The amount of time it took me to get sardined into the ladies’ cart made it obvious; this would be a special ride. But … it was just way more special than I had calculated.
I had been avoiding the Metro since the 30 June protests last year. It has nothing to do with Egypt’s political turmoil or the “coup versus revolution” dilemma. It’s just that after ousting former President Mohamed Morsi, the current military-installed regime decided to block the road of Morsi supporters to Tahrir Square. They ended up blocking the Sadat metro station, which lies in the heart of Tahrir Square, in the process.
For those who don’t know, the Sadat Station is one of the Egyptian metro’s biggest stations. It’s one of the only two existing stations from which you can change between the metro’s oldest and most used lines; the Shubra-Giza and the Marg-Helwan lines — the other station being Al-Shohada Station.
I was well aware of that sad reality when I decided to take the metro last Wednesday. Nevertheless, it took me over an hour of traffic to get from Dokki to downtown Cairo; a distance that should take 16 minutes (without traffic), according to Google Maps. And, needless to say, the cab’s meter was merciless.
On my way back, I decided that the metro couldn’t be any worse. I was working under the notion that since it has been nearly a year of using just one station to change lines, maybe it’s not as bad as it used to be. Maybe the authorities, who seem adamant on keeping the Sadat Station out of service, have figured out a way round it.
I was wrong.
And I was able unlock the first level of my error as I snuck a peek at the opened ladies’ cart. Crammed with women to its gates, I realised I wasn’t going to make it to this train as I rushed through the Nasser Station’s electronic gate, the alarm already going off to announce that the train will be leaving soon. Yet, as I went past the electronic gate, I gathered that women were still disappearing into the mass of corpses inside the cart somehow, so I decided to try my luck. Diving into the already-saturated sea of female passengers, I have to admit my sense of accomplishment as the train finally began moving with me inside.
The sense of accomplishment soon turned into a sense of suffocation. Being of a short physique, I wondered how much longer it would take for the little oxygen remaining at my height to run out.
In normal circumstances, reaching the next station would be good news for the passengers, as it would see the train’s gates opened and therefore make way for some ventilation. In this case, reaching the next station was nightmarish. Outside the carts’ gates, groups of women lined up to join us.
One of the passengers began yelling; “Do not let anyone inside! The cart is overloaded and there’s no room for anymore passengers.”
The gates slowly opened; more women began taking up the tiny space available for oxygen to travel. I landed in the arms of a big, middle-aged woman. I tried to make the best out of the situation by not reacting at all.
The passenger who had earlier warned against, or rather ordered against, letting other passengers in, flipped. She began yelling about the intolerability of the situation. Another woman, half a dozen passengers away, started yelling back.
“What do you want?”
“I can’t breathe! It is impossibly crammed!”
“Well, you’re not the only one. We all can’t breathe!”
The shouts soon turned into a verbal catfight, both women threatening to use physical violence against one another. Some passengers tried to calm them down, but most were indifferent; any physical contact between the bickering women was literally impossible. I personally grinned at the absurdity of the situation.
This was when the turning point in my trip arrived. The passenger in whose arms I was sheltered suddenly decided she wanted to move further inside the cart, God knows why.
“Switch with me, you’ll be closer to the door,” she bargained.
“I wish it were an option,” I told her. “But I really cannot carry it through. Where would I physically go when you move inside?”
Heedless to my reasoning, she began pushing against me and moving anyways. It was a rare moment when I almost levitated inside the cart. All my efforts to groom myself in the morning were going to waste with every push and shove. The stink of sweat indefinitely wiped out the lingering perfume; the curls I had worked so hard to maintain were getting more and more disheveled. I was trying to reach for my earrings to confirm they remained intact amid the storm when it hit me; I could barely breathe. I suddenly realised I did not necessarily have to get out of the cart conscious.
Al-Shohada Station arrived, to my rescue. I didn’t make any effort to get out of the cart; I just got on the wave of passengers leaving and it safely landed me in the station. As soon as we got off, all passengers just broke into unexplainable laughter.
I had gone through three stations already. All I had to do now was change lines and go past five more stations. If Sadat Station was working, it would have cost me just three stations among both lines to reach my destination.
The second train was luckily not crowded. As it started moving, the two passengers behind me began talking about the woman who lost her temper in the other train.
“Did you see her?”
“What did she want?”
“She didn’t want to allow more passengers on board.”
“But that’s not realistic. You can’t just prevent other passengers from getting on board. Nobody’s entitled to. Besides, one minute makes all the difference. If I miss a crowded train in the morning to catch the next, I would never make it to work on time.”
“This is all because Sadat Station is closed.”
“Definitely. Having two stations to change lines eased the pressure. If I find one station too crowded, I would wait in the train until I get to the next. But now, switching lines has become near impossible.”
“I wonder if they are going to open it any time soon.”
“I just don’t get it. Is the metro the only way the Muslim Brotherhood would get to Tahrir Square?”
“Tahrir Square itself is operating! Why can’t they open the station?”
Nobody quite knows the answer to that question. Whenever the Metro Authority is asked, it responds with: “it’s a matter of national security.” There was even a suggestion to open Sadat Station only internally, as in, to allow passengers to get off there to switch lines yet without opening the doors of the station to Tahrir Square. The suggestion was repeatedly turned down.
Egypt’s judiciary is currently overlooking more than one case where the defendants are accused of “storming Tahrir Square”. And though the square itself is open to vehicles, the station remains closed.
On the same day I took this misfortunate trip, interim President Adly Mansour launched the new Heliopolis metro line. The launch was postponed for two days until the president would be able to attend. Mansour proudly led the procession, standing next to the train’s driver as the vehicle took its first trip.
I am very proud I live in a country capable of expanding its underground network with more lines. I am very proud of an interim president who cares so much about Egypt’s public transport, especially the metro, that he would make sure to personally attend the new line’s inauguration.
But I think I would be slightly more proud if the president, the cabinet, the metro authority … basically anyone in charge cared to explain why they’re so keen on keeping the Sadat Station closed.