Egypt is a land of contradictions. Once the cradle of civilization, it’s now classified as a “developing” country. Magnificent, ancient mosques are surrounded by moats of garbage, decrepit streets, and buildings so dilapidated they mirror the images that came from Haiti. Egyptians can trace their ancestry back more than 7,000 years; they are the descendants of the brilliant pyramid engineers, the innovators of papyrus, hieroglyphics and the 365-day calendar. Yet many barely scrape by in Cairo; money—and cleanliness—are as scarce as the seat belts in taxis. But though a majority are poor, most Egyptians speak several languages: the economic foundation of the city is tourism. To survive in the industry, they must communicate with the millions of foreigners that flood the country each year.
Yet Egypt’s cultural opulence is as apparent as its extreme poverty. In that sense, I have never seen a richer country, or one with a more authentic character. Cairo is a blunt, confrontational city. It does not apologize for its faults, but implores you, the visitor, to find them charming: the local radio station, for example, calls the traffic “cozy and considerate.” The streets are filthy and wildly congested. Horse-drawn carriages rush by carrying produce as women navigate the bustling crowd with baskets of food on their heads. Toddlers crawl through the dirt as motorcycles narrowly dodge pedestrians. On the first day, I received a marriage proposal. On the second, two Egyptians gave me their phone numbers so I could stay with their families the next time I came to Egypt. A few others offered to teach me Arabic.
It’s hard not to love a place that is so adored by its inhabitants. Egyptians have been enamored with their land, their river and their pyramids for thousands of years.
Coming from Doha, where glossy, generic malls trump offbeat sidewalk cafes and falafel stands, it was refreshing to be in a cultural downpour, to walk down the street and be drenched in sights, smells, sounds and emotions. (Don’t get me wrong—I’ve loved my time in Qatar, but it would be nice to walk down the streets of Doha once in a while).
Still, sometimes the “authenticity” of the place felt forced. Because tourism is the lifeblood of the nation, most places have the “genuine Egyptian experience” down to a science. When I rode on a camel through the pyramids, my camel guide told me he would do something special “just for me.” He tied his Bedouin scarf around my head (less than sanitary), and offered to take my photo. I saw several other tourists doing the same thing.
And when I posted my pictures to Facebook, particularly one where I had my hand positioned over the pyramid so it looked like I was touching the top, a friend commented that she had the exact same picture taken when she was 12.
Traveling to places like Egypt, spots that are so tritely historic, so intimately tied into the culture of the world, is a challenge. It’s difficult to experience iconic places in a new way, nearly impossible to form one’s own opinions on such revered global landmarks. For example, is anyone not inspired by the Taj Mahal? Is there a traveler out there who hated Paris, or felt apathetic about the Parthenon?
Yes, like every other tourist, I saw the pyramids. I even climbed through a tiny, cramped corridor to the center of one. I rode a camel, and afterwards, it spit on my shirt and sunglasses. I had gunky green camel saliva on me for the rest of the day.
I went to the famous old mosques, removed my shoes, snapped pictures of the intricate door carvings and colorful light fixtures. A guide named Mohammad climbed with me to the top of the minaret of one; he had to lead me through the highest point where it was pitch black, and I couldn’t see the uneven steps leading to the top. When I finally saw the light of the city, my legs were sore. I looked out over what was once Fatimid (Iranian) Cairo, marveling at the alternating layers of beauty and decay.
I stumbled through Khan El-Khalili, the souq that all others have attempted to recreate. Raw meat hung in one stall, scarves in another. The spicy air was infused with cigarette smoke and frying chickpeas. Myriad languages and currencies zigzagged through the narrow paths. And every other step meant another jarring business proposal from a merchant. The best one? “You are beautiful. How can I take your money?”
I sipped tea in Fishawy, the oldest restaurant in Cairo (1750, I believe). While I was there, I learned how to say, “I don’t want it,” in Arabic (Mishaiza). This proved to be useful; about 20 peddlers approached me in 10 minutes.
There’s a fine line between traveler and tourist; an imperceptible boundary between seeker of culture, and seeker of comfort. I think the separation lies in the sense of discovery, the wide-eyed, breathless excitement that comes from seeing something new. Or from seeing something old in a new way.
The Nile at sunset on a felucca ride.
View from the top of a minaret.