Letter from Cairo, may 2014.
It is far easier to purchase plastic plants, sold by the ton in market places city-wide, synthetic jungles of faux-vegetation in a variety of hallucinogenic colors that vendors spritz with perfume to enhance their 'natural' appeal. Considering the abundant sunshine, there aren't many rooftop or balcony gardens; the ficus trees caf. owners like to plant near their curbside establishments are regularly decapitated for inexplicable reasons by the municipality, and then planted by the caf. owners once again. Few manage to attain the requisite height to provide much-desired shade. Fortunately there are still a handful of old jacaranda, mimosa and 'flamboyant' with scarlet chalice-like blossoms, glorious remnants of the city's belle .poque, when planting trees was held as a religious as well as civic duty in keeping with the Prophet Mohammed's injunction to 'plant trees, even on judgment day'.
Lately some young people have tried to address Cairo's lack of greenery by promoting the virtues of rooftop hydroponic gardens, encouraging people to grow plants and vegetables not just for home consumption but to sell to neighbours. The initiative (called schaduf or water wheel) is in its early phases and has yet to make a difference. But it is wonderful to imagine urban gardens catching on: tendrils of bean and squash trailing down the sand-blasted facades of the city's tightly-packed buildings, balconies bursting with red tomatoes.
Although there are flower beds in some of the passageways between buildings in downtown Cairo (raised well above street level and bricked in) most have become garbage dumps or places for the city's wildlife to eat, excrete and sometimes expire. Rarely do you see anything growing in them. So imagine my surprise when walking along my street, a main downtown boulevard, I stumbled upon one of those old flower beds, entirely transformed. For years it had sported a grime-coated rubber tree amidst a welter of cigarette butts. However, in the week since I'd last passed by, the small (1.5 x 3metre) bed had become a lush little garden, all manner of leafy things, their roots cozily couched in mounds surrounded by trenches to catch water. Every remaining leaf of the old rubber tree was polished to a high shine; clumps of fragrant basil formed a border. A sign was posted, asking God to protect Egypt, painted on wood in the national colours of red white and black.
As I stood marvelling, a man came with a hose to water the garden. He introduced himself as Adel, and told me the state-owned company that owns the adjacent building had sponsored the garden to help beautify the neighbourhood. Adel worked as a cleaner and his duties were extended to care for the garden, but while I doubt he was given a higher salary he was happy just the same. He took off his sandals, rolled up his trousers and tramped around the tiny rectangle as if it were a vast and verdant field in the Nile valley; mud squished between his toes. "Egypt can be a beautiful garden" he said with a wide grin, and surveying the little patch of paradise in his care, he spoke precisely the words I had been thinking. "It's not much", he said, "but it's something".