CAIRO: A Change Of Perspective

When I woke up the next day, I was still in a terrible mood. I would have caught the next flight back to America. I’m glad I didn’t. Today proved to be quite a different day from the last and I was happy to discover that there was more to Egypt than greedy beggars and sunburn.

Breakfast was better this morning. I had an egg and falafel and juice in addition to the horrible bread and strange cheese. Kamal asked if I wanted to get a taxi and I said I’d think about it. I didn’t really think I’d go anywhere that day, but as I sat there, munching on the falafel, I reconsidered. Why not take a crazy chance, as the wise Hillary Duff once sang.

As I was eating, I was listening to the new crew across the table from me. If I had only known then how they would weave themselves into my life. One very loud man came over to me to chat, which is not something I do. He’s from Iowa, too. So is his uncle. I thought that was awfully strange. They’re from Waterloo. The world truly is a small place. We got to talking about the beggars and he gave me some advice that was rather invaluable. “Remember, it’s your money.” It’s a very simple thing, but the people here have a way of making you feel obligated to fund their existence. It’s pervasive and overwhelming and hard to adequately describe.

So, I agreed to go to town with Ibrahim, one of the hotel drivers they have on call. He’d take me to the Egyptian Museum, wait for me to finish, then drive me back for £100. I could have gotten it for half that price if I had haggled for a cab myself. But it’s truly not much money and I didn’t have to haggle. Ibrahim turned out to be wonderful anyway. He’s a kind man who speaks decent English and cares about making his passengers comfortable and happy. I was at ease at once.

He didn’t take me to town on the same road that the crazy Mr. Gab had. It turns out that I hadn’t been dumped in a peasant village. It was just a poor side of town. Not more than a five minute walk from me was a vibrant and active community. That was a true relief. I literally could feel the tension begin to drain away from me.

We got into town and drove over the Nile and then looming over the river was an icon of my fantasies, Shepheard’s Hotel. This is where I had wanted to stay when I first began dreaming of Egypt, but it is currently closed as it undergoes a complete restoration. In the “Amelia Peabody Series,” a collection of books that I absolutely adore and hold dear to my heart, the characters almost always go to Shepheard’s. It was like seeing it all come to life. The next time I come to Egypt, because I’ve decided that I will come again, I will most assuredly stay there. If I’m coming to the largest city in Africa, I’m sure as hell not staying in the ghetto.

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It wasn’t long until we pulled up in front of the famous pink Egyptian Museum. It’s absolutely beautiful on the outside, but that isn’t the first thing that grabs your attention. That would be the HUGE military presence. Egypt is a military nation and the museum is located in Tahrir Square where the Egyptian Revolution recently took place. We even drove past the burned out building that had been the headquarters of the old regime. There were tanks and armed soldiers all over the place. From speaking to different Egyptian people, I understand that this is a display to make people feel safe, but it’s really rather alarming.

I remember when the Revolution was taking place. My eyes were glued to my computer screen as I watched all the developments and wondered what was happening to this country that had called to me for so long. When it was getting bad, the people came out en masse and formed a human chain around the museum so that looters couldn’t get in and steal their national treasures. This has always made me rather teary.

I was soon inside the gates of the museum and when I had convinced all the guides that I was a trained Egyptologist — which really wasn’t very hard at all — I was left alone to enjoy myself in the museum.

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The first thing that strikes you is the huge number of items in their collection. They have so much that they don’t have proper space to adequately display many great and important historical artifacts. So, masterpieces that would be the highlight of other museums are shoved in a corner here. The display cases are often dusty. They usually don’t have any kind of lighting — just what filters down through the skylights that are well covered by Saharan sand. Only one-third of the items, if that, are labeled. If you don’t know the first thing about Egyptian history, but want to have a good time, then I’d highly recommend going with a guide. I didn’t need one, of course, but even I was confused by the reasoning behind the arrangements at some points.

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In a way, it’s absolutely charming and Old World, but still it’s sad because there is enough here to have three or four great museums of the same size! This is surely the reasoning behind the new museum being built and finished at Giza. There is a whole new master plan for that area, which I think is probably not a bad idea. It’s going to be absolutely massive and is scheduled to be open next year. I don’t think there’s much chance of that happening on time, though. There are just too many things to move and set up! I’ll come back and see it when it’s reassembled, though, for sure. Especially if I’m staying at Shepheard’s!

