It’s nearly impossible for me to write here. The streets beckon, and I’m a street rat, for sure.
Right this moment, I could be in that bitsy Bab Al Louq café, having my first cup while watching people and traffic swarm by, or I could be on the subway, heading to Al Azbakiyyah, with its thousands of street stands flogging everything. Many have a tiny, tinny speaker looping the same pitch. Layered, they become a minimalist symphony of mutually cancelled come-ons.
Yesterday morning, I poked around Bab El-Wazir, with its centuries-old mosques all magnificent yet decaying. Passing that of Ibn Tulun, completed in 879 thus the oldest in Africa, I marveled at its Tower of Babel-like minaret, but I’m not really drawn to great sights. Small surprises hold me, and there is an infinity of them, for people are so delightfully fresh. At best, we’re here to amuse each other.
Entering a highway entrance ramp, a bus had to slow, thus allowing a middle-aged man to jump off, which he performed athletically. Out, he started to curse, his fist waving, at the disappearing vehicle. With it gone, he turned to an unrelated bus to continue his invectives, his middle finger wagging.
For ladies, old folks, cripples and perhaps foreigners, Cairene buses do come to a full stop. Wearing old brown shoes on his hands, a young man with lame legs dove off a bus and scuttled away, his face a foot off the ground.
In an alley, I puzzled over the statue of a white woman in a turquoise colored gown, her shoulders bare, her hair flowing. Egyptians chicks don’t flounce around like that.
Just like in Vietnam, people watching is a pastime, so many cafe patrons face the street. Unlike in Vietnam, many coffee houses keep their lights off during the day, so in the semi dark, men can more easily contemplate, brood or just space out, in silence or with music barely audible. Besides car horns, noise pollution is not a serious problem, though many young tuk-tuk drivers do boom mahraganat beats as they drive by.
Twice I’ve been to Giza, and having walked for several hours through it each day, I can vouch there are no pyramids or Sphinxes there, only ragged sheep, stray dogs and cats, grim tenements with exposed bricks, lots of garbage in the middle of streets, invigorating markets, warm, smiling people, welcoming cafes and a Gannt El Moslem Nursery where your lucky toddler can learn since, math, English, Duetsh or Frech. It is sic, sic and sic.
All those who claim to have seen pyramids or a Sphinx in Giza are likely to believe in UFO, Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster and other nonsense. Else, they were presented with holograms or even cardboard facsimiles. Had they merely stepped to the side, they could clearly see their precious “pyramids” were laughably two-dimensional. Don’t waste your time arguing with such clowns!
Remember those ancient days when you had to unfold an unwieldy map in the middle of a strange city to figure out where you were, thus looking even more out-of-place? With Google Maps on smartphones, even the dumbest ditz knows exactly where she is now, at all time. Here in Cairo, I have neither map, working phone nor guidebook, for it’s bracing to be lost. Exposed, I plow. The sun gives me directions, and I generally know where the Nile is. Back in my hotel room, I consult Google Maps.
With the Covid situation dragging on, I’m on an open-ended trip, so it’s best to be frugal. My seventh-floor room costs $23 a night, and my hotel is only thirty seconds walking from Tahrir Square. The bedsheet is too small to be tucked under the mattress. The square shower head sprays water sideways onto the bathroom floor. The elevator door doesn’t close, but if you’re dumb enough to stick hour hand or head out when it’s moving, you’re clearly hankering for heaven.
With business slow, they’ve given me a room with three beds. The last time this happened was in Zgorzelec, Poland. That hotel was so cheap, I started to wonder if I had booked a shared room by mistake. I went to sleep half expecting strangers to barge in at any moment.
In Cairo, I have a balcony to dry my laundry and even a midget fridge, which I’ve unplugged, for it’s a tad too noisy. On the back of the building, I face grimy walls with louvered windows, and covered walkways littered with broken furniture, plastic laundry baskets and half dead potted plants. With so much car exhaust plus dust from some nearby desert, Cairene air is always hazy.
Across the street, there’s a closet sized-store that sells a large bottle of water or a small cup of Turkish coffee for only 32 cents. Half a block away is an overpriced McDonald’s, so I generally pig out on koftas, kebabs and chicken panne at Gad, a short stroll east. Yesterday, its music was Koranic verses broadcast over the radio. Muslim or Christian, Egyptians are intensely religious.
Like Vietnamese, Egyptians also eat pigeons, so I tried it at Gad. Stuffed with rice, it was tasty enough, its dark meat rich and firm. Since a pigeon is no turkey, there’s barely enough protein for a cat, however. Still, they’re easy to raise, even in cities, so that’s something to keep in mind as your income tanks further.
