Friday, February 4, 2011

Three Weeks In Cairo

Back in 1999 Leah and I spent three weeks in Cairo staying at our friend Jonathan's place on the west bank of the Nile. We weren't planning to spend that long crashing at his pad but the day we were supposed to leave on the bus back to Jerusalem the khamseen (the annual desert sandstorm) hit and we ended up spending another week there. I liked Cairo very much. The people were friendly, the sights were spectacular and we ate very very well. Pigeon stuffed with lamb I remember as well felafel, tabbouleh, hummus and my favourite dish of all: fuul medames. We mostly walked places but I do remember a few hair raising taxi rides that ended in - fortunately - minor collisions. Obviously as a tourist you have to take in the pyramids, which we did so early in the morning that there was no one else around at all. (There had been a fairly recent terrorist attack at Luxor which also deterred the crowds). We had been warned in advance that the taxi driver would tell us that "today was a holiday and that the pyramids were closed but his cousin could get us in the back way for a small fee" which he did indeed say or words to that effect. This well known, uhm, pyramid scheme, was a popular con at the time. Jonathan had written down something in Arabic to tell him and I said it and it did the trick because he then took us straight to the pyramids.
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The other highlight of our trip was the Egyptian Museum which contains a spectacular collection of Egyptiana. We ended up going there twice and still barely covered everything it had to offer. We mostly had the place to ourselves because another recent terrorist attack had been on German tourists at the museum and the resulting headlines were still keeping people away. I suppose even then there was a feeling in Cairo that violence was just under the surface and the city was ready to explode. Certainly the Egyptians we spoke to felt that and were completely disillusioned with the Mubarak regime. (One day we visited the tomb of the last Shah of Iran who is buried in a Cairo mosque and you'd think that his death in exile would be a useful momento mori for the current govt.)
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Come an evening we would eat out cheaply (and well) and then go down to the local tea shop and smoke sheesha pipes until late - which was a very pleasant way to unwind. Women weren't supposed to smoke in tea shops but no one seemed to mind Leah being there and no one ever hassled us. On one occasion after we had gone to see Sufi dancers we took a walk in a part of town we didn't know that well and I got a pipe that contained something a good bit stronger than apple tobacco. I'm not sure if it was hashish or opium but whatever it was I was baked out of my mind and barely made it home.
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Eventually it came time for us to leave town and we took the bus across the Sinai from Cairo to Jerusalem. I haven't been back to Egypt since but I would like to go again and I hope that the current drama being played out in the streets results in a government that satisfies the people and is stable enough to encourage visitors to return to this great city.
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Christopher Hitchens, who I'm happy to say is still alive and kicking, has an interesting piece on Egypt in Slate, here.