Africa, Destinations, Middle East

Two Days in Cairo

February 13, 2009 • By

I spent the last two days wandering the neighborhoods of Cairo.  It was a lovely experience and good to get away from the mobs of tourists.  My exploring led me to a cute little neighborhood on the island of Zamalek and Gezira.  Both areas are not what you would expect in terms of Egyptian culture.  Zamalek houses many upper class Egyptians as well as foreigners and a number of embassies.  There are beautiful flats and high rises in mint condition, quaint little coffee shops and a divine bookstore.  I spent hours just roaming past the shops and houses and trying to get a sense of how people lived.  Needless to say, the shops in Zamalek are much different than the bazaars for the tourists.  Here I found finely crafted furniture and jewels that would have made even Cleopatra jealous.  It was a real eye opening experience as many of these stores contain expensive antiques and fine linens. Again, if only I could ship a truck home.

From Zamalek, I ventured to the Cairo Tower.  It was a clear day so I decided it was worth a trip to the top.  I had 360 panoramic views of the city and enjoyed taking it all in.  In the distance, the pyramids stood as they did thousands of years ago only now mildly ignored by the locals.  Other than a brief encounter with an Arabic tourist, I found this to be a very peaceful and pleasurable experience.  The tourist – a father- thought it would be a good idea to put his (maybe) two-year-old daughter on the top of the safety fence.  We are talking Eiffel Tower, C&N Tower, Empire State Building tall.  At least in other countries, the fences are efficient but this was not enclosed and her mother who was being bossed around let go of the child and I nearly had a heart attack.  I guess my screaming at the father didn’t do much since I saw him taking her photo again on the other side.  Some people are so stupid.

After I sipped my mocha and devoured my chocolate cake, I made for the local shopping district.  It’s in the center of downtown.  The area consists of coffee shops, stores and restaurants, banks, etc. and caters to locals.  There were families eating ice cream, young couples courting each other, women shopping and men in the coffee houses smoking and watching soccer(football).  It seemed like a great place to eat and people watch and I was craving Greek food.

Egypt has a very large Greek presence dating back to Alexander the Great. It’s reflective in their history and also the Christian Church. Coptic Christians are essentially Greek Orthodox. As a result, there is a sphere of Greek influence in the food and culture.  I had heard rave reviews about the Greek Club and wanted to check it out. I must have been pretty determined as I walked around for two hours trying to find the restaurant. It seemed every person I asked for directions had a relative in either Texas or Minnesota and they all had very famous perfume shops right around the corner. The first time I felt obligated but by the 5th time I was downright ornery.

What kind of tourist police don’t speak a word of English? Even with my little cheat sheet telling them the name of the street and restaurant they were clueless.  I really flipped out when I realized the cop IN FRONT OF THE GREEK CLUB sent me on another hour tour. Eventually, I ran across another man -who has a brother in Minnesota with a store in the Mall of America- and he escorted me to the very hidden side entrance of the restaurant. I did take his business card and promise to visit (ooops).

Grumpy and starving, I walked up two flights of stairs excited to eat. This was an exhaustive endeavor. Before I could take my seat, a “doorman” asked me to pay 35 pounds or 15 USD cover charge on top of the cost of my meal.  Out of energy, I could not argue and paid the entrance fee. It seems I stumbled upon the Hellenic Center of Cairo and my cover charge didn’t even include entertainment. I scarfed down the saganaki and tsziiki and called it a night.

The Local Experience:

Today, I decided to stroll through Islamic Cairo. There is a tourist component but it’s pretty isolated to the market and 2 mosques. I arrived at noon just in time for prayer and the loud speakers blaring. The walk through the markets proved too much for my patience. After about the tenth whisper of “I love you,” I changed direction and lost myself in the narrow alleys of where the locals live. There are about 10 old mosques and 2 mausoleums and the architecture is quite unique to Egypt. My aimless wandering took me off the beaten path where I watched locals buying and selling fruits and vegetables, women with children admiring the galabayas and people going about their daily business. No one bothered me for a change.

