It was on a warm insignificant summer night in Berne at Marc’s apartment some six years ago on the occasion of Andrea’s ‘Barcelona year’ that Remo and I developed the kind of love that only two drunks can have for one another. I found myself captivated by his accounts and revelations of the months spent in Cairo learning Arabic and experiencing Egypt. Ever since that night of drunkenness and fascination I have searched for a reason, any reason, as though I did not yet have one, to go to Cairo for some months, I was curious. Truth was that from all the stories and all the reading about the place, I was scared to go there alone. I iterated. First I went to Bahrain, then Jordan, and finally I braved Cairo on my third attempt after having cancelled twice. For this enterprise I was armed with three Cairo phone numbers, one of a Swiss, another of a Yemeni, and one Egyptian, reservations at the Le Meridien Hotel, Pyramids and my faithful student travel guide Let’s Go, Middle East, a copy of Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab People, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Cairo is the kind of place that can swallow you up. If you want to hide, Cairo is the place. Nobody whom you know is going to find you there, although plenty of other people that you don’t know and don’t care to know, will find you and somehow shield you from whatever it was that you left behind at home. It counts about 12 million inhabitants at night and is flooded by another 5 million during the day on weekdays, that is Sunday to Thursday. That there might be some truth to this claim which I heard at least twice, on Fridays, the Moslem prayer day, the city feels empty in comparison to the ant farm like atmosphere of the weekdays. On Fridays most shops are closed, finding a restaurant to serve lunch can be tricky, and picking up a taxi takes some 5 minutes opposed to the 30 seconds during a weekday. Supposedly that is also the day that the really pious hagglers and con men who will sell you anything you don’t need, or rent you a camel at the pyramids in Giza, seem to take some rest and visit the mosque for prayer. I met with my Egyptian architect at the pyramids on Friday and indeed the haggler swarms which the guidebook so dutifully warmed against was not too terribly impressive, although the workaholics of the trade were still more annoying than the ever present flies. The flies do not care for the heat, they persist. It was hot. The hagglers and camel renters are heat resistant, they resist rest and prayer.
Public transportation and street traffic in Cairo is an experience worth the trip. It works, it is fast, and nothing that a good Swiss, much less a standard American could fathom, while a Portuguese bureaucrat may gain some enlightened insights into the dynamics of what works. Getting around is easy, fast, cheap and a new adventure each time. With my three words of Arabic, gray hair and pale face, I managed to stay entertained and get from one place to another at the same time. The taxis circulate constantly in just about any place, even the back alleys. An apt name for most Cairo streets is anyhow alley. The main thoroughfares are full with most varied assortment of vehicles and animals. There are the said taxis, the not so recent Ladas and Peugeots displaying some odd but functional body tunning, all the VW vans that ever came out of the assembly line functioning in their third life as white minibuses, donkey drawn chariots, other cars, a few pick up trucks, other trucks, bikes and pedestrians. Yes, pedestrians and all these assorted, dented and bucolic vehicles compete for the same roadway in a fluidity that only a physicist might admire. One mystery remains unexplained, although there is no vehicle to be found without dents and bent fenders, in two weeks, I never had the privilege to experience how such dents and bends get created.
Cairo taxi drivers are famous, their reputation precedes them thousand of miles away. Dealing with Cairo taxi drivers has been reported to either exasperate you or amuse you. I opted for the entertainment package, or else I got lucky. All taxis are equipped with meters and no air conditioning. In two weeks I found one driver that thought it appropriate to turn on the meter, at the end of the trip I gave him more then double of the indicated fare and what I had been advised otherwise to pay for such a distance, and judging from the expression on his face, we were both happy. Another driver for the same distance wanted double and he had the corresponding long story why it should be double. I listened to his story, looked at him in a way that reflected lack of enthusiasm, and told him that that was what he was getting, and if he did not like it, that was his problem. He looked at the £E 10 note, shrugged his shoulders in resignation, took it, and sped away. This was one taxi driver who spoke English, French and tried really hard to find out where on earth had I come from. He pointed out the German school, I ignored his tour guide approach. He spoke in French with me, I pretended it was Chinese. He mumbled Arabic and kept driving while I thought this was the perfect time to practice being Zen. Some drivers don’t speak anything other than Arabic, and with my three words of Arabic, I found these to be the easiest to get along with, although it required that I know the name of the place I wanted to go to in the local language, but then, what better chance to practice the real thing? What else was I doing in Cairo?
