The Whiplash Sneers and Knowing Smirks of Cairo

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

When the magi went following the star in the east they undoubtedly were going against heavy tourist traffic heading into Egypt. What's more they'd been coming for thousands of years prior and they'd been coming in droves. An overly trodden tourist path is precisely the reason why Egypt remained so low on my list of dream destinations for so many years. It is the twenty-fifth country I've visited thus far and was only lightly penciled into the itinerary after Jordan was boldly inked in. It seemed senseless to be so close to the great antiquities and not finally see them so I acquiesced out of obligation damned by convenience.

Sometimes you cross a border or you touchdown at an airport and you marvel at where you are. When I touched down in Vietnam and the flight attendant said, "Welcome to Hanoi" my eyes dampened. In Moscow when I slung my curtains back and saw Red Square draped in snow my jaw dropped and I mumbled an excited expletive. When the ferry docked in Tangier, Morocco I marveled that I was "on the continent of Africa." A little over a week ago as I was cuing up for my Egyptian visa at customs in the Sinai I thought, "This is the most screwed up immigration system I've ever seen in my life. These people are all borderline retarded."

For the next several days I lingered in a kind of limbo on the beach town of Dahab that had it not been for the tourist shops selling hideously disproportionate plaster busts of King Tutankhamen I could have been anywhere in the world.

A week later the overnight bus pulled into Cairo just as the sun was beginning to rise. The cabbies grasped and flailed through the iron fence as though absorbing high volts of electricity, their eyes bulging, yelling for a fare. Shifting back into New York gear I whirled my luggage and pointed to an older man and greeted him in Arabic handing him the name of the hotel on a piece of paper and with chin jutted I looked down, "Four Egyptian pounds". He countered with "Ten". I scoffed, "Five" and spun around. He called after me and my price was accepted. Now that the deal was done we were free to be pleasant with each other and made friendly small talk for the ten minute drive.

My hotel was quite the place to be in the 1950s and upon checking in I noticed I've been familiar with their famous luggage stickers for years. Even recently an American company reprinted some of the old grand hotel stickers from the golden days of travel and they reproduced it. Wearing a mantle of tattered dreams like the set of a Tennessee Williams play, the hotel is a decaying throwback to a bygone era, like the Countess DeLago on a pharonic bender. The twenty-pound black phone in the room has only a receiver that links directly to the old switchboard at the front desk where you can be connected to the Polo Lounge overlooking downtown. The faded floral wallpaper, scuffed dark wood furniture and shuttered French doors on my terrace seem untouched for over half a century. The place drips in a lazy charm. I stepped out and looked at the wide tree-lined boulevards and the teaming sidewalks to a roundabout punctuated by a granite statue donning a fez. Atop the building across the street the back of a tremendous advertisement swirled in neon Arabic and dozens of marble minarets pierced the skyline. Peering down I grinned soaking up the nuances like a dried sponge. I was invigorated to be back in a city - a chaotically combustible and strikingly beautiful city.

I headed for a grand old pastry parlor on the roundabout and tucked into a plate pilled high with Middle Eastern sweets and a custard-oozing Napoleon and washed them down with two thimbles of Turkish coffee. In-between gorging myself my eyes darted from the sophisticates on the pristine side walk to my guidebook as I planned out my day. It was already too late in the morning for the pyramids; Islamic Cairo sounded fascinating but a bit too hectic for a first day and the Coptic part of town I thought would be best visited on a Sunday. That left me with an attraction that did not remotely interest me but it still ranked as a so-called must-see so I shoved in the last piece of baklava and begrudgingly headed for the Egyptian Museum.

Egyptology has always bored me. I have never been interested in pharoses and pyramids and I abhor anything papyrus other than wrapping paper. As snobby and somewhat illogical as it sounds I've always found it a bit low-brow and certainly mainstream: a sort of stale Wonder Bread for hoi poli that never once held any wonderment for me. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art back home I always considered the Egyptian section an eyesore en route to the costume institute that should be blighted from view. God help those who were with me and wanted to gaze at the stone sarcophagi. I always haughtily brushed it off, "I'll meet you at the dresses downstairs, I hate this crap - just don't get it."

I got it. The Egyptian Museum of Cairo is certainly not one of the finest curated museums in the word - nay, it's more like a warehouse of antiquities with pieces thrown about helter-skelter and some even sitting half-crated. Decades-old scraps of typed paper propose descriptions on far too few exhibits and are barely legible through the brittle yellowed tape. For centuries the tour guides have held aloft red-tipped pointers high above their swarms as their edification echoes against the marble floors in foreign tongues. In room after room bellowing Russian overlaps Japanese, English melds to lyrical Italian and as I circled around a bust of Ramses II a veiled guide was gesticulating amidst a gaggle of uniformed school girls in Arabic. From the skylight beams shafts of hazed light through soaring archways onto pharoses carved of marble and gleaming gilded beds shaped into attenuated versions of hippos, lions and horses and thrones of gold.

