Letter from Cairo


                        Copyright© Keyvan Tabari 2004. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari. ________________________________________________________________________

The Pita Seller

I was  sipping tea  in the alley that doubles as the outdoor serving area of Fishawi’s Coffeehouse in Cairo. A boy of about seven passed through, pedaling small loaves of freshly baked pita bread, shammy, held in a tray on his head. I asked for one. Showing his fingers, he wanted five Egyptian pounds. He could not break my twenty pound note. The customers next to me did not have change either. An Egyptian man walked by and noticed my problem. He picked a pita from the tray, gave it to me, and paid the boy one pound. I thanked him and held out my money. He waived his hand to say his was a gift. I learned later that the price of the pita was only two-tenths of a pound. From such scenes I have formed my impressions of Cairo, which I visited in the first five days of April 2004.

Fishawi’s is located in Khan al-Khalili, Cairo’s old bazaar. Although both are recommended by guide books, neither is a tourist trap. The bazaar is a center of local trade and the coffeehouse’s customers are mostly local . I was sitting on a bench softened by a thin cushion. Around me were men, and a woman, smoking sheesha, the water pipe. Every so often, a waiter would bring hot coals in a small brazier to stoke the pipes. On the wall opposite me in the alley, next to an oval mirror, was the door to the coffeehouse. The building looked authentically old, fitting between its neighbors. I went in. A few customers were inside. There were two rooms, not very big, with wooden and worn furniture, but still charming.

Khan al-Khalili was established in the 14th century and seems not to have changed much since. I looked at the medieval archways where people lived and worked. The shops sold goods that must have also been in demand several centuries ago. I thought of the frequent complete overhauls of shopping centers in California and the changing fads in their consumer products.  The day before, I had seen the farms outside Cairo as we drove to Memphis, the earlier capital of Egypt. They seemed as ancient as the ruins of Memphis and its sphinx and statues of Pharaohs, and the nearby pyramids of Saqqara.

Relics of Religion

Our group sat on the carpeted floor in the cavernous prayer room of the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. The guide pointed to the European clock in the courtyard. “That was the gift Khedive Mohammed Ali received from France in return for sending the Paranoiac obelisk that is now in Paris,” she said -as I would closely paraphrase such sayings in quotes here. The clock has never worked, having been damaged on delivery. “What a bargain!” she said.

It was the history of Islam, however, that the guide wanted to talk about now. When she got to the Sunni-Shiite differences, she explained that the Sunnis believed Mohammad was the prophet and “the Shiites believe that Mohammad was the prophet too, but have very high respect for Ali.” She paused and gave me a meaningful glance.  The two of us had a discussion on this subject in the morning part of the tour, when I was her only client. Her characterization of the Shiites was different then. She had said that the Shiites, unlike the Sunnis, did not believe that Mohammad was the prophet, “They believe that Ali was the prophet.” I offered that the Shiites would be surprised to hear this as they clearly believed that the prophet was Mohammad, and Ali was merely the first Imam. I did not expect that our exchange would modify the guide’s views. She had told me that she belonged to the Borhani religious group that studied Islam carefully. She may have now simply allowed for my presence. I wondered if how she described the Shiites in the morning did not more accurately reflect the general view in Egypt.

“There are no Shiites in Cairo,” our guide said; this, in a city that was founded by the Shiite Fatimids in the Tenth Century. The guide explained that the Fatimid dynasty’s reign was ended in 1171 by the Sunni Saladin, of the Crusade fame. The Sunnis have since dominated Cairo. One of the most venerated sites in the city, however, continues to be the Mosque of al-Hussein where the Cairoans believe the head of Hussein, “the prophet’s grandson,” is buried. There were more worshipers around Hussein’s shrine than in any of the other major Mosques I visited. Although in Cairo they may not mention it, for the Shiites Hussein, their Third Imam, is the symbol of their grievances against the Sunnis. His “martyrdom” in the battle of Karbala against the ruling Sunni Khalif is annually commemorated as the defining tragedy in the Shiite history.

