Off the beaten track of group bus tours and pharaoh nostalgia, Cairo reveals its crumbling face. Dust, smoke, and earthy-brown blocks, not quite slum, not quite residential. Trash and arid air. The cultural heart of Egypt and the Arab world strictly severs illusion and reality. The pyramids of Giza were once around 15 kilometers from the city center. In the meantime, urban sprawl has come within meters of them. The present day encroaches on the past. Hieroglyphs, sphinxes and labyrinths that lead into tombs inevitably spring to mind while, in Cairo itself, solitary, dust-coated car skeletons clutter the roadside, awaiting their burial. Carpets are draped over fences, to be sold or beaten clean.

The countless apartment blocks themselves have the look of carpets. Here and there, brightly painted balconies or clothes hung out to dry weave irregular color patterns into a pre-apocalyptic ruin. Sounds of engines, canisters, smoke—and commerce. Anything that sells is sold. Behind closed doors and on the markets, we are invited to document what we see. Sugar and black tea. Women smoking and talking about life. On the street, children laugh at us, curiosity etched into their faces. Everywhere there are dogs, goats, and graffiti. Satellite dishes beam the world into living rooms. And construction is in full swing: stone and rammed earth; men carrying rubble and plastic.

We follow the light: in the morning, the sun, in the evening, street lights, headlights, neon signs. And we take photos when we see things we are not supposed to see—or at least wouldn’t see, if the authorities had their way. Several times we are given a warning: No photos! Not of children who should be in school but are playing on trash heaps. Not of young beggars squatting by the roadside. Not of metal scrap piled high in front of the Belgian Embassy. There, we do take photos, and it gets us arrested. We spend a whole day in custody. Our photographs are inspected, our passports are checked, friends and family in Germany are called and driven crazy. Are we spies, reporters, terrorists, or just idiots who don’t know how the land lies? Cairo literally means “the strong one” or “the conqueror.” But who or what is strong? Who or what is conquered? When we are released, the shock sits deep at first. And we realize now: the trash and the poverty are supposed to be well-kept secrets.