Letter from Cairo: carts arrive daily from the countryside laden with tomatoes, potatoes, red onions, zucchini. Farmers trawl the city, stopping at intervals to cry out their wares: 'Red and sweet!' (ahmar wi hilw) announces the arrival of watermelon, "Crazy tomatoes!' (magnuna ya 'uta) refers to their fluctuating price.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
CAIRO IS COLOURED IN SHADES OF SANDBLASTED gray and brown, its surfaces softened with dust from the desert that surrounds it. Returning home from errands in my downtown neighbourhood, the two horse-drawn carts I saw laden with bright, multi-hued vegetables seemed to glisten against this muted background like jewels. The first was filled with purple cabbage, lush broccoli, orange squash, massive leeks, feathery fennel, green papaya and Brussels sprouts, fairly exotic items around here, and I paused to admire their beauty and the prospects of some fancy cooking.
The second cart was stacked with tomatoes, potatoes, red onions, zucchini and several kinds of oranges tumbling from hempen baskets, more common fare, but fresh and abundant. Meals are typically composed of these basics, especially now that soaring prices have placed meat out of reach for many families.
Although animal traffic was restricted in central Cairo in the last decade or so, it's back again, a reminder of Egypt's historic links to the land, alongside the rural origin of many Cairenes. Farmers trawl the city, stopping at intervals to cry out their wares: 'Red and sweet!' (ahmar wi hilw) announces the arrival of watermelon, 'Crazy tomatoes!' (magnuna ya 'uta) refers to their fluctuating price. In 2010 it rose to an insane EG15 [pounds sterling] ($2.5) per kilo, sparking protests that helped fuel the 2011 uprising. Demonstrators chanted 'A kilo of meat is bought on instalments!' and 'Keep raising prices! Watch the country go up in flames'.
In Egypt, vegetables are sold straight from the field and require a good scrubbing, but it's less a chore than a moment to reflect on the hands that raised the food with only a hoe and water buffalo-drawn plough, and on the Nile that waters the fields now as it has for millennia. The land keeps on giving and we take it for granted, as if could last forever because it seems it already has. Washing my vegetables, I find myself asking: 'How long can it really last?'.
Rural Egypt, once considered the country's heart, had been bled nearly to death in the last few decades. Vast tracts of precious arable land have been lost to urbanisation, coastal erosion, salinisation, nutrient depletion and contamination due to overuse of pesticides and fertilisers. I've witnessed it. The street running from central Cairo to the Pyramids was lined with fields in the 1980s. The Giza plateau, once a pastoral expanse, is now covered in shanty towns.
It's an impossible equation--limited land and water resources and a burgeoning population--unless you consider the desert and its potential transformation. Until now, state-sponsored reclamation schemes have typically failed for lack of follow-through, bureaucratic obstacles, corruption or lack of interest. But one of the brighter aspects of post-Mubarak Egypt is that land and water are making the news, alongside renewable energy projects and rooftop hydroponic gardens.
The awareness is dawning that the things we took for granted are the most precious and endangered--those cartloads of vegetables, the farmers that bring them to town, our land and water, our sustenance. I wonder if the shift in thinking will translate into constructive, collective action in time to avert disaster, or if the fear and anger arising from an inability to put food on the table will simply overcome us? Here in Egypt, as in much of the world we once knew, the desert is at our doorstep.