A friend of mine once described Cairo as one big TV show, with all the people living inside instinctively knowing the parts they are playing.
The great Cairo TV show starring the Nile
A friend of mine once described Cairo as one big TV show, with all the people living inside instinctively knowing the parts they are playing. The taxi driver has his line ready when a delivery boy balancing a crate of bread on his head rides his bicycle into his bumper. A group of young women know to roll their eyes when a cheeky group of boys throw cat calls at them. A little child cries loudly on a bus, and three strangers help the mother to calm him down.
It's all in sync, beautifully choreographed, with no one missing a beat. Sometimes it's hard not to laugh out loud as the scenes unfold before you. It feels as though it's scripted. This might be because Egyptians are witty, quick on their feet, with an excellent sense of humour born, some would say, as a self-defence mechanism by the inhabitants of one of the poorest and most populous countries in the region.
But there is one character in the city that doesn't communicate its presence in a language we know how to speak, and that might even be taken for granted in the chaotic bustle of life here. As the people of Egypt have changed, as civilisations have come and gone, it has remained constant. It has fed and quenched generations, and remains a source of beauty and escape for those who take the time to look deep into its eyes.
However many beautiful gardens there are, or modern gated communities with their pools and parkland, the Nile will always remain the most romantic and vital part of Egypt. And the people of Cairo, trapped in their sprawling, dusty city, are drawn to it, a cool stretch of calm by which they can enjoy their time off. In the day, as the heat of the city reaches its height, couples, escaping the glare and judgement of their families, seek refuge on its bridges.
Walking together, they look over the side and into the slow drifting waters. With their backs to the suffocating traffic, they seem to be in another world. They can exchange sweet nothings or plan how to persuade their parents to accept them as a couple. For others, the river is a place to fight. People forget that in Egypt unmarried couples don't have anywhere to resolve their differences or express annoyance.
As a result you often see young sweethearts there crying, shouting at each other or walking away in a huff - a river of tears as well as dreams. The Nile is at its most romantic in the evening. Where once the night sky would be reflected in its waters, now it glistens with the twinkling of man-made stars, the lights shining down from towering buildings, restaurants and hotels built on its banks. What better place to celebrate your special day? For many Egyptians who can't afford a full-blown wedding party, a bridge over the Nile is the perfect venue. The bride will rent a beautiful outfit, her family and friends will dress up in their finest and, with their car stereos blaring Arabic pop music, they will dance and take photos with the Nile as their backdrop.
Despite four years living in Egypt, I am still entranced at the sight of a bride in her finery as her girlfriends dance around her in joy. I crane my neck out of the car window and absorb the excitement, delighted that today's big TV show has a happy ending. As they say in Egypt - once you drink from the Nile, you will always come back. Of course, drinking straight from the river may not be a good idea these days - you might catch something.
Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo