Egypt diaries: Cairo

I went to Egypt in April 2011, but I was so busy that I hardly wrote anything about it. One exception is this article for Cafe Babel. I spent hours showing photos and telling stories to family and friends, but all of them were still waiting to be ′immortalized′ in the blog. I found an old notebook that I used in Egypt, so I guess it′s time to translate and digitize these notes.

Why am I writing about this now? Several reasons. I keep following news from Egypt, and it seems it will never be the same as I saw it. With each day it moves away from what I saw three months after the revolution. Also, my friend whom I was visiting has already returned to Lithuania. Moreover, I recently visited Thailand and, although most people asked me if I had been to Asia before as if other Asian countries made a sort of transition to what I was experiencing there, Thailand felt more similar to Egypt than to other Asian countries. The political system of these countries is built around tensions between populists, weaker middle-class-based opposition, and the military. Both of these countries depend on tourism for their income. So traveling in Thailand made me reflect on my memories from Egypt.

First day in Cairo

[Diary] I took a boat, which, apparently, was overpriced and I was supposed to bargain the price down 10 times. I did bargain, but, according to my friend, still paid a lot. I enjoyed the boat tour. The sound of gentle waves and the soft breeze over the Nile, sunset and a panoramic view of the Zamalek island all made a great first impression of the city. Everybody walks slowly. All public life seems to be built for men. I saw a mosque in a very unexpected place and a man dressed in white, entering it.

Third day in Cairo

[Diary] It was a difficult start – I had to find the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities on my own. I got used to walking the streets (without sidewalk), but G. said a map would not work and so I wrote down directions how to reach it following landmarks. The walk along the Nile is quite pleasant. On the way I would pass Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National TV station, the NDP party headquarters, now burned down, and a looted women′s charity sponsored by the deposed president′s wife.

After I crossed the river, a man in his late 40s approached me and asked me where I was from. I didn′t want to talk. ″America?″ he asked. I shook my hand. ″Deutschland?″ His eyes looked hopeful, and I decided to nod. To my surprise, he started talking to me in German. When asked to specify, I said I was from Berlin, and he said that perhaps I could help him there one day. He said he had a brother living in Germany, who was married to a German, and he wanted to move there, too.

Having said goodbye to the fan of Germany, I crossed a busy road to go to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (Cairo Museum), very scared, and got directions to the museum from someone who introduced himself as a botanist of the museum. He said the museum was closed now and invited me to visit a small ″papyrus museum″ before it opens. I later learned that this is a common trick to lure naive tourists into papyrus shops. Every shop will claim that, unlike all those cheaters, they make real papyrus, and will process some plant in front of your eyes. People get commission for bringing tourists to these shops. Fortunately, R., a Couchsurfer who had promised to show me the museum, called just then, so I left the papyrus man.

Entrance to the museum was very expensive and I started hesitating, but R., a professional tour guide, said it shouldn′t be missed. So I went, but had I come to Cairo after Luxor, I wouldn′t have gone there, because disparate objects, taken out of context in the Cairo Museum, don′t make even a tenth of the impression I got in Luxor, where ancient objects remain in their environment. But it was a good introduction, and R.′s enthusiasm, admiration and passion for all things ancient compensated for the messy presentation of the objects. I had never been an admirer of Ancient Egypt, but at the time I thought that I′d love to learn more.

There were hundreds of artifacts to look at at the museum, including the ‘key of life,’ a sculpture of Cheops’ mother, a reconstructed grave with starry ceiling. My guide told me how and why ancient gods are depicted this way. Amon is shown in a more realistic manner, without idealization. He is depicted somewhere as kissing a baby. His body is thin while other gods are muscular. Ramses II is depicted as a child. Africans, Syrians and Bedouins were Egypt’s ancient enemies, so their figures are placed at the bottom of sculptures.

I had a plan to meet H., another Couchsurfer, who worked for a university, for lunch. It turned out that he and R. knew each other. We went for a tea close to Tahrir square and talked mainly about the revolution. R. told me a story that in Luxor Ramses III [1186–1155 BC] was challenged by a workers’ uprising, which lasted 18 days just like the last revolution. This could be considered the first revolution in the world, since although the monarchy was not overthrown, the pharaoh had to talk to the workers. During the uprising H. witnessed snipers shooting rubber bullets into people′s eyes, but was not scared. I asked them if they didn′t mind me using some quotes for an article I was planning to write in Lithuanian, and H. said it was his third interview – he had been contacted by an Indian reporter and by the Wall Street Journal. I asked them if they weren′t worried that the revolution might be hijacked, and they said they were not. “We, not the army and not the president, now set the scene,” said one of my companions, hopeful. ″We only need a few people who really love this country to be able to thrive,″ he said.

My two other Lithuanian friends arrived a couple of days after me. We went to see the Tahrir square together. We passed a market, a beautiful medieval-style street, explored the Ashar mosque, the Imam Hussein mosque, the Coptic quarter, etc. I had no map, so I wrote down directions how to reach the city center from Zamalek.

Coptic Cairo

Coptic Cairo

The Coptic quarter was quite impressive – very beautiful, but with stray dogs and trash around.

[Reconstructed from memory] My friends were very enthusiastic about visiting the mosque. We had to get some extra clothes to cover ourselves and took funny photos in them. We also met a Lithuanian expat living there with her French spouse. I had contacted her on Couchsurfing, and she was happy to share her views on Egypt. We were quite surprised that she was wearing a tanktop and shorts. ″Tell you what, if they want to harass you, they will do so even if you′re fully covered. They won′t care – they will immediately see that you are a foreigner. And if they′re decent enough to leave you alone, they′ll leave you alone regardless of what you wear,″ she explained. She said she had stopped trying to please strangers and just wore whatever was comfortable. On the way back we had a chance to try the metro system, which only has one line. But it has a special car for women only – to protect passengers from endemic sexual harassment.

With my two companions and G. we went to explore his favorite restaurants. We also met his expat friends. One German brought my attention to, in his opinion, very poor handling of the revolution in German media. ″They kept using the terms like opposition and searching for someone to match their preconceived concepts.″

I had thought that I would stay in Cairo most of the time and talk to people about the revolution, but my companions had a full travel route planned – they thought we shouldn′t miss a chance to explore various places. I′ll write more about those other cities we visited later.

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