Monday, July 9, 2012

Cairo, I love you (al-Qahirah, b7abik)

By: Jill Ricotta

Downtown Cairo

Cairo is not one of those cities over which people constantly swoon. It's no New York, London, Paris or Rome, center-stage for romantic films or novels. It's not like Marrakech, famed for its exotic sensibilities, or Beirut the party capital of the Middle East. It's not Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, or Dubai, with its modernity and massive shopping malls. More often that not people complain about
this city.

"Cairo is such a beast, a monster."
"Cairo is so dirty and polluted."
"Cairo has no nightlife."
"God, Cairo is exhausting and gross."
"There's garbage all over the streets."
"This smog is ridiculous."
"Who could live here? This city is crazy!"

Tourists pass through the Egyptian capital in just a day: a quick stop at the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum, perhaps the Khan al-Khalili market, and then off to Alexandria, Luxor, or Sharm al-Sheikh for a more glamourous vacation.

Even for those who study Arabic and Arab culture, Cairo can be a means to an end, a stop on the journey to the area one actually wants to study: the Gulf, Bilad al-Sham (Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan), or North Africa. Before the revolution in 2011, it was just one of the safest places to go and learn Arabic when your parents forbade you from going to Palestine. Besides, Egyptian is the most spoken dialect and Cairo is the biggest Arab city, which is in the most populous Arab country, and thus a visit is pretty much obligatory at some point in one's Arabic career.

So, I am not too surprised when people respond with disgust (sometimes horror) when I brag about Cairo. Confusion is another popular reaction. Yet none of this has changed how I feel about my favorite city.

My little love affair started in the summer of 2010. I had been determined to make my way to Egypt and spent hours that January looking for some sort of summer program that would get me there. After begging my parents for weeks, they finally gave in, and by June I was sitting on a plane from JFK to Cairo. In a strange state of numbness, I was factually aware that I was on my way to Egypt but not emotionally. Then I arrived on one of the hottest days on record, and the heat hit me like a sack of rocks. Soon I was sweating in a cab, sure that my driver was suicidal as he swerved through traffic, honking his horn, blaring the radio. That numbness was sucked out of me in a matter of minutes. I vaguely remember seeing huge posters of Hosni Mubarak's face plastered on all sorts of buildings. Half an hour later I stumbled out of the cab, into a hotel in Zamalek, one of the "nice" parts of town, although you couldn't convince me of that at the time. I spent the first 24 hours sleeping, ordering Pizza Hut (at least I knew what it was), venturing out once only to run back into the safety of my air conditioned room. It was all just too overwhelming.

The next day I met up with a friend in the now infamous Tahrir Square, and was forced to come to grips with the city. I was completely ripped off by a taxi driver, who was acutely aware that my Arabic was lacking. Terrified and obviously lost, I was ripped off again by another Egyptian within a few hours. Fear struck again as I made my way up to my program's office, in an elevator that could have auditioned for the Tower of Terror ride in Disney World.

But soon I got the hang of the city, and found my routine. A couple days a week I would study Egyptian Arabic and teach English with a local NGO, but I really spent most of the time exploring the city. I stopped paying attention to the dirt and pollution or how sweaty I was, or even the cockroaches. I ignored all the travel books that told me to beware of street food, became a huge fan of a local drink known as sobia and befriended the guy at the juice shop around the corner. My friends and I feasted on Cairene food: hot fresh falafel before class, fatir at night and koushary during the day. In the evenings we listened to Oum Kathoum on the radio with the locals and finally understood why she is the queen of Arabic music. We ditched taxis in favor of the clean, organized and simple metro system, where a one-way ticket was roughly 18 American cents, bouncing from one section of the city to another.

The Mohammed Ali mosque at night, during a concert

We also learned that Cairo comes alive at night during the summers. Everyone is out enjoying the cooler temperatures, usually sitting at cafés, smoking sheesha (water pipe) or sipping tea, riding falukkas (little boats) down the Nile, so we followed suit. I got a crash course in soccer (sorry - football) when we sat at bars watching the World Cup games, drinking beers with some less-than-religous Egyptians. My friends and I exchanged stories and slang with our Egyptian friends and gained the kind of cultural insight that just doesn't exist in books and journal articles. Soon I too hated the police and secretly hoped for the fall of Mubarak, while learning more lighthearted things, like that anybody can walk into a wedding party in Egypt (give it a try - it's too fun).

I only spent a month and a half in this city, yet I loved it all the same. The absolute chaos gave way to calm evenings spent in the stunningly beautiful Al-Azhar park. Meanwhile, I discovered how friendly and hilarious Egyptians are, always poking fun at themselves or others. Seriously though, if you hear an Arab tell a joke, it probably originated in Cairo. My confidence in my Egyptian Arabic grew and I began barking orders at taxi drivers, who took one look at my blonde hair and decided to drive around in circles to drive up the meter. My month and a half went by much too fast and finally I dragged myself to the airport to head back to the States.

Looking back on it, I could not have picked a better place to start off my travels in the Middle East. Cairo (and its residents) has something other cities simply don't: a whole lot of character. It truly is the capital of the Arab world and anybody that tells you different is confused at best. Not even Damascus can match the cultural powerhouse that is Cairo. From the beautiful and historically important mosques to the man selling you pumpkin seeds in Tahrir Square, Cairo has a soul that just can't be matched. Go ahead, try and find its equal, I dare you. The commotion that scares off tourists is exactly what makes that city so much fun, it's like a roller coaster you're riding with 22 million other people.

Since the day I left, I have been plotting ways to get back to Cairo. Unfortunately the violence since the revolution has made return trips difficult. In the meantime, I have lived in Tunisia and Morocco, traveled in France and am currently packing my bags for Israel/Palestine. And although these places have all been truly amazing, nothing seems to beat that crazy city in Egypt. So for anyone that thinks Cairo is just a dirty, grimy city, I challenge you to look again and perhaps spend some time riding down the Nile in a falukka or smoking sheesha in a café instead of picking apart the little details that don't really matter anyways. Before you know it you'll be singing its praises too.

View of the city from the pyramids.

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