Back when I was in Cairo a few months ago, I had taken a taxi into the Old City to catch a free performance of the Whirling Dervishes (in Turkey, which has higher-profile dervishes, they charge admission). As soon as I got out of the cab near the market, a loquacious peddler named Ahmed approached me and asked me if I needed some help finding something. I told him I was looking for the Dervishes and he said he’d show me where they perform. We walked into the market, down a bustling and colorful alley, to a cathedral-like structure where the show would start in another hour. He invited me to see his papyrus shop to kill time, promising that I had no obligation to buy. What the hell? (By the way, papyrus is the ancient precursor to paper, a writing surface made from the dried reeds of the papyrus plant that grows along the Nile).
After climbing up fluorescent-lit concrete stairwell, with nary an inclination as to any malice on Ahmed’s part (either I’m especially sensitive to the underlying goodness of people or I’m a damn gullible fool), I entered the secluded, second-floor gallery. There stood Mohamed, Ahmed’s Nigerian business partner, who spoke to me about the Egyptian art of papyrus painting. Despite the quesionable location of the shop, Mohamed came off as an expert in his vocation, Ahmed shining equally as a consummate salesman (“Your mother is best mother in the world after my mother, she deserve something from the gallery”). I bought a beautiful $25 papyrus scroll for my mom, but I also got some interesting footage of Mohamed describing the art and craft of papyrus painting.
When you’re in Cairo, make sure you say “hi” to Ahmed and Mohamed (and buy something, too):
Alghouri Papyrus Art Centre
28 Ahmam El Mosbagha St. (beside Wokela Sultan)
Alghouri, Al Azhar, Cairo, Egypt
Tel. 2512-5859, Cell 0106695899
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.
Since Flickr is blocked here in the United Arab Emirates (among other sites such as X-Tube), I’ve decided to post another of my “road movies.” This time, watch as I approach the Pyramids at Giza, literally right across the street from a joint Pizza Hut/KFC, via an elevated expressway from Downtown Cairo. No camels were injured during the making of this film.