Alaa Al Aswany and Matteo Pericoli
A series in which writers from around the world describe the view from their windows.
I open my window and this is the house, in the depths of central Cairo, that looks back at me.
The people who live in the city’s working-class neighborhoods are not ashamed of being poor. Instead, in this house I look at from my window, I see heroic efforts in the fight against poverty. For the most part the residents are tradesmen or public employees. There was a time when they earned enough to enjoy a comfortable life, but the waves of hardship rose suddenly and they drowned.
Originally the window on the house’s first floor was ornate glass. It was broken and repaired more than once. The last time, to keep costs down, the house’s owner put up a piece of wood in place of the glass.
In prosperous times the members of the family would pass pleasant evenings in the open air in the house’s entryway, relaxing on fine wicker chairs. The chairs broke and the father did not have the money for a new set, but he kept the shattered ones along the walls inside the entrance nevertheless. Another dream postponed, never to be realized. Just nearby is an opening in the wall for an air-conditioner. The house’s owner sealed it up and painted it over because he knows that he will never be able to buy an air-conditioner.
The most beautiful thing in this scene are the housedresses hanging on the second-floor clothesline. The cloth is plain and humble, but their owner did not give in. She put simple designs on their bodice and sleeves ... they certainly seem more beautiful ... and this is something I admire about resistance in the face of poverty. Poverty is wretched, but resistance to it brings forth a certain nobility. I have only to open the window and see this house to be overcome with a fierce compassion.
Despite the poverty creeping without pause or pardon, I see dozens of instances of humanity. A teenager writes his first love letter and hides it in a chemistry textbook so his mother won’t see it. A girl locks her bedroom door and dances naked in front of the mirror. Young lovers exchange urgent kisses in the darkness on the roof. Nights of clumsy lovemaking in the first days of marriage. A baby’s startled scream upon entering life and a haggard old man’s voice shuddering a final time before he dies.
All windows, no matter the variety of scenes, convey to us nothing other than life.
— Alaa Al Aswany
Alaa Al Aswany is the author of the novels “Chicago” and “The Yacoubian Building.” Matteo Pericoli, an artist, is the author of “The City Out My Window: 63 Views on New York.” This article was translated by Geoff D. Porter from the Arabic.
New York times 2/4/2011