We had a week to spend in Egypt. We chose Cairo because that’s where the bus stopped and so it seemed the obvious choice. For accommodation we stayed in the top floor of an old and wooden downtown hostel, a stones throw from Tahrir Square. Complete with complimentary doorless lift, rubble strewn rooftops, mosquito swarms and a dishevelled christmas tree. Downtown Cairo is also known as the car mechanic district for reasons that become obvious when you begin tripping over spanners and tyres whilst looking for a cafe.
Of such cafes they are numerous and gloriously cheap. Whether reclining by the Nile or beneath thick, green trees beside a mechanics workshop you will find great spots to pass time. One such venue was the Townhouse Gallery, a place to watch the artsy fartsy youth of Cairo come and go. Set to the backdrop of a massive and derelict, colonial-style townhouse is this cafe come gallery come bookshop. We forwent an exhibition on Post-Internet Imagery of the Desert (?), and instead delighted in finding a table strewn with fresh and colourful Egyptian comics to accompany fresh juice and shisha.
Just like in Amman, there are endless bookstalls lining the main roads with the usual copies of Mein Kampf on show. Not to mention translations of Orwell’s 1984 taking a satirical pride of place amongst Egyptian novels and other works. And this only a month after a student was arrested at Cairo University for carrying a copy. It makes for a tasty and believable story but is debated: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/10/egyptian-student-arrested-1984-orwell
My first impression was a city of traffic jams, dirty streets and a wide, rubbish-lined river. What is to be expected then. But in terms of the people, we were collectively shocked to see so many young couples holding hands, sitting by the Nile whispering sweet nothings and kissing openly in parks. No doubt there are more conservative areas but you would be hard pushed to see the same behaviour anywhere in Amman, no matter how much you scoured the shadowy side-streets.
We had only a short time to soak up the cairene smog, and so spent most of it walking between koshari restaurants and shisha cafes, playing cards amongst the click-clack of domino games and attempting to be understood by anyone who would listen. If we happened to stumble across a museum, park or an example of religious architecture of historical and cultural significance then so be it.
A brief run down of our stumblings then. At al-Azhar mosque (more than 1000 years old) I was given a spontaneous tour by Hassan, a student at the university who had just finished for the day and saw an opportunity to talk to me about football, Islam and Christianity. Unfortunately he picked the wrong person to converse with on matters of Man United and religion, but I blagged my way as we pushed through the streets of the immense Khan al-Khilli market. Eventually I perked up when he told me, in a hushed voice his pride of being in Tahrir square in 2011. “the revolution is still happening, we must all be patient.” he said.
We perused the antiquities museum. The interior is strewn with statues still standing on the crates they were presumably transported in. The spread is very much to the tune of ‘if it doesn’t fit then just shove it a corner’, apart from Tutankhamun whose golden headress is a surprise to those who had assumed that all the shiny bits were already in the British Museum. I particularly enjoyed the small room dedicated to mummified animals. A preserved Nile trout was a personal favourite resplendent with that timeless, vacant expression specific to long-dead fish.
On another day we completely failed to find the Coptic area of Cairo despite the insistence of a handful of taxi drivers that if we just followed such and such a street and payed them double the normal fair then we would get there. We did find some churches, however, and saw the gaggle of pilgrims lining up to ritually shackle themselves in irons and pray on behalf of st.George.
On a nearby street stood a particularly savvy Egyptian cafe owner. He had realised that following tourists up and down streets whilst blurting the menu at them in something nearing English was both time and energy insufficient. Instead he stood holding a piece of cardboard emblazoned simply with the word ‘beer’ and smiled confidently.
Whilst crossing a bridge Duncan and I were warned of an ongoing protest and were instead steered expertly to a nearby papyrus shop. What proceeded was what I can only describe as many cups of tea and friendly conversation culminating in the personal loss of a fair chunk of money. Still, I had a bundle of personalised roles of papyrus to show for it, the recipients had better appreciate them.
Yes I was pre-warned of the swarms of ‘government certified’ papyrus sellers in Cairo, but being the ripping-off type I have learned to embrace my fate. I thought I had mastered it in Morocco then was ripped off in Jordan. I finally felt confident in Amman but then I came to Cairo.
And of course we visited the Pyramids in Giza. An experience I only enjoyed in retrospect whilst looking at my photos later that evening. We arrived by taxi, were whisked onto horses and then taken to some camels who would be our transport for the afternoon. Our guide, Samir had only two things going for him: he knew how to ride a camel, and was located at Giza.
Aside from that he was useless with information (apart from the heights and the names of the pyramids, which he took great pride in repeating). I was fortunate enough to sit in prime position on camel number one squeezed in worryingly behind Samir. We bumbled along on our camels who seemed to be fuelled by squelching farts and an intense hatred for each other and their riders. It came to mind that Camels have far too many knees to be considered a comfortable ride.
We stopped for the occasional photo like the hilariously artistic ‘try and put your elbow on the pyramid tip’ shot. At one such stop off some Malaysian tourists passed a bulging spliff to Samir. He took a long drag of what smelled like fairly potent hasish and almost fell off the camel. His next move was to take us on a lolloping gallop towards a cemetery. We felt it symbolic but clung on anyway.
Our two hour tour came to an abrupt halt when it materialised that the second hour was to be an accompanied visit to the adjacent museum. We summoned up the shallow depths of our arabic and told him to jog on. He didn’t like this and demanded a tip. The obvious solution would have been to walk away, but an infuriated (and high) Egyptian does not go gently into that good night.
We huddled and came up with 50 Egyptian pounds (about 5 British pounds) and presented it in determined hands. He subsequently refused and stated confidently that each photo he had taken was worth at least 40 Egyptian pounds. So there was only one thing for it (after many heartfelt raised voices on all sides), the plant and run, to cries of (shorta! shorta! – police! police!). We called his bluff and went to sit in a collective huff by the Sphinx, feeling as if our own noses and just been punched off.
We ended our trip mostly looking forward to escaping the craziness of Cairo, a place where its said that even superheros struggle to live. (http://www.citylab.com/crime/2014/12/even-spider-man-finds-cairo-exhausting/383648/). Of course living outside the centre would have presented a different view of life here. Like spending a week in the West End of London might leave you with the impression that all of London is obsessed with miserable French people.
I hope to come back and spend more time exploring this city, as despite the annoying encounters with the usual tourist traps, I was beginning to feel the beauty of Cairo. With the recent turbulent past and uncertain future for the Egyptian people that appears to be following a 1984 plot line, hopefully the vibrancy that we (however briefly) saw continues to inspire and revolutionise. Anyhow, onwards to Israel and Palestine for some serious festive and biblical tourism.