This city pulsates.
We cruise into town from the airport, Ahmed at the wheel of an old beaten up Peugeot. The traffic is a crazy as anything anywhere, fast, furious and jerky, a sea of cars, old and new, antique and flash, barely functional and elegant, weaving along three aside on a two lane road. Cars almost sit on top of each other on Cairo`s clogged arteries and we have barely left the airport before we see the first crash. Old French cars crammed with families, new limos with beautiful young women sitting solitary in the back, everyone is racing somewhere to relax. Ahmed drives like a heart surgeon, the steering wheel his scalpel, millimeters away from the next vehicle, as he overtakes with crazy swerves. This is automobile opera, epic, thunderous and slightly disengaged.
Heliopolis, Cairo’s richest suburb flies past. The Baron’s Palace, built in 1910 and modeled on Angkor Wat, now an abandoned ruin teeming with bats, is the first landmark, brightly lit in the late summer night. A mock Hindu temple where you least expect it. A graveyard near-by, has long turned into a residential address. As space is at a premium in Africa´s largest city, abandoned family mausoleums have been transformed into homes for the poor. The so-called Cities of the Dead, the municipal cemeteries, are actually centers of life. This is Cairo.
Mosque after mosque, some ancient, others modern, sound the call to prayer, which reverberates across the city above the din of a million car horns. Ramadan has just ended and people are out in their thousands, thronging shopping streets and the bridges across the Nile, celebrating life. Weddings and parties take place on every street corner, music is blaring from all direction, a cacophony of sonic energy envelops everyone. The ubiquitous coffee shops appear to have set up on every street corner. Men sit, play dominoes and backgammon, for money or friendship and talk into the night.
The Lotus Hotel is on the 7th floor of an art deco ruin in the center of town, and has been welcoming guests since the beginning of the 20th Century – a throw-back in time, with wood paneled walls and a lobby left over from the days of British glory, complete with ancient switch board, typewriters and a transistor radio that emits soft middle eastern muzak. The entrance of the Lotus looks like a doorway in a Calcutta slum, but once in the lift, the old world vibe takes over. The staff is as welcoming as the city, as everyone we meet.
Everything is easy for visitors in Cairo and comparisons to other regional centers are inevitable. The hard hustle of Tangier, the quiet disparagement of Abu Dhabi, the smooth efficiency of Esfahan and the uncompromising religiosity of Peshawar are largely absent. I see traces of all those cities in the first few minutes of our arrival, but there’s far more energy and far less restraint in Cairo than in other Middle Eastern urban centers. Cairo is a monster and a happy go lucky vibe is part of the package here. The Egyptian capital has got a beat and it thumps loud and clear even through the densest of traffic, while it mingles easily with the call of the Muezzin.
Ahmed, a wily character in his 40s who runs a second hand clothing business out of Holland – 3 Euros a kilo, brought in by the container load and sold to the poor – has adopted us by the time we check into the Lotus and takes us across the river, past the Kempinsky and Sheraton, into his neighborhood. “Only normal people here, normal prices, normal life.” Just a few hundred meters away from the river, we pass into a different Cairo.
We drive through time and space, through Interzone and Quartier into the back alleys of the Giza area (not to be confused with the pyramid complex to the south of the city), a part of Cairo few foreigners visit. The roads are not paved, the cafes are bursting with life, smoke drifts from open grills, the mud floor alleys are teeming with children, the balconies on the crumbling tenement blocks are as crowded as the streets. The call of prayer sounds in the distance. Women in headscarves and those without rush past on late night shopping sprees. Young men on Vespas, blaring the newest Arabic pop tunes, howl past, cigarettes dangling from sloppy smiles. Cairo’s grin is infectious and the waiter in the coffee shop, a tall and unshaven man in a torn djellaba, with a wicked smile shouts, “Welcome, welcome,” over and over again.
We sit with Ahmed and his uncle Mohammed and talk politics, “All governments are bad, in Germany, in America, in Iran, everywhere. Same in Egypt. We want peace, we don’t want war, even with the Israelis.” The Luxor killings of 1997 still weigh heavily on the collective psyche. “I understand the tourist don’t come anymore after this. Why go to Egypt and get killed? It was crazy, but it was not done by Egyptians. The killers were from Iran and Iraq, some from Afghanistan. When the police catch them, they shoot themselves in the head. But this is not Egypt. We welcome people.”
We balance on rickety chairs through the rickety night, eating lamb and kofta with chick peas, tahini, pickled gurkins, salad, spicy rice, lentil soup and rough fine corn bread. A feast for a few Egyptian Pounds. After a long day on the road, it’s the best food in the world in the greatest of cities. We sit and smoke and watch others smoke. The city smokes. The men suck on sheishas, the women smoke long cigarettes, the boys smoke hashish. People smoke in the street, in cafes, and in restaurants. The air is rich with fumes and perfumes, but, despite the traffic, it is air, at least. The air 15 million people breathe every day. The kids try and hitch rides on passing trucks or race broken bicycles across the broken roads. Some men sit alone, too stoned to communicate. But most people sit and talk. The men talk with the men, the women talk with the women. A giant never-ending discourse defines this city, a murmur of story and gossip, of fact and rumor, of love and hate and everything in between. Politics and life, god and history are turned over again and again, examined closely, discarded, and picked up again. Everything is broken and everything works. The neon lights flicker and insects explode with loud bangs like faulty fireworks in electric fly catchers. Young boys and girls flit past in broken flip-flops, curious and shy, a quick hello and a wave and they disappear into the maelstrom.
“But now my children look at computers all day and they see the whole world and it fills their heads with too many things, too much information, too many women and they want and want and it is never enough. The young boys are spoilt by this information. When I was young we told stories. We had no Internet, no 20 channels on the TV. ”
Nostalgia is part of every conversation “Sadat was the best leader we ever had. He was a man I could take to my heart. Mubarak just loves cheers. He is not a bad man, but the people around him are no good, absolutely no good.” A laugh bursts forth with a serious stare and the subject changes. Another cup of sweet tea arrives, “Welcome, welcome,” as our eyes almost fall shut perusing conversations and games of backgammon.
Ahmed lights another cigarette and tells of his family and his love affair and his doctor who tells him to stop smoking and the life pulsates brightly and garishly all around us. Past midnight we cross the river once more, the bridges still crowded with pedestrians, men and women, families and young toughs, vibrating in tune with the neon metropolis. Africa’s largest urban center has more energy than it knows what to do with and gives as much as it takes. The city dances around us, a beautiful lop-sided smile on its lined face while the smell of sweet tobacco wafting across the potholed roads of Ahmed’s neighborhood envelops our better thoughts.