CAIRO – If ever a city needed a good detox, it was Cairo.
Centuries of turbulent history, topped by recent decades of chaotic urban development, have left the ancient metropolis in poor physical condition. Your skin is parched and blemished. Traffic clogs your throbbing arteries. It has signs of great stress.
The coronavirus thanks. Three months of blockade, including an 11-hour night curfew, imposed a deep rejuvenating cleansing in Cairo. The roads that were once asphyxiated with honking cars ran free. The smoke-free air seemed to shine. Silence flooded the streets.
In my apartment near the Nile, a room that could barely be used because of the noise in the morning became an oasis of calm. In the evening, my family would gather on the porch to witness the sunset more saturated than ever. The pollution app on my phone glowed an unknown green.
Obviously, it had a strident price. At dawn he runs through the deserted streets, I passed anxious-looking people wearing masks, huddled around the entrance to a hospital.
And then it was over.
In late June, the government announced that it was allowing mosques, restaurants and coffee shops to reopen. On the last curfew night, I crawled through the streets to capture his delicate pleasures one last time. Hundreds of Egyptians had the same idea.
They huddled together at dusk on a bridge, watching the squadron of kites floating in the warm breeze that descended the Nile. Boys in skinny jeans pulled the strings. Veiled women chased after dating couples, trying to sell them roses.
Inevitably, the fun stirred Egypt's rulers, always wary of unauthorized public meetings. A senior lawmaker warned that the crowded sky posed a threat to national security because Egypt's enemies could place the kites on surveillance cameras.
But on the bridge, no one cared about this conversation, preferring to dive into this strange moment, between serenity and anxiety, when the city's frantic pulse had been slowed by a virus.
I talked to two brothers who were raising a giant kite printed with pictures of themselves, getting ready, and to the soccer star Mohamed Salah, who was beaming. Nearby, Samiha Meneim, 62, perched on a precarious plastic chair, surrounded by 15 family members and dishes eaten in half by koshary, Egypt's national dish of lentils with spices, rice and pasta.
The picnic was a pity after months confined to its cramped, low-rent neighborhood. "We had to leave," said Meneim, a retired nurse in a black cloak who continued her treatment for breast cancer throughout the blockade.
She saw the coronavirus as a message from God. "He wants us to look at life differently," she said.
For much of Egypt's history, its fate was shaped by the Nile. The kite bridge led to Ilha Roda, described in "Thousand and One Nights”As a place of paradisiacal gardens, now a great expansion of dust-stained apartment blocks. In the extreme south, however, it survives a nilometer built in the 9th century – a structure that measures the seasonal flooding of the river and therefore provides for the annual harvest.
Now, the disease was dictating the pace of life. When night fell and the curfew officially started, I crossed the center of Cairo, a mixture of old palaces, ruined elegance and flashy facades where, in normal times, the traffic is so crazy that guides offer tourists solemn advice on how to survive.
"Search for locations and join a group," advises my edition of National Geographic Traveler. "They cross it all together, one track at a time."
That night, it would have been a miracle to be brought down. The mutts were in charge – skinny cats who strolled the empty avenues, for the first time unconcerned, and a pair of noble street dogs dozing on top of an SUV.
Metro Cinema, with its dust-filled Art Deco facade, opened in 1940 with "Gone With the Wind". Now it had the sinister air of an abandoned film set, announcing the Egyptian films it was showing in March: "Peep Show" and "The Thief of Bagdad".
In the late 19th century, Egypt's ruler, Khedive Ismail, modeled this area with the airy elegance of Haussmann's Paris, but for decades the graceful buildings gradually deteriorated. Now, in the desolation of the curfew, they seemed to be proud again, as were the statues lined up along the way.
The giant bronze lions guarding Qasr el Nil, the most picturesque bridge in the city, looked more relaxed than ever, with no enemy in sight.
The mixture of strange desolation and faded splendor had a touch of magic, and for an instant I thought of the Egyptian version of the film "Night at the Museum" in which the bronze lions come to life under the darkness.
But I was not completely alone.
Teenagers conspiratorially grouped at the doors. Food delivery pilots huddled around their motorcycles in front of a restaurant. Business was quick.
"If it goes on like this," observed Mahmoud Abdel Fattah, leaning on the handlebars, "I will be as rich as Naguib Sawiris" – a frank billionaire who was a vociferous critic of the blockade measures.
Still, Fattah noted wryly that at 28 cents a delivery, that fortune could take a while. "Maybe after a million pizzas," he joked.
Despite all their excitement, the couriers also looked discouraging. Of course, they could expand to any address in minutes. But Cairo without courage, agitation, people agitation – was it really Cairo?
Pests are nothing new in Cairo. On a visit to Cairo in the 14th century, when the city's 500,000 inhabitants made it the largest city in the world outside of China, explorer Ibn Battuta noted that an outbreak of bubonic plague was killing up to 20,000 people a day. Cholera struck repeatedly in the 19th century.
This time, the human cost is amplified by the growing population of Egypt, which in February crossed the 100 million threshold, an unnerving landmark in a densely crowded country.
Outside the city center, the blockade has been observed in a vague way – social distance is little more than an admirable idea in the city's slums.
Many Egyptians wear masks on their chins or totally despise them, much to the chagrin of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a fitness enthusiast who urged Egyptians to stay safe, stay in shape and lose weight during the blockade. "Remember to play sports, it increases immunity levels," he said in May.
Otherwise, business has been commonplace for el-Sisi during confinement – with the arrest of human rights activists, belly dancers and even young people who post dance videos on social media. The virus, however, cannot be banned so easily.
Egypt has more than 77,000 known cases, and confirmed infections grew by about 1,400 cases a day in the past month. Egypt recorded more than 3,400 deaths, the highest number in the Arab world. In a sinister omen, Mr. el-Sisi last week opened a field hospital with 4,000 beds to treat coronavirus patients.
And the economic price is only now becoming apparent. Millions of workers have lost income and families are cutting meat and other items that are now inaccessible. The International Monetary Fund lent $ 8 billion to bring Egypt into crisis. More may be needed.
The day after the blockade closed, I followed the same path again. The sense of magic had evaporated.
Police officers patrolled the bridge where the kites flew. The familiar noise of traffic roared in the city center, where some restaurants had opened. But others remained closed – the manager of Abou Tarek, the city's most famous koshary emporium, told me not yet. – and there were rumors that some restrictions could become permanent.
Rules forcing restaurants and cafes to close at 10 pm will remain after the virus, said a cabinet spokesman – an announcement that was consistent with el-Sisi's desire to "civilize" Egyptians, but which met with outrage in a city famous for its vibrant socializing all night.
Egyptian rulers have announced similar detoxification measures in the past, only to return quickly in the face of popular resistance. For now, the truth is that the Cairenes are at home, caught between the desire to return to normal and the fear of what may come next – as well as elsewhere.
Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.