CAIRO – There’s no way around it — your first impression of a new city and country will be powerfully influenced by whatever you see in your first fifteen minutes of walking around. It’s important, then, that you choose the location of your hotel very carefully.
Mine was the Hotel President on the Nile River island of Zamalek, supposedly Cairo’s “Beverly Hills.” It was instantly obvious that I was no longer in Beirut. The streets were 95 percent quieter, although I heard blaring horns faintly in the distance from a busier part of the city on the mainland. There were trees there on Zamalek — trees! Beirut has almost no trees at all. The streets were twice as wide compared with what I was used to, and so were the sidewalks. Cairo — at least Zamalek in any case — was much more pedestrian friendly. I could actually walk around without having to constantly wade into treacherous streets to dodge dumpsters, electricity polls, and rudely parked cars that Beirutis seem determined to throw up in the paths of anyone who dares walk around.
A vaguely vegetable smell, presumably from the Nile, coated the air like a thin slime. I later found out it came from the lush Nile delta where farmers were burning crop waste in the fields. That explained why it smelled neither rotten nor foul. The city was enveloped in a dense fog-like haze, partly from automobile pollution, but also from the burning. It gave my sleepy Zamalek neighborhood a surreal ghostly pallor that only added to the dislocation I always feel when arriving in a new city in a new country for the first time.
Foreign embassies were all over the island, most of them right next to each other. They were the former mansions of rich Cairenes, and they truly were glorious homes from around the turn of the last century.
Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized their property, though, and most residents of the island have been living in apartment buildings (most of them ordinary and uninspiring) ever since.
I walked along Mantazan Street on the bank of the Nile. The river was not nearly as wide as I imagined it would be, at least not as it wrapped itself around Zamalek. Two commercial pleasure boats — one lit up in neon, and both playing Arabic music too loudly — passed each other on the otherwise dark and quiet waters. International hotels skycrapered behind them.
Every single last person I passed on the streets was a man, though for what it’s worth I did go for my first walk around midnight. Cairo is twenty times larger than Beirut, but it is two or even three orders of magnitude more conservative. I felt like I was walking around a gigantic North African village, not an upper-class neighborhood in the Arab world’s New York City.
I was surprised that Zamalek was considered upper-class. It didn’t look like it or feel like it to me. The sidewalks were crumbling. Almost every apartment building, whether ugly and modern or lovely and Victorian, was coated in layers of soot and grime. Many parked cars had been idle so long on the side of the road they looked like they were covered in volcanic ash. The leaves on the trees were covered in dust. Only the embassies were clean and well-maintained.
I wouldn’t describe Zamalek as ugly. It wasn’t. It was just dour on the outside. Inside was different. I could see through windows into the living rooms of some apartments in the beautiful old buildings, and I envied the people who lived there. You can’t feel sorry for someone who has high ceilings, color-washed walls, wedding cake moldings, and chandeliers in their living room. My house in the States is not as nice as many of these.
But the neighborhood outside wasn’t kept up. Civic pride did not appear to be something Egyptians valued. The same is certainly true in the middle class areas of Beirut, but it’s worse in Cairo even among the elite, and Cairo didn’t have to rebuild after a war.
When travel writer Douglas Kennedy visited Alexandria in the 1980s he met renowned Egyptian painter Sarwat el Bahr who explained a key Egyptian concept to him. “Do you know why America does not understand Egypt? Because they do not understand the meaning of the word Maaleesh. In English, Maaleesh means ‘doesn’t matter,’ and it is the one word you need to understand Egypt. In America everything is now, now, now – make the money now, make the career now. But in Egypt, everybody believes in life after death, so everything in life is Maaleesh.”
That’s how much of Zamalek looked and felt to me. It was no “Beverly Hills of Cairo.” There was just something tired and resigned about the place, like a mildly depressed person who doesn’t feel like getting out of bed at 11:00 in the morning. Zamalek disappointed — considering what it was supposed to be like — and I went back to my hotel and picked up my copy of Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a British Arabist expat who lives in Yemen.