There is a very archaic prohibition on photography in many places in Egypt. The museum was another place like that, so I was not able to really capture the essence of the place very well for you with my subversive iPhone snapshots. Because I want you to have an example of what I’ll talk about next, this following picture came from Wikipedia:

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My favorite part of the museum was the area dedicated to Amarna art. This has always been the era that intrigues me the most in Egyptian history and I delight in looking at it whenever I can. The Metropolitan Museum in New York City has a fabulous collection of this type, if you want to see some closer to home. The Louvre’s pieces aren’t half bad, either. The way they portray the human figure at this time is so unique and shapely and interesting. The huge statues of Akhenaten that line the walls of this gallery are just wonderfully beautiful. Many people theorize on this radical shift in art: some say it’s aliens and some say he was a hermaphrodite. I don’t know what he was but I mourn the loss of what was destroyed upon his death all those thousands of year ago. This revolution in art and religion was only around for as long as he was. Then, it was hushed up and mostly destroyed.

Even though the people came together to stop all-out looting of the Museum, there were still a few pieces that were stolen. The major suspects are the employees. You can always find a bad egg, you know? There is a gallery now dedicated to the pieces that have been returned. One striking object was a beautiful golden statuette of Tutankhamen. Upon its recovery, the arms were broken off and many pieces of the gold that had gilded the wooden base had chipped off. It’s scheduled to be restored, though, for which I’m glad.

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I roamed and wandered through each room and all of the halls downstairs gasping with delight with regularity. There was hardly a soul there and I had most of the place to myself. It’s very sad about tourism here. It’s the way most people make their money, but there’s no way to support them right now when there are so few of us making the trip. And I must say that there is no reason for you to stay away. You’re absolutely safe. I never felt in danger once the entire time I was in Cairo.

Upstairs the collections became even grander with huge sarcophagi that are inlaid with the most beautiful stones and painted so gloriously. I could have spent days there, but I didn’t have days and I needed to finish up at a reasonable time. I didn’t want Ibrahim to die in the afternoon heat, after all. I wasn’t finished, though.

Then there it was before me, something I’ve looked at ever since I was a young boy. I imagine that I felt just as startled as Howard Carter did the first time he gazed upon the golden shrine of Tutankhamen. It was much larger than I thought and I was amazed that the ancient workman had been able to maneuver it into the tiny tomb he called his own. There was shrine after shrine, each more beautiful than the last.

You then enter an air conditioned room and he looks right at you. The golden mask of Tutankhamen is a ridiculously beautiful work of art. It looks as if he’s smirking at you. It has a very joyous feeling to it, which is something that you don’t see when you’re looking at a photograph or a film. Spread out in different cases around the mask were the various items that were wrapped inside of the mummy’s bandages. So many different trinkets of gold and precious stones. To be a pharaoh must have been quite a life of decadence.

If you returned to the collection a dozen times, I don’t think you’d yet grasp the great enormity of the discovery. There was an amazing amount of knowledge found in that tomb that has aided us in our research of these ancient people. First, you’re overwhelmed by how beautiful everything is, but then you think about the significance of the writings and the art and it’s all just wonderful.

When I finally finished with the displays, I bought a ticket to enter the room filled with Royal Mummies. This was one thing that I have been looking forward to for so many years.

It’s quite a moment when you enter an empty room and all around you are the people who made so much history. There, not a foot from me was Ramses the Great, the builder of Abu Simbel and so many stunning works around this land. Here was Seti I, the owner of that gorgeous sarcophagus that I saw in London and of his beautiful tomb in the Valley of the Kings. And now here is Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh who had only recently been identified. On this wall was Tiye, the mother of Akhenaten, and one of the most beautiful mummies ever found. And then, shockingly, is a skeleton which turns out to be that great heretic man himself, Akhenaten. I looked at him for ages.

Finished with my tour, I called Ibrahim and was soon winding through the frantic Cairo traffic back to Giza. When I arrived, the power was off, which was no longer a surprise. It shuts down every day at unexpected moments. Most places have a generator to kick in when this happens, but not my hotel.

I was bored, so I did something I don’t do. I socialized.

I know.

I can hear you gasp from here. I was shocked myself.

There was a couple from Peru and that loud guy from Iowa out in the dining room, so I sat down at the table and we all became friends at once. We started bitching about the hotel. We tore it apart. And, let me tell you, reader, I have rarely been more relieved. I really didn’t care for it, and hearing other people express my same sentiments was such a joyous relief.

The Peruvians needed to get cash, so I offered to take them to the bank that I know and the Iowa guy tagged along. Annoyingly, because of Ramadan, the bank was closed and the ATM was out of money — an frequent occurrence that seems to happen everywhere in Europe and Africa but never back home. So, we decided to go for a walk. I was prepared to see the area now that I knew it wasn’t the slums I had imagined.

The city was alive and it was so good to be in civilization! There were shops and restaurants and banks and lights and nice cars and the people don’t bother you at all. They don’t follow you and they won’t yell at you and it’s kind of heavenly. They’re just out and about living their lives. The afternoon sun was sweltering, but I was having a nice time as my perspective was redrawn. It was during this walk that I lost all of my last fears of this country. There was nothing to be afraid of, after all, they were just people like me. Hustlers are hustlers anywhere in the world, they aren’t representative of a nation.

