Our hearts are pounding and our hands shaking. Crossing the road in Cairo is no joke.
First, we find ourselves on the border between Israel and Egypt, Joe and I. Quite excited by the fact that we are finally in Egypt and in Africa. We board the bus that will take us to Cairo, having agreed that we shall only see the Giza Pyramids and museum and then leave. There is nothing more to this giant city that tempts us. In our preconceptions, we are prepared for an exhausting experience.
On the bus we start talking to an American girl called Katherine, who has previously studied Egyptology in Cairo. She’ll be picked up by a friend there and we are of course welcome to get a ride. It is refreshing to hear her talk about the city, a young girl who really loves Cairo with all its chaos and exciting history.
Her friend, Kareem, was born and raised in the city but has never visited the pyramids. We look at him with raised eyebrows, while Katherine is rolling her eyes. Is that possible? She laughs, and as we share the same agenda for the following day, we decide to go see the pyramids together.
Our first night in Cairo is still young. Would we like to go somewhere and smoke shee-sha? At one of Cairo’s many sidewalk cafes we are introduced to an institution in the Middle East, a water pipe with fruit tobacco and sweet chai tea. Just next to the cafe, we pick up some koshari, a dish with pasta, rice, lentils, onions, tomato sauce and chili. I think we pay approximately 50 Egyptian pence for a large filling portion. Kareem tells us that it is generally men only who go to these cafes and when I look around, I see he’s right. Just Katherine and I are the only women here. I cough a bit smoking this pipe, happy there is a cup of tea at the table in front of me. Still, as a non-smoker, shee-sha is surprisingly easy to smoke.
The next day, the morning prayer at five o’ clock wakes me up and in the sunrise I see Cairo come to life. It is not a nice looking city and slowly it is encircling the pyramids. The idea of the pyramids being located in the remote desert is an illusion, frequently used on postcards and advertising, something we can see with our own eyes as Kareem parks his car by the tourist attraction. With the city of Cairo behind us we hear the Friday prayers in a kind of stereo, as we try to digest the fact that we are actually here.
We enter the centre pyramid, the pyramid of Khafre. The three of them are not open at once. With bent backs we go through the narrow shaft leading to the burial chamber. The air is hot and damp. The room is bare. I stroke lightly on the wall with my fingertips, as if to pick up some ancient vibes. Joe and I look at each other. Finally, we are here. We walk around in the chamber for a little while, before heading back out into the sun.
Katherine is tired of the tourist crowds and suggests we go out to Saqqara and the stepped pyramid. Needless to say it’s nice to get out of Cairo for a while. The air feels fresher and the surroundings greener. As we drive past fields, an interesting photo opportunity presents itself. A man working in a field with a lovely mosque as a backdrop. It is only there for a moment and the camera misses it. Saqqara is located in a rural setting, surrounded by ruins full of reliefs, columns and far fewer tourists.
That afternoon we eat dinner at a popular restaurant in Downtown Cairo and leave Kareem to decide the menu. A number of typical Egyptian dishes are placed on the table, with beer for the guests. When he later returns home to relax a little (driving in Cairo is exhausting), the three of us decide to walk back to the hostel where we were staying. We turn right instead of left when we leave the restaurant and we have not walked far before we are lost. All signs are in Arabic and when Katherine asks a guy for directions, it turns out we heading into a perfume shop. We are served chai tea and Joe is offered thousands of camels for me (haha). We bargain down some perfume to an acceptable level before we finally manage to get out of there, in the right direction this time.
The east side of the Nile has its downtown with narrow streets, where male waiters are balancing trays of tea through the chaotic traffic and busy crowds. Most of the women I see here are covered, wearing chador or niqab. The west side has big wide streets and modern shops, where we find ourselves on our second night along with our two friends, at the Cedars restaurant. We all have a huge water pipe next to us along with tea and delicious food. We see both men and women here in western clothes and the atmosphere is lively but relaxed. After work beer with a little twist, comes to my mind as I pat on my shee-sha pipe. Cherry flavour this time.
Katherine shows a happy face as she opens a case. She takes out a mouthpiece and fits it to her pipe. Her third shee-sha today.
Crossing the streets of Cairo is almost suicidal. There is a kind of anarchy in the traffic and when we finally find ourselves outside the Egyptian Museum, we are truly happy to be alive. The traffic is quickly forgotten though when we step inside the museum. This beautiful peach-colored building houses Tutankhamun’s mask and all that was found in his tomb, along with so much more. I fall in love with Nefertiti’s unfinished head and the statue of Pharaoh Akhenaten. The museum truly reveals an exotic world and we stay there for quite some time.
One cannot leave Cairo without a visit to one of the Middle East’s biggest bazaars, ‘Khan Al-Khalili’. The bazaar is just the way I think bazaars should be, a maze of alleys with interesting treasures and colorful people. Joe is pointing, Kareem is dealing. In the end we leave the bazaar with a couple of souvenirs at a very good price, including a shee-sha pipe and a lantern.
‘The bazaar is the final touch for our stay’, I tell Joe. I’m wrong.
Its New Year’s Eve now and the guys want find a party. Katherine and I would have been happy with a cup of tea and a shee-sha in the bazaar, but ok. We find one of the very few places in town that sells alcohol, a small kiosk with a few fridges full of beer. We buy a few cans and set off to meet up with Kareem’s friends. Half an hour later, we find ourselves at a juice bar making plans for the rest of the night. As the clock strikes twelve, we toast, with juice.
Later, we sit in the garden behind the Marriott Hotel, smoking water pipes and drinking beer. As I look up against the black night sky, I realize that I was too hasty earlier, while in the bazaar. This beautiful palace building by the Nile is like a movie set out of “1001 Nights”. You can live like a sultan here. In this legendary city with such incredibly rich history, we sit, pinching our arms. It was that final touch I mentioned earlier.
Sitting on the bus early the next morning, we were leaving a noisy, dusty and chaotic Cairo. It truly is a relief to leave here. But our experience of the city was so much better than we had envisaged and for that we can really thank our two new friends.
This is a text from the archive, which we felt deserved attention again.