Cramming a city of over 80 million inhabitants into the confines of this page is a challenge. Add addictive chaos, vibrancy and at times, surrealism, and I find myself with a near impossible task. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Cairo, the capital of Egypt. They say the city is home to one of the worlds Seven Wonders, but I beg to differ; this sprawling metropolis is quite simply wonder-full.
Arriving at Cairo International Airport I was met by Medhat Hassan from Al Tayyar Travel Group, my Egyptian companion for the week, and a breeze carrying the indescribable yet welcome scent of life. Emerging from Arrivals, my attention was drawn to an advertisement for mobile phone network, Mobinil, which boasted a quote attributed to U.S. president, Barak Obama, We should educate our children to be like young Egyptians. Though unable to confirm its authenticity, the suggestion sounded reasonable to me.
Negotiating the hustle and bustle of Terminal One, Medhat ushered me outside towards a car destined for the Fairmont Nile City. Located 23.5 kilometers away on the banks of the Nile, I prepared for a short drive, thirty minutes perhaps. One hour later, surrounded by frustrated car horns, faded grandeur of colonial architecture and vehicles whose ability to start up, never mind traverse the city, defied logic, I began to revise my plans. But the journey, though long, epitomized Cairo life; full of sights, sounds and no choice but to forsake arriving on time for the joy of arriving at all.
And arrive I did, to luxurious Fairmont surroundings. Darkness had descended, but life in the Egyptian capital was vibrant as ever, oblivious to such trivial details as time. Indulging in a hot pizza on the banks of the river, I amused myself watching boats bedecked in fluorescent lights carrying all manner of passengers, from young revelers to love struck couples, dancing as though nobody could see (unlikely in a city that hosts more residents than many entire countries).
The following day presented an altogether different Nile experience. Garish lights were substituted for sophistication aboard a yacht in the company of my hospitable work acquaintance, Yousry Abdel Wahab, General Manager at Al Tayyar Travel Group. Cruising along the river, a life source upon which Egyptian civilization has depended for millennia, I wondered at the things its currents have witnessed. The Nile of modern Cairo is bordered by five-star hotels and towering corporate offices, but has retained a magical quality.
Returning to shore, my plush bed was calling as the clock struck 1 a.m. My hosts, however, had other ideas. Perhaps we are taking a different route, I mused as we weaved through a maze of side streets, but my suspicions were confirmed as we pulled up outside a covered alleyway in Cairos Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood. Exiting the car, I was met by the smell of sizzling kofta. It was dinner time. With sleep clearly some way off, I was guided down a path shared by alley cats, unaware of the delights awaiting me.
Stepping into what felt like a parallel universe, we were greeted at the entrance of a restaurant named El Rifai by a jovial waiter who seated us in the street and proceeded to serve platters heaving with meata carnivores heaven, as the cats circling our legs reminded us. After a meal which, despite my fatigue was quite delicious, the waiters insisted on a tour; the highlightan encounter with the owner, Mohammed El Rifai, who despite his elderly appearance evidently possessed a keen business eye. Unfazed as I posed with him for a photo (apparently he has come to enjoy celebrity status), the devoted owner went about his business, overseeing a butcher hard at work. Moving inside, the place oozed with character and wall-to-wall photos of past customerssome famous, others unwitting tourists as far as I could tell.
Taking their hospitality to a new level, the next evening Yousry and family invited me for dinner at their home. Seated at a table laden with food I prepared for my first taste of a local delicacy known as hamam. Knife and fork in hand, I turned to my hosts to ask just what it was that I was about to enjoy. The response was somewhat unexpected. It is like a peace bird explained Yousry, refering to the dove. Yes, but a baby one interjected his wife. For a brief moment horror met with amusement as I explored the moral dilemma that confronted me. Not only was I about to devour an international symbol of peace, it was a baby! Hunger and curiosity, however, prevailed.
