Detox | An eight-step guide to leaving Cairo


Hello, dear readers. It’s the first weekend of the final month in this hell of a rough year, and so we’re trying to slow down and breathe. In this edition, our friend, artist Omar Mustafa, guides us through his process of preparing to leave Cairo — for good — in an attempt to find some peace. Read the step-by-step guide below.


Cairo is no doubt charming, particularly in the beginning. I don’t believe Cairo is what it used to be, however. Back during my college years, when I first moved to the capital, Cairo was filled with surprises, and back then I was fond of big, busy cities. I no longer feel this way, however, and I’m note sure if Cairo’s the problem, or if big cities everywhere have become much harder to live in. 

Nineteen years ago, I decided to settle down in Cairo after I’d been living between Kafr al-Sheikh, my father’s hometown, and Alexandria, my mother’s city of birth. I was overflowing with dreams and ideas, the world was the internet and books and music — or it wasn’t, but those were the mediums I relied on to understand myself and to discover what I love. I used to paint, but then I stopped painting and discovered the world of images and photo manipulation, and that led me to graphic design. 

I was into metal music at the time, which brought me a certain kind of comfort. I felt as though I was vicariously expressing myself through the screaming of the guitar or the lead vocalist, and I would simply shake my head along to the music, thinking that headbanging was similar to the act of worshippers moving their heads during Sufi chanting sessions, only to a different rhythm — that it led to the same transcendental results — but in fact I was wrong. 

In 2001, I was in my first year in the Faculty of Engineering and living in Maadi. One day at the microbus stop I met M7 who had a goatee and a black baseball cap turned backwards. He was sitting inside the microbus, and looked at me as I stood outside and asked, as though knowing the answer: “Are you into metal?” I nodded, and he stepped off the microbus with a pile of papers in his hand. He gave me some and asked me to meet him the next day at the same time in “Up 2 Date,” the record shop where he worked. I looked at the papers he’d handed me: they were flyers advertising a metal concert. I was excited and I tried to distribute as many flyers as I could. The next day, as planned, I saw M7 again, and we quickly became friends. He was the bassist and lead vocalist of trash metal band Barzakh, and the founder of Metal XN, and when he saw some of my designs he asked me to make the poster for their next concert. And so the first design of mine to ever go in print was a poster for a metal concert that I also helped organize, and when later I suggested to M7 that we pick a theme and a name for each concert, he was enthusiastic. This is how Cairo opened doors for me to experiment with some of my dreams in music and design. 

But the metal world wasn’t enough for me. Soon I discovered the Kefaya movement and participated in one of the protests it organized, and that was my gateway into politics. I was gradually introduced to the realm of blogging, and I realized that, sometimes, I do enjoy writing. I used to read a lot of poetry back then but had never dabbled into writing poems until my friend Hani Mehanna, also a blogger, encouraged me to. And so I started posting poems on my blog. 

It was in 2012, on a trip to South Sinai, that I felt for the first time that living in Cairo had become nearly unbearable. It’s a feeling often experienced by anyone who sets foot in Sinai (such is its magic), but for me it was the beginning of a plan I wasn’t even aware of until later. The next year, I wrote most of the poems in my first collection, The Great Betrayal, in Farafra’s White Desert. And in a tent on one of the coasts of the Red Sea, my first exhibition, FUNGALA, was held during the 2014 edition of 3alganoob music festival in Marsa Alam. Outside Cairo, I found inspiration of a different kind. At first I thought of moving to South Sinai or Siwa, then I started planning a trip to Peru after I was invited by a friend who owns a plot of land in the forest there to go live with him and help him work on it. But I kept putting off my plans to go anywhere. Perhaps I wanted to do one final thing in Cairo: to put together an exhibition of the oil paintings I’d spent so much time working on then abandoned entirely, to set up a concert or a poetry reading, to bring any of my postponed projects to life — even though I constantly felt as though Cairo was actively expelling me. It’s been years since I could see myself living in Cairo; I only leave the house when it’s absolutely necessary.

I continued to stall, until Cairo finally kicked me out: I had to leave the apartment that I loved dearly, and I couldn’t find another place that could live up to it. At the same time, I was feeling as though everything was on hold: work arrangements falling through, prices skyrocketing … all the activities I used to love started to feel heavy, and my attempts at clinging to Cairo became harder and harder to maintain. When I finally found an apartment that I liked, the owner soon asked me to leave because her son was going to stay there. And so I packed my bags, and finally left the entire city. 

Exiting the capital, like entering it, is difficult. It requires giving up many things, and stepping outside of comfort zones we worked so hard to build. But if that’s what it takes, then so be it; because there are so many places out there more alive than this city, oppressive as it has become. 

To make leaving Cairo easier, you might want to follow the steps below (in no particular order):


Step one: Give up the Idea of Houses*

If you are a domestic person who loves spending time at home, and have designed your place accordingly — well, you need to give that up. Know that your body itself is your first and last sanctuary, and as long as you have that you can create a home wherever you land. 



Step two: Shed some clothes, and expectations

Make do with less clothes, and make sure they’re comfortable so that you can move more freely. Unless you want to move your life elsewhere, not start a new one. 


Step three: Take your favorite objects along

If, like me, you are a lover of things, allow yourself to carry along some special pieces that mean something to you: a certain coffee mug, plate or spoon, an ashtray or a painting or a sculpture. Don’t overdo it, though. 


Step four: Adapt

Adaptation is your best friend. Forget the comfort of your own bed or your own bathroom: everywhere can be comfortable if you hone your skills at adaptability. 


Step five: The art of socializing

Determine what you want your new social life to look like, but know that nothing will go as planned. Improvisation is key.


Step six: Abandon the notion of a certain “lifestyle”

Adopting a certain lifestyle means being attached to things and relying on certain external factors. As a graphic designer, I made book covers, film posters and concert flyers, and took pictures of many cultural events back when I was into photography, and so I met all kinds of people and was always at this or that event; I’d meet someone and they’d take me to a party or an exhibition I hadn’t known about. I thought my life would always look like that, but then suddenly nothing was the same: not the parties nor the readings or the outings. It’s best not to build your life around patterns you have no control over.


Step seven: Use your hands 

At some point I worked as an art director on some independent film productions and awareness campaign videos, so I had to create sets on a low budget. I became enamored with making my own furniture, using old discarded wood or boxes or even water pipes. It’s a skill that’s coming in handy now.


Step seven: Exit gradually

Leaving Cairo is likely to be accompanied by withdrawal symptoms, so do it gently and gradually. I followed these eight steps over one year: I went to Alexandria first, then South Sinai. I know now that what I need is to be closer to nature; the mountains and the sea and the sky and the trees and the animals. To be closer to the horizon, like a friend once said as we sat by Lake Qarun: “All I want is to see the horizon.”


*The title of a poetry collection by Iman Mersal

Omar Mustafa 

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