AFAR chose a destination at random—by literally spinning a globe—and sent writer Ryan Knighton to Egypt’s sprawling capital with just 24 hours’ notice.
When I touched down in Cairo at the end of April 2011, the Arab Spring seeded in Tahrir Square was just two months old. My own government had advised against traveling to Egypt. Protests continued. Air strikes in neighboring Libya had begun. Syria rumbled in the background. I was, frankly, terrified. Revolution wasn’t the half of it. The cabin of my plane carried only two passengers: an Egyptian woman returning from holidays, and me. The blind guy from Canada.
After we landed, our pilot stopped me at the cabin door. “You’re going on your own?” he asked, aghast. “Think so,” I said. “Should be fun.”
Cheerful abandon did not reassure him. So the pilot guided me through immigration, exchanged my money, found my bag at the carousel, flagged me a driver, and put my suitcase in the trunk. None of this gave me comfort. To be helped so much assumes a need to be helped so much. Without him, perhaps the airport would have killed me.
“He is safe,” my driver shouted to my pilot. “We are brothers now, Insha’Allah.” Around me, all I could hear were skidding tires and honks. There was a complementary smell, too, as though you were huffing a tailpipe. Cairo is a car, I thought.
“Sounds angry out there,” I said, and mimicked pounding a horn.
The driver laughed. “No, this is to say I am here. Hi, I am here. It is like birds who sing, Insha’Allah.” We blew past the palace where Hosni Mubarak, the recently deposed dictator, had lived. I imagined it to be the quietest spot in Cairo.
“What does Insha’Allah mean?” I asked.
“It means God willing. In Egypt we say God willing, because we do not think we can say what will happen.” And he chirped his horn for the hell of it. Insha’Allah.
How could the blind live in such a difficult place? There had to be a story.
My hotel was in Zamalek, an upscale, reputedly lush neighborhood set on an island in the Nile. The desk clerks were as friendly as the sands are old. A glass of juice appeared in my hand and brightened my senses, the cold and the tart of lemons cutting away the drive. I asked about a restaurant within walking distance. Both clerks puzzled a moment.
“Walk? You cannot walk.” “It’s OK. I’m Canadian,” I explained, and stepped out for dinner. Feeling along the sidewalk, I tapped until it dropped two feet, giving way to gravel. Several paces on gravel, then three steps up at an angle into a post. Beyond that was something my white cane inferred to be an open manhole. Beyond that? I made my way back to the hotel.
“I can’t walk,” I said.
The clerks patted me on the back—good for you for trying—and folded me into a taxi. I tipped everybody fistfuls. I needed fast friends to survive urban planning so hostile to the human foot. Several dozen honks later, a waiter pulled me from my taxi and sat me in front of a bowl of molokhia, a traditional green soup, garlicky and bitter, lovely and viscous. Every time my spoon dug into the brothy rice, the bowl was full again. When I finally gave up on finishing, somebody slid a pipe into my hand. My first apple blossom shisha. In one hour my mouth had taken in more of Cairo than the rest of me.
Earlier, thinking ahead, as the blind must, I’d asked the clerks to scribble my hotel’s address in Arabic on a piece of paper. Thing is, Egyptian taxi drivers are often illiterate. So, on every block we waved my paper at pedestrians and fished for street names. Finally, we stopped. The driver prodded me to climb out. And the taxi left me somewhere. Insha’Allah.
I scurried from the sound of traffic until I hit a wall, then tapped along what I presumed to be a rogue patch of sidewalk. Footsteps raced at me. A shout. My hand reflexively covered my wallet as a man grabbed for me.
It was one of my hotel’s corner men. My thanks gushed. Our pattern was set. Any time I washed up within the block, somebody reeled me into the lobby. A blind man’s social network.
How could the blind live in such a difficult place? Cities are our preferred habitat. But here? I called the Canadian embassy and asked them to help me find some of my Egyptian peeps. There had to be a story. A difference of survival skills.
“The Great Pyramid is right there,” my guide said proudly, and recited a ledger of stones, workers, and years. I stared at nothing. It was like going to a drive-in movie. More enthralling was the desert itself, ricocheting in handfuls, plink plink plink, off our windows.
“Would you like to go to the Sphinx?” the guide asked.
Another short drive and we parked. Though thousands usually visit the spot every day, I was one of only four gawkers. The absence of tourists was, so far, my only glimpse of the revolution.
As for the Sphinx, it looked like the Great Pyramid.
That night, returning to the only restaurant I knew, I ate as much perfumey stuffed pigeon as I could. Missing out on the sights can make a blind guy feel empty. Any more monuments, I’d develop an eating disorder.
Back in my hotel, after a corner man plucked me from the wrong building—an echoing space that felt like a lobby but smelled of cigarettes and tea—I met another hotel guest. Udo was a tall radio documentarian from Germany. We agreed, given his profession and my incongruity with sightseeing, that we’d seek some sounds together that night.
I felt an exhausting helplessness, though not the kind Western blindness has taught me to live with.
He practically carried me to a concert hall under the Zamalek Bridge. Onstage, a band played rock versions of Egyptian folk songs, mixing traditional and modern instruments, including oud and electric guitar, over a four-four backbeat. My ears let modern Egypt in. The singers, before we left, asked us to follow the band on Facebook. My hands mimed scratching my eyes, as I tried to describe my particular exile from Facebook.
On my final day I woke to a call from Amal Fikry, the president and matriarch of the Al Nour Wal Amal Association, a school and residence for blind women in Heliopolis, a suburb about half an hour’s drive northeast from Zamalek. My embassy had come through for me. Amal and her driver picked me up for a tour. In room after room, I met little blind girls, tweens, and women in their twenties. Some spend their days threading carpets, and some weave wicker tables, all to sell and help fund the school. In return, they are educated, given a bed, and cared for. The sound of scratchy radios spilled from every room, sometimes two or three competing at once, playing different sickly sweet pop tunes. Giggles followed me as I tapped my way through the kitchen and the library. Fingers dabbed at the hair and bumpy tattoos on my arms. I never heard another cane.
A few students, I learned, are also given instruments and taught classical music. Amal and I sipped soda in her office as she played a warbly tape of a performance in Japan. A 37-piece orchestra, all of the players blind, all of them women who, were it not for Amal, would be lost to themselves and their country.
Finally, I asked the burning question. “How do they walk about Cairo?” “Blind men use canes,” Amal answered, “but the girls do not. The shame is too much. So they walk feeling with their hands. Mostly they stay inside.”
The image of blind women groping the streets will never leave me, though I never saw it. During the ride back to my hotel, I felt an exhausting helplessness, though not the kind Western blindness has taught me to live with. So much is to be confronted by the blind women of Heliopolis: gender, history, poverty. How unfamiliar, to feel my privilege, my relative ease, as a disabled man. And how beautiful to hear someone’s independence begin with music.
“That is Tahrir Square,” Amal’s driver said, perhaps pointing. I rolled down my window and pretended to look.
Out of respect.
Writer Ryan Knighton wrote about what it’s like to go on a visually-impaired safari in the July/August 2017 issue of AFAR. Read the full story here.