Auralgraph: Dokky, Cairo, Egypt, 2020. © Youssef Rakha.
Some three and a half kilometres west of the Nile in Cairo, a twenty- to thirty-minute drive south of the Pyramids. And I’m alone outdoors two hours before nightfall. This could not be more familiar territory. I was delivered a ten-minute walk to the east, and I live a similar distance away in the opposite direction. I grew up here. But I am alone two hours before nightfall for the first time in a long time, and for the first time in even longer I am listening.
It is humid.
The heat is bad but, after a double espresso inside the AC-sealed petrol station shop at the neighbourhood’s eastern frontier, walking is a little like swimming. Already I am where I want to be, but somehow while I stay upright I am swimming while I listen, thinking about places and distances and the time it takes to return.
I left Dokky again and again, sometimes crossing seas and resolving to stay where I landed.
In the end I always came back.
But to who?
“It was only by following the course time prescribed,” writes W.G. Sebald, “that we could hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other.”
Again and again I came back to people–my wife, for example–who had not been there when I left. Now I am going around alleyways that, not so long before I was born, were a village in the middle of field-dotted desert.
Less than two hours before nightfall, when the birds gather in the trees to sing in chorus, whipping up beauty that seems to belong somewhere else. I have forgotten about the birds while I swim upright into the village that is no longer. And the bridge that was not there till I was eight or nine, but that I cannot picture Dokky Road without, is busy. Cars swooshing overhead sound exactly like the sea.
My first epiphany: the bridge on Dokky Road is the sea.
Later there will be voices, live and recorded voices quarrelling and making love and posing questions. Whispers and chants. And all the while the asphalt buzzing, and the birdsong coming in and out of focus like stages of life. There will be voices cutting in and out of space and sound as time dissolves instead of passing. Two girls playing. A policeman asking about a juice shop. Domino players making fun of each other. It is only by listening that I can see people are everywhere. They are in underground rooms looking up and out. They are behind rubbish heaps, in darkened passageways. They are underneath vehicles. And the motorcycles farting and braking like surf. And the runners not running for sport but to catch a microbus that will not quite stop for them to board. Soon the azan will blare out of loudspeakers and the birds will be silent again.
I am alone in Dokky.
It is humid.
I am following the course time has prescribed.
Youssef Rakha is a novelist, poet, essayist and journalist who writes in both Arabic and English. His first two novels The Book of the Sultan’s Seal and The Crocodiles appeared in English in early 2015. He has worked as a cultural journalist, literary translator, and creative writing coach since then. He founded and edits The Sυltan’ѕ Seal: Cairo’s Coolest Cosmopolitan Hotel, a bilingual online space. Youssef’s writing is featured in many web and print publications including The Atlantic, BOMB, Guernica, The Kenyon Review, and The New York Times. Frequently anthologized and translated into many languages, he has written widely on Arabic literature and Egyptian history, and his books have appeared in French, German and Polish as well as English and Arabic.