cairo, mother of all cities
june 7-9, 1999
so i never make it further south to another bedouin camp in sinai. i'm too full
and content with my own ras es-satan/head of the devil. i do hitch a ride to
terabin for a few hours, where i buy some more local sinai souvenirs - a black
and white checkered pair of billowing bedouin pants and two copper decorative
plates, one engraved with a smiling sphinx, the other with a frowning pharaoh.
on the way back, i stop off at big and little duna, and i am even more convinced
that i've made the right decision. i'm just not the kind of guy who needs to see
everything. you know, like some people that no matter how beautiful, how
magnificent, or how perfect a place is, they just have to go on to the next
place, to the next town, to the next horizon. "oh, c'mon", i say, "this is
beautiful enough. how much more beautiful do you think it's going to be over
there? no, you go. i'm staying here." but no, they drag you - to the next
mountaintop, to the next view point, to the next curve around the bend, never
satisfied where they are, always looking, always hungry - for better... for
nope, not me. i like to simply be in a place for a while - and just soak it up.
like even this ten hour bus ride - across the sinai - from taba to cairo. across
the suez canal. it's fantastic. i’m in egypt. the ancient and culture rich
civilization of north africa. pharaohs, tombs, crypts, sarcophagi, greeks,
romans, byzantines, copts, sultans, sheiks, mamluks, fatamids, colonial
europeans. i'm wearing my black and white palestinian kaffia over my head, i'm
el arik of the desert. never mind the blaring egyptian tv over our heads
barraging our synapses for ten consecutive hours with egyptian soap opera and
bad american b movies. never mind that i can not and do not speak a word of
arabic, and that i feel like a stranger in a strange land.
this is the beauty of travel. to immerse yourself in another culture, to
surround yourself with another language, to inundate your brain with new ways of
thinking, feeling, seeing. why the hell do so many americans traveling abroad
check into the international marriot, eat mcdonald's hamburgers, travel in
homogeneous groups of texans, jews, rotary club brothers and sisters? why
bother? just check into the omaha hilton -- the new york sheraton. yeah, yeah, i
know -- it's safe, familiar, comfortable. it's nice to travel with friends,
family, to have a little security on faraway journeys from home. nope, not me
again. travel for me is an adventure. a change of routine. a great big scary,
exciting improvisation. meeting new people. seeing new places. making up your
itinerary every day. following your nose, your instinct. being more alive.
but now i am a little apprehensive, a little unsettled. we're approaching the
downtown cairo bus station, and i have no idea where i'm going to stay. it's ten
o'clock at night, and we've pounded through the spectacularly barren desert for
these ten hours, and now it's time to depart. about five minutes before we pull
up, i cheerfully yell out, "does anyone speak english?" there's a gaping pause,
as most of the dark eyes on the bus turn around to identify the kaffia-headed
ugly american. but then, sure enough, two doe-eyed young kids sitting in the
front chirp up with a slightly eastern european accent, "we do." alright! i
introduce myself. they're thomas and zuzanna from czechoslovakia, and i convince
them that sharing a cab and perhaps finding a hotel together might be a little
easier and more economical.
by the time we get off the bus we have a plan. it's a good thing too, because as
soon as we step down, we are suddenly and violently fed upon by swarms of
feeding locusts - taxi drivers, tour guides, pimps, rental agents, local
merchants - who will all do just about anything for the almighty american or
eurodollar.. "you vant a taxi?" "hotel?" “sex?” "taxi! taxi!" believe me, i've
driven a cab in new york. been to a lot of bus stations. seen a lot of
aggressive touts. but here -- we're like raw meat in a tiger's cage. night time
cairo is a teeming, hungry urban sprawl of twenty million – like tokyo, bangkok,
or mexico city - but much more confrontive and in your face. we almost have to
beat these tourist feeders off with anti-tout sticks.
but okay. we’re hustled into one. we're in a cab. i have the name of a pensione
- the “kaballah” - from someone i met at ras es-satan - but guess what? it's
been closed for years. so the cabbie brings us to tahrir square, at tala'at harb
street. all i can think of is 42nd street - before disney cleaned it up -- and
we check out a hotel of his choice. it's -- seedy. our man has an obvious
kick-back situation going on, and so we ask him to take us to another hotel that
my friends have found in their guide book. the mayfair in zamelek, the
well-heeled island surrounded by the nile, is supposed to be clean - and cheap.
our cabbie stalls and tries to guide us to another of his "recommendeds", but we
insist. the only problem is getting there.