Islam appeared pervasive in Cairo. At a grocery store to buy a bottle of water, I had to wait in line with two other customers while the owner prayed on the floor. I saw overflowing crowds of men praying on the street sidewalks in front of small mosques. Taxi drivers hung verses from the Koran on their rear view mirrors. Most women wore the Islamic headdress. This was by choice, as I also saw Muslim women without such headdresses. I asked one such woman, a guide, if I had heard correctly that a tourist police was asking her why she was not wearing the Hejab. She looked at me offended and said that I misunderstood, and that nobody had a right to tell her what to wear. Nobody dressed immodestly. To meet boys, my guide went to the coffeehouses, but she sought calm and serenity in a mosque.

The shrine that contained Hussein’s relic was in a rectangular room. Two third of the worshipers were women, but they were packed standing in only one side of the room, separated from the men, far fewer in number, some of whom comfortably lounged on the floor and the chairs in the other three sides. I had already seen this disparity in the Al-Azhar mosque . Its vast courtyard was lined with many rooms. As we were crossing it, my guide pointed to one room where some women were praying and said that was set aside for women. I asked, “Which room is for men?” The guide looked at me with a smile of incredulity, his hands stretched out with palms up. “The whole place is ours,” he said.

In conversation with me the Cairoans would invoke Islam as the guide for political as well as moral conduct. Even their hope for a favorable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem was cast in the millenarian promises of the Koran.

In the old quarter of Cairo, I visited a 9th century synagogue with a well in the courtyard which was claimed to be where the Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses. The Jews also fled here in the 6th century when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Jerusalem temple. No Jew worships at this synagogue now. The nearby Hanging Church, however, is an active center of the Coptic community that lives largely in its own neighborhood, separate from the Muslims. Pictures of visits by all of Egypt’s Presidents were in conspicuous display in the church. Fifteen percent of Egyptians are Coptic, my guide noted. The next day, as I was walking by the Nile, a young man who said that he was a Coptic Egyptian made himself my uninvited company for a few blocks.  After learning that I came from the U.S., he said “I hate the Arabs”.  I gathered that he was referring to Muslim Egyptians.

I recalled that two years before, in New York, a friend had taken me to dinner at the house of a wealthy émigré Jewish Egyptian family. One of the sisters, not present, was married to a well known Coptic Egyptian. The conversation was mostly about the Arabs, not complementary, but the focus included Palestinians as well the Egyptians since one of the guests had just come from Israel with stories about the terror of the Intifada. Now I was walking some distance south on Giza’s Sharia el-Nil, a broad boulevard. The sidewalk was occupied by sheep herders with their flocks. They looked biblical. Call it kitsch, but I imagined Abraham.

Quiescent Politics

The former Shah of Iran is buried in Cairo’s Ar-Rifai Mosque under a simple flat tombstone. There is a royal Iranian flag in the otherwise empty room with its elegantly ornate walls. In a room two doors away lies the body of the Shah’s former brother-in-law, Farouk, the last king of Egypt. The Shah was given sanctuary in his last days from the vengeful wrath of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution.  The Egyptian revolutionaries had shown greater tolerance by allowing the return of Farouk’s remains from exile. When they overthrew him, the king was despised by his subjects for the same reason the Shah was denounced by his: despotism in collusion with foreign powers.

Politics seemed quiescent in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak has now been in office for more than two decades, but there was no picture of him, neither a banner extolling his virtues in the streets of the Capital. Nor, on the other hand, did I notice any evidence of an organized opposition to him. “It is so hard to make a living now that people are left with no energy for political activity,” one Cairoan explained. Such sentiment toward Mubarak as was expressed to me was favorable. Even the grooming of his son to succeed him was approved. The son’s benevolence toward the youth was noted: “He organizes computer classes for them.” Mubarak was accepted also because “there is no one better on the scene.” The Cairoans complained about the increasing poverty and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, but they did not blame the President for those problems.

Mubarak was credited with being “smart,” and appreciated for keeping Egypt out of un-winnable wars. In reaction to the American invasion of Iraq, unpopular among Egyptians, Mubarak had declared that he would not stop anyone who wanted to fight with the Iraqis but would not sacrifice Egyptian soldiers against the overwhelming American power.  Two Cairoans related this to me approvingly. They also agreed with Mubarak’s rationale for not intervening militarily in the Palestine conflict: “How could you fight them when they have nuclear bombs?”

