Archive for the ‘ Cairo ’ Category

Cairo’s Present is in the Past


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. 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The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



In a sense, all that we can know is only about the past. The present becomes the past as soon as the  proverbial ink used to write about it dries upon the page. This piece about Cairo in October 2010 is, of course, no exception. It might have value in shedding some light on the dying days of what is now ancient regime  –the handwriting was already on the wall. But it is about a more enduring distant past.


e narrow opening of a brief tour which inevitably allowed only episodic observations. abstract: The story of today’s Cairo is writ in the past. It is not just the Pyramids and the Sphinx of ancient times, it is also the monuments of Cairo’s Islamic history that make it so “now”. Here lie the double-tale symbols of the Sunni-Shiite clash and co-existence, as well as the fault lines of both “extremism” and “moderation” in a resurgent Islam that now preoccupies the concerns of much of the world. The visitors who flock to see the likes of Tutankhamun’s jewels are at peril of remaining innocent for ignoring all others that Cairo has to offer. This is my glimpse of the whole panorama thorough horough the narrow opening of a brief tour which inevitably allowed only episodic observations.



He sat in warm-up clothes and tennis shoes in the seat next to me on the plane. His smile that solicited a friendly response made his face pleasant. “I am returning to Egypt after twenty years,” he said in halting English. He had been “in business” in New Jersey, but was now retired. He showed me his American passport as though it was a trophy for a proud accomplishment. He was going “home” just for a visit. He stared into the distance as he said “my sisters will be at the airport”. He was almost giddy in anticipation of seeing changes that he knew had taken place in his absence, but almost nostalgically wishing that things had remained mostly the same as he remembered them.

The map selection on the monitor before me began with a page showing a plane with an arrow on its right pointing to “Mecca, 6345 miles”. In the row next to me a woman wearing the head scarf of Egyptian Islamic hejab (clothes of modesty) began her prayers soon after the plane took off, by holding her hands open before her face and whispering under her breath. Her two small daughters chatted in colloquial English, their little pink carry-on bags loose under their feet.

“Our flight will be a little over eleven hours,” the announcer said. “We will arrive on time in Cairo,” she assured us as the plane shook violently in the turbulent sky.


“There is my name,” said the man to his woman companion. They stood near me as we were about to disembark in the terminal from the bus that transferred us from the plane on the tarmac. The man was pointing to one of several signs held up inside the terminal at the Cairo airport. Travel agents were welcoming their VIPcharges and whisking them away before we went through the passport checkpoint. There were also two windows for the Bank of Egypt here. The experienced tourists rushed toward them. You paid $15 and got the slip that the passport officials honored by giving you the visa to enter Egypt.

The information desk in the arrival lobby told me taxis were metered. “Just walk outside. Taxis are there.” Outside, the road was divided by a barrier. A taxi spotted me immediately and stopped in the slow traffic on the other side of the divider. We negotiated the fare, shouting across the barrier.  No metering. Now he wanted me to cross over the barrier. He had come over and taken hold of my bags. The taxi looked battered. The Cabby threw my luggage in the back seat. I sat next to him. He put his seatbelt on. “Where is mine,” I asked looking for the my seatbelt. We communicated largely in sign language. “You don’t have one,” he indicated, “only the driver.”

We started on the long, perilous drive toward my hotel. The driver paid no heed to the lines dividing the road into lanes, or to other drivers who similarly challenged colleagues in their battered little cars.

The Cabby now turned the radio up full blast. The music was contemporary Egyptian rap. Several CDs were on the dashboard. “Do you have any Abdel Wahab,” I dared start a conversation. “Who?” I repeated: “Abdel Wahab, or Umm Kulthum?” It took a few seconds for him to figure out my different pronunciation. “How do you know these people,” he asked incredulously. “No American knows them.” I had told him that I had come from America. Those were famous Egyptian singers of the past. He respected them but today he did not have any of their recordings. He laughed and continued our conversation in another direction: “Bush very bad; Obama very good.” I asked him about the President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. He looked at me, then he turned his head and spitted out of the window. “Mubarak very bad.” I persisted. “How about his son?”  (He is rumored to want to succeed Mubarak.) “Gamal Mubarak very good,” the cab driver said.

