Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Cairo in bloom

By Yasmine El-Rashidi

Spring falls upon the city like the rain does: in a rush.

When the rain comes, it seems like someone has hit the city's fast-forward button. Sidewalk vendors whip plastic covers from out of nowhere, grocers whisk their goods from open sidewalk display and locals scurry left and right for shelter. In a flash there is close to nobody in sight.

Like it comes, though, it ends: fast. And so is the case with the birth of a Cairo spring. It starts with the heat, which pushes through the last days of winter and breaks onto the streets in a bellowing rush. Then comes the dust and dry air, enveloping the city like a cellophane wrap on a steamy dish. Those who know what harbingers these are once again are sent scurrying; this time out of the heat and into their homes, fleeing the relentless onset of summer.

Visitors at the Ministry of Agriculture's annual flower festival, going on now in Doqqi
But for now, what is most noticeable in this mess of a metamorphosis is the flowers.

Like other great blossoming cities -- Washington, DC and New York, for example -- the beginning of spring thrusts flowering buds onto Cairo's parks and gardens; headstrong and wilful, but short-lived. In Washington, DC they are the cherry blossoms, which cover the mall by the White House in a blanket of pink and white buds, disappearing before the week is up. In New York it is the greens, reds, pinks, purples and all the shades in between that make up the 843 acres of flora and fauna known as Central Park.

England, too, boasts its own parks and hills, flowers and greens, but it is in the Lake District that flowers really rule -- what poet William Wordsworth described as "a host of golden daffodils."

Then comes Cairo. The blossoms of Cairo come in a somewhat different form -- not because the flowers look much different, or because they are quickly dusted by the early spring khamasin [sandy winds], but for their sheer tenacity. What makes Cairo blossoms so unique is their place amidst the sprawling city. Smack in the middle of bustling and drab Tahrir Square lies an oasis of pink geraniums; stranded in the middle of Mohandiseen's Gam'at Al-Duwal Street thrives a family of daisies.

The tired, greying city is vibrantly dotted, albeit haphazardly, with colour and life. And somewhere between the high-rises and modern matchboxes, a suffocated villa or two are efflorescing; reflecting remnants of glorious days past in contrast to the fading structure remaining today. Like the landscapes of Renoir, the grounds are speckled like glitter; mauve, white, red and fuchsia, deep pink and yellow, blue, violet, orange; petunias, geraniums, hollyhocks and hibiscus, sunflowers, speciosa, roses and begonia. And sprouting like cotton around the rest bursts the sweet-smelling bud that has crowned itself the national flower of Egypt, the jasmine.

The pungent scents of spring now saturate the grounds of the Ministry of Agriculture, where the annual flower festival is taking place. It is there that the beginning of spring lasts a little longer, the flowers bloom a little brighter -- a shade bluer or whiter -- and the bouquet of scents smell a little stronger. It is in this little hideaway on the corner of Al-Thawra Street, in Doqqi, that one can really escape into the full throes of spring -- an experience not to be missed for both the flora-starved Cairene and sceptical travellers who brand Cairo a city of dusty, urban expanse.

Most notable amidst this dry concrete forest, however, are the trees. Strolling down the Nile-side corniche street of Saray Al-Gezira, one is shaded by the mauve and white expanse of an umbrella towering above the road; the acacia trees are in bloom. Driving down the 15 May bridge onto Zamalek's 26 July Street, one is first hit by a vista of angular concrete blocks and billboard signs screaming household products or the latest movie -- and then, a sea of fiery red; the flame trees.

It is no secret that the city's heritage -- floral, that is -- has played a role in the lives of many. While New Yorkers reminisce about Sunday mornings spent picnicking in Central Park, the likes of world renowned writer Penelope Lively (born and raised in Egypt) writes in her memoir Oleander, Jacaranda, "I am walking with Lucy beside the canal. This is one of our regular afternoon walks, a favourite for me because halfway along the canal there is a mimosa tree, from which Lucy allows me to pick a sprig. I bury my nose in the powdery yellow balls, gussling the strange fragile smell."

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