With free time on my hands the following night, I paid a visit to the epicenter of Egyptian street life that is Khan el-Khalili; an ancient and vibrant souk located in Cairos Islamic district. No sooner had I set foot inside, a young Egyptian darted out of his shop, I have no idea what you are looking for, but I have exactly what you need! he assured me with a grin. In truth, I was not looking for anything at all, but insisted on exploring nonetheless. As I meandered, shopkeepers congregated outside their stalls selling, to my amusement, essentially the same thingsminiatures of Egyptian artifacts, decorative perfume bottles, colorful abayasall absolute necessities I was assured.
Khan el-Khalilis twists and turns were accompanied by different scentsthe heavy odor of shisha, incense, and aromatic tea. The latter was to provide my next unforgettable experience. Turning from one narrow walkway to another, we reached Cairos famous Al Fishawy, a coffee shop once frequented by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. Lit from the street in a way reminiscent of a theater set, Al Fishawy was adorned with ornately carved wood, almost an organic part of the souks edifice. With no doors or windows, it was hard to tell where inside ended and outside began; souk life gliding effortlessly in and out.
Seated in one of Al Fishawys crevices, Medhat and I sipped tea as street sellers armed with books and trinkets tried their luck. As the flow of souvenirs subsided, it was the turn of two more opportunists, this time with oud and drum in hand. Joining us at our table, the comical duo began entertaining us with renditions of Arabic folksongs, including a lesser known number laden with political insinuations. We quit smoking Marlboro and supporting the Americans. We started smoking hashish to support the Muslim Brotherhood, sang the unlikely pair. But the repertoire was to end on a less than harmonious note.
To our apparently untrained eyes and ears, the spectacle had been the product of an equal partnership, thus warranting equal payment. But to my amazement, enraged as the spoils of his work were split fifty-fifty, the oud-wielding and larger of the two musicians began to protest. Hes no good he exclaimed, pointing to his sidekick, It was me that brought him. Its my money! The drummer, however, was more than satisfied with the arrangement, clutching his faded pound notes, before turning on his heels.
Making Khan el-Khalili look distinctly modern, the next morning featured the compulsory excursion to the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest and largest of Cairos pyramids, which stood 146.5 meters high on its completion around 2560 B.C. All of this was to be explained in detail as I circumnavigated the site in a precarious horse-drawn carriage, accompanied by Jumaa, ageing driver-turned-tour guide, who sported a toothless smile. His insistence that his steed was in tip-top condition was as suspect as a string of phone conversations during which he repeatedly remarked on his ridiculously cheap rates. Returning to the start and having succumbed to Jumaas conspicuous hints, we dismounted leaving a generous tip.
Following the pyramid adventure with a visit to Cairos old town and the Salah Al Din Mosque, my grumbling stomach demanded attention. I soon learned that when hunger sets in there is no better place than Abu Tarek, touted as the best Kushari joint in town. A fantastic concoction of rice, lentils, chickpeas and macaroni topped with tomato sauce and fried onion, Kushari is a staple of the Egyptian diet. Abu Tareks mastery of this traditional dish has generated a cult following, with a sign stating We Have No Other Branches, proudly fixed outside.
That evening, as my visit to Cairo was reaching its conclusion, there was time for one last experience: the Egyptian baladi bar. Pulling up outside a hotel with a dubious three-star rating, Medhat led me inside and into a whole new world. The club, bathed in dim red light, was filled with tables of men and women reveling in live Arabic music. Finding my seat, I prepared to be amazed; cue the belly dancers. Bemused by their lackluster performances, I came to the conclusion that I could probably do better myself. This would not, however, be put to the test. Firmly rooted to my seat, I marveled at the show with a combination of humor and disbelief.
Bidding farewell to Cairo the next day, I reflected on my trip. Even in the grips of political turmoil, the wonders of Cairo continue unabated; not inside the glass cases of the Cairo Museum or the tombs of pharaohs, but in the labyrinth of Khan el-Khalili, the humor of a carriage driver, and age-old culture upheld through cuisine and musicalbeit it off key at times. Heading back to the airport, the words of the shopkeeper I had met a few days before resounded in my head, I have no idea what you are looking for, but I have exactly what you need! He was right.