The tariff sign  I saw at the Cairo Zoo differentiated among “the Egyptians, the Arabs, and the Foreigners.”  The other Arabs are neither foreigners nor Egyptians. The headquarters of the Arab League is a prominent building in the center of Cairo. One Cairoan told me, however, that the other Arab countries were unreasonable in expecting Egypt alone to carry their burden. When I heard that there would be a huge demonstration provoked by the recent Israeli assassination of the Hamas leader, Ahmed Yasin, I went to the campus of Cairo University which has a grand plaza capable of accommodating thousands. I found, instead, only festive small clusters of engineering students in nice suits and dresses, celebrating their graduation. Across town, in the elite American University of Cairo, which is near the barricaded American Embassy, students were playing basketball.

A short distance from Cairo University is the Embassy of Israel, a relic of the Camp David Agreement of 1978. These days, the Cairoans’ hostility toward Israel is so intense that, in conversation with me, it extended to all Jews. The United States, one said, is believed to be controlled by the Jews.  The disappointment with America has been accentuated by the U.S. occupation of Iraq: “while Saddam may have been bad, the Iraqis should be left alone in deciding their own affairs,” I was told. “Even if one assumes that democracy is good, it cannot be imposed by foreigners.” The Cairoans stressed that they distinguished between the American people and the American government. Their anger at America, however, was such that one said “Ben Laden is a hero here because he was able to hurt America.” I reminded them that far from hurting Egypt, the United States was giving it billions of dollars annually in foreign aid, more than any other country save Israel. One Cairoan dismissed this aid as going only to those friendly to the U.S. in order to enable them to stay in power. The other considered it as simply owing to Egypt for its entering the peace agreement with Israel. Perhaps no amount of aid could adequately reduce resentment against the U.S.  The Cairoans’ sentiment seems to be derived more from a sense of dignity and pride: they feel outraged and humiliated by what they perceive that Israel and the United States are doing toward other Arabs.

Being a Tourist

As my taxi approached the pyramids of Giza, I was trying to make out their outlines in the smog that engulfed Cairo that day. Suddenly, I saw several young men running toward the car. The driver did not stop; he left four of them behind. The fifth man, however, opened the back door of the moving taxi, jumped in, and seated himself in the back. I was sitting in front as passengers do in Cairo. Not quite understanding what was happening, I yelled at the new arrival, “What are you doing here? Get out of my taxi.” He shouted back several phrases, including “I am with the government.” I said I did not care and he had to get out. The vehemence of my protest finally made him leave. My driver then confirmed that the intruder wanted to be my guide for the pyramids. I fended off several other such would be guides, while I viewed the two bigger pyramids from the outside and walked toward the third one, the Menkaure. Here I was met by another man who offered to take my picture. Before I knew it he literally forced me over a camel. The beast got up, my picture was taken, and I paid the man. At the entrance to the Pyramid, an official tourist police stopped me and said that I could not take my camera inside. As I was trying to figure out where to leave the camera, he grabbed it and told me to follow him. We went inside the pyramid. He led me down to all the corridors and storage rooms, pointed to where I should pose and took my picture. When we returned to the outside opening he gave back my camera. I tipped him well, as he sternly warned me not to tell any one outside about what he did for me.

The would-be guides of Cairo were already notorious for their hassle at the time of the visit by Mark Twain. They usually approached me by asking “where you from?” which was then followed, regardless of my answer, with “welcome!” Soon thereafter, they made their pitch, persistently. When I declined their invitation to visit a store, they would reproach me, “just five minutes to look, not five dollars.”  The position of a guide with an established tour company is a coveted one. A carpet salesman who claimed he knew four languages -and spoke English well- disclosed that his career goal was to become a tour guide. Enrollment in the school of tourism, I was told, requires high grades, second only to those for medical school.

I found that a good guide book served me as well as any tour guide. Indeed, the great value of Cairo’s popular tourist attractions was the direct sense of awe they induced simply because they were so venerably old and monumentally huge. Detailed description almost distracted from this enjoyment.