it's 11 o'clock at night, and we're now in the absolutely worst traffic jam. it
looks like jamaica avenue in queens to me, with the elevated trains and bumper
to bumper taxis and cars enmeshed together. pedestrians are swarming around and
through every available inch of space, and our cab isn’t even crawling along.
it's over a hundred degrees and oppressively humid. we manage about two blocks
in forty five minutes. i decide to get out and walk ahead to see what the hell
the problem is. i leave everything in the cab. i weave my way through four
teeming blocks crammed with vehicles and people. sirens are blaring, but finally
the traffic starts moving. i walk quickly back to our cab. unfortunately, i
can't find it! every vehicle looks exactly the same. i'm desperately snaking my
way through the oncoming traffic, horns are blaring at me like at some wild
animal, and i'm thinking, "oh shit, i've just left everything i own in some
fucking cab in the middle of downtown cairo, and i'm lost, hopelessly and
stupidly lost. great - el arik of the fucking desert."
suddenly my savior appears - it's thomas. he's also standing in the middle of
the street - wild-eyed - looking desperately for me. i run to him and embrace
him. i can't remember ever being so happy to see someone. he's happy to see me
too, but he's got some bad news. our cab has pitifully overheated, and it's
sitting there completely dead, hissing, creating fresh havoc behind it. we're
not going anywhere further in it tonight. but thomas also has some good news.
some very proper, well-manicured businessman in a shirt and tie has offered to
drive us in his mercedes to the mayfair. direct. no charge. if we can find it.
an hour later - it's now 1:30 in the morning, and we have reached mecca - the
mayfair. we ring the bell, and the night manager greets us with a large stomach
and a wet brow. his eyes are beady, and he proceeds to soak us for all he can
get. it's too late to argue, and we each get a room with a private bath and air
conditioning. it's way too much -- almost twenty bucks! i say good night to my
new friends, take a shower, turn on the air conditioner, and twenty minutes
later - i step out into dense humid air - of teeming cairo.
cairo! mother of all cities. city of cons. cairo! i'm walking over the river
nile. it's lit up like a pharonic fairy land. big orange globe lights, islamic
domes and spires, the infamous corniche on the far side. it's after two in the
morning, and i'm looking for something to eat. there are cabs scouring the
streets for fares, and everyone and everything feels like it's for rent or hire.
it's a hungry city. ravenous. crowded. it doesn't need to, or want to - sleep.
the next thing i know, i've stumbled into the ostentatious hotel marriot,
parasitically grown out of the classic omar kayam palace. just at the river's
edge of zamelek, about five minutes from the mayfair, the elegant and
pretentious hotel's central courtyard is bursting with activity. there are
hordes of muslim men in long white formal caftans wearing black and red kaffias.
sultans? emirates? businessmen? there are equal numbers of long, black-dressed,
black-veiled muslim women sitting around crowded tables like schoolgirls. are
they wives? prostitutes? business "associates"? there are american businessmen,
international “newsweek” reporters, egyptian accountants -- every flavor, color
and variety - it seems like toute la cairo is here at the marriot at two a.m.. i
meet a loud-mouthed, fun-loving american entrepreneur, cal farra. he is
obviously inebriated, has two girls in his hotel room, and he decides to adopt
me as his mascot for the evening. i don't get my turn with the girls, but he
does give me more than a little insight into the local intrigue, including the
fact that girl number one of the evening, a mercenary local beauty who he’d just
spent the last three intoxicating days with, had just walked off with everything
in his hotel room.
by the time i walk myself home (without letting on to my new jet set friends
that i'm not staying at the marriot), the first light of rose-colored dawn is
sneaking its way over cairo. i stroll back up the street to the hotel. i'm
relaxed, spent, but still - hungry. but just as i'm telling my stomach to be
cool, there appears - like a fluorescently-lit mirage - a cozy all-night bakery.
i walk in and look around. there's lots of gooey baklava and scores of other
pastries i've never set eyes on before. i meet josef, a seventeen year old cairo
native who's bright-eyed and friendly. friendly in a way that the natives who
live off the tourist trade are not. there's no profit in his eyes, just
he’s just one of the "real" egyptians, smiling and living their chaotic day to
day lives under the trance and call of the islamic muezzin, calling them to
prayer five times a day, to resplendent tiled and domed mosques built to the
glory of allah - and - to the equal glory and immortalization of the reigning
cruel and powerful pasha, sultan, sheik or wannabe emissary... these warm and
friendly, seemingly unambitious people - welcoming you to their palpable
bakeries, markets, food stalls… lives. you, the incidental and temporarily
“oriental” american tourist. they, the pleasant, exotic, and curious residents
of the city of your fantasy. ah, what they didn't teach us about the history and
beauty of EASTERN civilization!