He expanded his role to guide to landmarks of Cairo as we drove forward, pointing out mosques and other major monuments. “Qahira Jadid,” which meant New Cairo, he pointed to an area. To encourage him to concentrate on driving, I told him that I would give him a big tip if he got me safe to the hotel. He may have appreciated the incentive but did not show it in his actions.



I showed the receptionist my “Hilton HHonors” card and requested a room on the opposite side of the noisy street, as I had been advised to do by the travel agency that had made the reservation for me. The young man played with his monitor a few minutes and said “I have a room for you. It is on the second floor.” I asked if he was giving me the side I requested. “The room is on the street side. If you want the river side, I will look.” He did and then said “I have a room on the 21st floor with a river view and breakfast included in the executive floor. If you want it you have to pay extra.” After much negotiation we settled on a compromise.

I hauled my luggage through the smoke-filled lobby, crowded with foreign tourists. My room had two balconies. They overlooked a scenic part of the Nile . I opened the door and went out to a balcony to enjoy the view. The smog and noise proved too much of a challenge. I went to bed for some sleep after a very long flight from San Francisco.

At the Terrace Café serving breakfast, one of the several hosts soon claimed me. Without a word, he took me to a table next to the window hidden behind a pole. A little while later he came back and asked: “All OK?” I gave him a tip. He thanked me. When I was about to leave, he said: “When tomorrow?” I said between 7 and 8. He told the waiter to “reserve this table” for me for the next few days.

I asked the concierge to show me the best way to walk to Cairo’s famous old bazaar, Khan-e Khalili. He said it was too far, “take a taxi!” Then he turned to tell an American guest that he had no map of the city in English, only in Italian and French. I showed him the places I wanted to see on my map.  He smiled. He said:  “The prints are too small. I can not read them.”  He continued, “but go out left,” and then he named some streets which we could not find on the map. I went on my own and asked directions from several helpful passers-by.

Islamic Cairo

In the tomb chamber of the Mosque of al-Azhar I took off my shoes and sat on the bench when I saw two men doing so. I put the shoes down. A mosque’s attendant came toward me quietly, picked up my shoes, made their bottoms face each other and then put them down. This was the respectful way. Elsewhere in the mosque three men were lying on the carpeted floor, half-asleep.

In the Shrine of the Mosque of Hussein across the street, I took off my shoes and put them down the way the al-Azhar attendant had taught me. A man sitting on the floor motioned sternly that shoes should be left outside. A higher degree of respect was required in the mausoleum of Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson. I took my shoes out and came back. I then proceeded to take pictures of women in their special section that was on one side of the Shrine. No one objected to this.

Nearly all the women I saw on my walk that day wore the Islamic hejab. Only two did not. I thought they were Christians. My tour guide later said it was just that way in the part of the town I was visiting. In his section of Cairo, Heliopolis, “fifty percent have no hejab; women can choose,” he said.  His wife and one daughter wore hejab; the other daughter did not.

The Hussein Square that connects al-Azhar mosque to the Hussein mosque is called the heart of “Islamic Cairo” by tour guides. Bookstores displayed religious texts on their overflowing counters that extended into the streets. Tour buses lined up on one corner of the square. Tourists crowded the souvenir shops and restaurants that lined the other corner. They had been told by their guides that the Hussein Mosque was not open to non-Muslims. I did not see but a few Western tourists in al-Azhar mosque which they could enter. Like many other aspects of Islam, their knowledge of the rich history of this square remained non-existent or, worse, confused.

“My policy is to explain Islam to tourists. Al Qaeda is not Islam or Egypt.” I listened as a guide addressed his American tourists.  “Islam is peaceful and tolerant. It says that you can’t force belief. You must say ‘I believe.’ Most of my customers don’t know this.” He went on to attribute Egypt’s current economic problems to “9/11″. He said: “Al Qaeda hurt Egypt the most. Its number two man, al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian. Even before 9/11, they decided to hit the tourists. They killed three tour guides, my colleagues. This was to split Egypt from the US.”

