Loneliness and The City

By: Mostafa El Said

Disclaimer: This article is purely based off of my opinion and personal experience, but it may apply to many of you as much as it may not. None of this is fact.

I have lived in Cairo, or in the heart of the city to be more precise, for almost all my life, and not a day passes without me hearing the not-so-distant sounds of honking cars and excessively loud roars from motorcycle engines in my bedroom. Anyone can feel lonely anywhere, but there a distinct feel to loneliness when it comes in the company of millions of other people you see every day in a big city like Cairo. There’s just something particularly bittersweet about climbing up to the roof of my apartment building (at the not-so-quiet hours of night) and looking at the tiny glowing square-shaped windows, that look strikingly similar to my mathematics graph paper, as people we know nothing about zoom about attending to their life, that is just as complicated and detailed as yours. The scenery can make almost anyone feel small and lonely, even the most socially adept.

You’d think that Cairo, being a huge city with people coming and going everywhere all the time, would be the perfect antidote for loneliness, but turns out: it’s pretty much the opposite. It’s extremely difficult to avoid feeling lonely altogether when you are almost always surrounded by a crowd of strangers with no names. Everyday, you order an Uber with someone you’ve most probably never met before. If you look out the window, it’d be hard not to notice all the others who are as stuck in the horrid traffic as you are. The people who share this same fate of immobility on the road come in all shapes and sizes and social classes and stories. I don’t know if this applies to everyone, but Uber rides, especially when you’re alone and the ride is silent, tend to evoke this weird sense of sadness or poke at this invisible void that you suddenly have. But even when you stare out the car window to try and break the imaginary deafening silence, the line of endless cars and the overflow of people riding them doesn’t help but make you feel even lesser and more insignificant.

Perhaps a more comprehensible example of the correlation between loneliness and Uber rides would be glass. Glass is the perfect example of isolation and seclusion in a huge mass of people. The glass example, though, works best with almost anything that involves this invisible barrier: a car or bus windshield, a glass pane separating a restaurant from the street or a bedroom window. The common between them all, is that they remain a keen example of city loneliness, where you can’t really reach out or make contact with anything outside, but simultaneously feel vulnerable and subject to judgement, despite there being an invisible physical barrier; that implies being inside but also not-really-inside at the same time.

That is partially why I had given up on Uber and busses for some time now and resorted to a more alive mode of transport: the subway. What is special about the metro, at least for me, is that it made me feel like part of something bigger. It made me feel as though I was now connected to the rest of my community, somehow. Everyday, I join millions of either people in their daily commute to their private lives. And everyday too, I see people I’ve never seen before and with whom I don’t have to communicate in order to get home. Only this time, we are physically together, rather than in separate vehicles. Everyone in the metro has a different story, you can hear it as they speak with their loved ones or you can read it on their face. Yet, you never really truly know what that woman sitting in front of or the old man you gave your seat to have been through. And even though Cairo metro was my way of attempting to have a deeper connection with the city I call home, it still wasn’t enough to rid me of my loneliness. The people I sat in between, shoulder to shoulder, were extremely distant and so hard to reach, despite them being less than inch from me. It is then that I really realised what it’s like to understand loneliness as something separate from physical solitude.

The quiet and reserved people are not the only ones who feel lonely in a big city like Cairo. In fact, many people, who are seemingly almost always in the glittering presence of other people, fall prey to the city’s evil intent. Most of them may not even know that there is this impalpable void, because they find themselves too often in the company of others. The loneliness then exists as a parasite, without the knowledge of the host, and eats at them slowly until they truly realise what it is that really is making them undetectably melancholy. That is why loneliness is embedded deeply and is more profound for those of us who are more social.

Typically, all humans are not huge fans of change (or at least most aren’t) and it doesn’t come as a surprise that we tend not to try to attempt it when it comes to loneliness. And what’s more, is that in our time, where our eyes are constantly glued to our screens, it’s become harder to combat modern city life and it’s penchant for making people feel alone in a crowd. If you look hard enough, you’ll realise that we constantly surround ourselves with objects and barriers to avoid direct contact with other people, be it physical or otherwise. In essence, it’s like we’ve all become hoarders of cellphones and other things that distract us and do nothing but make us feel lonelier.

Feeling lonely, especially in the city, can be acutely painful. And unfortunately, there aren’t many ways to combat it that I can provide. That would be because, everyone experiences loneliness differently and thus do away with it differently as well. Loneliness is very complex, and the base of its complexity lays in how it varies from person to another. Many people may healthily transform this particular feeling into something positive. Some people do that through music or reading, and others similarly through science or anything – really. I, however, believe that a common cure for loneliness amongst everyone is a smile and a greeting to your doorman.

In conclusion, even though some people find pleasure in isolation, the fact remains that loneliness does not lie in isolation or seclusion, nor does it lie in a crowd or a group; it just is there or it isn’t, and it’s not okay if it stays untreated.






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