At one point today all three of us in the apartment noticed that the sky was darkening earlier than usual. We looked out the window and beheld a dark gray smog enveloping the buildings on the opposite side of the river. We could see it billowing and creeping towards us, shrouding this building, then that building, then another and another until we could barely see across the water. “Maybe we should close the windows,” somebody said, and we rushed about doing that.
There was a smell in the air, industrial, acrid, but sweet in the way garbage smells sweet. We huddled in the living room with the light on, looking at each other, saying things like, “well, it hasn’t been THIS bad since we arrived,” and “does this kind of thing happen often?”
Cairo is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Levels of suspended particulates often exceed twenty times the limit recommended by the World Health Organization. Eva and I proved our geekiness by looking up articles on the awful truth of Cairene pollution. Living in Cairo is the Same as Smoking a Pack a Day, Lifting the Black Cloud, the World Health Organization Q&A sheet, the Environmental Information and Monitoring Programme newsletter, Karachi One of Eighteen Megacities with Highest Pollution in the World (it talks about Cairo, too),and a scary graph from the ACE information programme. Cairo has some of the worst recorded levels of lead, suspended particulates and carbon monoxide in the world. I haven’t been able to find measurements of ozone levels in Cairo but it’s suggested that the weather conditions here are exactly the kind to exacerbate the air problem.
In actual fact neither of us needed to look up the statistics, as both Eva and I are asthmatic. We found ourselves growing lightheaded and wheezy, taking our inhalers and brewing cups of tea for the soothing steam. We joked over having an ‘athsma buddy’ in the house – neither of us has ever really spent a lot of time with other inhaler-bound people, so it was actually nice to be with someone who really understands what this is like. Our other roommate fortunately doesn’t suffer from our ailment, but I guarantee all three of us could feel the grit falling on our skin and burning our eyes when we went outside.
The best way I can describe the black smoke is that it looks like a dense gray fog but so obviously isn’t made of innocent water particles. There is no dampness to it, just a gritty, stinging, particulated feel. Both Eva and I found ourselves taking several breaths for each sentence, moving slowly like old women and taking our inhalers with an alarming frequency. I look like my fish lamp, breathing with my mouth open.
Eva spent two months in Beijing a couple of years ago before they cleaned the place up for the Olympics and she tells me that even though the pollution was more visible there, the feel of the gritty air is definitely worse here. I remarked that I’d always thought China’s pollution problems were worse, because over there people actually go around using air masks and get ordered to stay indoors and things, while here people just go about their day ignoring the literally dirty air. Eva said she thinks that it’s not a matter of the air quality but the difference in attitude and the effort of organizing campaigns like that in China versus Egypt.
I suspect it’s also to do with how consistently poor the air is. Today is by far the worst pollution day I’ve ever seen in Egypt, including the month I spent here in April when I saw the sandstorm. It’s not always this bad, and I haven’t actually had to take my inhaler for several days now. I can see why people aren’t in the habit of wearing face masks. But watching that cancerous, deadly cloud come creeping inexorably towards us on its sinister swirls made me wish with all my heart I had something, anything, that could keep it out.