Quake puts new cracks in lives of Cairo's poor

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The Independent Online
THE three-storey wooden house in Boulaq gave up the struggle at 11.15am yesterday - half-an-hour before another after-shock would have surely finished it off. Its rotten wooden frame, already twisted with age, was easily broken by Monday's earthquake and yesterday, after a big sigh, the house fell apart.

First, out of the door, came a sudden and apparently unprovoked choke of swirling air, which spewed sand down the street with a throaty rumble. The street, largely unperturbed, looked on as if the house were a benign old monster in its final throes. After it came down, traders went back to work, and mourning women went back to registering their bereaved in a government tent at the end of the street.

The scene was enacted throughout damaged areas of Cairo yesterday, where talk was less of Monday's death toll - now put at 461 - but of the new damage appearing by the minute. Cracks, cracks everywhere. Many buildings are hanging on for dear life.

The earthquake has tested work done by builders and architects over thousands of years. The pyramids at Giza, built in 2700BC, stood firm, but a 15-storey building erected 10 years ago collapsed. The ninth-century mosque of el- Azar was unmoved - its minarets intact - but the minarets were cleanly severed from newer mosques.

Houses 300 years old survived unscathed, if covered in dust, and the remains of iron-clad Roman walls and a huge stone aqueduct remained solid. The very poor, who have claimed the only land they could find, above their forefathers' tombs in the city of the dead, were safe.

But cheap three- and four-storey tenements with storeys added like Lego, now teeter over the thunderous traffic. People living in them and walking beneath show little concern. Many landlords in the old quarters hope for compensation. As for the rest: 'It's God's business. What can they do?' said Abdul Salam Fares, a tour guide.

'I fought in the war. I have no fear,' said Ibrahim Goubran, 74, sitting under a precarious overhang, selling cheap pottery. The apparent nonchalance of many (except, of course, those directly affected by tragedy) is a curious aspect of the disaster. There is a feeling in the city that the scale of the horror has been exaggerated by the world outside.

'We are trying to back-pedal on the scale of it,' said one Western diplomat. A cruel jibe is that Cairo is a city where you might 'not notice' if an earthquake struck.

'It's serious, of course. But the scale of the thing - 500 dead in a city of nearly 20 million where hundreds die on the streets - it's nothing,' said an aid worker. 'Most services were unaffected, water kept running and people's lives kept going.'

Meanwhile, the government has played down the drama - in part, it is said, out of shame that international attention should be focused on the desperate underbelly of proud Cairo, brought down by a relatively small earthquake - 5.9 on the Richter scale.

However, while the scale of the tragedy in cold terms of numbers killed per capita, is perhaps not dramatic for the city, the significance of the earthquake is far- reaching. The weakest were its victims and, at least for a few days, they were the focus of attention. So often poverty and overcrowding are taken for granted.

The cracks in the houses of the poor will only widen and the government, aided by the rest of the world, will have to respond.

King Hussein of Jordan arrived in Cairo yesterday for his first meeting with President Hosni Mubarak since relations soured during the Gulf crisis two years ago, AFP reports.

The two countries enjoyed close ties until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when Egypt joined the US- led coalition while Amman was seen as sympathetic to Baghdad. The king was to offer his condolences over the earthquake and officials said the visit should help seal the improvement in relations.