Walk Like an Egyptian
Cairo’s streets pulsate with intoxicating chaos.


Deroy Murdock

I did encounter two liquor stores downtown. They are spartan and seem to have seen better days. However, anyone wishing to purchase beer or spirits can find them there, notwithstanding koranic verses against alcohol.

Cairo’s stores are packed with all manner of unusual, colorful merchandise. In preparation for Ramadan, Egypt’s Muslims have stocked up on items that roughly parallel those that Americans might buy before Christmas. Bright, shiny brass lanterns are for sale. They fill Muslim homes at Ramadan, much as Christmas trees proliferate in America every December. One downtown bakery is absolutely stuffed with shoppers picking up cakes and cookies for immediate use, as well as boxes of meshmeshya, a thick jellied-apricot product from Syria. This Ramadan treat, a little like gingerbread at Yuletide, is easy to find just now. It will become scarce after August 7, when Ramadan ends.

Just outside such brick-and-mortar shops, street vendors inhabit Cairo’s pavement in a way that would convulse U.S. tax and zoning officials. Scarves, jewelry, books, electronic goods, coat hangers, gift wrap, sponges, grapes — you name it. These products — and many, many more — are for sale on seemingly every sidewalk.

All photos: Deroy Murdock

Just past an iridescent, open-air fruit market, another amazing tableau emerges: Four young men zoom by, all riding the same motorcycle — built for one. Between balance and velocity, they make this look easy, until they nearly run down a woman who jumps out of a car, clad in her black burqa. (Those dehumanizing, misogynistic head-to-toe garments exist here, though they are not ubiquitous. Surprisingly, however, head-covering scarves are nearly universal). She runs swiftly into a restaurant. Just then, a man and his young son ride a Vespa the wrong way around a traffic circle.

Ms. Burqa soon scoots out of the restaurant, presumably with some take-out food. She leaps into the passenger seat of the red sports car from which she emerged barely a minute earlier. It speeds away. Less than ten seconds later, a motorcyclist rides into the circle, pops a wheelie, and dashes off with his front tire swiftly rotating in the evening air.

Approaching Tahrir Square once again, three Egyptian men smoke hookahs and chat quietly. Just above them stands proof of how people sometimes settle political scores around here. Concerned that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood was too sympathetic, a crowd set its Cairo bureau ablaze.

This act of arson echoes the fire that engulfed and devoured Mubarak’s National Democratic–party headquarters on January 29, 2011. Its charred husk still stands, abandoned, between the Nile and the Egyptian Museum.

A few feet away, yet another street vendor grills food alfresco. Just above the flames that lick at his meat, a cardboard face of Santa Claus looks on with a huge smile — in June. In a Muslim country. Why not?

Nearby, a boy about age ten plays with a highly photogenic German shepherd of roughly the same age (in dog years). While Islam is notorious for giving dogs the short end of the tossed stick, they do appear here and there in Cairo. Mohamed Fawzy tells me that dogs are OK to keep, as long as they stay outside. He says that many Muslims believe that allowing them in one’s home makes it hard for angels to enter.


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