The Egyptification of the Tall New Yorker

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

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The police claim to have arrested two of the three men involved in the bombing in Islamic Cairo last week along with dozens more tenuously associated with them. The actual bomber himself however is currently roasting in Hell hopefully churning on a spit with his arms wrapped around a crackling pig. Ruth said that she'd heard it on the radio this morning she told me after breakfast. In her tongue-rolling Scottish accent she informed me, "Aye, I can rest easy now that they've got 'um knowin' that yar going back to that place taday anyways!"

She was right I was going back anyway. Since the bombing I've lost myself in the maze of medieval lanes that make up my favourite part of the city thrice. Some people would think it foolhardy and for others it would confirm the long suspected; that I am a complete and utter moron. Had there been repeated bombings or proof that tourists were being targeted I'd have surely shied away though it was clear that neither was the case. Need I remind you I am a New Yorker and live in the city that has suffered the worst terrorist attack in human history? Caution is one thing but being paralyzed with fear from doing what you want to do is quite another.

When I saw the photographs of the crime scene I knew I must've passed it at some point but where exactly it had happened, I wasn't sure. Knowing that the blast occurred beside a mosque did little to trigger my memory as I've been in several handfuls of mosques and passed dozens more. Mosques are as ubiquitous in the Middle East as McDonalds are in the heartland of the America.

On my first day back in Cairo I was in the travel agency booking my flight to Prague when I asked them where I could buy some cheap vintage caftans. She ripped off a piece of paper and wrote down "Az-Ahar" in English and in Arabic and told me to tell the driver the price was five pounds. I hailed a cab and off we sped in the direction of Islamic Cairo. Death and survival scenarios flashed in my head as I looked down from the overpass onto the decaying minarets and the rising smoke from the huddled kitchens below. I had planned on returning briefly to the medieval quarter possibly on my last day if only for lunch but now as the cab pulled into the heart of it and stopped I pursed my lips and shrugged. I looked out with a hint of trepidation and pulled the handle, "Oh well, here goes nothing."

I stepped out of the cab and looking down the lane turned back bending into the cab window and asked again, "Az-Ahar, yes?" He confirmed we were at the correct destination and now I dreaded it. Twice I'd been past this spot and both times I'd been accosted by a burly man who would try to coerce me to visit his "family's spice shop". I barreled around the corner determined not to look his way and was just focusing on not letting him see me when out of my peripheral vision I saw it: Nothing. It was gone as were the whole line of shanty shops that had clung to the mosque. I turned to a man who'd climbed up the minaret with me less than a week ago and asked, "Bomb?" He nodded. He'd been there at the time of the explosion he told me but when asked how the atmosphere had changed he seemed nonplussed by the question. The response seemed calculated to alleviate any fears that travelers would be unsafe. "It was a kid, stupid kid. An hour after it happened the streets were busy again. No problem now - they'll catch who is behind it." I wondered about the big man whom I'd been trying to avoid and hoped he was all right though I didn't know his name and couldn't ask.

I continued on through the labyrinthine passageways until I came upon a shaded opening behind an alley. Women were squatting by ripped-open plastic bags overflowing with tattered clothes onto the dirt-packed lane. I jostled my way through and over the crowd past storefronts exhibiting the finer freshly picked pieces for sale. It was tough going but with steely determination I barged into the best shop and started flipping through the racks. Examining hems and tugging at threads I nodded excitedly at certain pieces and then finding a flaw discarded it in an affected huff. When I really want to buy something and I really want it exceptionally cheap this has become my newly employed method and it works. I'd already asked what I should pay at the travel agency and was determined not to go above the price and indeed I wanted to go under. I fought hard. "No, no, no this is cheap fabric and the stitching's very poor - look!" The price was falling but still not where I wanted it so I took out what I wanted to pay and held it out, "Last price", I told him sternly. He refused and I turned with the money held high above my head I walked away. Ten paces later he was behind me with the caftans in the bag and snatching the cash from my hand. It wasn't until after he didn't invite me for tea later that I knew I'd really gotten a bargain.