josef wants to talk, to hear about america. he invites me to sit outside while
he sends his friend out on bicycle to get some kosarie, a very strange local
bean paste concoction he insists i try – his treat! he asks me about israel.
about jews. he tells me he had a jewish girlfriend once, back in israel. he
loved her very much, but her father didn't want her seeing a muslim boy from
cairo. he gives me her phone number and asks me to call her for him when i
return to jerusalem. i promise him i will. it's my payment for the kosarie.
the next morning has me up at nine. i'm a little groggy, but there are pyramids
to see. we've hired a local tour guide and mini-van for just thomas, myself,
zuzanna, and our new friend from the mayfair, chris from singapore, via jolly
old london. in his white safari hat and khaki bermuda shorts with high knee
socks, chris looks the quintessential british egyptologist. although he
vociferously claims he's not, compared to the rest of us, he is the reigning
authority on mummies, sarcophagi, tombs, pharaohs, and dynasties.
we start off eagerly by driving to memphis along its ancient canal. we can see
the exact line where lush vegetation turns into arid desert at the extended
reach of the nile's fertile fingers. once the splendorous capital of the old
kingdom, memphis is now a quiet city returned to the mud, but its famous
alabaster sphinx and towering statue of ramses featured prominently in the
relatively unpopulous museum at mit-rahine still make the visit worthwhile.
but now we are moving on to the step pyramid at the necropolis of saqqara, built
by imhotep, chief architect to the pharaoh zoser in 2650 BC. it is the oldest
and first of the great pyramids, but it is certainly - not the last. no, it
turns out that the pyramid was a hot item back in the old kingdom. religiously,
architecturally, and sarcophigally correct. i'm sorry, i don't want to “dis” one
of the seven wonders of the ancient world. the mother pyramid here, and later
the great pyramids at giza, are certainly nothing to sneeze at. they are
structurally almost incomprehensible, and even more so to the naked eye. one can
hardly imagine the decades and centuries of back-breaking human labor that went
into constructing such edifices, such "awe inspiring monuments to human
but after a while, in the blistering heat of the day, relentlessly fed upon by
the ravenous army of cheap souvenir swindlers, imitation papyrus vendors,
camel-renting hustlers, costumed bedouin impostors, arabian horse hawkers, and
overly-aggressive, self-appointed "official" tour guides, all selling you their
fake tourist drek at capitalistically correct inflated prices, one can lose
one's enthusiasm for the great pyramids. just a bit. not that it's any worse
than splash mountain at disneyland in anaheim or the great pyramids of the sun
and moon at teotihuacan outside mexico city, but somehow - it is. the hunger,
the aggression, the avarice, the poverty - all in the shadow of such "monuments
of human achievement". it's definitely a turn off. i can't wait to get back to
the hotel. i guess i'll just have to leave aknatun, cheops, osiris, nefertiti,
and their friends to chris and his egyptologists. me, i'll take the sphinx. at
giza. i liked him. noseless, beardless, used for target practice during the
turkish occupation, the man-lion had heart, soul... vulnerability. he had seen
it all. at one time - judicious, powerful and all-knowing during greek tragedy
days, posing inscrutable riddles to the best of mankind, he was now tired,
decrepit, but somehow -- still proud and wise. perhaps he appealed to my sense
of - mortality. in his battered and defeated way, he made me feel – more human.
i took a picture with him – and left giza feeling complete.
the next day, having skipped the laser sound and light show at the great
pyramids, and still barely alive after another late night out with cal and the
emirates at the marriot, and another early morning visit with josef at the
bakery, i'm off with chris to islamic cairo and the mosque of al-azhar. the old
boy is very enthused about our visit to what he tells me was the greatest center
of islamic learning and study of koranic law in ancient times. established in
972 AD and rising to prominence in the 15th century, the mosque, with it's
magnificently hand-crafted tile and glass domes, its ornately tooled spiring
minarets, it's sprawling white marble courtyard, and its huge, "oriental"
carpeted library housing over 80,000 manuscripts, is still today awe-inspiring
and richly rewarding. although for a few awkward moments i feel like an
intruding tourist with my none-too-subtle point and shoot camera, for the most
part, chris and i find ourselves quite welcome - for a very modest donation and
the courtesy of removing our shoes. in the gleaming outdoor courtyard, i notice
abundant kneeling and praying, while in the library, much darker and somber in
tone, there are many devout scholars in long white caftans and turbans stretched
out on the carpets - snoozing. i'm somewhat taken aback, but hell, i figure,
when in rome -- i decide to join them.
