Cairo, Trying To Get Back On Its Feet
When in Cairo, leave a day to uncover the sights, sounds and tastes of this city, and to talk to its people.
The trial with well-travelled eyes is that they dismember every sight, every smell into fragments and hunt these bits in the memory to figure when and where a similar setting was last experienced. Similarities give security, which in turn gives comfort. But comparisons also dilute the exceptionality of the experience, reducing it to a mere addendum.
Something similar started to happen to me the moment I landed in Cairo. Cairo is a sensory overload. Its urban sprawl, noises, smells, overwhelming chaos, all reminded me of another city where I once used to live: Delhi. I felt I had to dissociate myself from my past impressions if I were to truly enjoy this megacity. So, for once, I consciously let go, forgot where I came from, and what experiences I had gathered in my previous travels. Offloading the baggage of past experiences, I stepped afresh into the thick hot air of Cairo, and into its ever-present pandemonium.
I hailed a taxi at the airport to the hotel. “You’re in safe hands!” the taxi driver said without any prompt from me. He was attempting to comfort this foreigner to his country, a country that has seen number of tourists decline by half since the Arab Spring of 2011. The resulting uncertainty combined with incessant terrorist attacks have frightened tourists away.
Though it was late evening we only inched through the city traffic, drowned in meaningless honking. “In Cairo, we talk to each other by honking,” the driver, Ahmed, said in a faltering English, “Cairo is all about sound. The sound from traffic, the sound of call to prayers, the sound of street sellers yelling about what they sell.”
“The sound from the revolution,” I added.
“Yes. That’s the loudest”.
Did the revolution, Arab Spring of 2011, change Ahmed’s life, I wondered. “Only things revolutions do is to give a false hope, and that too for a short while. My father didn’t want the revolution. He wanted things to be like the way they were. I guess he was right”, Ahmed said, before adding, “Do you want to see the Tahrir Square?”
I agreed. Half-an-hour later we crawled into the Tahrir Square. Ahmed needn’t slow down; chock-a-block traffic had defeated the idea of speed hands down. It was an unremarkable square, which would have gone unnoticed had Ahmed not pointed it out to me. But history was made here. Some 100,000 people had gathered to protest at this very place, not caring about their lives and fighting for a change. Change did come, but Ahmed felt it was only notional. A while later, we drove past what was once Hosni Mubarak’s palace. It incongruously seemed to be the quietest place in Cairo at this hour.
By the time I checked into my hotel, it was close to midnight. I decided to retain Ahmed for another day. I had enjoyed Ahmed’s intelligent observations and unfading cheerfulness. He would make good company, I felt.
Next morning, I found Ahmed waiting outside wearing his trademark smile. He commuted daily from another town, two hours outside Cairo. “Some four million people do that every day. In daytime Cairo becomes a city of 26 million” he explained.
Though the Pyramids were only a 30 minutes ride from Cairo, I reserved it for the day after. I first wanted to experience Cairo to get oriented to it before moving on to the tourist attractions. In Ahmed’s car, we drove past the Nile. This great river – its shores lined with feluccas – appeared calm despite all the disturbances around. For millennia, Nile has seen life thrive and vanish, and witnessed many a revolution. What could disturb its peace!
I made a mental note to come to the bank of the river later that day, and headed to the city centre. Ahmed dropped me in the downtown. From here, I walked across streets lined with restaurants to reach Khan-El-Khalil, the most famous souk in entire Egypt. Matrixed with jammed alleyways, the shops here sell spices, tea, souvenirs, carpets, clothes and much more. Shop owners stand outside their shops, attempting to draw you in. But I was in search for something else: a café that was once frequented by Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize for Literature winner.
Tourists searching for this café may reach Naguib Mahfouz Café, but beware for this café is a work of an international chain keen to capitalise on Mahfouz’s fame. The original café visited by the Nobel laureate is El Fishawi’s, marked by a rather noisy gathering that seems to spill out onto the already crowded alley. Young men and women sit outside drinking hibiscus tea and smoking shisha, the sweet smells from which fill the air. Legend goes that this café started more than 200 years ago, by a man named al-Fishawi who served coffee in this alley each evening after the prayers. The gatherings grew larger and longer and haven’t stopped since, disregarding any revolution or bombing outside.
I ordered cold hibiscus team and after I had my fill, I headed out to towards the Egyptian Museum, a grand building standing along the edge of Tahrir Square and serving as a link to the ancient Egypt. This building houses a history much older than that of the Copts, bomb attacks, or revolutions. Built in 1902, the Egyptian Museum carries remnants of history, which are both uniquely important and fragile. Kept here are is the mask of Tutenkamun, fully made of gold and the mummies of the pharaohs. There is so much treasure here that it almost appears nonchalantly cluttered and lack of large windows make it appear gloomy. I spent a couple of hours browsing through the artefacts, which unfortunately are heaped together without necessarily bound in a story.
Though the museum gave me glimpses into the rich history of Egypt as a whole, I was interested in exploring ancient Cairo. That intention led me to the Coptic part of Cairo. Not many know that in the Middle East, Egypt is the home to the largest Christian community. Ten percent of Egypt’s 95 million population is Christian. The word ‘Coptic’ come from the ancient word for Egypt, highlighting the long associations between the country and the religion.
Ahmed drove me to an area called Masr el Qadima, which is the old part of city, and unofficially referred to as Coptic Cairo. Located in the south of Cairo, this is the home of Cairo's Coptic Christian community. I walked through the labyrinthine quarters lined with churches, and flanked by two Roman towers built in AD 130 by Emperor Trajan. I followed a few other tourists to Abu Sarga, also called St. Sergius, the oldest church in Egypt dating back to 5th century AD. A narrow walkway led me to a small crypt, which is even older than the church itself. Jesus is said to have rested in this very crypt with his family for three months during their exile in Egypt.
Though Christians are a significant minority in Egypt, they are facing increased persecution at the hand of Islamic militants. Just two days before I came to Masr el Qadima, a bomb had exploded at a church nearby, killing two Christians. “Do you have Christian friends?” I asked Ahmed when I went back into the taxi. Ahmed thought for a while, contemplating a correct answer to give to his guest. “I used to. When I was a kid,” he said. Ahmed seemed to have read my mind though, for he continued explaining “We have nothing against Christians. It’s the militants who are making us look bad.”
I thought for long about how Ahmed had answered my question. I wondered how I would have answered if someone had asked a similar question to me about Muslims in India. Not very differently, I concluded.
I had no plans anymore, and suggested to Ahmed to take me to the Nile. We were back on the teeming roads, and the traffic jam on the Tahrir Square brought the movement to a standstill. I opened the door of the car and stepped outside. Standing there in the chaos, I felt for Cairo. It is a frantic city, trying to be cheerful and friendly, but not always succeeding. It doesn't leave you alone, always demanding attention.
Political upheaval, and fears over security have not only devastated Egypt’s tourism industry, but the lives of its people also. However, Cairo is trying to get back on its feet. The hope of its youth, the likes of Ahmed, have not fully evaporated yet. They continue to battle, for their struggle for a stable, better life has not ended yet. I was glad that I came to Cairo and instead of mindlessly jumping into the famous tourist attractions, I took a day out to study the city. In one day, by letting me walk its streets and meet its people, Cairo taught me how to continue to live sprightly despite setbacks.
A version of this story appeared in Outlook Traveller