As to the Hussein Square, the guide simply said that it was built by “the Mamluks.”  The Mamluks are often the default answer of Egyptian guides to the tourist who is inquisitive about the country’s Islamic history. The guides describe Mamluks as the “slave dynasty,” as though assuming that such exoticism would satiate the questioner’s curiosity.

The Mamluks who ruled Egypt from 1250 to 1517, however, were not all the same or from the same dynasty; they were of Turkish and Kurdish origins. Only the leader of each branch might have once been a warrior owned by a ruler; he then rose in the ranks and eventually seized power for himself. The Hussein Square existed long before the Mamluks. It was the heart of the Fatimid Cairo.

Shiites and Sunnis

Its history, in fact, provided a good opportunity -generally missed by the guides- to comment on the Sunni-Shiite relationship, which is a current topic of intense speculations in Western media. The Fatimids were the first Shiite state in the world (after the five years of Ali’s Rashidun Caliphate in the 7th century)  and the only Shiite dynasty of Egypt, from 969 to 1171, when Saladin Ayyubid (of the Crusade fame) re-instated the Sunni domination of Egypt.

Today, the 90% of Egyptians who are Muslim are nearly all Sunnis. It is remarkable how they make use of the old Shiite institutions in the Hussein Square. Egyptian notables attend important religious events held in the Hussein Mosque; while al-Azhar is the mosque of the sheikh who is the supreme Sunni theological authority in Egypt. Al-Azhar was built in 972 by the Shiite general, Qaed Jawhar who conquered Egypt for his master, the Fatimid Caliph, al-Mu’izz.

He named the mosque after Fatemah, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad, whose honorific Shiite title is al-Zahra (Shining). Fatemah is especially honored by the Shiites for her staunch defense of the right of her husband, Ali, as the true successor to the Prophet, against Abu Bakr, who is regarded by the Sunnis as the First Caliph.

It was also Jawhar who in 973 laid the foundations of the city of Cairo, on command of al-Mu’izz, upon whose arrival in the city it was named al-Qahira (the overpowering -as he overpowered, gahr, the army of the Baghdad Caliph) al-Muizziya. The Fatimid Caliph wanted this new city to surpass all others in the world. Seventy five years later it was far along this path, as the earliest reliable description of the new Fatimid capital, in Nasir Khusraw’s  Safarnameh (Book of Travels) , indicated. That Persian speaking  traveler, from Marv in Central Asia, who lived in Cairo for more than a year, reported seeing “five and six storey buildings,” “20,000 stores,” eleven jama” (including Azhar), “fifteen mosques,”  including one, Amr ibn al-‘As,  that  never had “fewer than 5,000 worshipers,” attended with scholars and ‘”teachers,” innumerable caravanserai,  garmabeh (public baths),” and a “royal palace”  which “was said to contain 30,000 persons,” all  in the new city -actually the twin cities of Qahira and “Mesr (Metropolis)” to its south, which were less than one “meel (Mile)” or “one thousand steps” apart, yet connected.  Nasir who was the scholar-traveler nonpareil of his age, gave this judgement about Cairo at the end of his “2,220 farsang (league),” or more than 12,334 kilometers, trip around the Islamic world:  “It became a city the likes of which are few.”

Soon Cairo was considered more magnificent than the capitals of the two other rival contemporary Islamic Caliphates: the Abbasids’ Baghdad and the Western Caliphate’s Cordova. It now boasted a large madrasa (school) as a part of al-Azhar jama’ (complex). Built in 998, this Shiite school would eventually become, ironically, the renowned Sunni University that is now unrivaled as such in honor and importance.

The Fatimids built the Hussein Mosque on the site where their Caliphs are buried. The only mausoleum existing here today, however, is the Shrine (zarih) of Hussein which is attached to the Mosque. It is claimed that Hussein’s head is buried there.  This defies history as Hussein was killed in Karbala and more likely rests in the Hussein Mosque in that Iraqi city. The veneration of Hussein in the Sunni Cairo is especially notable because his martyrdom in the battle of Karbala against the Sunni rulers of the time (on Ashura, 10th of the month of Muharram, in 680) is the defining emotional narrative of the enmity between the Shiites and Sunnis. That enmity is central to the current narrative in the West emphasizing the obstacle to Islamic unity. Cairo ignores these and the fact that Hussein was the son of Fatemah Zahra.  Instead he is honored as the favorite grandson of the Prophet. The marble slab at the side of the mosque’s entrance quotes a hadith, reporting a saying by the Prophet: “Hussein is from me and I am from Hussein. May Allah love whoever loves Hussein”.