Despite lax entry requirements, there are almost no tourists here, for nearly everyone is economically squeezed, if not kneecapped, with much foreboding. Who knows what’s next?
In twelve days of roaming, I’ve encountered only a dozen whites and five Orientals. All over, I’ve been greeted with “welcome” by regular Egyptians, with some shouting “Ni hao!” thinking I’m Chinese. Turning a corner, I ran into an older man who suddenly clasped his hands together and bowed, kung fu movie style, while mumbling something in Arabic.
In a dirt-poor alley, with horseshit in the middle of the road, I bought two small sandwiches, plus a cup of tea. One was stuffed with hand-dipped potato chips, the other with stewed eggplant. Kids played near me. Noticing the stranger sitting alone, a one-eyed fellow motioned for me to join him and four or five other men. With no common language, we just grinned and nodded. On a weathered wooden bench, we basked in the warm winter sun.
Later, the one-eyed fellow showed me a short cut, through a barren and dusty Muslim cemetery, back to the main street. If this was a Paul Bowles story, I would have been attacked by dogs, kicked by men, have my tongue cut out then made to dance. Hijabed women rested on graves. Seeing unlikely me, they smiled. Almost within sight were the ruins of a Roman fortress. The Babylonian one is gone.
I have a fondness for chaotic, messy cities, as long as they don’t smell too bad, and it’s a plus if they also have rich layers of history. Mexico City, Naples and Istanbul are favorites, of course, and now, Cairo.
Spanning so many centuries and civilizations, its architectural heritage is unmatched. From Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, Ottoman, Coptic, Neo-Classical, Empire, Art Nouveau, Art Deco to Beaux Art and so on, there are so many stupendous buildings here, though most are in atrocious shape, sadly. There are also plenty of hideous structures, most notably the barebone housing projects thrown up during the socialist years, but something had to be done. Egypt’s population was exploding.
It still is. Through all the political disasters, military defeats and social crises, Cairo and Egypt endure, and not just in body and mind, but soul. They’re unapologetically themselves. In nearly all countries, the national dress has been mostly replaced by Americanized fashion, and though there are plenty of hoodies, T-shirts and jeans here also, the gallabiyah is still common.
Americans lead the world in having fake boobs and tummy tucks, South Koreans in modifying eyelids, Brazilians in pumping up their asses, but plastic surgery is not common in Egypt, nor in most Muslim countries, for an obvious reason. Their female bodies, and often even faces, are not on display.
Along with the intermingling of architectural styles, there’s also a coexistence of epochs, with donkey wagons sharing streets with SUVs, and wet markets that seems timeless, though selling also soft drinks and made-in-China plastic toys. Turbaned and cloaked Bedouins ride subways. Daily reminders of the medieval and even ancient are proofs that one’s culture isn’t just a succession of hyped ephemera.
Though not extensive, the Cairo Metro is clean, safe, frequent timely and super cheap, with most rides costing just 32 cents. On my first trip, I saw all these men exiting the station by climbing over turnstiles. Assuming they were broken, I did the same, only to be told by an attendant, in surprisingly clear English, “Hey, what are you doing?!”
“I thought it was broken. I saw everybody else doing it.”
“They’re Egyptians. Are you Egyptian?”
“No. I thought it was broken. I wasn’t trying to cheat.” I handed him my ticket. We both laughed.
Later, I would sometimes notice people climbing over the turnstile, in full view of station attendants, to get to the platform, so it’s allowed, depending on which station and whom you know. Like corruption, bribing, jaywalking or sometimes driving your car or horse wagon the wrong way, Egyptian laws are often bent, but there are certain lines you don’t cross, if you know what I mean. After all, Nasser was a model for the post-Colonial, Third World strong man.
With admirable resilience, Egyptians cope with whatever. At a café, I met a local who summed it up well, “We have a hundred problems, a thousand problems, but we live. Americans, they’re alone,” he pointed to a corner, “but we have family and neighbors, so we help each other. Maybe there’s a protest or riot at Tahrir Square, but at Talaat Harb Square [half a kilometer away], there’s a wedding, and by the Egyptian Museum, there’s a construction crew. During the civil war in Lebanon, Egyptians still went there to find work. Umm, what’s the word, fireline?”
“Yes, frontline. If the frontline is over there, we work over here.”
Even when badly housed and fed, they survive, and have done so for longer than just about anybody else. For vast stretches, they’ve also achieved greatness. Though the evidence may be grimy, corroded, blackened or crumbling, it’s more than stupendous enough to awe. In that sense, they’re champs.
With ordinary life still masked, quarantined, sanctioned and canceled in much of the world, I’m blessed to be in this magnificently alive city. Into its river, I swim.
Reprinted with the author’s permission.