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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Eygpt

The Heart of Cairo
Chris Wright
A journey into the largest city in Africa, without mention of the Pyramids.

A westerner arriving in Cairo International Airport may find their tired eyes opening just a little wider as their brain seeks out familiar points of reference, as brains are wont to do.

We all look for patterns and the familiar; this is something that our brains are good at. It’s how we solve puzzles, recognise faces, and make sense of the exotic and unknown. If these are skills you would like to hone, Egypt is somewhere you will certainly add to your wish list of destinations.

The country has been famously occupied, and thus influenced by, many cultures in its unfathomably long history, and it is both unsurprising and bewildering to see just how many cultural reference points can be found within minutes of emerging from a plane.

Good news for non-Arabic speaking visitors comes in the form of information and signage in English and often French as well as Modern Arabic. This helpful feature of the city is also Cairo’s first little joke; creating a deceptive sense of familiarity in what is a truly unique, always surprising and undoubtedly magnificent place.

Many people will point to Sharm el-Sheik or Hurgadah as today’s big draws to Egypt, and there is no denying the magnetism of the clear blue waters and white sands one can fall in love with there. Adventurous sun seekers can even visit Cairo on excursions from Sinai and the Red Sea coast, thus taking something from two quite different sides of the Egyptian experience.

However, spend some time in Cairo; stay in Cairo, and you will find a city which intertwines the very old and the very new together in a most elegant and complex tapestry, the strange beauty of which will engulf you as you experience it, and later weave itself into you after you have had time to sit back and process the experience.

Your first journey by taxi will serve as a brief but poignant lesson in the way that this city works. The wonderful theatrics of agreeing a price with your driver before getting into the car will provide you with a basis of knowledge in the ancient art of haggling, which you can use to great effect later in your visit. Once the car starts moving, though, you will feel your brain restarting that process of understanding I mentioned earlier.

The traffic in Cairo moves in a remarkable and mysterious dance, with manoeuvres seemingly executed using a fusion of telepathy and the artistic use of a car horn. In the same almost magical way that a flock of birds swoops and soars as one, the Cairo traffic seems to direct itself, and apparently without a cross word between drivers. It’s best for a foreigner not try to work out the rules here. It works, that’s all that matters. You get from one place to another unscathed, and your driver’s unflappable manner should serve as your anchor to calmness.

If your taxi ride takes you to Khan el Khalili market, you will find yourself welcomed with smiles and respect by the traders there, all highly-skilled hagglers and negotiators with whom you can engage in a little impromptu street theatre as you swap banter and jokes before agreeing, often now feeling like old friends, on a price. The variety of goods on offer is wide, and so is the range of prices.

The process is only so different from the way that western business is conducted because of its brevity, and even that can be found in western auction rooms and car dealerships. One forms relationships, feigns indifference, smiles and frowns, and all along the way prices are thrown into the air like juggling balls. The process can take but a minute, and in that time the price can come down by quite a margin if you hold your nerve and learn how to play the game.

This is how Cairo works. Visitors who stay within the pockets of westernisation will have a great time and encounter some of the finest hospitality and service found on the planet. It is those who step outside and immerse themselves in the culture, though, who will be able to say that they communed with Egypt. It is they who will find that they saw the familiar patterns and the slightly unfamiliar ways in which they appear. Moreover, it is they who will realise that Egypt’s national character is imbued with the kind of patient, good-humoured wisdom that only a nation with such a long and fascinating history can create.
Such a human discovery, and isn’t that what travel is all about?

© Chris Wright March 2009
chris at

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