Historiography by Sites

The Fatimids have come back to Cairo after several centuries. The current head of their world-wide community, Karim Agha Khan, was allowed by the Egyptian government to convert a vast area which was previously used as a garbage dump into the city’s biggest park. Aptly called al-Azhar Park, its immaculately mainlined grounds are a favorite of ordinary folks for pick nicking. The affluent consider the elegant restaurant here as one of the best in town. We were taken there for lunch on the patio with an unobstructed view of the Citadel that Saladin built. Like him, and the Fatimids, many other conquerors chose to build their own new city in this metropolis.

This tradition goes back to the first Muslim conqueror of Egypt, Amar-ibn al-A’as, who in 640 AD built Fustat (Camps), complete with an Islamic complex (jama’), named after himself. Of that complex only the foundations of its Ibn al A’as Mosque remain in the area now called Old Cairo.  Such as they are, however, these foundations, like other Cairo monuments, bear witness to a colorful history shaping today’s Egypt.

The tradition of building new “cities” in Cairo continued in modern times. The Garden City district was established during the British domination of Egypt. Its special attraction was the security it offered to wealthy Cairoans because of the proximity to the British Legation located here. These days tourists are turned away from its leafy and charming streets, which are interrupted by roadblocks and other security measures, to protect the American Embassy in the age of anti-terrorism.

In the early 20th century the Gezira (island) in the middle of the Nile was developed with parks and gardens and a new choice residential neighborhood, Zamalek. in 1962 President Gamal abdel-Nasser, who was a leader of the Non-aligned bloc during the Cold War, built Gezira’s Cairo Tower , the city’s tallest structure,  partly to make a statement by using the U.S. aid money intended for him to purchase American arms. During the administration of his successor, Anwar Sadat, Mohandeseen, on the other side of the Nile from the Gezira, was developed as the favorite of the new, Westernized middle class. The current president, Hosni Mubarak, has favored Heliopolis which is on the northwest. His residence and office are there. The Egyptian elite has followed him.


The complex relationship of this elite with Mubarak dominated the political news in the days I was in Cairo , mid-October 2010. Mubarak is the third of the nationalist Free Officers group, led by Nasser, to rule in Egypt since 1952, when they deposed the Albanian dynasty’s last king, Farouk, ending his British protectors’ domination. I noticed the army’s continuing influence in politics in such anecdotal evidence as former generals being appointed governors of Egypt’s provinces (such as Luxor and Aswan), and the favorable opportunities afforded the officers’ children.

Mubarak has won the last five presidential elections with the help of his political party. He may well run for a sixth (five year) term in 2011. A new group onFacebook, calling itself the May Movement, had just emerged to support his candidacy. The elections for the national legislature were also to take place soon. The tamed Islamist Muslim Brotherhood had announced that it would contest thirty of the seats. Equally notable was the activities of the non-Islamists opposition which consisted of two groups, the Movement for Change and the National Assembly for Change. They, and many “independent” journalists, were staging a protest against the dismissal of the editor of the Cairo daily, Al-Dustour, after he published an article by the opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei (the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency).

“Change” was the key word in this opposition movement. “People are tired of Mubarak,” as my tour guide, the son of an army colonel, summarized. “Even members of Mubarak’s cabinet have been in office for decades. People want new, fresh faces.” The guide anticipated this change to happen inevitably because “Mubarak who is in his 80s is too old and in poor health.” The problem was that “if Mubarak dies, the president of the People’s Assembly, the Lower House, will succeed him, as Mubarak has always refused to appoint a Vice President who would, otherwise, succeed according to the Constitution.” In that context, the elections to the People’s Assembly had an added significance this year.

