When visiting a new place, well-travelled people often dissect every little thing, and probe their memory to determine when and where the same was last experienced. Similarities give security, which in turn gives comfort. But comparisons also dilute the exceptionality of the experience, reducing it to a mere addendum.
This happened to me when I landed in Cairo. Cairo is a sensory overload. Its urban sprawl, noises, smells, overwhelming chaos, all reminded me of a place where I once used to live: Delhi. However, I had to dissociate myself from my past impressions if I were to truly enjoy this megacity. So, for once, I forgot where I came from. I stepped afresh into the hot air of Cairo, and into its ever-present pandemonium.
I hailed a taxi at the airport to the hotel. “You’re in safe hands,” the driver said without being prompted. He was attempting to comfort a foreigner to a country that has seen the number of inbound tourists decline by half since the Arab Spring (2011). An air of uncertainty combined with incessant terrorist attacks has kept tourists at bay.
It was late evening. We inched through the city traffic, drowned in meaningless honking. “In Cairo, we talk to each other by honking,” the driver, Ahmed, said in broken English. “Cairo is all about sound. The sound from traffic, the sound of the call to prayer, the sound of street sellers yelling about their goods.”
“The sound from the revolution,” I added.
“Yes. That’s the loudest.”
I wondered whether the Arab Spring had changed his life. “All revolutions do is give false hope, and that too for a short while. My father didn’t want it. He wanted things to remain as they were. I guess he was right,” Ahmed said, before adding, “Do you want to see Tahrir Square?”
I agreed. We reached the place half an hour later. It was an unremarkable square, and would have gone unnoticed had Ahmed not pointed it out to me. But history was made here. Some 1,00,000 people had risked their lives and gathered here to protest, fighting for change. Change did come, but Ahmed felt it was only notional. A while later, we drove past what was once Hosni Mubarak’s palace. Interestingly, it seemed to be the quietest place in Cairo at that hour.
It was almost midnight by the time I checked into my hotel. I decided to retain Ahmed for another day. I had enjoyed his intelligent observations and unfailing cheerfulness.
Next morning, I found him waiting outside wearing his trademark smile. He commuted daily from another town, two hours outside Cairo. “Some four million people do that every day. Cairo becomes a city of 26 million during the day,” he explained.
The Giza pyramid complex is only 30 minutes from Cairo, but I left that for later and chose to explore the capital that day. We drove past the Nile. This great river—its shores lined with feluccas—appeared calm despite all the disturbances around. For millennia, the Nile has seen life thrive and vanish, and witnessed many a revolution. Nothing has been able to disturb its peace.
I made a mental note to revisit the river later in the day, and headed to the city centre. Ahmed dropped me in the downtown area. From here, I walked across streets lined with restaurants to reach Khan El-Khalili, the most famous souk in Egypt. Criss-crossed with jammed alleyways, the shops here sell spices, tea, souvenirs, carpets, clothes and much more. Shop owners stand outside their establishments, attempting to draw you in. But I was in search for something else: a café that was once frequented by Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel laureate in literature.
Tourists searching for this café may end up at Naguib Mahfouz Café, but beware that this establishment is an attempt by an international chain to capitalise on Mahfouz’s fame. The actual café is called El Fishawi, marked by a rather noisy gathering that seems to spill out onto the already crowded alley. Young men and women sit outside drinking hibiscus tea and smoking shisha, its sweet smell filling the air. Legend goes that the place was opened more than 200 years ago by a man named Al-Fishawi who served coffee in this alley each evening after prayers. The gatherings grew larger and haven’t stopped since.
After enjoying my fill of cold hibiscus tea, I headed towards the Egyptian Museum, a grand building standing along the edge of Tahrir Square. Built in 1902, the place houses artefacts far older than the Copts, bomb attacks or revolutions. Kept here are the mask of Tutankhamen, fully made of gold, and the mummies of the pharaohs. But there is so much treasure here that it almost appears cluttered, and the lack of large windows makes it gloomy.
Though the museum gave me insights into Egyptian history as a whole, I was interested in exploring ancient Cairo. That led me to the Coptic part of the city. Not many know that Egypt is home to the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Ten per cent of Egypt’s 95 million population is Christian. The word ‘Coptic’ comes from the ancient word for Egypt, highlighting the long association between the country and the religion.
Ahmed drove me to an area called Misr El-Qadima, which is the old part of the city, and unofficially referred to as Coptic Cairo. Located in the south, this is the home of Cairo’s Coptic Christian community. I walked through the labyrinthine quarters lined with churches, and flanked by two Roman towers built in 130 CE by Emperor Trajan. I followed a few tourists to Abu Sarga, also called St Sergius, the oldest church in Egypt dating back to the fifth century CE. A narrow walkway led me to a small crypt, even predating the church. Jesus is said to have rested here with his family for three months during their exile in Egypt.
Though Christians are a significant minority in Egypt, they are increasingly facing persecution by Islamic militants. Just two days before I came to Misr El-Qadima, a bomb had exploded at a church nearby, killing two Christians. “Do you have Christian friends?” I asked Ahmed when I went back into the taxi. Ahmed thought for a while, contemplating a correct answer to give to his passenger. “I used to. When I was a kid,” he said. He seemed to have read my mind though, for he continued, “We have nothing against Christians. It’s the militants who are making us look bad.” I thought for long about how Ahmed had answered my question. I wondered if I would have answered similarly if someone had asked me a question about Muslims in India.
I had no plans after this, and asked Ahmed to take me to the Nile. Back on the road, a traffic jam on Tahrir Square brought us to a standstill. I stepped outside the car and stood among the chaos. Here I truly felt for Cairo—a frantic city trying to be cheerful and friendly, but not always succeeding. Political upheaval and fears over security have not only devastated Egypt’s tourism industry, but also the lives of its people.
However, Cairo is trying to get back on its feet. The youth, such as Ahmed, are still hopeful. They continue to struggle for a better, more stable life. I was glad I took a day out to study the city. By letting me walk its streets and meet its people, Cairo taught me how to continue to live sprightly despite setbacks.
EgyptAir has a direct flight to Cairo from Mumbai. Etihad Airways and Jet Airways have frequent one-stop flights connecting the two countries. Egypt has plenty of tour operators. As a rule of thumb, shortlist ones that have been in operation for many years, after reading as many online reviews as you can. I went with Memphis Tours (memphistours.com), who helped elevate my experience significantly. Egypt is becoming safer and there is a lot of security everywhere. Despite that, I would recommend employing a local tour operator instead of going on a solo backpacking trip.
WHERE TO STAY
Given that the number of tourists coming to the country has declined from 15 million annually during peak years to five million presently, there is overcapacity in the accommodation sector. That means you can strike substantial bargains on very good hotels. While visiting Cairo, I chose to stay at Hilton Pyramids Golf (`5,000 per night; hilton.com).
WHAT TO EAT
For vegetarians, Egypt has plenty of options. Throughout my stay, I opted for Egyptian food, which has very similar flavours to Indian cuisine. Some of the must-try dishes include: koshary (rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, onions and tomato sauce), ful mudammas (fava beans and pita bread) and mahshi (grapevine leaves stuffed with vegetables or meat). Among drinks, mint tea and Turkish coffee are quite popular. If it is hot outside, then do give cold hibiscus and tamarind tea a try.
- The best time to visit is October to April. April tends to be hot, but since it is the end of the tourist season, you are likely to get great deals.
- Most Egyptians are Muslims, so do check the timing of Ramzan before visiting.
- Travellers should try and dress slightly conservatively. n nitin chaudhary