Finding the Real Cairo

September 13, 2016 in Africa, Egypt, Travelogue


Cairo does not exist inside the fantastic Egyptian Museum…

…lined, shoulder to shoulder, two floors and endless rooms full of sarcophagi, canopic jars, pottery, deities, carvings of every sort, all of the ones you’ve seen in the National Geographic specials, and the tiniest pieces of life three thousand years ago.

She won’t be found amongst the combs or the arrowheads, the meters of papyri, or the carved scarab beetles inlaid with lapis lazuli. It isn’t even beneath the polished, solid gold burial mask of Tutenkamen, the very one I saw when I was twelve years old, at an exhibit in Montreal; the one that first brought the concept of the Nile and a civilization on the other side of the world and the other side of the curtain of time to life for me and sparked the interest that placed my feet among the long dead pharaohs in the cradle of civilization this afternoon.

It’s not even among the mummies
, perfectly preserved, hair intact, looking (many of them) as if they are just taking a nap on this hot afternoon, and got a bit dehydrated in the Egyptian sun. Perhaps if a cool drink of water is offered Queen Tiye, King Tut’s grandmother, might sit up, stretch her arms over her head and ask what in the world I am doing, peering at her with such interest.

Cairo is not found in the sweltering walk along the languid Nile.

Or the harrowing traffic that honks and lurches through the arteries of the city with a drunken swagger. It is not found in the cool interior of the Ramses Hilton, or on the pool deck overlooking the river, where men and children swim while well wrapped women wilt in the shade. I left my dress on over my bathing suit, the only woman and the only westerner in the pool.

The Real Cairo…

Cairo is found in the warren of streets behind Bab Zuweila mosque, where the souq bleeds into the street and men pushing carts full of dates, or riding bicycles with enormous wooden racks of pocket bread, fresh from ovens, or roasting corn over charcoal braziers jockey for position with veiled women shopping, boys fighting in the street, and old men leaning on wooden canes heading towards the mosque for afternoon prayers. It is found in the bustle of preparation for Eid Al Adah, and one last meal of lamb kabob before the fast that begins at sundown. And it is found in the call to prayers as the sun god sets for another night behind the city that dominates his ancient landscape.

Mohammed, in his lemon yellow shirt, had claimed me before I’d even stepped out of my cab, I’m quite sure. “Where are you going Miss? To the Sufi dance show? What? Well, you’re in luck! I am one of the drummers! I can show you where to get tickets… would you like to see the mosque? We can have a look, climb up onto the roof before the sun sets… it’s only a short walk, there’s lots of time before the show…”

I looked at my map and tried to ignore him. I knew where this would lead: straight to a carpet shop, three cups of tea and the long, laborious process of extricating myself from his “helpful” clutches.

I was wrong.

Well. I wasn’t exactly wrong. There was tea. There were shops. I did need to buy some stuff, but it turns out it was exactly the stuff I didn’t know I wanted, and there was also a wonderful adventure.


Sunset from the top of the Bab Zuweila and Al-Muayyad mosque, first built in 1092 and then added to over the centuries, most notably by Amir Al Mu’ayyad, a sheik who was once imprisoned there and promised Allah that if he was restored he would build a mosque on the site of the prison, is nothing short of spectacular. The only thing better was the light on the spires and dome as the call to prayer was sung by a barefoot man in a pair of blue trousers and a white shirt rolled to his elbows.

Women, emerging from the veiled section reserved for their use smiled and offered “welcome,” in English. A bearded man in an ankle length thobe offered me a bright red, fresh date, careful not to touch me as I accepted it with my best “shukran” in return.

“You want lamb kebab or Egyptian Pizza for dinner?” Mohammed asked me, as we stepped back through the medieval gate of the city and he pointed up: “That right there, that’s where they used to hang people. Dead. You know?” I nodded and took the obligatory picture. “We don’t do that no more. Well. We do. We hanging people sometimes… but only for bad stuff like drug use, and only in private, not on the wall of the city. We don’t do that no more… you want pizza or kebab for your dinner?”

The shouting in the kebab shop was only slightly more unsettling than the stares. There were no other western women that I saw in the streets of Old Cairo today.

“He say no kebab. It’s the last evening before Eid Al Adha, and everyone be fasting tomorrow so tonight they have too many orders, they can’t fit us in.” Mohammed’s cousin, Ahmed, who we’d picked up somewhere along the way shouted away in Arabic using his hands for punctuation, pointing at me often and back at the grill. The men rolling raw meat around metal skewers paused in their angry gesticulation in return just long enough to stand up straight and smile for my photo before chaos descended again.