Daily life

Posters for the candidates were on display in the area still called Central Cairo (wust al-Balad) where ordinary Egyptians grappled with the more pressing problems of daily life. Not far from the Abdeen Palace where the formal Presidential events are held, I walked up the steps of the colonnaded courthouse which a plaque said had been built during the Mubarak administration. It was “Southern Cairo’s First Level Court”.  Inside, there was a spacious lobby with courtrooms on both sides and a grand staircase  that led to the upper floor. In the crowd, some men were in suits. One was standing at the door of a court room . I asked him if he was a lawyer.  He said yes. We had a conversation in English. He said he had “a client now coming from prison”. I asked what kind of case this was. He said “drugs; young.” I asked if his client was a drug dealer.  When he said yes, I asked if this problem was prevalent. He said: “Like everywhere, like the U.S.” I took some pictures. When I tried to take one of a court which was in session, two guards got up from their seats and motioned “No!”

There were many guards of all stripes in Cairo.  Some with weapons were manning flimsy protective stands, especially at government office buildings. There were not many soldiers.  Traffic cops, however, were ubiquitous and, to all appearances, largely ineffective.

“Cairo is the safest place in the world,” our tour guide said. “You can walk all over even after midnight; there is no danger.” I took up the challenge. Late at night, I went walking on the 26th of July Street. Outdoor Vendors blocked not only the sidewalks but parts of the street , causing even more congestion in the busy traffic. This was the season when dates ripened; fresh dates were in abundance. There were also vendors of bananas, and bread, and various kinds of clothes . Every block had at least one, sometimes more, coffee shops where men sat and drank tea, smoked shisha (water-pipe), and played backgammon .

I saw no women in any of those coffee shops.  There were, however, want adds on windows of some other stores for young “good looking”  women sales clerks willing to work “at all hours” . The showcase in a photo shop posted pictures of women customers with provocative writings in English. One said “love forever,” and the other: “With You I forget Any Thing”. The owner came out of the photo shop to protest my taking a picture of those photos. Other people, on the other hand, posed and invited me to take their pictures. One was a man who asked “Where from?” When I said “America,” he signed thumps up and said “Obama good; Bush bad.” Then he stumped out under his foot the imaginary face of the former President.

Many shops had Islamic writings on their portals:  Allaho Akbar (God is Great), Besmellah (in the name of Allah), Alhamodlellah (Allah be praised), sometimes in their vernacular meaning of praise employed for their products.On the sidewalk next to the local mosque two women were sitting on the cloth spread on the ground. They motioned me to go inside  the mosque. My tour guide later said the lack of violent crimes in Cairo was in part due to the dominance of Islam as the enforcer of the community moral code.

In the midst of this Islamic world there was one store that displayed bottles of alcoholic drinks at its windows. Its name, Simon Cafeteria, indicated that it was owned by Christians. Around the corner on another street was the walled campus of the Armenian National School.  There were also three flower shops on this block. They had bright lights but were surrounded by rubbles around them. A hazardously unfinished building next to them was occupied by stores open for business.

I saw a convertible car pulling up to the entrance of a hotel nearby. A just-married couple came out of the lobby followed by a small entourage. The bride wore a western-style bridal dress and coiffured hair. As the womenfolk ululated, she got into the car. Her husband sat next to her and the car drove into the uncommonly windy night. I went into the Westernized hotel for a bite to eat.

A band of three musicians and a woman singer played in a large lounge outside of the bar-restaurant. They were from Lebanon, I was told. Their audiences were women and men of Egyptian upper middle class who sat in upholstered chairs smoking shisha. Their western clothing was more frumpy than chic.


Foreign relations


In the bar, a man came and sat at the table next to me. He said he was from Saudi Arabia. I asked if he was here on business. “No. I am here to drink,” he said. It soon became clear that “here” was Cairo, not just this bar.  He explained that he had “a flat” in Cairo where he would come for a week at a time “just to drink.” He said: “In my country if I drink I will go to jail.” Later, I met a young American couple in that bar. They also were in Cairo “for fun” that was denied where they lived. That was Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. He was a solider in the American armed forces there; she was a clerk at the American base. “Do you ever go swimming in the Persian Gulf,” I asked. “No. The water is very warm, full of debris, and it is shallow for a long distance.” I asked if they knew how life was off the base. He responded that other than the American money given for “leasing” the base, “the main source of income for the Bahrainis is prostitution. They come from Thailand and the Philippines; and some from Europe. The Saudis are the big clients.”

