Cairo, Egypt

Fire in Cairo by The Cure

And through the dark your eyes shine bright
And burn like a fire
Burn like a fire in Cairo
The English gothic rock supergroup The Cure made their studio album debut in 1979 with the album Three Imaginary Boys, which featured the track "Fire in Cairo." The song's lyrics reflect the band's now established penchant for the tragically romantic, but here Robert Smith employs a simile that refers to a significant historical tragedy. As you will soon see, to describe one's smoldering emotions as a "fire in Cairo" is sort of like describing a sweatshop as a concentration camp; hyperbolic, a little inappropriate, yet often right on the money.

The Cure is one of the most popular and widely appreciated alternative rock bands in the world, with an estimated 27 million albums sold (as of 2004). Despite having undergone several changes in line-up, the band has managed to retain its identity and unique sound due to the uninterrupted involvement of its only perpetual member: singer, guitarist and principle song writer Robert Smith. Smith, who also played guitar for Siouxsie & the Banshees, became a cultural icon in the wake of The Cure's phenomenal success. Smith's unique stage look - which involved gratuitous facial make-up and enough hairspray to hold a planetary body in suspended animation - hugely influenced the aesthetic of the gothic subculture during the '80s and '90s. Initially placed under the post-punk and new-wave genres that followed the British "punk rock revolution," The Cure's later albums played a formative role in establishing the gothic rock genre.

Revoli Cinema in flames, 1952Revoli Cinema in flames, 1952
Three Imaginary Boys was the cause of some displeasure for Smith, as the record company took over key creative decisions such as the track line-up and cover artwork. Since this initial creative hi-jacking, Smith has contractually ensured his complete creative control and final approval over all subsequent album releases. The album was re-released in the U.S.A and Australia the following year - with alterations on the song line-up and cover art - as Boys Don't Cry. The track list on the back of Three Imaginary Boys was rather peculiar, as songs were labelled with pictograms instead of titles, and the cover art for Boys Don't Cry was taken from the pictogram for "Fire in Cairo" on Three Imaginary Boys.

The song itself nowhere directly describes the tumultuous events of the Cairo fire of 1952 known to Egyptians as Black Saturday, but the reference to it in the chorus adds a certain degree of hyperbolic somberness to verses describing a fleeting escape from isolation through connecting with another person. First through visual contact: Slowly fading blue, the eastern hollows catch the dying sun. Night-time follows, silence and black mirror pool mirrors the lonely place where I meet you. See your head in the fading light, and through the dark your eyes shine bright, and burn like a fire, burn like a fire in Cairo. And then through sensual contact: Shifting crimson veiled silken hips slide under my hand. Swollen lips whisper my name, and I yearn. You take me in your arms and start to burn. F-I-R-E I-N C-A-I-R-O. Smith doesn't seem to think that personal isolation can be permanently escaped. At best you can be temporarily distracted from it, but Then the heat disappears, and the mirage fades away.

Likening this passionate interpersonal experience is perhaps a little metaphorically extreme, if Smith's intended reference was the actual catastrophic inferno. Part of a carefully executed series of riots and arson that took place in Cairo one day after a tragic incident that precipitated it, Black Saturday is but one of many historical moments of shame for the British military, but perhaps the one with the most severe direct consequences. Fifty Egyptian auxiliary policemen were killed by British soldiers in a one-sided battle (read: slaughter), which sparked spontaneous anti-British protests all across the city. These fragmentary riots were quickly exacerbated by organized elements in the crowd and vast sectors of Cairo were looted, ransacked and burned. The unexplained absence of security forces or military intervention caused the riots to spread like wildfire, while the actual fire burned like only a well-planned man-made arson can.

The extent of the destruction was largely unforeseen and far worse than anyone expected: 3.4 million pounds of damage was done to British and other foreign property. The local damage was also extensive: over 300 shops were destroyed, 30 corporate offices, 13 hotels. 40 movie theaters, 8 auto shows, 10 arms shops, 73 coffeehouses and restaurants, 92 bars and 16 social clubs. At least 26 people were confirmed dead after the riots and over 550 sustained serious injuries such as severe burns or bone fractures. The perpetrators are still at large today, and many conspiracy theories have grown up around the event, attempting to explain the seemingly impossible organization and effective execution of the riots. Not a single person was arrested while the riots took place, and eyewitnesses as well as governmental sources reported that the riots were masterminded and pre-planned by organized elements within the crowd, which were found to have both right- and left-wing political affiliations.

The tools used to break into properties, as well as the highly organized transportation systems used by the rioters, make it hard to believe that the riot simply erupted spontaneously. But to this day the masterminds behind the riots as well as their reasons remain unknown. Many also regarded Black Saturday as a prophetic precursor to the more recent anti-government protests of early 2011, which recently wreaked similar havoc in Cairo. It may just be coincidence, but it is interesting to note that the 1952 fire began on January 26, while the 2011 fire began on January 28.

Despite history's repeating itself in 2011, Cairo today is still one of the most magnificent cities in the world. It is the largest city in both Africa and the Arab world, and its metropolitan area is the 16th largest worldwide with a population of no less than 6.67 million. The city is ancient, having been founded near the Nile Delta in 969AD. Its nickname, the City of a Thousand Minarets, refers to the overwhelmingly abundant Islamic architecture to be found in Cairo. Though many of these architectural marvels were damaged in the fires, Cairo is still one of the prime choices in destination for enthusiasts of Islamic architecture. Today, Egyptians often call the city Misr, which is the Egyptian Arabic word for Egypt itself. This affirms the city's continued central influence in Egypt. It also sports the oldest and largest film and music industry in the Arab world, and more significantly the al-Azhar University, which is the second oldest institution for higher education in the world.

Whether Black Saturday was Smith's intended reference in the song or not, it gives the lyrics an edge of sombre severity matched by very few of The Cure's other tracks. And while it might not be entirely appropriate and even a bit insensitive to liken one's inner emotional turmoil to so destructive and tumultuous an event, the argument can be made that you haven't properly lived and loved if at some point your entire being hasn't burned like fire in Cairo.

Stefan Smit
July 18, 2016

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