna El-Hussein from every alley -- while the smell of kebab wafted through the air. A Peugeot station wagon was parked right next to me, its stereo blasting ululations after every song.

However, with the last "lululululululululululuyyyyyyy" I heard, I had to reluctantly restart my engine -- for some obscure reason the sea of flesh had parted and moving was a now-or-never choice. I moved. By the time I turned the key in my front door it was two in the morning and I realised that the past three hours had just made my entire week.

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