EDITORS’ NOTE: The author visited Cairo from June 16 to 18, 2013. This piece reflects the conditions he found at that time, rather than the unpredictable events that continue to roil Egypt today.
Cairo – A wise man once said that time keeps everything from happening at once.
This rule does not apply in Egypt’s capital. The clocks keep ticking, yet everything here is going on RIGHT NOW! Even for a 25-year veteran of Manhattan Island, Cairo presents a Niagara of stimuli that makes Times Square feel like a Quaker meeting.
Even before the June 30 Revolution inspired the Egyptian army to excuse from power former president Mohamed Morsi and his Islamofascist Muslim Brotherhood government, Cairo was plenty thrilling indeed.
On Sunday, June 16, at 8:30 p.m., the scene at Cairo’s Opera Square is nearly beyond one man’s ability to absorb. The former Grand Continental Hotel is on fire. Smoke billows from the south side of this landmark, which held court here from about the 1880s until it was vacated and subsequently neglected in the 1970s. The adjacent block is black, perhaps because of this blaze, or maybe due to one of the brownouts that have defined the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign of error. Firefighters move equipment into and out of this pandemonium, as cops and civilians alike try their hands at directing traffic, with decidedly mixed results. Some cars have their lights on. Others navigate this traffic circle with their lights off — a very common and confounding practice here. How this saves energy in a gas-powered car exceeds my third-grade understanding of electrical engineering.
Meanwhile, white smoke pours from the former hotel, as flames start to peek through the windows. None of this seems to concern the firefighters terribly much. They move glacially and with little sense of purpose. They look as if they have shopped for groceries more intensely.
After five minutes of unhurried activity and few results, Mohamed Fawzy asks, “Are they going to put out the fire, or are they going to watch?” Fawzy, my independent tour guide, is well informed about Egypt’s history and current events and passionate about sharing his knowledge with his guests.
Amid dozens of piercing car horns, an imam’s low, solemn moan beckons Muslims to evening prayers. Adding to the bedlam, a young man steers his bike clockwise around the circle as traffic inches forward counterclockwise. Several large bread-delivery trays stay perfectly balanced upon his head as he weaves among the cars, cops, fire engines, and thickening smoke.
A statue of the late general and ruler Ibrahim Pasha (1789–1848) looks on in silence atop his horse. That’s about as much quietude as one will find here tonight, this side of the Sphinx.
Cairo’s skyline includes gray and beige poured-concrete structures in the Brutalist style beloved by socialists worldwide. (Egypt has had its share). Among them, one finds stately, if bedraggled, European-looking edifices. These mainly were erected by Ismail Pasha (1830–1895). This son of Ibrahim Pasha ruled Egypt from 1863 to 1879 and famously opened the Suez Canal in 1869. Educated in Paris, he returned home hoping to make Cairo more like the French capital. He had the power to implement this vision and, in places, succeeded, with many old buildings boasting features and flourishes that one might see along the Seine. More frequent maintenance in downtown Cairo would help fortify the architectural legacy of the man also known as Ismail the Magnificent.
Talaat Harb Square looks like a plaza on the Rive Gauche. French-style buildings, complete with neoclassical details atop stone facades, surround a statue of Harb (1867–1941), an economist and founder of Egypt Air, Misr Bank, and other major institutions. Cairo’s fascinating drivers swirl around Harb’s monument. Perhaps to protect it from the graffiti that maddeningly has marred many other local statues, this tribute in stone is swaddled completely in Saran Wrap, or its Egyptian equivalent.
Among these streets, circles, and sculptures, Cairo’s residents are outside, everywhere. They occupy sidewalks, side streets, and cafes, where they dine, chat, smoke hookahs, and drink coffee, seemingly down every alley and around every corner. Virtually every square inch of walkway is filled with people enjoying alfresco experiences. In some spots, right downtown, restaurant owners have set up HDTVs, which they hotwire to the bases of street lamps. They prop the screens atop chairs or boxes, and patrons watch soccer matches and sip largely non-alcoholic beverages.
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.
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.
Many Egyptian drivers also have an inexplicable habit of traveling at night with their lights off. Pedestrians, thus, cross streets both swiftly and gingerly. As long as one is alert to the point of hypersensitivity, one can leave the Qasr-al-Nil Bridge, for example, by jumping out of the way before a pair of unlit motorcycles bears down uncomfortably close and from seemingly nowhere. A nearby sidewalk on the riverfront Nile Corniche seems safer — until one young cyclist obliviously zips along the shadowy asphalt at high speed while foolishly studying his mobile phone.
After all of this, a little quietude might be welcome. If so, look no further than the Pyramids at Giza. They truly are as huge and stunning as one expects, unlike many major landmarks (Red Square comes to mind) that are impressive, but not quite awe-inspiring in person. One is positively dwarfed while thinking, “My God! I’m really here.” Mercifully, the massive cut stones that compose, respectively, the three Pyramids of Cheops, Khafre, and Menkaure are as silent as the nearby Sphinx. There is little human competition for the tranquility of the searing sunshine and a slight, hot breeze across the blistering sands. One positive externality of Egypt’s unfortunate tourism slowdown is that widely dispersed visitors can marvel contemplatively at the sole survivor among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Surprisingly, the pyramids no longer are alone among the dunes, far from downtown Cairo. Urbanization has brought modernity and antiquity face to face. In fact, shops, apartments, and even an OiLibya service station line the streets of Giza, just outside the pyramids’ fenced-off complex. While this slightly dampens the mystery of the experience, seeing these enormous tombs of the pharaohs up close is a momentous privilege, and well worth a visit to these very special acres — and the far louder, zanier city that pulsates a short drive away.
— Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service, and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.