Cairo, Conqueror of Skeptics

Thursday, February 28, 2019 | Cairo, Egypt

From a footbridge connecting Roda Island to the Nile's east bank, it's almost hard to see that you're at the very heart of Cairo, a singular, cacophonous metropolis of 20 million people.
This is the third in a six-part series on my 2017 trips to Egypt. Read the first here: "To Egypt, At Long Last", and second here: "Daily Life in Giza, Straight from the Horse's Mouth".

Cairo's name comes from its founding by early Islamic warriors (القاهرة, al-Qahirah, is Arabic for "the conqueror"), but these days it's the Egyptian capital's staggering size that vanquishes and overwhelms the visitor.

Cairo, the city, holds more people than 46 of the US's 50 states, and more than over two thirds of the countries on Earth. Its population of 20 million exceeds that of the world's bottom 75 countries combined.

With those facts in mind, you can guess what a head-spinning experience it can be to visit Cairo.

And while it was indeed massive and unruly, in truth I didn't find Cairo nearly as chaotic, overwhelming, or generally miserable as I had been led to imagine by decades of exaggeration from friends.

Perhaps it helped that I started slow. Guided by my then girlfriend (now wife) Nina, who lived in the city as a young girl, I got my first taste of Cairo in the care of her close family friends, average Egyptians making ends meet in the down-and-out suburb of Nazlet El-Semman.

Or perhaps it was the Nile, around which the city clustered, as if every structure

Daily Life in Giza, Straight from the Horse's Mouth

Sunday, February 17, 2019 | Nazlet El-Semman, Giza, Egypt

Amr with Sukkar, a hard-charging stallion
This is the second in a six-part series on my 2017 trips to Egypt. Read the first here: "To Egypt, At Long Last".

If Nina had told me, when I first met Amr Ghoneim, that he was Omar Sharif's little brother, I probably would have believed her. Not just because he was Egyptian, or sported a similarly dashing mustache, but because like the famed actor, Amr exuded an unspoken charisma. He used his words sparingly, preferring to let his demeanor do the work of inspiring servers, porters, neighbors, and friends alike to scramble about in anticipation of his bidding.

Amr is the doyen of a vast lower-middle-class family in Nazlet El-Semman, the neighborhood just adjacent to the pyramids of Giza. The area was an outlying village during Amr's childhood in the 1960s, and he and his neighbors still call it "the village", though in reality Nazlet El-Semman has long since been subsumed by Cairo's rapacious spread.

It was here that my Egypt experience began. Wisely, Nina had suggested that we spend three days in Amr's care before heading into central Cairo, where she would attend a conference while I explored. Those days in "the village" gave me a chance to get my cultural bearings before the onslaught of downtown.

It was here too that Nina's own Egypt experience had begun, several decades earlier. Back in the late 1980s, her family had settled here, just down the street

To Egypt, At Long Last

Saturday, January 26, 2019 | Cairo, Egypt

Andrew and Nina at Abu Simbel, December 2017 (photo: M. Farrand)
For years, I resisted all attempts to drag me to Egypt.

Of late, the place just sounded like a mess, wracked by the throes of its post-Arab Spring upheavals, its economy in shambles. But even before the revolution, friends—including the most hardened of travelers—returned from Egypt with horror stories of the street harassment, the aggressive touts at every tourist site, the filthy streets and smog-filled air, the overcrowding and poverty. And even before I knew about all that, I was just another young over-achiever in Arabic class at Georgetown, looking to spend a semester or two in the Arab world honing my language skills and experiencing the culture firsthand. What destination could be more obvious than Cairo—epicenter of the Arab world, the city where nearly every aspiring Arabist had cut their teeth? But, ever the contrarian, I opted—precisely because the choice was so clear—to leave Cairo to my classmates, and instead head off alone to Damascus and Amman.

After the Levant, life led me back to DC, then to North Africa. And that's where I met Nina.

Though German by birth, Nina spent her whole childhood in Cairo, attending

A Year of Arts and Letters: 2018 in Review

Saturday, January 12, 2019

@IbnIbnBattuta's Best Nine of 2018 on Instagram
2018 was an exciting year here at Ibn Ibn Battuta, starting with two more viral Arabic-language videos—the first by my friends at Allaqta ("Americans in Algeria Speaking Arabic") and the second on El Djazairia One television ("People and Stories: 'Foreigners Who Love Algeria' Edition"). I also shared reflections on a weighty trip to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, while delaying many other travel updates until the new year. (Coming soon!) I had great fun compiling a treatise on photography in the modern era, lists of my favorite photography inspirations on Instagram, a rundown of the best Algerian gifts, and (for the fourth consecutive year!) a new Algeria wall calendar.

Far more importantly, I announced the real-world milestone that defined my year: my wedding to the bold and brilliant Nina!

Then there was also the addition of Chorba to our happy little family. And I published photos in a new hotel in Algiers, a photo in a major museum exposition in Vienna, and a translation of a speech by leading Algerian author Kamel Daoud.

But if you read the blog regularly, you already knew all that! Perhaps more interesting is what's happening behind the scenes...