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


Deroy Murdock

Downtown Cairo is full of feral cats. They slink about all over the place. The only good news here is that these wild urban felines likely keep the rat population on its toes . . . or down the cats’ throats. Every calico has its silver lining.

But enough about dogs and cats.

I discover that chicken shawarma is incredibly delicious, especially as part of a meal I enjoy with Fawzy. We visit Kazaz (38 Sabry Abou Alam Street), where we savor a large serving of this Arab specialty, accompanied by stewed vegetables, yellow rice, and soup with noodles that resemble grains of rice. A flan-like creme caramel follows. We each wash down this superb late lunch with soft drinks and a bottle of water. (Alcohol does not seem on offer.) Grand total: about ten Yankee dollars.

Kazaz is a 30-second walk from the still-functioning, seemingly untouched Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. Candles burn slowly within this Armenian Apostolic church, as a young devotee distributes religious leaflets among its pews. Perhaps 100 feet from the cross atop St. Gregory’s conical dome, a crescent adorns the minaret of the Al-Rahma Mosque, right next door. Egyptian Christians have suffered mightily under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this city block seems to be an ecumenical oasis.

Monday night — after an outstanding and incredibly reasonable dinner of asparagus soup, filet mignon, and Egyptian red wine (for real) at The Grill at the Intercontinental Semiramis Hotel — I decide to stroll across the Qasr-al-Nil Bridge. The moment I pass the hotel’s front door, the very first thing I see is the business end of a sledgehammer. Attached to its long handle, it rests peacefully upon the shoulder of a municipal worker out doing repairs.

The bridge is filled from one end to the other with cars (no surprise), but also pedestrians and even diners. The former includes a family that stands on one part of the bridge’s sidewalk, evidently celebrating a young bride’s wedding, judging by her white gown. The latter occupy plastic seats in which they chomp on nuts, candies, and roasted meats. They also drink coffee, tea, and other beverages. All of this is dispensed by informal street chefs who line nearly every square foot on either side of the bridge. The chairs are arranged casually near the vendors, each of whom stakes out an adjacent part of the bridge as his own small territory. If you want a seat, you would be wise to buy at least a little of whatever he’s heating up.

A few yards away, narrow boats line up along slips attached to the Nile’s east bank. Running north at least to the October 6 Bridge, these small vessels feature on-board speakers that blast Middle Eastern music and Arabic techno. After their crews loosen their moorings, these boats cruise slowly up and down this urban section of the Nile and entertain the locals as well as the few tourists who hear the headlines about Egypt but show up anyway. Women twirl on the dance floors of these boats, never mind the coverings on most of their Muslim heads.

From the shore, these boats are enchanting. They feature dragons, eagles, and other creatures crafted in neon bulbs, LED strips, and other festive lights from bow to stern. Their music roars on with abandon. Some of them blast fireworks from their decks into the skies above the mighty river. This rages on, during school nights, until about 3:00 a.m.

Meanwhile, in downtown Cairo, numerous street lamps are kaput, as are plenty of traffic signals. “They’re just decorative,” Fawzy laughs. Consequently, cars in some places flow in every direction at once, barely restrained by red and green lights.