I went to quietly savor my victory at a café I'd been to twice before and to relax after the hour long battle. An Algerian woman and her husband sat across from me and we chatted in French as best as I could, which was rather pathetic if you want to know the truth. I felt invigorated after a rest and two cups of coffee and motioned for the check. He told me a price that was double what I'd paid before. I was riled and looked in my budget diary to see what I'd spent the last time and I confirmed that he was overcharging me. I shook my head and told him that he was trying to rip me off and I placed the correct price on the table. We went 'round and 'round but I refused. I explained to the Algerians and they translated as I watched his conviction drain from his face when I pointed to the price in my little notebook smiling. I stood up and pretended to pick up a chair and toss it, which amused the Algerian woman who applauded and laughed. The waiter snaked past me and blocked my passing and trying to keep a straight face towered over me and with an impish lilt asked, "Uh, baksheesh?" I barked back "Baksheesh?!" and held up my fist, pushed past him and stormed out to an explosion of laughter.

For the rest of the day I meandered up to the Citadel and into glorious mosques of such an astonishing detail and scale that they rivaled the best of Istanbul's varied gems. I laid down under monstrous chandeliers on the napped pile of centuries-old carpets and gazed at the imposing structures in complete silence. I saw the onyx tomb of the Shah of Iran and the alabaster tombs of former pashas and I watched as lighting fixtures the size of taxis slowly swayed in the breeze under gilded domes.

I went to take a late lunch overlooking the city at a touristy outdoor restaurant. The view practically justified the price and I overlooked it until I came to the price of the coffee. I told the waiter that I did not wish to pay for the coffee since the price was absurd. I then told him that I liked it sweet with two sugars. He agreed and moments later I sipped my free two tablespoons of thick coffee from a dainty cup, while the cacophony of a hundred calls to prayer swept up the hill weaving their aural tapestry over and under themselves. It was a gloriously eerie melody that haunted for several moments then like a wet blanket on a spellbinding fire it stopped suddenly. It was my cue to move on.

I walked the long way down the hill and stopped midway to sit in the shade exhausted by the unbearable stifling heat I drank my water and watched the traffic ensnare itself and bleed and blend and I pondered how something so chaotic could work as smoothly as it does. I got up to wade through the fray to find a taxi but changed course and headed back to the tangled lanes further down. I wasn't quite done yet with the medieval quarter.

I walked deeper into the maze through ceremonial tents being hoisted above the streets and was followed by a young boy who amused us both by trying to scare me every other half block. He growled at me and I yelped back and laughing I thought, I am certainly no stranger to making a complete ass of myself in this country.

I was just past the Az-Ahar mosque en route to the taxi stand when I heard, "No spices today?" It was the irritating fat man whom while I was glad he hadn't been injured I was certainly less than thrilled to see. I told him how I had wondered if he'd been hurt and was glad to see that he was doing well and was unscathed. He couldn't have given a rat's ass and acted as though I was still yammering on and worried sick about the battle over the Suez Canal. "Yeah, yeah, no problem, you need backgammon sets? Perfume? What you got in the bag? What'd you pay for that?" I told him and he pushed out a bottom lip and lifted his brows, "Good price, very good price ---you becoming a real Egyptian!" I told him that if I wanted to be a real Egyptian I'd have already, "Tried to rip you off but instead I only want you to step aside and let me pass and stop pestering me." I nudged past and rolled my eyes, "Move it! Now that's a New Yorker talkin'!"

I'd almost forgotten already about the bombing when I emptied my bag on the sofa in the lobby. Ruth squinted forward illuminated by the light of the BBC broadcast and in hushed tones said "Oh my, my, dear how much did that set you back there?" I told her and she got a glimmer in her eye she looked up, "I don't know if I believe those police reports ta tell you the honest to God truth but I suppose at prices like that by-golly-it's-worth-the-risk!!!"

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