Having walked for 2 hours, I was in desperate need for a bathroom(all can atest to my small bladder). I rushed to the Islamic Museum knowing tourist destinations had bathrooms and to my chagrin the Museum was closed. Now in a panic I turned and noticed a large inviting building with lots of Egyptian flags. I begged a guardhouse full of men to let me pass but the absence of English was not helping my cause. Squating, air drawing a toilet and saying WC, bathroom and toilet in every language I knew -Arabic excluded- produced results. One man led me to another security point and eventually an office with a very official looking man behind a desk. A bit concerned as I was surrounded by 3 armed guards, I could only focus on my bladder. Thankfully, this man spoke English and informed me he was the Minister of the Interior. Ummm my first thought– I’m about to get arrested and my second I’m going to piss on this guy’s floor and then get arrested. After some finger snapping and loud Arabic, I was taken to what looked like a locked public bathroom. It smelled dreadful but it worked. Completely baffled by this 5 minute exchange, I bolted out of the building and past the guards and wondered how I just did what I did. One thing I was certain…an Egyptian woman would have never pulled off that maneuver.

I spent the rest of the afternoon with a local man I met on my walk. Eheb watched me examine my map and asked me if I knew I was not in the tourist market. I thought that was pretty obvious by my surroundings but I informed him the market proved to be a hassle and I wanted to try something different. We talked for a bit and I learned he studied in the US and had actually spent 6 months at Kansas University(Patrick’s school). He seemed to know the campus so when he offered to walk me to some interesting historic buildings free of charge I went. After being pushed and pulled and tricked for days, I kept waiting for the punch line but it never came. He seemed open to my questions — I got to the basics right away. While I believe Egypt is becoming more conservative, he says it’s quite the opposite. He contends the women cover more but underneath they wear lingerie and more provocative clothing. I had to agree with him as I noticed several slinky outfits in the local markets and wondered who might be purchasing them.

He also reaffirmed my theory about the satellites. People don’t have money to eat here but everyone has a satellite dish. Apparently there are 3 levels of cable one can get for a total of 85 channels. The full package even includes 10 porn channels. He must have said porn 5 times before I got it. Like every other educated Egyptian, he believes satellites have ruined the people. The country is greatly influenced by Western ways more now than ever because of cable. It took me awhile to convince him every 14-year-old girl is not sexually active in the US. They watch a little too much Oprah, Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer. On several occasions, local Egyptians have told me they think American women are loose. Well after hearing Eheb tell me about Jerry Springer I put two and two together.

Eheb is a physical therapist/massage therapist at a local hospital. After some prodding, he told me he often feels like a hair dresser because the minute a woman starts talking she tells him her life story. He seems amazed at how many married Egyptian women cheat or have significant others on the side. I was surprised that he admitted most men have one wife but also one mistress. In his opinion, the women have watched too much TV and demand things be differently at home. (My mind instantly flashed to the porn channels!!!) He doesn’t trust the fully covered women and said,”the more covered the more they hide.” That is one loaded response.

On our walk, a few women approached me to pet my hair and said some gamala word. The second time it happened Eheb translated and informed me that the women do this because blond hair is not real here and they wanted to feel whether or not I was wearing a wig. Oh and it’s meant to be flattering.

Starting to show fatigue, Eheb suggested we sit for coffee or tea. We settled on this little cafe overlooking one of the ancient mosques. After a few blank stares from locals, we picked up where we left off. Ehen is 36, never been married and cares for his mother. He was very poor growing up since his father suffered a paralyzing injury. Therefore, it was up to Eheb to support the family. The government pays for school and he seemed to understand at 16 that he needed to finish university to get a decent job. He has 2 younger sisters and until they were married he supported them. One married at 17 and the other at 21. It disappointed him that the one sister never finished school. Both sisters each have 3 kids.

Eheb lived in Switzerland for 2 years, thinks Saudis are awful-they come to Egypt and drink alcohol and hire prostitutes so he says- and seems to live a conservative life. He wanted to learn all about American women and dating. Of course, he wanted to know what was wrong with me since I was not married. “You not like men?” Um I like them but they don’t like me. Then I turned it around on him and said well you are 36. You should nearly be a grandfather and that’s when I learned he works to support his family and can’t find a woman willing to marry him and live with his mother. He was very proud of the fact that he maintains a nice savings and he enjoys his job immensely.

After a call to his mother(so he said), he invited me to dinner with his family. Thursday night is family night since the weekend is Friday and Saturday. It would be his 2 sisters, their husbands and the 6 grandchildren. I really wanted to go and thought it would be an amazing opportunity but after a call to Joyce I decided against it. She reminded me the sad truth of the world we live in today. I don’t know who I can trust and to go alone could be jeopardizing my safety.

Eheb paid for our lunch, put me in a cab -negotiating a mere 5 Egyptian pounds and we said good bye. After spending 5 hours with him, I know I learned a great deal more about the life of an Egyptian and I hope I did the same for him. We exchanged emails and I’m sure we will keep in touch making the world even a little bit smaller.