In the lounge, I ran into Abdul-Aziz. He also had a flat in Cairo. He was an Egyptian but his permanent home had been Baltimore for some time now. He was drinking and smoking a cigarette. “My American wife would kill me if she saw me.”  This was bad for his heart problems. He laughed: “I come to Cairo to be able to do what I like.”

The suave Egyptian Ambassador whom I met for lunch with   friends the next day ate very little. Her figure fit elegantly in her fashionably professional dress. “I don’t drink myself,” she said, “but the drink of choice for my daughter and her friends is now hard liqueur, not wine.” She pointed to her colleague at our table: “He, on the other hand, is a connoisseur of wines. It is not unusual for him.” He smiled the modest smile of a diplomat: “I am a Coptic.” Between them, these Ambassadors managed a large part of their country’s official relations with the United States. I hoped for some enlightening response then, when I asked how they saw the prospects of the current new initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian disputes, which was sponsored with great fanfare by the U.S., Egypt, and other “moderate” Arab States. I should have known better. The Ambassador’s answer was the carefully crafted familiar one: “The problems are complex but we are hopeful.”

The subject of the “initiative,” however, had already created a journalistic “scandal” in Egypt when handled less adroitly by the eager sycophants at a State controlled newspaper. The feature story in that newspaper had a picture of President Mubarak in the White House leading President Obama and Prime Minister of Israel into the negotiations room. When other, more objective photographic sources, revealed that in that scene, an enfeebled Mubarak was, in fact, dragging behind those men, the newspaper defended its doctored picture by saying that Egypt had always led the efforts to bring peace to Palestine. The cause of this episode was the Egyptian regime’s sensitivity to hints of Mubarak’s failing health.

Antiquities celebrity

The imposing Museum of Islamic Art with its rich collection hardly receives any visitor. This is despite major recent renovation of the Islamic Museum’s galleries. The government is also undertaking a restoration of the neglected historic buildings of Islamic Cairo. No less a figure than Zahi Hawass of the world of Egyptian antiquities chided our tour guide for not showing us the work that had already been done in the Mamluk era district. The guide later dismissed such work, which he said was only a jama’ consisting of a mosque, a madrasa and a sabil (a facility providing fresh water for the thirsty passer-by).

As to Zahi Hawass who had made him lose face before us, the guide said, he is only after publicity for himself. “Zahi is known here as ‘I, me, and myself’,” the guide said. I heard this description of Hawass also from some others in Egypt. “Hawass is very good in public relations,” they would add grudgingly. “Zahi is the media man. That is his forte. In that sense, he is good for Egypt.”

Indeed, Hawass has made himself the face of Egyptian antiquities in the outside world. Other officials make fun of his trade-mark excavation hat. “He copied it from Indiana Jones,” they say mockingly. “He charges $40 to sign one for the souvenir seekers.”

The tour guides in Cairo call themselves Egyptologists. The ones I talked to had studied the subject in the university. They regarded Halim Nureddin as the man of substance in the field. “He was my professor at Cairo University,” one of the guides said. “Zahi is all show.” Halim Nureddin used to have the job that Zahi has now: Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. I asked the guide who was Hawass’s patron in the government. He answered “it is not President Mubarak, but his wife. Her favorites are, first, the Minister of Culture (Farouk Hosni) and then Zahi. If the former had succeeded in his recent attempt to become the Director General of UNESCO, Zahi would have replaced him as the Minister of Culture.”

The guide said Zahi was still engaged in digging. “His goal is to find a monument like Howard Carter (who discovered the famous tomb of Tutankhamun).”  An older guide, Abdel Wahab, praised Hawass while revealing yet another aspect of his reputation.  He told us that he had gone digging with Hawass for 6 years. “At the beginning he gave me a hard time; he is a though man but a nice man. His hat and his clothes are American, unlike the old times when archeologists wore British clothes.”

