The weather has gone progressively from clear to murky to pea soup. Hard to know if it’s smog or winter weather and most likely both. By day 4 it’s raining, which might help wash away the residue from the sandstorm. Even the occasional bougainvillea bloom is covered in dust.
The traffic is incomprehensible. Cars are modern with the occasional old Lada, and streets are clogged with everything from donkeys, horse-drawn carts, and families packed on scooters or sitting in the backs of trucks. People walk on the street weaving in and out of cars, often double-parked. There are sidewalks but they are uneven and mostly filthy; no one seems to use them. Garbage piles up wherever. There are no traffic lights. This means that you cannot make a left-hand turn, ever. You have to keep going in the endlessly honking traffic (it’s like street music.) for many blocks until there is a u-turn into which a stream of traffic is pouring from the opposite direction and then the honking really gets going. Why someone would design a traffic system like this is anyone’s guess.
Deliveries are made in trucks with cages rigged up full of chickens eggs, foodstuffs, spare parts, furniture. Or by rickshaw. We pass a green patch of city park with goats hanging about in clusters, each goat group with its own guard dog. The goatherds (if that’s what they are) lie around and smoke. I guess it’s a great way to keep the grass trimmed and the goats fed.
The Khan Khalili market is virtually shuttered from lack of tourist business. Locals use much cheaper markets. It’s hard to know what it looks like when it’s in full souk swing, and hawkers and touts were surprisingly pleasant and did not follow you around keening for business. Everywhere people were genuinely happy to see us. Where you from? Deutschland? America always surprises them. They think we hate them and we think they hate us. I gather it is so rare to see an American tourist these days, that I get shouts of “You! Angelina Jolie” and “You! Shakira”! Or maybe these are just their most effective sales techniques, who knows. I’ll take it.
If you had a fashionable shopping street in an upscale neighborhood, would you build a giant elevated highway the entire length of the street? So it is with Avenue of July 26 that runs from the Nile through Zamalek, island in the Nile between East and West Cairo. The houses are old Ottoman villas looking like someone gave up on them soon after the disappearance of King Farouk (1952). Some are schools, others are embassies. Everything is guarded by young men in uniform who look like they have barely begun to shave. Behind these peeling doors and filthy windows there may be gorgeous calm settings but why not fix up the outside?
I am surprised by the number of men in traditional Galabiya. And the women in various forms of full Niqab., right down to the gloves. How do their children know who they are? On Valentine’s day, red hijabs and red robes appear all over the city. (Kind of cute). One morning in the hotel I watch a woman in full niqab eat. One hand lifts the veil an inch; the other puts the fork up and in. Repeat. I so don’t get it.
It’s a late night city; restaurants are packed and people sit in open cafes smoking sheesha and drinking coffee. Traditional street vendors sell roasted sweet potatos cooked on charcoal braziers on rolling carts. Butcher shops have carcasses hanging from doorways, and fruit and vegetable vendors set up shop on the sidewalk on mats and carpets.
One evening, we are snacking in the executive lounge of the Marriott Zamelek at sunset as an aged couple arrives to a flurry of activity. Three waiters and the manager hover around bringing cans of 7-up, foamy strawberry drinks, capuccinos, petits-fours, bananas, plates of mezze. The man is ancient, drops his cane and turns his chair to face away from the room while he sinks into it and stares out the window at the traffic clogging both sides of the Nile. His wife, who, in her mid-seventies, is much younger, wears a golf-ball sized ring and a be-jewelled cuff bracelet, bright pink sweater, white sneakers and sports jet black henna-ed hair tied back in a pink ribbon. She takes a large plastic bag from her purse and dumps the bananas into it, while keeping up a constant stream of one-way conversation (or orders – it’s hard to tell) with whichever waiter is in rapt attendance. Detlev whispers that she must be the last Jew left in Cairo. Who are this mystery couple? Did they own the hotel? Relatives of King Farouk? Mubarek’s sister-in-law? Sisi’s mother? More pastries arrive tied up in a bow. Into the plastic bag.