Slowly another city is revealing itself to me, a city where people are tired - not from working or from the bustle in the streets, which had impressed me so much at first, but from a harshness that's already been going on for quite some time.
Zipper and his Father is the title of a book by Joseph Roth. I found a second-hand copy at a street stall tucked in between trashy crime novels and second-rate romances. I've known the author's name but have never read him before. On the back Nadine Gordimer recommends this as "his most tender book." It decribes a childhood friendship between Zipper and his father as seen through the eyes of a young boy.
Although the book has nothing to do with Cairo, or even with Egypt for that matter, I recognized in the description of frau Zipper the words I was searching for to express the melancholy of downtown Cairo as I experienced it:
She lay behind a moist veil. It was as though her tears, ever ready for shedding, already lay over her eyes. She wore long blue aprons, which made her look like a second-class nurse. She moved through life in soft slippers. She never raised her voice. She often sighed and blew her nose. When she raised a handkerchief to her face one saw her hard, dry hands, the fingers of which were disproportional strong, as if artificially crafted onto a hand too weak for them. When on special occasions, she put on her black spangled dress, she looked even yellower than usual. And somehow frozen as if she had just been taken out of an icebox. She seemed stiff not out pride, but out of resignation, powerlessness, unhappiness and regret - even as she sat on her chair. She combed her thin colourless hair over her broad, high forehead, a sort of compulsive beautification, a measure taken against her own will, as if someone had done her hair while she lay in a deep trance and she hadn't looked in her mirror. Only frau Zipper's mouth now drooping and morose betrayed - on all too rare occasions when she smiled - a long since faded charm, a vanished beauty, a fullness, and, for a fraction of a second, a soft dimple, no longer a dimple but rather a ghost of one, would appear in her chin. Her smile, her rare smile, was like a faint memorial to her dead youth. Within her pale, moist eyes flickered a faint and distant light, soon extinguished again, like the blinking of a distant lighthouse.
Fragment: Joseph Roth, Zipper and his Father, Granta Books London