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Dispatches From Cairo: Brother, Can You Spare a Breeze?

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Posted on Aug 7, 2012
AP/Enric Marti

Egyptian kids jump into the Nile trying to escape the oppressive heat.

By Lauren Unger-Geoffroy

We asked Lauren Unger-Geoffroy, an international artist who lives in Cairo, to share her perspective of life in Egypt after the revolution. In this entry, she writes about electrical blackouts afflicting the country, Ramadan and problems being faced by the new president.

CAIRO—It’s a hot hot hot and often electricity-less Ramadan in Egypt amid a rolling blackout that without warning shuts down the electricity grid for two or three hours at a time, usually at night, in an attempt by authorities to conserve power. The overtaxed generators are insufficient to handle the huge drain used by swelling use of air conditioning. There have been terrifying stories from hospitals of surgeries completed under the light of cellphones, of respiration machines and other life support shutting down, and lives being lost due to the sweltering heat and medical errors made in the darkness.

In my apartment, in a rooftop duplex, the dripping of melting tar through the wooden slats of the ceiling has increased. Taking refuge in my downstairs living room, slightly less suffocating, offers an escape only when there’s electricity flowing to my fans.

In my bedroom upstairs there’s a small air conditioner that keeps the scorching air at bay while I try to sleep or think clearly enough to be productive during the fasting days of Ramadan. I have moved everything that I need into the bedroom. The sun beats down on the building and at night the structure releases stored heat into the interior. The candles in my bedroom have become deformed; those in other rooms are shapeless blobs or puddles. Even my rubber bands have melted. On top of all this, the heat has made many electronic devices malfunction when the electricity is on.

I have flashlights and try to keep them where I can find them as I stagger in the blackness, pulling back curtains to let the light of the almost full moon and the headlights of honking cars below give some faint illumination as I try to light the melted candles in their alabaster bowls. People on the street after iftar clamber and shout as the sudden lightlessness of the usually bright square inexplicably makes them louder. Food sellers sit it out in the dark. People buying for the hours when eating is permitted during Ramadan try to judge the wares by the light of their phones.


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After an hour or two of blackout one recent night, my computer’s battery went dead, knocking me offline, and claustrophobia forced me to walk out onto the landing, where I encountered my new neighbors, two brothers, both forex traders, and their families, who escaped last month from the civil war in Syria.

“It’s hot, but not so bad,” said sweat-covered Aboud, who has the other unit of the rooftop duplex. “I have some LED lights,” he added.

His brother Saeed, whose 3-year-old silently clung to his dripping neck, shifted the conversation to business, saying things were going well in that area of their lives. But they looked worried, and Saeed said: “It is just that we are online trying to reach our brother who is supposed to join us here with his kids for Ramadan. We don’t find them. …”

We didn’t speak of the day’s new killings in their home country, or talk about the unfathomable massacre zone that Syria has become. We didn’t want to bring bad luck on their brother.

* * *

Later, after three hours without electricity, the lights came on ... along with the fans! I blew out the candles in my flat and went up into my fragile oasis of coolness and turned on the AC. I tried to get online but the Internet was down. I checked my telephone land line. Also down.

None of this seemed very important as I reflected on Syria’s horror. Or on India’s hundreds of millions who are going without electricity for days at a time.

I wonder if we have become overly dependent on electricity and the Internet. Even Egypt’s Bedouin camel traders are hit by the electrical and Web shutdowns—they, too, now have electronic gadgets and Facebook accounts and email on their smartphones. (I wonder: Where do they recharge those phones when they are in the depths of the desert?)

* * *

During Ramadan the observant fast from 3:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. No food, drink (even water), smoking or sex until after the evening prayer. The days are slower. Most people stay up half the night to have sahour (supper) before the fajr prayer call to fast at 3:30 a.m.

In Ramadan, the five daily prayers that are normal in the rest of the year are augmented by long readings from the Quran, and on Sundays there are passionate sermons in addition to those delivered on Fridays throughout the year. Last Sunday the loudspeakers blasted forth the sermon of our neighborhood imam as he exhorted the people to bear with the fast and be disciplined and not to listen to the cajoling of the unworthy.

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