Monday, December 31, 2007

Cairo the Rapacious

This city is kicking my ass. I'm starting to develop an atitude that would put New Yorkers to shame.

The truth is, I was more anxious than I let on in visiting. Breathing the air, they said, was the equivalent of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. The merchants are so cunning they once fleeced the King of Mali of twenty camels laden with gold. The traffic is so insane that the guidebook recommends hiring a taxi to cross the street. 21 million people are squeezed between the barren desert, with an increasingly deadly police state above and the Muslim Brotherhood on the streets below.

I arrived at the hotel, crawled into the bed, and debated staying there until my flight to Aswan.

Seriously. I only act tough. I'm like the kid who climbs to the highest rock to dive off it, and he only did that because he read about it in a book, and then remembers too late that he's scared of heights.

Books are bad.

Thirty minutes after lying in bed my stomach overruled my timid brain & demanded that it go out and find food. And so I ventured out for my first taste of this city of 21 million.

I'm staying on Zamalek, an island in the Nile. It's slightly more upscale than the surrounding madness on either bank of the Nile. It has it's crazy high-speed no-rules roads, but it also has quiet sidestreets where guards sleep standing up in the shadows, and embassies are hid behind high walls and private gardens.

Within the hour I'd eaten my first meal in Egypt - pigeon on a stick. It was stuffed with wheat, then roasted on an open fire. The chef snapped the head off before serving me, for which he has earned my eternal thanks. An hour after that I'd shaken off my first hustler. He hit me up while I was taking photos of the Nile. It was ... muddy. Not photogenic at all. I suppose I was expecting the Seine, all golden lights and stunning vistas. As for the hustler? He was an amateur, to be sure, but still - it gave me confidence to handle him so easily.

Same routine this morning. I debated hiding under the sheets for the day. I wondered if I shouldn't cave and join a tour group. Or spend the day locked in the museum.

Instead, I hailed a taxi and rode into the heart of the madness - Fatimid Cairo, the original Islamic quarter. This was the quarter that has caught my imagination, even more than the pyramids and the tombs and all the other pharaonic monuments. You can blame books again - I'd read too much Naguib Mahfouz, and too much of the history of the area - Mohammed's conquest, the rise of the Fatimid dynasty, it's take over by Salahadin, Crusaders camping at the gates, the slave-wife who hid her husband's death long enough to take charge herself and establish a dynasty of former slaves who later enslaved the caliph's family after Genghis Khan destroyed Baghdad ... I had to walk these streets myself.

First I had to survive the taxi ride. I was warned a Cairo taxi was an adventure in itself. I wasn't prepared for the driver to approach a crowd of pedestrians and then hit the gas. We went plowing through the crowd, slaloming between the poor innocents, and somehow came out the other end without hitting a soul. There was no time to breathe before we approached a merge at speed where three lanes closed into one.

Thirty minutes of this, and we turned a corner into another millennium. I had asked to be dropped off at Bab Zuweyla, the southern gate of Fatimid Cairo. I expected - what? Not this. Not a dusty dirt road in the middle of this metropolis, flanked by thousand-year old stone walls, with covered alleys leading away into mysterious directions.

And all without another tourist to be seen. I was shaking when I got out of the cab. I climbed the minaret for a good view of Cairo, and sorry that you'll all have to wait for the photos. Spent the rest of the day wandering the streets and alleys of the old city.

And like the poor King of Mali, I was royally fleeced.

First the good: just being here was an adventure in itself. The keeper of the Bab Zuweyla gate gave me a great tour. In Arabic, but he kept it simple. The restored Ottoman House of Beit Suheimy was fabulous, and was like stepping right into the pages of Palace Walk. The view of the Cities of the Dead were haunting. And the mosque of Sultan Hussein had beautiful marble work that provided perfect acoustics for an Iman singing prayers in the mausoleum behind the prayer room.

The mediocre? Nowhere to piss. I had to hide behind a ruined monument. You would pay a guard 20 EGP (2 dollars) to open a locked door - but there was no guarantee that there'd be something interesting behind it. The hustlers were supposed to be bad, but I found them to be a minor, almost charming, annoyance.

The bad? Lunch. I ate at a local dingy hole in the wall. The proprietor started piling food in front of me. There was so much chaos and noise all around, and such a mass of shouting people at the cafe, that I couldn't manage to say no, stop, this is enough.

And so I ate eggplants and an egg soufflé and falafel and hummus and a tomato salad, and finally had to order him to stop. I was going to burst, and it was turning into an awkward situation.

Then he brought desert out. No. I begged. I wish I knew how to say "I'm full." Instead, it was la la la shokran no please no thank you for the love of god no. I held his hands and looked into his eyes and tried to get my message across.

No luck. He force fed me. No shit, and no exaggeration - he took the spoon and forced it in my mouth.

I was laughing. It was all a bit surreal, being force-fed by a mad chef in a medieval city. Then he gave me the bill.

By American standards, it was slightly over-priced. By Egyptian standards? Ten to twenty times what the cost should have been.

So no more laughing. They got me. Me and the King of Mali. I paid, left the shop, put on my shades, and hit the streets with a new attitude.

One upshot of all this was, I wasn't scared of the traffic anymore. Once outside the quarter I was walking across the street with the best of them.

I'm determined to get the better of this City. It feels like a competition.

Tomorrow - I've hired a driver to take me to the pyramid fields at Dahshur and the Necropolis at Saqqara. "These are not tourist," he told me. "You like Giza better, yes?"

But I'm sticking with Plan A.


loki said...

happy birthday mikey

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