Greetings from Cairo part III
Published in Ishtar 3/2006

Of lifts and other phenomena while moving up and down

translated by Anu Toivonen

Lifts are curious contraptions: their existence goes largely unnoticed until something gives and the wheels stop after which everyone both inside and out start swearing with emotion. This was true for me as well (although I have never been stuck in a lift - el hamdu Lillah!) until I met with all sorts of strange phenomena in this southern Wonderland.

All houses in Cairo can be divided in four categories, the largest of which consists of buildings without a lift - and these are of no interest to us at this point. The second category consists of houses with lifts reminding me of the one in my Grandmothers house constructed in 1952 in Helsinki. The doors are of metal grille, the car made of wood and everything is full of old world charm. Old lifts here in Cairo are equally charming with the addition of a dose of alarm and fear. Instead of sliding doors familiar at home the cousins of Finnish lifts in Cairo may have double wooden doors (like in Western film saloons) swinging in and adorably fitted with small windows. These lifts do not necessarily run in a closed well but in an open space with the stairs circling the lift. On each floor a metal grille door rises to a couple of meters' height leaving several meters of empty space in every other direction. In true Cairo fashion, the inner doors are quite insignificant and the lift will run whether these are open or closed - in practise they remain open. The void opening in front of your toes doesn’t encourage you to take any extra steps as the worst scenario reveals the abyss on both sides at once. I shudder to think of small children in lifts.

Next, we have houses with lifts similar to ours built in the 1970's: metal cars in proper wells with small windows in the doors which make it easy to follow the journey as the floors go by. These relatively dull lifts differ from their Finnish sisters by being rather battered, dishevelled and worn down. The last category includes houses and hotels recently constructed or carefully and expensively maintained. The lifts in these buildings leave nothing to be desired and a ride in one is luxuriously smooth.

Lift attendants have disappeared in the western countries whereas in Cairo the occupation still exists. As a Finn used to independent and swift action I find this practise a waste of time and resources as it is quicker to press the button yourself than tell the attendant where you wish to go and wait for him to react. In summer's heat the attendant's duties may include the activation of a fan if there happens to be one in the lift - it would be impossible to let the fan run continuously and spend precious electricity, wouldn't it?

Exercise is good for you and in Cairo you are efficiently encouraged to take the stairs as the lift doors on the first and second floors are mostly permanently shut. The clever interior decorator places a huge potted plant in front of the doors, otherwise a couple of boards will suffice.

Some buildings only have one lift but the more modern ones may have several - the most common number being two. In these two-lift-buildings one thing keeps puzzling me time and again: while one lift takes you to floors with even numbers, the other will grant you access to the floors with odd numbers. Even after long ruminations, I have failed to solve the logic behind this arrangement. Two lifts will require two wells and every landing could fit two doors - even though only one is built and there is a blank wall where the second door should be. In terms of probability, there is no difference in the expected occurrence of either event, but a tenant must be enraged to find the appropriate lift just gone while the other one is standing there unused. And, excluding the tenants how is the occasional visitor to know when calling the lift which one to choose?

Thus, we again find that travelling does broaden the horizons and even the smallest and most insignificant occurrences will provide you with a story to tell.




Photo by Päivi Arvonen

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