Zahi’s excavation hat sits on a cabinet above his chair at the conference table in his office. “That is my chair,” Hawass yelled at me as I sat myself in the chair. He was sitting at his desk, still looking at documents before him. I had gone with an American group whom he received at the request of an acquaintance. We had been kept waiting some twenty minutes beyond our appointment time because, as his aide explained, “government auditors were in his office.” The aide said that this was a routine visit by the auditors. When we were finally ushered into his room, Zahi did not get up to greet us; he just raised his head looking inquisitively at us as we said our greetings. He then told us “You sit at that table!” The conference table was at one end of a rather modest office. In between were some sofas. A young western woman was standing in this buffer zone.

I said “I am sorry,” as I removed myself from the chair in question which I had not thought was Hawass’s since it was the furthest removed from his desk. He joined us after busying himself some more with his files. Upon finally sitting at our table, he turned to the member of our group next to him and said, abruptly, “Why are you here?”  Before she finished her response, Zahi barked “Who are you? Where are you from?” This treatment was then administered to each one of us. We proceeded to introduced ourselves. “I am a lawyer from San Francisco,” I said when my turn came. “Lawyer! You make lots of money.” I said “Not enough.” He responded “All lawyers say that.”

Someone asked about the hat. He said “the Chinese are making many of them which are selling well and the proceeds will go to children’s causes.” He chuckled: “George Lucas was here and asked why his hat did not sell well?” Hawass relished out-marketing the creator of Indiana Jones.

The phone rang behind the desk at the other end of the room. “Get that phone, Megan,” Zahi commanded the young woman who was still standing in the middle of the room. As she could not find which among the several phones was ringing, Zahi shouted angrily “the last one, Megan!”  There was a hush for a moment until Zahi turned his attention to us. Someone now asked about the progress in the construction of the new Grand Egyptian Museum being built to relieve the hopelessly overburdened Egyptian Museum of Cairo. Hawass said work is continuing despite some delay due to the recent world wide economic problems.

The new museum is an integral part of Hawass’s  commendable efforts toward the goal of collecting and showcasing Egypt’s finest antiquities in that country itself. He has been tireless in asking other countries to return such pieces of Egyptian heritage to Egypt. It is to that end that his admirers may justify his otherwise unusual behavior.

Museum of antiquities

Egypt banned the export of antiquities in 1835, and twenty years later established the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Its program to retrieve its ancient artifacts already taken abroad has met resistance. As our tour guide put it: “All have refused, except Israel which since two years ago, in accordance with the peace treaty, has returned some artifacts;  but it has kept the jewels.”

Regardless, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities still has the largest and finest collection of such artifacts in the world. The collection has long outgrown the spaces of its 1902 building, and its facilities are antiquated by modern standards. It lacks climate control. I noticed that the artifacts were generally in old cabinets with little or nonexistent descriptive labels. What everybody wanted to see, however, were well known as many of those pieces had been taken to exhibits at various museums of the world. Among these was the collection of treasures from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, especially his gold death mask with jewels used for eyes and eyebrows, the gold throne with inlaid semiprecious stones, his wardrobe, and his funerary couches. I noted a statue of Tutankhamun in black, the color which, as our guide pointed out, was an attempt for identifying the Pharaoh with Osiris, the god of regeneration.


The shortage of housing in the bustling Cairo of recent years has expanded its suburbs southwest so that the metropolis is now virtually connected to Giza, the once separate town where the Pyramids are located, literally in the desert. The Pyramids were, of course, made possible by the prosperity that Egypt experienced in the middle of the third millennium before Christ.

All three which are here, as well as the earlier Pyramid in Saqqara, several miles south, were built in the span of about one hundred years, a very short period in the nearly 3000 years of Pharaonic Egypt. Egypt has produced only these four big Pyramids. What is more, the three in Giza were built, successively, by one Pharaoh, his son, and then his grandson. Thereafter, the Pharaohs chose tombs dug in the hard-to-reach canyons like the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Those were deemed to be more secure against theft.

