48 Hours in Cairo – Part One

Well, we just got back from our weekend trip to Cairo, and it was fantastic! I think enjoyed the city a lot more than I did when I was there earlier this summer, maybe because I’m a little more comfortable with the country and less easily overwhelmed by the craziness of daily life here.

We left for Cairo immediately after classes ended on Wednesday, accompanied by three of our language partners — Salma, Farida and Tonoubi — Ustaadh Alaa (one of our professors) and his Mrs. Ustaadh Alaa, the program coordinator Rania, and Rania’s extremely energetic children. The ride to the capital seemed endless, and the my stomach churned as we lurched through Egyptian traffic at a snail’s pace. It took us about 4.5 hours to get to Cairo — significantly longer than my 3 hour train ride down to Alex at the beginning of the summer. As soon as we arrived, we boarded a boat for a dinner cruise along the Nile. The food was just okay, but the view from the boat was incredible. We took a bunch of pictures with our classes and joked around with Ustaadh Alaa. There was also a belly dancer, which made me feel kind of uncomfortable. In a room full of women in long skirts and headscarves, it seemed indecent for this dancer to be so scantily clad. Even more so, it felt voyeuristic for us all to be watching her. More comfortable — and frankly, more interesting —was the tanoora (whirling dervish). If I spun around as much as him, I think I’d throw up. It was impressive.

The cruise ship we rode down the Nile.

An extremely blurry picture from the boat. The colored lights are feluccas, tiny rickety boats that you can rent for a night to take you around the river. 

Around 10:30 we were bused to our hotel in Giza, which turned out to be amazingly luxurious. The beds were huge and soft, with real, squishy down pillows instead of the typical Egyptian hard ones that give one the sensation of trying to sleep on a loaf of stale bread. I collapsed into bed and fell asleep at once. Around 8:00 the next morning I headed down to the dining room and was greeted by an expansive breakfast buffet containing everything from croissants to ful. I had some eggs and vegetables and two cups of coffee (they were small and I knew it would be a long day). Then we were herded onto the tour bus for our first stop of the day, the National Museum. The museum is right on Tahrir Square, and evidence of the past year and a half of political turmoil was visible even from within its gated, well-guarded compound. Right next door was the burned-out shell of the building that used to be headquarters for the NDP, Mubarak’s political party. The square, however, was almost completely empty. It looked significantly more quiet than it had been when I was in Cairo last month. The tents had almost all been taken down, and the makeshift stage also appeared to be gone.

An empty Tahrir Square. 

The burned-out NDP headquarters. 

Back inside the museum’s garden, tourists swarmed everywhere. So many of them were dressed completely inappropriately for a conservative Muslim country — women in lace-up, cleavage-exposing tank tops and men in short shorts. I don’t understand how anyone so clearly prepared for exactly what kind of country this is could choose to vacation here. Who comes to Egypt dressed in a manner that I would consider skimpy even in New York? If you’re looking for a place to kick back and party around, this is not it. Egypt is a wonderful place, and the Egyptians (despite their general lack of alcohol consumption) definitely know how to have fun, but you have to know what you’re doing. If we, in our long skirts and backpacks, can’t make the 25 minute journey from our hotel to the university without getting catcalls and offers of marriage, I can’t imagine the kind of reaction these (mostly European, of course) people would spark. I can only assume that they don’t actually spend any time outside the secure confines of Cairo’s most touristy-spots.

The entrance to the National Museum

Anyway, back on topic. The National Museum was incredible. It was packed, literally, wall-t0-wall with Ancient Egyptian statues, tablets, jewelry, and mummies. Any one of the items in there would have been the prize of an exhibit at a museum in the States, but here they were all jumbled together, without much rhyme or reason to their organization. I kid you not, I saw huge stelas leaning against a wall, covered in plastic, just because there was no where else to put them. The highlight was probably seing Tutankhamen’s mask, which really lives up to the hype. I have never seen anything that was simultaneously so ancient, so detailed, and so gold. 

 Cairo, seen from the highway on the drive up to the Citadel. 

