Egypt was once again in the news this week, with the tragic riots at a football match that killed 75. For me, it was a bit more personal- the match in Port Said was between Al-Masry and Al-Ahly. That may not mean much to many, but Al-Ahly are my adopted team, so to speak. Two summers ago, seemingly a lifetime before the so-called Arab Spring, I spent eleven weeks in Egypt, predominantly in Cairo. There it wasn’t unusual to while a night away in the the particularly Egyptian fashion of smoking shisha and watching football.
I originally planned to go for five weeks over summer, to get out of London and do something useful with my time. Studying at LSE had made me distinctly aware of my inadequacies in the language department and this seemed the perfect way to learn Arabic and see the sights.
I arrived, unable to read the street signs, let alone speak the language. Yes, I had booked into language classes, but had only one night booked in a hostel and a return journey in five weeks time. I admit, I realised then I had taken a risk.
Having found a flat, complete with roof-top balcony and broken chandeliers, with an Austrian and an American, we set off to explore the city. Most people I knew who had visited Cairo had been fairly disparaging; I was warned of the pollution, the noisiness, the crowds and the harassment.
Spending the first week doing the mandatory tourist hot-spots, I began to see their point. Primary school history lessons had built up an exotic view of the pyramids that was duly washed away. The famous Cairo museum was filled with some amazing artifacts, unfortunately everything was just scattered about, unlabelled and in disarray. Even more unfortunately, it was looted last year in the struggle. And Khan-el-Khali, the bazaar, was merely filled with tat and tourists in cheesy Egyptian holiday t-shirts rather than the intoxicating Aladdin’s cave of goods that I had expected.
However, with this out of the way, we had the chance to really see Cairo. We left the expensive tea shops, used our Arabic a bit more and tasted more authentic foods. I became a connoisseur of tahini, a sesame seed based dip and was kept going throughout the day by the ten pence falafel stands. I soon discovered koshary, a “love it or hate it”, carb-heavy dish of macaroni, rice, spaghetti, chickpeas, spices, chilli, fried onions and a tomato and garlic sauce: a contender to the fry-up for the best quick, cheap and filling comfort food.
I discovered that Cairo, not New York, was the city that never sleeps. Staying up to the early morning, I was pleasantly surprised that the restaurants and markets were still full of families. This was exemplified after a night in a karaoke bar, when I was dragged by the Austrian to a McDonalds filled not with drunken revellers, like you would find at Leicester Square at the same time, but with families and kids. The bar was in itself an interesting experience, filled with tourists from the Gulf States, letting their hair down so to speak as they blasted out Arabic covers of Western pop songs, whilst numerous rounds of beer and vodka-based alcopops were bought.
With a population of nearly eight million, Cairo is full of contrasts and tensions. Expats live the high life side-by-side to the conservative, poorer neighbourhoods. Taking a break from the heat of city and wishing to sun ourselves by the pool, we spent one afternoon in the plush, up-market Muhammad Ali sports club in Giza, frequented by richer Egyptians and expats. At around three we were woken from our relaxing combination of a light beer, salad and a novel as loud techno music started playing from the pool, with a bass that seemed more at home in the Ministry of Sound. It was an odd moment and the peaceful oasis soon turned into a pool party, the rich Egyptians and Arabs seeming to appreciate this fact the most. In the pool was a long-haired wannabe-Latin Lothario, swinging his hair to the music. Sat next to us on one side was a fellow Brit, who spent most of the time bemoaning the city she had moved to for work. Trying to avoid her dispiriting conversation, we realised the overweight and balding, middle-aged man next to us was enjoying the company of two rather beautiful and lithe escorts. What was meant to opportunity for us to rest had became more hectic than the traffic in downtown Cairo. The city is large with districts housing what seemed like different worlds, from the expat filled island of Zamalek to the beautiful church carved into the hills, beside what is known as Garbage City, where the refuse and recycling for the entire city is collected and sorted through in amongst the living quarters. My days and afternoons seemed so varied and different, it was hard to believe most places I visited in Cairo where only a short Metro ride- in a women’s only carriage- away from each other.
It is not just the sights of this large and bustling city that are particularly memorable. The people I met could tell numerous stories and it seemed like Cairo attracted a variety of people. Through the expat network I met the love-struck women, who had come over for particular Egyptian men, a charity refugee worker, who told some horrific stories and an American Harvard-educated professional belly-dancer, who had come to Cairo for six months only to have stayed a couple of years. This seemed to happen to a lot of people in Cairo, myself included- I stayed an extra six weeks, realising there was still so much more to see and not being enticed by the prospect of returning to a dreary London, where I would have to work.
Cairo seems to operate differently from most other places: you get used to the rather too prevalent system of bakshish (tips) needed to get by, the nosy bowabs (doormen) who know everything about what you do in your flat and tut at you accordingly and the stares you get as a Westerner in a residential neighbourhood, no matter what you wear or do. You get used to the benefits of the city as well. You get used to the weather that is a mixture of hot or very hot. You get used to the fact you can get everything delivered to your flat, from Starbucks to McDonalds to alcohol supplies from Drinkies- a chain well-known to all nearly all expats in Egypt. In fact, nothing begins to surprise you, even the concept of drive-in shisha cafes, where you smoke through the window of your car.
I didn’t just stay in Cairo. Weekends arrived and sometimes it felt necessary to get out of the city. I went to Aswan, Alexandria, Siwa and twice to Dahab and Nuweiba. These were all short breaks, filled with either sightseeing or relaxing in the beautiful surroundings. In Siwa my friends and I went dune-boarding at night, bathed in hot springs and picked dates off the trees. In Sinai, we slept on the sand, woke up to the sunrise and spent the day snorkelling or relaxing on the beach. One night we climbed Mount Sinai to watch the sunrise from the top. These trips were amazing breaks from the hustle of the city, but somehow I was drawn back again and again to Cairo. Yes, it was hot, busy and noisy but I loved it all the more so for it.
For those who are wondering I may not be fluent in Arabic now, but I’ve improved from the five phrases I knew at the start- of which three I soon learnt weren’t used in Egypt. My skills cover the situations I found myself in frequently: talking about the weather to taxi drivers, ordering shisha food and talking about football. Needless to say I have a good knowledge of fruits and still remember the words for the lit coals, lighter and goal. It may not get you far in language classes, but it certainly helped me get by in Egypt.
I came back to London eventually, my suitcase filled with bags of tea and spices, colourful fabrics, a large hookah, fruit-flavoured tobacco, baklava and jewellery. I missed certain aspects of Cairo- the people, the food and the nights- and others I was happier to leave behind – the poverty, the expat arrogance and the attitudes to women. I may have extended my stay out there, but some friends I made have still not managed to make it back to Europe. People talk about catching stomach bugs from the food in Egypt- I managed to avoid this – but I certainly caught something else, that has kept me drawn to Cairo ever since.