The International Writers Magazine: World
used to think Cairo was a dump. A noisy, dusty, congested cesspit;
where the touts, the traffic, and the tower blocks blend into
one seething unremarkable mass around the river Nile. Those were
the days when I didnt really know Cairo.
I go there every year. To relax, to contemplate, and to surround
myself with history. To walk along the banks of the Nile, photograph
its many mosques, admire the night time skyline, and to absorb
the unmistakable buzz of Africas largest city.
Although there are
some elements of truth to my early objections. It is over populated
(17million people) and the number of dent ridden, clapped out cars that
occupy the streets often reduce traffic to a standstill. Everything
is dusty, and what should take just five minutes sir, will
for no apparent reason, take much, much longer. The poverty is obvious,
and ugly tower blocks are constantly springing up to accommodate Egypts
ever increasing population. With one million news mouths to feed every
year, and no sign of slowing down, the city grows and the desert shrinks
as the government desperately try to keep up.
Most tourists who pass through this huge city make a B-line straight
for the Giza plateau. Home of course to the great Pyramid, not to mention
several thousand post card vendors, men touting camels, pizza hut and
KFC. And, having taken in this architectural feet that defies the imagination,
the Egyptian museum is next on any classical itinerary. Together perhaps
with a brief shopping/toilet stop at one of the many papyrus institutes,
this completes the common perception of Cairos must see
sights. And indeed, they should not be missed. But if you get passed
these, and take the time to look a little harder, this clumsy giant
of a city, will touch your heart.
visitors to Egypt will allocate one or two days in Cairo. After
that, the majority will head south to Luxor (the former capital
of the pharonic world) or the more adventurous may head east to
Sinai, in search of the best hiking or diving spots. But if you
find yourself with a free afternoon in Cairo and you have already
visited the Giza plateau and the museum, this is how you should
spend your time.
First find some
lunch, something Egyption. A good falafel sandwich alone can be a reason
enough to visit this part of the world. Unlike its neighbours,
who use chick peas, the Egyptian falafel is made from broad beans, pressed
into small round balls and deep fried. Put into pita bread and add a
little salad and tahini, and you have you have yourself a very tastey
lunch for about 20pence (45 cents). Try the "Falfella" chain,
which has a good reputation, and makes tasty sandwhiches which are easy
on our western stomachs, A lesser known, and more filling snack is Kosheri.
A vegetarians complete delight. Consecutive layers of pasta, rice,
noodles, lentils, macaroni, and chickpeas are served in a round metal
dish with a tomato sauce, chilli and lemon. Simple, healthy, and very,
very tasty, at first its hard to believe you have never made this
Cairo is littered with literally thousands of these Kosheri dens whos
menu has just three choices, small, medium, or large. Whilst most tour
groups find an upmarket air conditioned restaurant in which to dine,
I find sitting amongst the locals at the often communal tables is a
real treat, and warm smiles are exchanged as we scoff down our food
Another sensory treat, is the market of Kanal Kallili. Here you can
find anything from spices to jewellery to belly dancing costumes, to
stuffed rabbits smoking sheesha pipes. They say if they dont have
what youre looking for, theyll find somebody that does.
And if you like to buy tatt, then this is definitely the
place. Glittery key rings, false moustaches, and arab head dresses are
dangled in front of you as you make your way through the crowded streets.
But cross the bridge and head away from the mosque and youll find
yourself in the market of old Islamic Cairo, a section less commonly
visited by the western tourist. The stalls sell nothing special, fabrics,
cloths and underwear, but here you can catch a glimpse of real Egyptians
going about their business. Youll be left alone by the shop keepers
who dont speak English, and be transported back in time, free
to wander and enjoy the surrounding Islamic architecture.
The area is also home to many shisha cafes, the traditional perfumed
tobacco smoked through elaborately decorated water pipes. Every street
in Cairo has at least one and in recent years, they have become the
trendy hangout of the young. On Saturday nights, young men and women
will gather round the tables wearing theyre best clobber, cheerfully
toking on the apple scented pipes.
Located on an island in the Nile, Zamalek is home to arguably Egypts
best football team, and some of Cairos best restaurants and bars.
It's an affluent area, home to many middle class Egyptians, foreign
students, and ex pats. But If you want to sample the modern day Cairovian
nightlife this is the place to do it. Walk off the dusty streets, through
a doorway and you can sip a cocktail or two in a bar that wouldn't be
out of place in London or New York. Or alternatively, if you want to
buy western style clothes at non-western style prices, you can restock
your wardrobe here for a fraction of the price of home. Its a
great place to chill out and spend an evening, but as dusk falls there
is only one place I want to be.
The 6th October bridge hangs low over the Nile and connects downtown
Cairo with Zamalek. During the day this bridge is as noisy and congested
as any other duel carriage way in town, but by night it is positively
atmospheric. It is from this bridge that one can really begin to take
it all in. As the sun drops somewhere over the western desert and lights
come on all around you, the Nile flows like a huge silent snake beneath
you, reflecting a city skyline that ranks with London or Istanbul. And
as you absorb this visual feast, the call to prayer begins in a mosque
quietly in the distance, and then leaps across the city from mosque
to mosque, from minaret to minaret. Until it too, is all around you,
drowning out the sound of cars, and playing like an orchestra as you
watch the lights dance around Africas largest city, the stars above
and their reflection in the awesome river below.
© Tariq El Kashef April 2006
"Tariq El kashef is the author and editor of www.alternativeegypt.com.
The Online Egypt Guide for the Independent Traveller"
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