Chaos, pollution and traffic. This is what we received as our greeting as we were driven to our hotel from the airport. A large congested five-lane motorway connects the airport to the city, like an artery constantly subjected to deep-vein thrombosis. As we entered the city we felt our lungs fill with air saturated with pollution to the point of weighing us down and being visible dashed against the sun. Over-crowded servees were racing dangerously down the road and people were trying to cross the enormous road with no zebra crossing. Energetic Egyptian music came from our taxi’s radio, blending with the one coming from surrounding vehicles which had their windows down because of the thick air. The taxi driver dropped us off at the hotel, nicely positioned in the centre of Downtown Cairo at walking distance both from The Egyptian Museum and from Khan El Khalili, the main bazaar in Cairo. We entered the dusty old building which bore the sign “Freedom Hostel” and we were greeted by the owner, who led us up four floors of this typical Cairene condominium.
When walking around Cairo, as in Tunis, I couldn’t help noticing many people simply sitting on the sides of streets, smoking, chatting amongst themselves and apparently doing nothing, looking around with a permanent cynical expression. Such a sight I believe, perhaps unfairly, to be the result of the overpopulation problem which currently affects Egypt’s most urbanized areas, and the consequential unemployment which appears to be rampant in the Arabic working class. One might dismiss this as insignificant, but there more I think about it, the more I realize the absence of such a feature in cities like London, where unemployment is nowhere near as problematic.
The following day we visited the citadel and admired the view of a city which loses its skyline in a thick bank of pollution, clinging to the buildings like cotton-wool. The air is dry enough though for the temperature to drop significantly as soon as the sun is blocked. We walked out of the citadel and into a large busy street, much like the one leading to the airport. We almost randomly managed to meet up again with our taxi driver, who had simply told us to meet him “here” in two hours, without exchanging phone numbers, nor giving us specific indications or ways to identify him. He drove us to Khan El Khalili through the so-called City of the Dead, cemeteries in which the poorer layers of the population took refuge and set up a home. As you drive from broad alleys to narrower streets, the aggressive tooting is a constant sonorous background. A lot of the time the tooting seems to have no functional end whatsoever, but appears to be a natural part of the Cairene driving experience, as much as braking and accelerating. Other drivers understand this and often take no notice of one another’s tooting. Lively music kicked into the scene when we entered the heart of Islamic Cairo with its shops, mosques and houses messily crammed together. We were dropped off at Khan El Khalili, next to the century-old Al Azhar mosque, traditionally the most prestigious centre of learning for Islamic studies. As we attempted to enter, a “guide” told us it would open in about an hour. In the meantime he intended to take us to the Al Muayyad Mosque. We followed him through crowded narrow streets of what he called the “real” Khan El Khalili for twenty minutes, as opposed to the popular, more touristic Khan El Khalili, whom he considered to be dominated by Chinese.
Facing the Al Azhar Mosque one will notice a bustling, lighted market on the left, and a quieter, darker one on the right. We were entering the latter. Children playing with a football, shopkeepers sitting outside their shops lazily inviting you to browse through their merchandise, stray dogs looking around piles of rubbish, are all elements of the local street life picture. Some youths were wildly attempting to get through the packed streets on motorcycles causing havoc and receiving angry replies from the shopkeepers.
At the mosque, he invited us up a tight dusty staircase to the mosque’s rooftop. We were rewarded by a stunning view of the Cairo sunset. The skyline was as always trapped in a layer of smog which reflected the sunset’s orange rays. The imposing Mohamed Ali Mosque dominated the view from the citadel with its shining dome, clearly visible because of its physical vicinity (not that this makes it particularly easy to reach). On the way back we met a shopkeeper who spoke clean Italian and claimed to be Swiss. In a brief conversation, they told us that tourism nowadays is “coming back Inshallah” . The “guide” took us back to the Al Azhar mosque and left us to visit the more touristy part of the Souk. In the general confusion it always seemed impossible to find the driver, but every time he appeared in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, seemingly out of nowhere. To reach our driver, we stepped through a hole in the metal fence erected in the middle of the road for no clear reason except to make it harder to move around. At the time of writing, I was laying on my bed thinking of my day in Cairo, the City of a Thousand Minarets.