If navigating the Cairo taxi driver interface and logistics is nothing you may ever want to deal with, there are plenty of alternatives including the already mentioned mini buses. For the mini buses, Arabic knowledge is strongly recommended. The underground Metro and buses also move you from one place to another, but you may not ever know if you will end up where you thought that you wanted to go. The last resort is to do one’s own driving by either buying, renting or stealing a car, donkey or camel. Of course if you are not on a tight budget, renting a car including the driver is also an option. Considering that you can hire a university educated personal secretary for the equivalent of USD 200 per month, even the budget traveller may afford the chauffeured rented car.
I was prepared to deal with a lot of inconveniences and harassment in Cairo, but there was one thing that I was totally unprepared for, the dust. On my first week, I got to experience a sweltering dust storm. I hate to sleep to the roaring sound of the air conditioning units, so since it was cool enough at night, I turned it off, and opened up the windows. Having gone to sleep late after another advance at Hourani’s book, I did not wake up until late in the morning, more like noon, by the heat. The heat I could deal with, I had no work to do, but the dust was everywhere, and all over. Another jolt of enlightenment struck me. Finally I understood why all of Cairo is so dirty and why the people look so dirty. At the latest, on that day, I realized how I had packed all the wrong clothes in the wrong colours and fabrics. Next time I’ll pack beiges, browns and khaki colours, all cotton, and leave all black and white microfiber city garb at home.
The books, although heavier ,proved to be a better travel companion in Cairo than the clothes. One week after my arrival I found myself dealing with traveller’s upset stomach. It took me three days to figure out that that was what it was. I don’t know where it came from. I suspect the watermelon, the peaches, the tomato salad, the fuul, or the dust, but something did me in. I slept a lot, drank lots of water, took vitamins, ate plain white rice and read some more. If it had not been for the discomfort in my stomach, this time would have been perfect, still it was relaxing and as these things go, this too passed.
Roof tops are an area of discovery and awe in Cairo. In the more posh neighbourhoods, like Doqqi or Mohandissin, you will find the gaudy decadent penthouses, and in the back streets and in less than posh neighbourhoods, like near the Pyramids in Giza, the apartment building roofs already cluttered with the craze of satellite dishes, are also populated by goats, turkeys, ducks, chickens, left over construction material, old bathtubs, and unidentifiable junk. Besides these high-rise pastoral scenes, one might discover that Cairo is an architect’s nightmare, and a city planner’s curse. Supposedly there is some form of building code, but by the looks of it you could not quite even figure out what it might be like. Money talks in Egypt, it screams even, and bureaucrats supposedly love to listen and ignore whatever city ordinances or codes that they might have one day, in the mentally far past, agreed to enforce. Still among all the disfigured elevations dilapidated by lack of sensitivity or the desire to stay cool and add an air conditioning unit, I found some relics of beautiful design from the 50’s and 60’s.
Kahn al Khalili is a living evolving state of decay which has been forming for thousand of years. Decaying, rotting, dirty and alive, it brings to a point the whole process of a city evolving with a dynamic all of its own. Islamic and older Cairo is a place unequalled and unparallel in all senses, it exudes millennia of history and culture, it is alive and teeming with people, the fragility of which can only be understood when standing at the base of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Sitting up close to the ragged face of this Pyramid, I could not but wonder about what technology really is about. Its simplicity and magnitude are not impressive, being there is not wonderful. Visiting the Egyptian Museum is actually a boring enterprise, unless you look at the building itself and then at its contents as a whole. All relics of a cemetery, all relics of glory past, all evidence of man’s belief in fairy tales.
I did not call the Swiss or the Yemeni, I called the Egyptian architect and we met at the Pyramids. There are two wonderful moments from these two weeks in Egypt. First, I saw swallows again, and second I was blissfully happy alone doing nothing in a country that has it all.
Rome, June 2003