Cairo Sorting out the experience as I pack to leave Cairo, I find my thoughts something of a jumble.
The trip was amazing for all of us. One of the Organizers’ Forum delegation pointed out to me for example how amazing it was to him that in the evaluation no one mentioned the Pyramids or the Sphinx. The meetings, the information, the culture, and mainly the revolution had filled our brains to brimming, so the sites that normally wow the first time visitors were pushed far down the list. Nonetheless, the Pyramids in fact are amazing, no matter how jaded the traveler. They are larger than you imagine. They are now pressed into the city’s suburb, and surprise when first sighted looming over the apartment high rises of Giza. The Sphinx seems small in comparison, a makeshift artistic adaptation of a huge hunk of limestone that happened to be nearby. The Pyramids are all raggedy and roughed up with the facing long ago expropriated in earlier centuries for building materials in a repurposing of a proximate quarry that happened to be a Pharaoh’s tomb.
he Egyptian economy has been wracked by the revolution. The concerns about security and traveling have panicked tourists. Estimates from seasoned observers as well as the man-on-the-street told us the numbers were down 80 to 90% of normal. Since we had ignored all advice and plowed forward we were rewarded with easy access and nonexistent lines everywhere we went. The guidebooks warned of multiple lines and hours delay in the famous Egyptian Museum, which feels like entering a dusty tomb itself, but my visit on a Sunday morning saw no lines and an easy walkabout. Despite the bad rap I had heard everywhere about the chaos and disorganization of the museum, I found it easy to follow. Just turn left and follow the signs through the time periods on the wall. The 20 foot mummy of a crocodile was wild. The cats were creepy.
Speaking of cats, that’s what you see on the streets. I cannot think of a place where I have not seen loose dogs before dawn, but dogs were so rare, I would find myself double taking when I saw one.
Marian Fadel, the Solidarity Center program officer, who was so helpful to us, mentioned to me at one point that her husband was from New York City, and would often say that New York was bluffing when it claimed to be a 24-hour city, because compared to Cairo, they rolled the sidewalks up early there. A breeze seem to come in off the Nile at sunset, and the streets thickened with traffic and sidewalks swarmed with people. Sidewalk cafes were crowed with people smoking hookas and talking. In a society where drinking is forbidden by religion and forced in doors and women are to say the least, not invisible, but outnumbered in the night and definitely not front and center, smoking seems to be the vice of choice and clouds all conversations and any space where they occur. Cafes serving small, sweet, thick cups of Turkish coffee fuel the hours late into the night. In the Cafe Riche Mehrdad Azemun, one of our crew, turned over the grounds in my cup to tell my fortune, and the waiter picked up the job. “Seems my daughter is getting married in a couple of months. Boy, will she be shocked to hear the news!” The streets are hardly clearing when the first loudspeakers give the call to early call to prayer around 430 AM, punctuated by many other opportunities to pray which also break the day in what becomes a reassuring and centering way marking time and space in Cairo.
Looking over the Nile the river surprises less than the haze that seems to suck at the air around us
everywhere. Mark Landsman, a graduate student at the American University here, and an old friend of my daughter, told me were were lucky to have been here in this season. The fall that is coming is accompanied by terrible pollution as rice husks are burned in the countryside, browning the haze and unbroken even in the rain. I don’t miss that.
Despite having been in Amman, Jordan, my time in Cairo seemed more like a new and deeper cultural experience similar to a first time in India or China, partially because Cairo is bigger, bolder, and all over the streets everywhere, while Amman is more a city wrapped around hills that hides the deeper culture. We had hardly scratched the surface, leaving us all standing ready to return at the first call or flimsiest excuse.