I don’t know how long we walked, but it was a long time, and I was glad to order my falafel dinner back at the hotel and wait for it on the roof.

I didn’t eat alone that night. I ate with all my new friends and made some more, like Melony from Australia. When I first met her and first thought about her, I had planned to write a silly dismissive post. But, I can’t do that. She’s actually my friend now and we have quite a lot in common. When I explain a bit more, I think you’ll understand.

She’s a reincarnated Atlantean Priestess who was called to Egypt because she has been chosen to go into the Great Pyramid and ascend above to gain knowledge. Then, she will walk through a tunnel that is at the foot of the Sphinx and access the Hall of Records. Along with her will be Thoth and Ra. When she’s there, she will find all the knowledge of the universe and this will cause a radical shift in the world. It will shake to its very core and we will enter a new era of peace and love and prosperity. It’s a beautiful idea, truly, and I wish her all the best.

It was late, but when I was talking about my idea of going to the Khan — a massive and ancient market in the old part of Ciaro — the next day, several people perked up and we decided to go that night. Egypt really gets going in the evening time, so it was open and alive and active and we decided we had no reason not to.

The staff was very worried for us. For a number of reasons, mind you. Don’t forget what I told you about tourism. Melony, Nels (the Iowan), and I were the ones who were most determined to go, so we asked Kamal to get us a cab. He was deeply unamused and tried to scare us away from going off on our own. This is just a ploy, though, trust me. The Egyptian people are truly deeply warm and courteous and happy to see foreigners coming back. Kamal didn’t want us to go, though, because he wanted us all to go on one of his tours that would cost $60 USD a piece. We thanked him kindly, asked him and the other members of the staff to stop worrying, and hailed a cab. There and back we spent £120 Egyptian pounds, which is like $17 USD and we overpaid by a ton. Kamal was losing quite a bit of money on our independence and it didn’t please him, but he couldn’t stop us.

We were soon hurtling through the busy nighttime streets and laughing far too loud and raising quite a ruckus. I have no doubt that the cab driver thought we were insane.

We made it to the market and stepped out into the middle of an entirely new world. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before in all my life. There was such a crowd of people who were out smoking pipes and eating and partying. Since it’s Ramadan, the faithful can only eat from sunset to about three o’clock in the morning so they eat and eat and eat and get over the stress and strain they suffered the day before.

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We wound through the narrow twisting alleys and it’s truly a miracle that we ever found our way out again! You could buy anything you wanted. You could get brass and gold anything and children’s toys and shoes and clothes and cloth and scarves and absolutely everything. I didn’t see anything that struck me as necessary — but then again, when I travel, I really don’t buy much. I spend most of my money on food and transportation! When I think back on my past five weeks away, the only thing I recall buying that was inedible was some pants, an umbrella, and a program from Dawn French’s show. I’m sure I’ll get some trinkets to take home, though, before I leave.

In one shop, I played with the sweetest cat. She was so small and surely underfed, but she was very happy from the attention I was giving her. As I was scratching her chin, a very old woman called me over to the back of the store and smilingly showed off the kittens. They were unbelievably cute and each wore his own collar. When two people love cats, it really doesn’t matter if you speak the same language or not. I would have gladly taken them all back home to America, but I don’t think that’s legal.

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We were there for hours and we were all exhausted. So, we left the market and grabbed something to drink and started looking for a taxi back to Giza. This proved to be the biggest adventure of this long day.

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All the taxis were loaded up. The Khan el-Khalili was finally slowing down and most people were heading back home. We wandered down one street after another. Then something horrific happened.

As Nels was in the street trying to hail a cab, Melony and I watched as a person ran into a narrow alley. Soon after that, glass bottles started flying in his direction. More and more people gathered and soon the bottles were raining down. I don’t know where they all came from. It didn’t take long before the angry mob doubled again and became even more violent. They were now smashing the bottles over the guys head and I honestly don’t know whether he lived or died. There was nothing I could do. There was nothing any of us could really do and that’s such an awful feeling. So, we got out of there as fast as we could and took the first cab that would take us. Maybe we should have found the second cab that would take us.

Our driver was an idiot. I speak enough Arabic to get a price and tell somebody what I want. I said, roughly, “I want go Pyramids.” I don’t think it can get much clearer than that. He understood what I meant and besides — who doesn’t know how to find the Pyramids when you’re a taxi driver in Cairo?

Well, he had absolutely no idea! We had to laugh about it because it was such a ridiculous scenario. He’d stop every few blocks, roll his window down, and yell for directions. We made it finally, though.

So, we grabbed our free Ramadan meals — cheese, bread, and yogurt — that they were handing out on the streets back in the Khan and went to bed. I don’t think I’ve ever been more tired in all my life.

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