After the museum we drove up to the Citadel, which was built by Salah al-Din (of Crusades fame) in the Middel Ages. We didn’t spend much time exploring the citadel itself, but instead went into the mosque contained inside it. The mosque, which was built by Mohammed Ali (founder of modern Egypt) in the 19th century, is made mostly of alabaster and is absolutely stunning. The interior was vast and spacious, with high, domed ceilings decorated in gold and doors flung open to let in sunlight and a breeze People knelt and sat cross legged on the carpeted floor — which made the whole space seem a lot more friendly compared with a church’s wooden pews — leaning their heads back to stare up at the distant ceiling. Outside the mosque was a huge courtyard that offered an amazing, if somewhat hazy, view of Cairo. If you peered far off to the west, you could even see the pyramids poking their peaks up through the buildings and the smog.

Outside the Mosque of Mohammed Ali

Inside the mosque.

The view of Cairo from the Citadel. I’m standing between two of my classmates, Amy on the left and Beth on the right.

We were then driven back to Giza for lunch and a break at the hotel, before heading back out to Khan al Khalili, Cairo’s famous outdoor market. Sarah took me here on my first day in Cairo, but I was so jet lagged and still overcoming the culture shock that I didn’t really enjoy it. This time I really tried to get into the spirit of the market, exploring every corner, sniffing bins of spices and fingering scarves as if to see if they were made of real silk (though, to be honest, I have no idea how to differentiate between a true silk scarf and cotton). I had my eye on a particular orange and blue scarf that I’d seen at a few of the shops, so I went around to each one and asked their price, checking to see who had the lowest starting offer. My greeting of “masa’ alkheyr” always got a surprised smile, and hopefully a lower price. Every salesman I bargained with would insist that his was the best offer, special for me, because I spoke Arabic. I wound up buying the scarf for 30 pounds, after talking the salesman down from 75. I’m still not sure whether I got a good deal, but a friend who bought a similar scarf for his girlfriend paid 80, so I felt good about my haggling skills. Either way, I paid only 5 dollars for a scarf that would be 15 or 20 in the U.S. I was still buzzed on the atmosphere of the market and happily munched away at the grilled corn that Rania bought for all of us on the way back to the hotel.

 

Another blurry picture — my camera isn’t the greatest — of Khan al Khalili

Not everyone seemed to have a good time, however. A lot of people were overwhelmed by the chaos of Khan al Khalili and hated the aggressiveness of haggling. A lot of my friends said that by the time they had finished haggling, they didn’t even want the item they were buying any more. Maybe it’s because I had a good experience shopping — I was happy with the price I got, and didn’t feel pressured to pay more than I was willing — but I felt like haggling increased my desire to buy the scarf I was looking for. When I finally got a price I thought was good, I felt like I had really earned it. I left Khan eager to try shopping in a market again (I’m planning on going to Alex’s open air souq this weekend), while a lot of people said they wished Egypt was more like the U.S., where there’s a set price that everyone pays, where being different doesn’t make you a target for exploitation or harassment.

I’m still sorting out my feelings about Egypt. Sometimes it can be so, so hard to just get through a day here. I get tired of the stares, the cat calls, tired of drawing attention wherever I go. There are so many things I miss about home — salad, running outdoors, choosing my clothing every morning in accordance with the weather and not based on what I think will attract the least negative attention. Yes, having a set price in a store is nice. So is drinking tap water and having cars stop for you when you cross the street. But there are things about Egypt that just don’t exist in the U.S. I’ll talk about this more tomorrow, when I write a post about our second day in Cairo, but the more time I spend here the more I want to come back. I imagine myself living in Cairo, conversing in fluent — or at least proficient Arabic — with the people I encounter in the souq or on the train, knowing where to go and where to shop, memorizing the metro map and becoming so comfortable with the heat that I don’t even notice the omnipresent stream of sweat trickling down my back. It’s a long way off, but I like to think about it (I think my parents would probably be a little less enthusiastic).

Alright, I’m off to the Nadi for a swim at 7:00 tomorrow morning, so I need to head to bed. I’ll add photos to this post and write about the second day of the trip tomorrow evening.

Ma salama!

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