Sleepless in Cairo


Published: April 8, 2007


During the last few years, my neighborhood in Cairo has experienced such an influx of refugees from the Iraq war that longtime residents have begun, with a mixture of affection and unease, to call it New Baghdad. Two dialects of Arabic are spoken in the streets, and there is Iraqi flatbread for sale in the local market. The family living in the apartment upstairs came to Egypt from Iraq nine months ago. Their history was revealed to me by degrees: I exchange greetings with Hassan — an artist with a salt-and-pepper mustache, and the head of the household — whenever I pass him in the stairwell, but because we are a man and a woman and unrelated, local standards of propriety make further conversation difficult. The story of their flight from Iraq came through the neighborhood gossip that passes from the men to the women to me, the building’s sole but affectionately treated Westerner.


In the beginning, Hassan and his wife and sons came and went in silence and remained something of a mystery to the rest of us. No one knows, for instance, whether Hassan’s family is Sunni or Shiite, and people are too polite to ask; our building, whose residents are an eclectic mixture of mainstream Sunnis, Coptic Christians and conservative Wahhabis, is a site of religious détente.


About a month after they moved in, things changed. Hassan began to hold noisy get-togethers that started at midnight and lasted until the dawn prayer. For weeks after this ritual began, my husband and I were jolted awake several times a night by cheers, stamping and loud music.


My husband, who was raised in Cairo, somehow learned to sleep through it. For me it was slow torture: the insomnia I’ve often suffered returned full blast, and I spent two weeks surviving on no more than three or four hours of sleep a night.


Still, we tried to tolerate the disturbance — to complain about noise, unless it is truly excessive, is seen as a little gauche in this city, famous for its all-night chaos. They were new neighbors, after all, and had left their country behind them; besides, we reasoned, they couldn’t possibly have parties every night.


But they did. When the noise continued, night after night, week after week, and I slipped into a state of sleep-deprived delirium, we decided something had to be done. I would never have thought that my compassion for a family in exile could be undermined by the thinness of walls, but it occurred to me that compassion is easiest at a distance.


“I’ll talk to them,” my husband said, and when the whistling and stamping began at midnight the next evening, he went upstairs to complain. I hovered in our doorway to listen. After awkward introductions, Hassan apologized and promised to tone down the noise.


“Do you know what they’re doing up there?” my husband asked when he came downstairs. “They’re playing backgammon. Everyone shouts when someone rolls a good score.”


“Why make that much noise over a board game?” I said. My husband shrugged.


“Anyway,” he said, “I think they’ll keep it down.”


They did, for two or three nights. Then the noise began again. This time when my husband went upstairs, he was less polite.


Hassan told my husband the reason for his nightly gatherings. “I haven’t been able to sleep through the night since I left Iraq,” he said. “At least you’re in your own country.”


He went on, asking my husband if he understood how alienated they felt, using a word, ghorba, that shares a root with the word for the solitary, cemetery-haunting crow, and with “stranger.”


My husband told him that regardless of his situation, we had to work in the morning and simply could not tolerate these nightly interruptions. Their agitated conversation echoed down the stairs. They did not part on good terms.


After the confrontation, our neighbors went quiet. But I still couldn’t sleep. I lay awake listening for their softened footsteps; absorbing their anxiety. For me, insomnia was something ordinary, and it came and went for ordinary reasons. I could not imagine what it was like to lose sleep for months on end — to have gone through what they had gone through.


Incurably wakeful, I studied the dark ceiling of my bedroom. I couldn’t rest, and they couldn’t escape their restlessness. We had all been awake too long.


G. Willow Wilson is an American writer based in Egypt. She is the author, with the artist M. K. Perker, of a graphic novel, “Cairo,” due out in September.