The pyramids and the sphinxes are located in stark desert settings. Cairo’s Museum of Antiquity is only a slightly less harsh environment for its magnificent artifacts. They are warehoused rather than displayed. I saw no docent or museum guard. Cleaning crews were throwing buckets of water on the floors and moping under the feet of visitors in the galleries.

Life pulsated through the splendid architecture of medieval Cairo. I exchanged pleasantries with men who were buying lunch from a street vendor just next door to the 9th Century Ibn Tulun Mosque, which still provides the worshipers tranquility in its enormous courtyard of simple grandeur.

The buildings that were Cairo’s attempts in the 19th century to imitate European cities looked tired but still charming, in the Talaat Harb square. Groppi’s, once a gathering place for tout Cairo, was now only a half empty patisserie. Café Riche ignored its past as the locus of Nasser’s hatching his coup and, instead, boasted of its literary heritage with an imposing picture of the Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, dominating those of lesser luminaries. A far more modest Ali Baba Cafeteria , in the Tahrir square, which Mahfouz regularly visited, was more like a place at which to conjure the tales  of his Cairo trilogy. The Cairo opera house which once premiered Verdi’s Aida now made no overtures to foreign visitors; my hotel concierge tried several days in vain to find out the current program.

The River

What is truly inspiring and beautiful in Cairo is the river Nile. It is majestically wide, and surprisingly not crowded with vessels. It is cleaner than expected. The Nile is the view coveted by the new fashionable high rises. On its banks, especially on the Corniche el-Nil, lovers promenade. An hour at the sunset in the ancient sailboat, Felucca , is the most sublime experience in Cairo. In the near stillness of this old water one peers into history. I was lucky, because on that night there was also a full moon on the opposite side of the sky.


Belly dancing is Cairo’s signature night entertainment. The show began around eleven, as we were being served dinner. The menu was not limited to Egyptian cuisine -which I did not find especially creative with its heavy use of tomato sauce. The warm-up acts consisted of two bands of three performers . They were all singers; one also supplied the music by a synthesizer. Each group performed for about an hour. The songs were all Arabic. The belly dancer came on the stage at an hour and a half passed midnight. She was accompanied by eleven instrumentalists. Her dancing was more athletic than the belly dancing I had seen in the West. She changed her gorgeous colorful costumes several time. She did not come down from the stage and nobody went up to plant money on her body. She danced for nearly an hour. Egyptians stay up late for their fun. I noticed that at least three in the audience were talking on their cell phones as the show went on. I wondered what urgent matter had to be attended to so early in the morning.

The performances of the belly dancers as well as the singers struck me as too repetitive, excessive, and overwhelming. I was reminded of the arabesque in the visual arts of Cairo. It was tempting to project this notion also into my observation of the life of ordinary people in Cairo. In this view, the chaos of the Cairo traffic -cars, pedestrians, and donkey driven carts competing for the same space- was merely an exaggerated version of the same patterns. Western tourists could escape this unfamiliar environment by retreating to the modern world of their mostly new hotels. This cultural transition was always a strange experience for me.

In the prism of my hotel, Cairo looked different. Opulent and luxurious, the hotel was a bargain by Western prices. It was staffed to the brim. Apparently all Egyptian, except the senior managers, they spoke nearly impeccable English. The service was deferential and effusive. Everybody seemed to have learned my name, and to use it when speaking to me. I had never seen such courteous and efficient concierges. My requests were accommodated almost instantaneously and confirmed in beautiful, typed cards which were promptly slipped under my door. I indulged in savoring the cooling pool. There, I was corrupted by the pampering of never fewer than three attendants. Each asked about my welfare and catered to my ordinary needs. Further, unsolicited, each brought me, separately, such quaint perks as bookmarks when they saw me reading. I never use bookmarks.  Unable to refuse the overwhelming hospitality, I was left pondering what to do with them. It occurred to me that such problems only arise in the “friendly and moderate” Egypt that is depicted in some Western media.

This article entitled Letter from Cairo was published on the Website of Protocol Professionals, Inc.  in 2004, with the related pictures.


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