Traffic will drive you crazy if you're not run over first

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 12, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

CAIRO, Egypt -- Naji, a teacher and patient observer of this sprawling city, retreats to his apartment at the end of each day with a worried shake of his head.

"This," he says nodding back at the frantic metropolis, "This is the result of 7,000 years of civilization."

It is a glum thought.

There are plenty of examples to make the pharaohs wince at how Egypt squandered its lead in the civilization race. But what usually gets Naji's ire is the Cairo traffic.

Egyptians were writing books, brewing beer and designing architectural marvels while the ancestors of Europeans and Americans were still Stone Age hunters. But Cairo drivers have regressed: They are a lawless species running wild.

Cairo's traffic may be the worst in the world just in daunting volume. The streets are clogged with a barely mobile mass of belching, honking vehicles. It can sometimes take an hour to crawl a dozen city blocks.

The black exhaust that spews from their tailpipes so fouls the air that Cairo rivals Mexico City as the most unhealthy place to breathe.

But it is the anarchy of the drivers that astounds Naji. They respect no rules. They stray onto the wrong side of the street to challenge oncoming traffic. They zoom blindly into intersections. They spurn one-way signs on major highways, ignore red lights, cruise through stop signs and laugh at police whistles.

There are no lanes, no rules, no courtesies.

Only the incessant gridlock keeps accidents from decimating the population, by keeping the speeds of most collisions at a survivable minimum.

Pedestrians aren't so lucky. They are forced by impassable sidewalks to share the street with these cars. It's like sharing a steak with a hungry lion.

Pedestrians are simply invisible to Cairo drivers. In the rough-and-tumble game of traffic, pedestrians do not count. Many a gentle Muslim cabbie, who otherwise treats women with utmost respect, routinely sends old ladies leaping from his path.

This ruthlessness may be the product of some hoary spell cast by the first designer of Cairo's roads. The ruler who began the modern road system here was named Muhammad Ali. He consolidated his rule in 1811 by inviting 470 of his rivals to a banquet. Afterward, he ushered them into a narrow alley where they were massacred.

Besides one's personal safety, Cairo's traffic can confuse a foreigner trying to be a good guest.

One American visitor, a baby strapped to his back, patiently waited to cross a busy street until a policeman halted traffic. But just as he stepped out, one taxi driver pulled forward, ignoring the officer in the best Cairo tradition.

The American did a quick two-step. But instead of accepting this lesson in the customs of the country, he did a very American thing: He slammed his fist on the hood of the passing car and hollered an oath having something to do with the propagation of the species.

The driver was startled. Bystanders were startled at this crude Americanism in a country where no dialogue is begun without lavish pleasantries.

It was rude. It was arrogant. And it must have felt good.

To be fair, Cairo drivers do have a traffic system: They honk.

Cab drivers are most proficient at this. They honk to indicate one of the following: I am turning; I am stopping; I am driving.

They honk to cut off another driver, or if they are cut off. They honk as they approach intersections. They honk at anyone else approaching an intersection.

They honk at anyone walking, certain that some potential fare has not been already honked at by a thousand other cabs. They honk at friends. They honk at people who might be friends. They honk at 3 a.m. on empty streets in case any friends are listening.

The result is a maddening cacophony, a blare that ends only when the night finally snuffs out daily routine. It is then, late at night, that even Naji is charmed by Cairo.

The gnash of traffic subsides. Men trade affectionate lies in the coffeehouses over sweet tea and cards. Women turn the simplest ingredients into feasts. For guests, chickens disappear from rooftops, and reappear on beds of rice.

Soon from minarets comes the mournful call to prayer. It is a haunting summons, an overpowering draw to contemplation.

But at dawn, this serenity will once more be --ed by the cries of car horns.

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