Few visitors have liked Cairo on first sight. “Uff!” exclaimed an eight-century caliph, “She is the mother of stenches!” Later, a geographer wondered why anyone should have wanted to build a city “between a putrid and mephitic river, the corrupt effluvia of which cause disease and rot food, and a dry and barren mountain range devoid of greenery.” The ground teemed with rats, scorpions, fleas, and bugs, the air with miasmas. In Cairo Symon Semeon buried his companion Brother Hugo, who had succumbed to an attack of dysentery and fever “caused by a north wind.” My guidebook, compiled a century after I.B.’s visit, was disturbingly frank about the dangers of living in a polluted high-rise city where light and air rarely penetrate the dark alleyways. Its author, al-Maqrizi, warned that “the traveler approaching Cairo sees before him a depressing black wall beneath a dust-laden sky, from which sight his soul shrinks and flees away.”
What I saw wasn’t nearly as bad as all that. And the next day, when I found 26 of July Street and the streets adjacent to it, I changed my mind about Zamalek. (I later changed my mind again and again about not only Zamalek, but all of Cairo.)
26 of July had an elevated freeway that ran right over the top if it, giving the street a dark Blade Runner-esque feel. That may sound like a complaint, but somehow it worked. It reminded me a bit of Chicago, a city I love dearly and wish I could visit more often. You can barely see the sky from the sidewalk, but the street is brilliantly lit up at night. All the usual neighborhood goods are for sale: shoes, watches, clothing, glasses, pharmaceuticals, snacks, and so on.
While most of the street was painfully ordinary, it did have its moments.
I found a terrific Italian restaurant called Maison Thomas. The sign in the window said “Le Caire Fondee en 1922,” decades before Nasser drove all the non-Arabs out of Egypt in his Arab Nationalist “revolution” from above. Maison Thomas, unlike so much of Cairo and even the quieter back streets of Zamalek, felt truly modern. Its patrons were well-dressed, most of them more so than I was. The waiters and waitresses dressed sharply in black and white. Women and men — and I couldn’t tell if they were single or married — went there on dates. None of the women wore the hijab, the veil, or the abaya. Almost everyone seemed to be in a good mood, and almost everyone smoked imported cigarettes rather than Egypt’s crappy brand Cleopatra. My charming and disarming waiter seemed like the happiest man alive, as if nothing in the known universe pleased him more than bringing me a pizza and a 7-Up. (I should add, for the sake of those who have a hard time jettisoning rigid Islamic caricatures from their heads, that pork — real non-halal pig meat — was available at this restaurant. See here for more about that.)
A first class bookstore across the street called Diwa carried some of the most sophisticated titles from the West as well as from the Middle East. A whole shelf was devoted to Arabic literature translated into English and published in beautiful eye-catching trade paperback editions. Many of the original English titles were among the finest works of literature the West has ever produced. In the history and current events section I found books by Edward Said, David Frum, Thomas Friedman, and Bernard Lewis. (No Salman Rushdie, alas.)
Down the street and around the corners I passed antique stores selling the most exquisite furnishings collected from multiple centuries and civilizations. Gold and silver jewelry was ubiquitous. Several stores sold Christmas lights and trees — although most were made out of plastic. I found a Korean restaurant called, simply, “Korean Restaurant.” Fantastically expensive clothing stores were offset with a “Timberland” store for the middle class. Most of these stores were above apartment buildings, many of which were English and Victorian.
Egyptians were more formal and polite with me than Lebanese. Almost everyone called me “sir,” which made me feel like a fraud when I was bumming around in jeans and a t-shirt. I enjoy being called “sir” when I’m dressed up and sipping French wine in a dark and exclusive piano bar in Beirut. But at a coffeeshop or corner grocery it’s really not necessary.
The nice thing about it, though, was that it politely concealed Egypt’s rampant anti-Americanism. Europeans who hate America often want you to know it, and some aren’t bashful about making it personal. Egyptians, like Arabs generally, are way too polite and hospitable to get nasty about it. I believe, although I could be mistaken, that anti-Americanism is stronger in Egypt than in any of the other Arab countries I’ve been to. Among other things we can blame our client-state “pal” Hosni Mubarak, our corrosive relationship with his military dictatorship, and his deranged state-run media machine for that. Hostility to the United States is definitely stronger in Egypt than it is in Lebanon. Yet Egyptians are kinder, gentler, and sweeter somehow. Lebanese, though I love them, are French by comparison.