Pyramids were the Pharaohs’ tombs. It was learning how to use stone in construction that made it possible to build the pyramids high. This could not be done when mud brick was used for those royal mausoleums. The only surviving of the “Seven Wonders” of the ancient world, the Pyramids are impressive monuments, inevitably making the viewer wonder how and why they were built. “They built a sand hill and rolled the rock stones to the top,” our guide said. Excavations, which continue, have yielded other information. Large groups of farmers were mobilized for the labor during the flood seasons. “As the meaning of the word in ancient Egyptian indicates,” our guide said, “the purpose of a pyramidber (house) ra (god) meat (road) — was to enable the Pharaoh’s journey after death to join the gods.” The Muslim Arabs who came later simply called it by its geometric shape: “haram (pyramid)”.

After being duly awed by size of the Pyramids, there was not much else to do here. In the distant past tourists as well as the locals used to attempt climbing to the top. The tallest, the Great Pyramid, is 146 meters, after having lost nine maters to the wind. “I knew a local man who climbed it many times,” our elder guide said. Climbing is now forbidden.

You could enter the Pyramids. “Entrance to pyramids was always in the middle of its north side,” our guide said as he pointed out the opening . “But there is not much to see inside.” Originally, however, the walls inside the burial chambers were inscribed with texts to help the Pharaoh in his afterlife journey. These earliest writings, called Pyramid Texts, were from the “Book of the Dead,” and included maps, images of gods and demons, and the correct manner of addressing them.

Outside the Great Pyramid, we saw piles of sand and rubble. “These are called Queens Pyramids. They are the tombs of the Pharaoh’s women,” our guide said.

For some tourists a bonus in visiting the Pyramids was riding a camel in the surrounding desert. There were guards on camelback  to make sure that hustlers were not close to the Pyramids. But not too far away we found Ragib who was holding up a sign which said “Welcome to Egypt.” He, our guide said, was “a good man.” His family had been in the business of providing tourists with camels and horses for over twenty years. They had several camels ready for hire today. They also displayed a picture of Ragib with President Obama when he visited here. “Nice man,” they said of Obama. “They say Obama is very popular here,” our guide interpreted.

The pharaoh himself intended to ride a boat in this desert after his death. We saw a solar barque of cedar wood which had been buried in pits near the Great Pyramid for the pharaoh who had built that Pyramid. Not far from here were the empty country palace of the last king of Egypt, Farouk, and the yet to be finished building of the Grand Egyptian Museum. All shimmered incongruously in the light of the bright sun and sand.

Down the hill was the earlier part of the path in the deceased pharaoh’s journey. A funerary temple facing us, we were told, had “a passageway leading to the Pyramid and was connected on the other side by a covered causeway to a valley temple on the bank of the Nile.” That was the route that pharaoh’s body took to his tomb in the Pyramid.

In front of the funerary temple was the Sphinx . It had the body of a lion and the face of a man. “Lion means strength, and the man is the face of Khafre (Chepren), the pharaoh who built the second tallest Pyramid here. The funerary temple and other parts of the complex built by his father, Khufu, have not yet been found.”

The funerary temples were built so that the ancient Egyptians could worship the pharaoh after his death with daily rounds of offering.  The Sphinx is called Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror) in contemporary (Arabic) Egyptian. Its function was to scare away would-be thieves from the tombs and their temples. Because efforts to provide such security failed, later pharaohs built their funerary temples away from tombs, as in Luxor.

On the day of our visit, the mood was celebratory, not fearfully guarded or funerary. The stage had been set for an outdoor production of Aida, Verdi’s opera commissioned  for debut at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Today’s production, we were told, had been  sold out. Instead we saw the spectacle of several high school girls in colorful clothes , visiting on a field trip. “They are from the town of Mansura in the north,” our guide said.  They were pretty. “Mansura is famous for the beauty of its woman and men” our guide explained. “They have golden hair, and blue eyes and green eyes. This is because the French stayed there for some time. It is near where they discovered the Rosetta Stone. While there the French married many local women.”

When one of the students went to sit next to her mother on the bench, I noticed that the mother hid her own beauty under a black meliyya, the head-to-toe garment that only allows an opening of slits for the eyes.


This article, entitled “Extremism Alongside Moderation: Cairo’s present is in the past”, was published on the following website of on February 23, 2011, with related pictures:

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.