Michael Totten

Old Cairo

Old Cairo Skyline.jpg
CAIRO — The Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak regime can only do so much damage to a thousand year-old city like Cairo without physically tearing it down. I wanted to see the oldest parts of the city, places where dreary human storage units didn’t make up the skyline. I also wanted to see Big Pharaoh again. So we met at my hotel and took the subway as near as we could to Khan Al-Khalili, the ancient souk turned tourist attraction, and also a nearby older market for locals inside the Fatimid walls of the old city.
We got off the subway a half-mile or so from our destination and walked through a concrete catastrophe of a neighborhood on the way. Most storefronts were either closed permanently or shut behind grimy metal gates that pulled down in front of the entrances like garage doors.
“Don’t eat anything from these guys,” Big Pharaoh said as he gestured to a man selling food spread out on a rickety outdoor table. “If you eat that, you’ll die.”
“I’ll die?” I said. “From what?”
“From a horrible disease.”
I’m sure he exaggerated, but I duly noted his warning.
“We’re coming up to the place where a bomb went off earlier this year,” he said. “Are you okay with that?”
“I live in Beirut,” I reminded him.
“Are you sure?” he said.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said and laughed. “It’s not going to explode again. Who planted it, anyway? Al Qaeda?”
“Some guy in an extremist organization. Don’t worry, everyone hates them.”
He complained about how squalid some parts of Cairo are now that once were beautiful, in particular one area where grubby derelict European-style architectural wonders were blanked out by an octopus of freeway on- and off-ramps. “May God damn Nasser in hell all over again!” he said.
“Plenty of countries built ugly crap like that after World War II,” I said. “It wasn’t just Nasser. I know what you mean, though. Even most Westerners have no idea how badly he ruined this place.”
“Some of them love charismatic dictators,” Big Pharaoh said. “Like Castro and Ghaddafi.”
“Ghaddafi is only charismatic if you’re outside Libya,” I said. “Inside he has all the charisma and charm of a serial killer.”
Nasser wasn’t as bad as the monster in Tripoli. No doubt about it: Egypt is in far better shape than Libya, at least culturally. Egypt has intellectuals. Egypt has art. Egypt has opera. Egypt has restaurants with menus. Egypt has people who can say what they want without being yanked from their beds in the night.
Here’s a suggestion for coffee mugs and tourist brochures: Egypt — Better than Libya!
We walked past an old mosque set fifteen feet below street level built by Sharf El-Din and his brother in 1317-1337 A.D. Just in front of the entrance was a de-facto courtyard of sorts created by the walls of the two buildings next to it on either side. The entrance was shut, and the lights set up to illuminate it were turned off. This mosque, unlike most, had no minarets.
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I walked down the stairs and tried to open the slender wooden doors just in case they were open. They weren’t. Just to the right of the entrance was a plaque identifying the mosque as Monument Number 176.
I had no idea there were so many. You can spend a hell of a lot of time gawking at extraordinarily well-preserved monuments if that’s what you’re looking for. Cairo suddenly seemed a better tourist attraction that I had so far given it credit for. The city as a whole is pretty shabby, but Beirut — which is in much better shape — is effectively only 150 years old. It lacks the sense of history and wonder that Cairo, dumpy as it is, can rightfully boast about.
Big Pharaoh and I continued walking toward the old market on a busted up sidewalk walled off from four lanes of traffic by a metal fence that looked like a five foot tall mile-long bicycle rack. Shuttered and boarded up storefronts eventually fell away and were replaced by brilliantly illuminated shops selling all manner of oriental art, jewelry, house wares, and textiles.
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On our left was an 800 year-old Shia mosque built by Al-Saleh Talai in 1160 A.D. (This one was Monument Number 116.) Marble Roman-style columns flanked the entrance below a classical Islamic arch. The doors of this mosque were made of tarnished hammered metal and looked original. It appeared to be in pristine condition, at least on the outside, for such an old building. I thought of an old saying about Europe and the United States, where Egypt can stand in for Europe. In Europe (and Egypt) 100 miles is a long way. In America 100 years is a long time.
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“You see those men in white robes and white hats?” Big Pharaoh said and pointed with his eyes toward two traditionally dressed men crossing the street. “They are Shias from India who moved here with Sadat’s permission to live next to the Fatimid mosques and take care of them.”
The Fatimids founded Cairo and built the oldest remnants in the historic center. Some parts of the ancient city walls still remain, along with an enormous metal door — impenetrable by medieval armies — at one of the gates.
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“Khan Al-Khalili is just up ahead,” Big Pharaoh said. “You will love it. It is very exotic.”
“Is it exotic to you?” I said.
“No,” he said. “But it will be exotic to you.”
I’ve spent enough time in Arab countries now that the exoticism is wearing off. But it’s not completely gone yet and it is always a pleasure to immerse myself in the grand souks and bazaars.
Khan Al-Khalili is exactly, precisely, what I always imagined the Middle East would look like before I came out here. Shopping — or buying things, I should say — doesn’t interest me much. But getting lost in the twisting narrow streets while gawking at gold, silver, hookahs, spices, jewelry, antiques, and dramatically colored bolts of cloth reminds me that I’m far from home and that I should savor my time while I can.
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Some of the hustling shopkeepers could be endearing and entertaining when they weren’t annoying.
“Welcome to my country!”
“How can I take your money from you?”
“I don’t cheat as much as the others!”
Not far from the souk is the Al-Azhar mosque and university, an enormous castle-like institution that is the largest and most prestigious Sunni Islamic university in the world.