In a separate darkened room King Tutankhamen's death mask stands lit by several tiny pin spots. The brilliance and detail of the masterful craftsmanship is mind-blowing. Astounding still are the golden sarcophagi within marble sarcophagi within gilded boxes and boxes and crates within carved crates. Then there're the hooks and flails, the golden finger and toe covers, the scarabs, the jewelry, the breastplates and the breastplates that cover the breastplates and then there are the counterbalances for the breastplates - all fashioned of gold. There are masterworks of faience, inlay, parquetry, cloisonné, enamel, ivory and pounded gold and silver. It is simply astonishing.

I spent the greater part of the day in complete awe and in the process more questions arose than were answered. I have vowed to return when I come back to Cairo after I've visited Luxor and Giza and won't rest until I've learned more.

Walking back to my hotel amidst the insanely congested and lawless traffic I asked a policeman if there was a better place to cross. He motioned for me to follow him and escorted me through the turbulent river of vintage Mercedes, Peugeots and battered taxis. Once across I was asked for the hundredth time by a person who only wants to "practice" their "English" where I was from. Having traveled to India, Vietnam and Thailand I am well aware of virtually every attempt at fleecing and possible scams underfoot. My scam alert level had been set to its lowest level of Code Green and I was thrilled to be able to open up and converse freely with the people of Burma, Bangladesh and Jordan. Now it's back on and set to Code Orange, the next highest being Code Red: India Level. To keep this in perspective for myself I play a mantra in my head and try to be pleasant, "If I'm sick of hearing it how sick must they be of saying it?" and "They're only trying to make a living" and one of my new ones is, "We made these people this way." Later on in the day however it can wear even the stealthiest of travelers to the point of severe irritation. The name of the game however is how to deal with the situation and not get sucked in while still allowing the person to maintain their dignity. "Just to come in and look and enjoy a cup of tea" is not "just hospitality" here in Cairo. After a purchase if you're invited you can relax but only to Code Blue because the slightest mention of anything that you find attractive they tighten the screws. A few times I've allowed myself to stroll into shops that actually contain bric-a-brac that is not repellent. What has happened to the fine handcraftsmanship of yore I have pondered hourly in Egypt. When attempted to be steered toward painted papyrus I almost break down in convulsions but kindly say that, "I'm sorry but I seriously don't care for papyrus." One shop owner retorted, "But madam this is our heritage and culture." I quickly assured him that the ancient pharoses were not sitting around car shops airbrushing garish "van art" onto anything. My skin crawled.

Everyone in Cairo either owns or has a brother or a cousin who owns an essences/perfume shop that sells to The Body Shop. "Wow! Really?" I exclaim "Thanks for the warning I haven't used that crap for over 10 years!" Every one of them will then proceed to warn of the scams and lies that prevail throughout Egypt but they are of course without question just an "honest businessman". They have been saying the same lines for decades and frequently repeat themselves. One man said to me, "You see this picture of Mohammed Ali? He's been here and he's famous -now you famous, too! HA! HA!" Upon hearing this the second time within three minutes I told him, "Yeah, you already said that and he probably didn't even know he was here anyway. The name's Christina not Katrina by the way."

It wears thin when you're hungry. "How about showing me to a restaurant where you get a commission because I am starving!" One man looked at me as though I'd punched him in the stomach, "Commission? I only want to practice my English and show you the real Cairo." I relented for a thirty minute walk thinking after I'd prefaced the jaunt with "Just so that you know I will not buy anything at all and I will not pay you." He wouldn't hear of accepting anything he said and told me, "I am a student and I like your American accent." Not two minutes had passed when he tried to pull me in a papyrus shop. I felt my flesh rotting before the plate glass window. I refused and then was taken to a lantern-making shop and any hopes of this guy being legitimate were dashed. He then tried to take me into a mosque for a "donation of 10 Egyptian Pounds" though the sign said "5" he hadn't banked on me knowing my Eastern Arabic numerals. Now it was abundantly clear that my time was being wasted and I was miffed for having given him the benefit of the doubt. I thanked him and told him that I'd be on my way at which point he held out his hand and said, "Would you like to pay me something for the tour?" I thanked him smiling and told him that I only had a temporary bought of idiocy and was now feeling much better. "If I gave you money I'd feel that you were trying to trick me and that would ruin it so I won't give you anything because you've been dishonest." He had a forced-pained look on his face, "Yes, but you didn't buy anything." Incredulous, I narrowed my gaze and curtly thanking him walked brusquely in the opposite direction.

Nearing my hotel I decided to grab just a tiny box of sweets for dessert. The lady behind the counter recognizing me asked me which one I liked the most. I pointed to my favourite and after weighing my tiny box and writing down weight she winked and threw in two extra pieces. The man at the counter welcomed me back and asked how I'd enjoyed my first day in Cairo.

"It started off great" I began "And well... well, it looks like it's ending great, too." I strolled around the circle just as the neon signs were being lit against a darkening sky. I looked in the shop windows and above marveling at the old world architecture and the spacious balconies. I was nearing the door of my hotel when I was approached once more. "Smile!" the tout chaffed.

I flashed a manic smile like a raving lunatic with a mouthful of phylo and creamed cheese and yelled, "How's this?! HUH?!" He stepped back and apologized. I spun around and almost choked with laughter all the way up in the elevator. Once word gets out on the street about how I'm suffering from a violent mental illness I should be free to saunter about the streets and soak up all the wonders of this magically frenzied city -- tout-free.

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