The International Writers Magazine
World Travel

Cairo Revisited
Tariq Elkashef

I 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 didn’t really know Cairo. Now 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 Africa’s 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 Egypt’s 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 Cairo’s “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.

Most 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 it’s 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 it’s hard to believe you have never made this yourself.
Cairo is littered with literally thousands of these Kosheri dens who’s 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 merrily.
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 don’t have what you’re looking for, they’ll 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 you’ll 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. You’ll be left alone by the shop keepers who don’t 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 they’re best clobber, cheerfully toking on the apple scented pipes.
Located on an island in the Nile, Zamalek is home to arguably Egypt’s best football team, and some of Cairo’s 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. It’s 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 The Online Egypt Guide for the Independent Traveller"

More World Travel here


© Hackwriters 1999-2006 all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy - no liability accepted by or affiliates.