In many words: dusty, chaotic, crowded, teeming, wondrous, exhilarating, wild, urbane, sophisticated, whimsical, modern, historic, pious, hedonistic, tumultuous, sprawling, polluted, noisy, friendly, witty, serious, civilized, golden.
The seat of one of earth’s oldest civilizations has survived into the modern era as the largest city in Africa and the Arab World. And what a city. Riding astraddle the “Lower” Nile, Cairo houses over fourteen million people in an otherwise inhospitable desert. Sand hangs suspended in windless air, coated with the exhaust of a gazillion late model cars, trucks, and vans snaking like Miss Cleo’s asp throughout the whole shebang. And as the gilded disk of the sun arcs through the beautifully apocalyptic haze, it becomes evident that late afternoons belong to Egypt.
With pharaonic heat cooking the city for most of the day, folks don’t start stirring until after 4pm. Greek restaurants and sheesha bars and ice cream parlors and shops selling sparkly hijabs to Egyptians and glittery papyrus art to non-Egyptians stay open until after midnight. Party boats and shopping barges replete with TGI Friday’s bob up and down the Nile while friends and young couples stroll arm-in-arm watching the sunset from the Corniche. The afternoon call to prayer wafts smoothly through the air from muffled speakers in soothing Egyptian Arabic as the whirling dervishes (yes, I saw them for free in Cairo; the ones in Istanbul charged admission) prepare for their religious fervor under a crescent moon.
Spending most of my mornings writing, I barely got out of the house before afternoon myself, stepping out for a shawerma or two to fill my stomach. When I did get out into the city, I felt the familiar buzz of organized chaos that makes me know I’m going to like a place (ou seja, in many ways, Cairo’s like a dry Sampa). Traffic rumbled past ancient landmarks, souks (those world-famous city-sized bazaars) popped with commerce, and I was alternately taken as local and foreigner, and never without the percussively benevolent “Well Come to Egypt.”
Conversations with everyday Cairenes often mean sifting through endearingly unrefined English grammar and in-eloquent pronunciation to reach a breadth of witty observations and humorous anecdotes (like the tale of the poor stray goat being chased in the middle of rush hour traffic by several working stiffs hellbent on bringing home the mutton). And with a religious mix of Christians, Jews, atheists, and a Muslim majority ranging in its orthodoxic* intensity, more than a few of those conversations were with women. That is not to say that the society isn’t segregated—it is, and most of the women do cover themselves completely except for the face and hands and will stand demurely and wait for a man to realize he’s blocking a path as opposed to even intimating he get out of the way—but there seems to be more freedom for Lady Cairenes to determine what they want to wear than in other parts of the region. Still, I couldn’t even imagine what it must be like to have religious and community pressures telling you to look one way and a bombardment of Western media and beauty products selling a competing idea of “modernity and style.” Talk about an identity crisis!
Not only is Cairo a primary gateway into the intriguing Islamic culture, it’s also the center of a youthful, energetic society that I find appealing. With its Venusian skies and Martian landscapes, easy smiles and dreamy eyes, balmy nights and golden afternoons, the Egyptian capital has just hit Fly Brother’s top cities list.
*Yes, I made that word up.