“Cairo. City of the living.” – Selah, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
(For the movie buffs out there, looking at the picture above, you know where I am and why I had to do that.)
I just wrapped up the semester break inching closer toward a goal: I set foot on another continent. I’m making slow progress on that but, hopefully, life is long. I’ll get there.
My companions and I started in and around Cairo before heading down to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. We then grabbed a bus to Hurghada for a few days on the Red Sea before completing the circuit back to Cairo. I messed up the travel days and am here in the capital city for an extra day and hanging out at the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar trying to recount my time. As much as I hate being one, I’ve been a tourist. I always feel there is a barrier between me and the authentic when I am just passing through so I try and counteract where I can. For climbing the pyramid you see above (not to the top, mind you), I used my solo time to venture into neighborhoods where I really had no business being.
Last evening was checking out a mosque and met a man who sells all sorts of homemade souvenirs. I picked up some paintings on banana leaf and a handmade backgammon board. But I also walked out with a new friend, Amanda. Like me, she is here on spring break and due to travel irregularities, found herself in Cairo alone for an extra day. We met at the fore mentioned shop. She arrived about twenty minutes after me and was escorted in by her taxi driver. I assume the taxi driver is a friend of the shop owner with an arrangement for a cut of whatever the customer spends.
Amanda and I talked for a bit and, when no one was looking, she quietly asked me if I would leave with her. On the way over, the taxi driver made more than one unwelcomed advance towards her and she didn’t feel safe walking out with him. This seemed to match with a handful of warnings I read leading up to this trip. This of course is a common trait in cultures with such an outsized, but it’s far from isolated to developing countries or the Middle East. It’s pervasive and every effort should be made to stomp it out. The fact remains, however, in the 21st century one person can assault another with almost complete impunity.
I suggested to my new friend that we act as if we really hit it off and decided to go tour the rest of the city together. She agreed and within five minutes we were out on the street trying to wind our way out of the small neighborhood enclave we had been twisted into. We spent some time in the Majed Al-Hussein mosque, walked around the XXXXXX mosque next to it, and as the day came to an end, made our way down the main road towards the corner of town in which we were staying. It was a great walk and good conversation. When we parted ways at the door to her hostel, I realized I still had to get back to mine. It was full-on night, I had an inkling of where I was and how to get back to my hotel, but the neighborhood in which I found myself was, by appearance, not the most hospitable. I wouldn’t say this was one of my poorer choices in life, but I’ve definitely found myself in better situations. Fortunately got my bearings rather quickly and hustled over to a street I knew was more populated and probably safer. Very shortly thereafter a local merchant approached me and invited me into his jewelry and perfume shop for some tea and a look around. I had to politely decline no less than ten times before I escaped. He was not pleased at my persistence.
And this brings me to another aspect of the local culture – hospitality. Locals seem to pride themselves on the degree to which they can accommodate you. Every shopkeeper I met invited me in for tea and it was assumed I would enter the store, enjoy the team and engage in pleasant conversation. And then I was supposed to buy something. At times, this was easy to fend off. A classmate of mine of Egyptian descent taught me a few phrases that come in handy either for price haggling or simply shooing away unwanted solicitors. I basically know the equivalent of “No thank you,” “No way,” and “In your dreams.”
This trip, touristy as it’s been, is up there with my Balkan and Jamaican experience vis-à-vis an expanding world view. I like to think it was not particularly narrow prior to all of this, but I certainly did not know then what I am learning now. This seems par for the course talking with anyone who takes time to encounter “the other.” It encourages dialogue and invites us to drop easy assumptions or fully embrace hard truths we would much rather keep at arm’s length. It’s not always an easy space in which to push ourselves and we really don’t have to travel to the ends of the earth to do it. “The other” is often right in front of us, next to us, standing off to the side. We just have to take the time and offer them some tea and engage. No need to buy anything.