“The blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the one who planned the first terrorist attack against the World Trade Center in New York, was a teacher here at this school,” he said.
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Behind the mosque were 500-year old houses. Many have been renovated and are now tourist attractions.
One house, built by the famous eye doctor Abdel Rahman Al-Harawi, has since been turned into a venue where musicians and poets often go to perform.
Big Pharaoh and I peaked inside the windows, but the lights were out and we couldn’t see anything. A security guard rounded a corner and asked what we were doing.
“Just looking,” I said. “It’s a beautiful old house.”
“Would you like to see inside?” the guard said. “I can turn the lights on and show you around.”
I looked at Big Pharaoh.
“Do you want to see?” he said. “I’ve never been in there.”
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s have a look.”
The guard opened the front door with a key on a ring and flipped the master switch on a panel in the wall. Dr. Harawi had obviously done very well for himself.
Beautifully carved wooden cabinets and storage chambers were built into the walls. Carpets were laid over gray stone. The hand-crafted wooden ceiling was raised so high you’d break your ass and get shipped to the hospital if you somehow managed to fall to the floor from all the way up there.
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A long dining room table reflected the walls like a mirror pool.
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The harem was possibly more beautiful than the salon. Windows were thickly screened with hand carved wooden lace. From there Dr. Harawi’s many wives could look down into the courtyard when he entertained his male guests.
“The doctor was one lucky bastard,” Big Pharaoh said. “Look at this house! And he had beautiful women from all over the world.”
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“I’ll never live in a house this grand, that’s for sure,” I said.
The guard showed us the bedroom. “This room saw a lot of sex from Dr. Harawi,” Big Pharaoh said.
A secret door behind one of the wooden cabinets took us up to the roof. Many of the mosques and houses visible from up there were older than the house. That meant the view from the roof isn’t much different now than it was in Dr. Harawi’s day. It looked otherworldly to my eyes, and I imagined it must to many Cairenes as well. The center of the city is so dramatically different from most of the purely functional and aesthetically brutal urban sprawl that characterizes most of Cairo today.
Old Cairo Skyline.jpg
This is the real Cairo,” Big Pharaoh said. “It is my favorite place in the city. I love reading about history, especially Islamic history. And this is the place where it all comes alive.”
We left Dr. Harawi’s house and set out looking for food. I saw small birds the size of my fist being roasted by a grizzled old man at a food cart.
“Do you know what those are?” Big Pharaoh said. They looked like tiny chickens.
“Nope,” I said.
“They’re pigeons,” he said.
Mmm. Winged rats.
“They are stuffed. The cooks stuff rice,” he said, and broke off laughing. “They stuff rice up its ass.”
“Do you want a kebab?” the cart owner asked. “A pigeon kebab?”
“No, thank you,” I said and walked on.
“We don’t waste food in Egypt,” Big Pharaoh said. “We eat every part of the cow here.” That seems to be the case almost everywhere in the world except in the U.S. and Canada. “We eat the brains, the testicles, and even the eyeballs. But I have never eaten an eyeball.” Every man has his limits. “And I never will.” He didn’t mention testicles one way or the other.
“The brains are delicious,” he said. “You would love it!”
Perhaps. But neither of us particularly wanted bovine noodle for dinner that night. So he took me instead to a restaurant called Egyptian Pancake near the entrance to Khan Al-Khalili.
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“This is the best pancake place in all of Egypt,” he said. I can’t vouch for that, but I will say the neighborhood was among the more bustling and vibrant places I had yet seen in the city.
Egyptian pancakes are more like big slabs of thick pita bread than the maple syrup breakfast fare you’ll find at Denny’s in the United States. I ordered mine stuffed with white cheese and tomatoes. Big Pharaoh ordered his stuff with beef. We ate at an outdoor table and talked about travel.
“I went to the Greek side of Cyprus when I was five,” he said.
“I didn’t like the Greek side of Cyprus,” I said. “The Turkish side is more interesting. The Greek side has no identity. It’s like a gigantic outdoor frat house for drunk British louts on a budget. It could be anywhere. If I flew all the way across the world just to go there I would be pissed.”
“I got lost on the beach,” he said. “I was five years old. I remember screaming for my mother, and of course I was screaming in Arabic. I went up to all these Greeks asking if they had seen my mother, tears streaming down my face, and none of them understood me. I remember thinking, well, I am going to spend the rest of my life here in Cyprus.”
“Obviously they found you,” I said.
“My father found me and I ran up to him and hugged him like crazy.”
‘Where else have you been?” I said.
“Bulgaria,” he said.
“I would love to visit Bulgaria,” I said.
“I went there when it was Communist,” he said and laughed. “Communist Bulgaria! It was bad. My father didn’t make as much money then as he does now. So when we wanted to go on vacation, all we could afford was a Communist country.”
We both thought that was funny. But, hey, I’d go to a Communist country. Why not? I went to Libya, for God’s sake, when I could have gone to Prague.
“Bulgaria is beautiful, though,” he said. “The mountains, the forests, amazing. We went to a place called Butterfly Island. It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. In the Spring the entire island is covered in butterflies.” He made sweeping gestures with both his arms. “I had not even heard of it until my family went there.”
I had not heard of it until he told me about it.
“What’s the best trip abroad you ever took?” I said.
“My best trip ever was to Los Angeles. I was in heaven! When my family came home and the plane touched down in Egypt, my sister wept.” He drew lines down his cheeks with his fingers. “She wept.”