Michael Totten

Arrival in Egypt

Many thanks to Lebanon.Profile for substitute blogging while my Internet access and free time to write were lacking. Be sure to bookmark and blogroll his Lebanese Political Journal if you enjoyed reading his comments here. I have time to write about Egypt properly now, so we’ll start at the beginning.

CAIRO – I love flying in and out of Beirut. I’ve done it several times now, always at night. The view from the plane is spectacular. Lebanon is small — less than 50 miles wide and less than 100 miles long. The coast and the western side of the mountains are almost totally urbanized. You can see that coastal and mountain geography defined sharply in the night as though the country were rendered on a gigantic three-dimensional Light-Bright. Be sure to book a window seat when you come here.
After flying over the dark waters of Mediterranean for forty minutes or so, I was over Africa looking down on the Nile delta. They say it is shockingly green down there, so green it is almost black. What I saw was different. Unlike the shimmering electrified Lebanese coast, the whole earth was dimly illuminated. From 10,000 feet it looked as though a white pillow case had been thrown over a tangled coil of Christmas lights. I could see perhaps 100 villages at all once, revealed as somewhat more brightly-lit smudges evenly spaced like squares on a quilt.
Fifteen minutes later Cairo appeared in its much brighter chaos, a sprawling disorganized amoeba of twinkling stars. Dozens of towers lit up with green bands rose above the swirling mass of white and yellow lights. Presumably these towers were mosque minarets, but I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t seen green-banded mosque lights at night anywhere else. What else, though, would they have been? Green is the holy color of Islam, and Egypt is almost 90 percent Sunni Muslim.
The airport was sleek and modern, better and in nicer condition than many airports in the West. It made Egypt look grand and important. The people, though, were another story. The overwhelming majority were men, and as many as half wore dingy coats and ties with a lot of browns, yellows, and greens. No one who lives in Beirut would dare dress like that. Beirutis are as fashionable as Italians. Stepping into Cairo from there was a trip into Retroville.
The line at the Passport Control booth moved achingly slowly. I sighed.
“Welcome to Cairo,” said a pasty-white bespectacled European standing behind me.
“You have been here before,” I said.
“I live here,” he said. I was pretty sure from his accent that he was German.
“Things move slowly in Beirut, too,” I said. “I have an apartment there.”
“Cairo is nothing like Beirut,” he said. “Egypt is much slower, much poorer, and much more bureaucratic. These boys,” he meant the passport control agents, “are not very well educated. They have a hard time keying Latin letters into the computer. I would move to Beirut in a minute if I could.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“Five long years,” he said. “I am an engineer and a German.”
As I hauled my luggage out the front door the usual phalanx of taxi drivers descended on me.
“You need a taxi!”
Yes, I needed a taxi.
“You can drive me to Zamalek,” I said to the driver nearest to me, “for ten dollars.”
“You won’t do it for twelve?” he said.
“Sure, I’ll do it for twelve.”
As he took me into the city I felt I was approaching the center of an important and powerful capital. You don’t get that sense in Beirut at all. Beirut, in terms of population, is Portland, Oregon. Cairo is bigger than New York City.
Apartment towers followed the freeway and spread for miles in each direction away from it. Most of them were blocky and grubby, not unlike some of those in the Bronx and outer Paris beyond the Periferique. They reminded me of the worst in southern Beirut on the way to the airport, only bigger. That wasn’t all I saw, though. Brilliantly and masterfully illuminated architectural set-pieces — sometimes mosques with soaring minarets, sometimes mid-century Coptic Christian churches, other times glorious Egyptian palaces and villas, including President Mubarak’s — promised an exciting city to come.
One street of shops even along the airport highway was clearly set up for the wealthy and upwardly mobile. I don’t have the kind of money to spend at some of those places, and I could tell that much from the car. The Egyptian economy is moribund — even downright Latin American — but somebody there was doing okay.
The buildings kept getting taller and older and I approached the center. Cairo suddenly became an architectural wonderland, a gigantic outdoor museum for Islamic, Ottoman, and Levantine urban sculptures. There were no bullet-pocked or mortar-shattered towers like there are in Beirut. But almost every single last building needed major renovation, or at least a paint job. Cairo did not appear to be in as bad a shape as Castro-ruined Havana, but it was no Paris either. It was a grand city. I could see that that from the car. But it needed millions, if not billions, of dollars set aside for upkeep and repair. I could see that from the car, too, and I could see it at night.
In the lobby at the check-in desk at my hotel was a sign from the Ministry of Tourism. The law stated that “all bills must be settled with foreign currency or credit cards.” It didn’t specify which foreign currency. Presumably they wouldn’t take money from Colonel Ghaddafi’s mad outdoor Libyan laboratory next door. But “anything but our own!” is more or less what the sign said. It did not inspire confidence in the economy.
It was late, and I didn’t have time to find hunt around for a restaurant. So I ordered food at La Terrase near the top floor of my hotel. La Terrase advertised itself as one of the finest gourmet restaurants in Cairo. I dearly hoped that wasn’t true, that it was merely overblown self-promotion. The décor, if it could be called that, was only one step above that of Embers, the chain of corporate family restaurants in the American Midwest. It was utterly non-descript, and I was the only diner. I ordered the steak au poive with French fries. The meat was greasy and stringy. The sauce was off. I didn’t get fries, I got rice. That would have been fine, but the rice was soggy and overcooked. There were no greens on my plate, not even a sprig of parsley to throw away.
My room had a balcony on the twelfth floor overlooking the Nile and the sprawling urban behemoth beyond. Just across the river was a mosque minaret. Sure enough, it was lit up in green.
Green Mosque on Nile.jpg
More people live in Cairo than live in Lebanon and Syria combined. I know Beirut very well. I cannot get lost there. Standing on my balcony, though, I felt like I would always be one wrong turn away from being lost forever in Cairo.