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
were straining for a view of this vast blue expanse in the otherwise brown land, cloaked in a stifling haze of dust and exhaust. My favorite moments walking Cairo's streets came in the historic neighborhoods on or near the river's banks (Roda Island, Dokki, and the less posh streets of Zamalek Island were particularly nice); the occasional reassuring glimpse of the water was all it took to refresh and orient the addled mind.

* * *
Hand-painted advertisement: "Improve your handwriting"
Even on that very first drive from Cairo airport across town to Giza, I could tell that Egypt's economy was substantially larger than Algeria's (twice as large, in fact, according to figures from the previous year).

All around were shops and businesses, including robust local chains, malls, hotel complexes, and sprawling construction sites ringed with renderings of glittering new real estate developments. Most striking of all were the billboards, which seemed to fill the skyline (though to be fair, nearly everywhere looks more commercial than Algeria, where billboards have really just started cropping up in the past few years). Even under the baking July sun and amid a crushing recession, people were out working.

"That's the difference between here and Algeria," Nina said as we drove, "If Egyptians want to eat, they need to work."

Over a few days wandering Cairo's streets, I began to notice faded, peeling ads painted onto the sides of buildings. Not only was this place's economy far more robust, but it had been that way for decades. In comparison after comparison, Algiers would seem more and more like the sleepy backwater it is compared to Cairo, long the economic and cultural fulcrum of the entire Arab world.

The area called Islamic Cairo is home to Fatimid-era mosques and to the Khan El Khalili souq.
Like Algiers, Cairo is home to a mix of modern structures and decaying colonial-era buildings, some of which even have the Art Deco flourishes found all over Algiers—though they are a bit less spectacular in Cairo's mouse-brown than Algiers' spectacular white.

In so many other respects, however, Cairo left me shaking my head: "What are we doing in sleepy old Algiers, if we could live here?"

Cairo, it was clear, is a genuine metropolis, one that had bent its inhabitants' lifestyles to accommodate its massive scale; these are city Arabs now, and they live unlike any others in the region. Walking down a residential street one day, I stopped in my tracks at the sight of a vegetable seller loading tomatoes into a basket floating in thin air. Seconds later, the basket began jerking upward, pulled by a woman at the other end of a thin cord, perched on a balcony several stories above. No need to go out that morning when she could hoist it all right up! No need to go out at all, in fact, since Cairo is known for having 24/7 delivery service capable of getting anything you need, from pizza to medicine and much more. This place has hustle!

Amid all the hustle, however, are hidden moments of grace. Passing alongside the city's Coptic Christian quarter one evening as dusk settled, we saw a pair of young men release flocks of pigeons from hutches on an apartment rooftop. Above the darkened buildings, the flocks soared in sync against a backdrop of flaming clouds.

* * *
A view over Cairo, which straddles the Nile
In July, while Nina spent her days in meetings, I spent mine outside, exploring Cairo in the sweltering heat. I visited the Muhammad Ali Mosque, the Khan El Khalili bazaar, old Islamic Cairo with its Fatimid-era madrasas, palaces from the Ottoman era and the days of the monarchy, the Umm Kelthoum museum and Nilometer, random streets and neighborhoods, bookshops and shawarma shacks, and so much more. I chatted with students and shopkeepers and kids selling snacks from colorful street carts. I lost track of time in the Egyptian Museum, and stopped to gaze across Tahrir Square and the Qasr Al-Nil bridge, reimagining the crowds of January 2011.

Another aspect I loved was Cairo's vibrant arts scene (something that still lags back in Algiers, despite recent signs of life). Alongside the usual trinket shops, which stretched for miles in the bazaars, there were plenty of higher-end artisan handicraft shops selling top-quality local products. There were dedicated cultural spaces like the Sawy Culture Wheel and Contemporary Image Collective, and overflowing online listings of concerts, classes, plays, and more. The place was bursting with life. Even Cairo's ballerinas have their own Instagram account (and it's a great one)!

During my first visit, I was overjoyed to discover that Cairo is even big enough to sustain at least one great film lab, The Darkroom, not least because I had grossly underestimated how many photos I would want to take on the trip. My supplies dwindling, I tracked down The Darkroom, which had a small inventory of medium-format film, and promptly bought out nearly the whole stock.

Oh, and who could forget the food? Egyptian cuisine is mocked across the Arab world—an infamy it certainly does not deserve, I concluded. Sure, there's plenty of subsistence filler (koshary, foul, etc.) but decent popular restaurants also serve mouth-watering shawarma, falafel, hummus, kebab and other grilled meats. And then there's dessert, which means Umm Ali, Egypt's delectable answer to bread pudding and certainly my favorite Egyptian dining discovery. Eating in Cairo (if you have the means to spend a little) is substantially underrated.

The food and everything else in Cairo is also quite cheap, as international media outlets like to periodically rediscover with breathless marvel.

Cairo's critics aren't wrong, per se, about the chaos, the pollution, or the city's overwhelming intensity, but they do tell only part of the story. I left not conquered, but convinced.

Making friends and photos in the streets of Cairo
My Rolleiflex photos from Egypt are available in two albums: 2017 Rollei - Egypt I and 2017 Rollei - Egypt II. Nina's photos from our first trip are here: 2017.07 Egypt.

Coming next: impressions on Egypt's tourism industry and unparalleled historical sites.

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