“I’m sorry madam,” Ahmed apologized, shaking his head, “How ‘bout we have pizza instead.”
The argument between cousins spilled out into the street and I stepped around it like the pools of blood between the stones outside the butcher shop as we passed, until my thoughts were interrupted by a prodigious BANG! It sounded like a firework right in the street, or a gunshot, or a… “Don’t worry Madam!! It’s not a bomb! This is Cairo! Not Belgium!” My self appointed protectors laughed hard and ushered me past the tuk tuk, the wheel of which had just exploded violently leaving the three wheeled vehicle leaning precariously, tipping it’s cargo, a mother and her child, out into the street.

“We have a plan!” Mohammed announced. “We go back, we sneak into the tea shop next door, then, my cousin, he go back to the kebab shop and he order the food quietly, take away, and he bring it to us in the tea shop, yes?”

Ahmed looked at me with pleading eyes, “You must have our kebabs Madam, they are the best in all of Egypt!”
His cousin scoffed. Ahmed shot him an evil look. “What? Why are you scoffing?”

“Well, you said all of Egypt. Egypt is a big place!” Ahmed did not look amused as he stomped ahead determined to be proven right.

Shisha smoke hung like a grey curtain between the bare concrete walls. Dominoes clacked on a plastic table. A blender whirred in the corner, making my lemon water, and the men who populated the room tried hard to stare at the soccer game on the TV screen and not at the Canadian girl trying to shoo away an emaciated cat in the darker corner of the room.

“Well?” Ahmed hovered, as I mopped up the last of the hummus like dip with my torn scraps of flat bread.

“Best kebab I’ve ever had in Egypt!” I assured him. No need to let him know it was also my first. He cast a smug glance at Mohammed, who, pulling hard on his shisha pipe, lifted his eyes to the ceiling and exhaled a cloud.

My evening was not spent, as I’d hoped, attending the Sufi dance performance, having been canceled on the eve of the Eid celebrations. Instead, Mohammed and Ahmed paraded me around their family shops, first, Ahmed’s mother of pearl inlay business, he’s the twelfth generation in his line, apparently to do this work. “We do the walls of the mosques, the one you were just in, did you see it? (I had.) And we does the coptic churches too, to keep the Christian happy. And we even does the Jewish stuffs too, to keep the Jews happy. Everyone is happy with good work, and god blesses it all.”

I came away with two boxes.

Tourism is lagging…

Since the revolution five years ago, and then the Russian plane crash, and the unfortunate hijacking of that Egypt Air flight to Malta in May, tourism has been hit hard in Egypt. “No one is coming,” Mohammed lamented, as we walked the long roof of the mosque. “Everyone says it’s too dangerous to get here and too dangerous to be here… but you see, of course, that it’s very safe. Cairo is very safe, especially for tourists.”

“I had friends who told me I was crazy to come,” I confessed. He nodded sadly. “It’s very hard for us here now. No travelers come. We cannot sell our crafts. The stuff in the tourist shops is all Chinese made. We cannot feed our families. I had four shops before the revolution in this souq. Four. Now I have only one for our whole family. My father in law’s papyrus shop. He is famous. He is in all of the guidebooks. People come from the whole world to buy his excellent work. Now, no one comes.”

I looked around for the rest of the night: he was right. I did not see even one other western face.

The Papyrus Shop…

img_0849His father in law’s papyrus shop is on the third floor of a decrepit building. There is a sign on the street, but alone, I’d have lost confidence long before I’d actually located it. His sister in law and her precocious little son welcomed us and, of course, tea was served. When Ahmed arrived he was surprised to see me. “You’re still here?” he laughed, and then he dove into telling Mubarak jokes:

“Okay, okay. This one, this is a really good Mubarak joke. During the revolution, I tell this one to the CNN guys. Are you ready?” He didn’t wait for me to nod before barreling onward.

“First, I tell you… you know Mubarak, yes? Okay. Before him we have Sadat. He was killed with a gun. Then, before him we have Nasser, he was killed with poison, okay? So, the joke:

Mubarak goes to hell and there he meets Sadat and Nasser. Sadat comes up to him and he says, “Hey baby!” You’re here too! You get shot like me?” Then, Nasser wakes up and he says, “Hi Mubarak! You’re here! I got poisoned! What killed you?” And Mubarak replied: Facebook.”

Everyone laughed. I felt like I only got half of the joke, so I tossed the ball to the baby and turned my eyes to the papyri. I bought one of course. Two, actually.

It was that kind of night.