after my little nap, i need a little secular break and pick-me-up, so chris
brings me across the street to the beginning of the labyrinthine khan
al-khalili, cairo's notoriously touristic inner city shouk. we start off at
fishawi's, the most famous coffee shop in egypt. buried in the heart of the old
bazaar, this 19th century european style traditional tea house with hammered
brass tables was also the well known watering hole of cairo's nobel laureate,
naguib mahfouz. i've wanted to read him for years, but now is apparently my
time. i buy a volume and begin a new journey of soaking up his early 20th
century stories of male-dominated, dutifully repressed egyptian families caught
up in the change-over from the end of british rule to the birth of egyptian
independence. they will be rich, detailed stories, full of the sounds, sights,
and smells of cairo. “palace walk”, “sugar street”, names of his books, are also
actual places to go hunting for in the old city.
so fortified by some strong turkish coffee and a little peach-flavored "sheesha"
(the egyptian equivalent to narghila), now i'm dragging chris, through
serpentine streets of cotton merchants, donkey carts, carpet stitchers, fruit
and vegetable sellers, leather cobblers, ice-cold tamarindi vendors wrapped in
turbans, smiles and scowls, women still in property veils. fewer tourists. more
natives. the color of the people are bronze, black, brown, and white, their eyes
deep-set and moist, their laughs hearty, their sadness and joy etched deeply
into the lines of their faces. i try to sneak some more photos. a man cuts off
the head of a chicken, holding it bloody in his hands. one man, a fish merchant
glares at me; another, a young man on a bicycle, stops and poses for a shot. we
find mahfouz' lively brothel, the city's massive old gate; we peak into alleys,
courtyards, dead ends, more mosques and churches. it's exciting to me. real
life. i begrudgeonly convince chris to venture further, picking up an another
omni-available local street guide for further insight. chris is tired, a little
out of sorts; this funky, sprawling modern city is full of life, not tombs,
mummies, or crypts. there are thousands of buyers and sellers of exotic spice,
egyptian cloth, gold, silver, batteries, turkish coffee, mint tea, delicate
perfume bottles, camel-boned jewelry boxes inlaid with mother of pearl from the
red sea, rusty bronze aladdin lamps, storied with desire and broken dreams --
all spilling over into the tower of babel of the universal marketplace.
we make a final trade off before we call it a day. chris drags me back up the
street to cairo's most venerated muslim shrine, sayyidna al-hussein, where the
skull of the grandson of the prophet muhammed (hussein) is supposedly at rest.
chris tells me he's not sure if non-muslims are allowed in the shrine room, and
he modestly refrains, out of caution and respect. but here i am, suddenly
pressed up against the glass display case, staring at hussein’s skull, "praying"
quietly to myself that not too many pilgrims have taken offense and are now
staring murderously back at me. after all, this is the place in mahfouz where
his protagonist and family get brutally beaten by islamic fanatics.
but i survive -- unscathed. we go back to hotel for a rest. i realize i've been
in cairo three full days and i've barely scratched the surface. there is so much
to see - coptic cairo, salah ad-din's lofty fortress, the citadel, the
cemeteries and the cities of the dead, the hallowed egyptian museum, the new
city. but i have to go to alexandria and be back in jerusalem on the 13th for
maya and raphael’s son's bar mitzvah! so, i bite the bullet; the city is simply
too rich for a quick whirlwind visit. like any of the world's great urban
megalopolises, cairo demands more from you. combining millennia of ancient
history with the contradictions of modern day charm and bewilderment, cairo has
it all: muezzins, mercedes, belly dancers, museums, credit card scams,
tutankhamon's funerary treasures, red light districts, minarets, mihrabs,
glaring neon, late night friendly bakeries, caftaned corporate moguls, and who
knows what else. i instruct myself to leave, calling upon one of the most
painful disciplines of an improvising traveler.
and so saying goodbye to josef, cal, chris, and my young czech friends, i, like
arnold, in one of his great terminator soliloquies, swear grandiloquently,
vill be back."
pictures were collected from various file pages on the web.
If anyone objects or would like a credit, please contact Rebop