Cairo may be best known for the Great Pyramids in Giza, but it’s the rest of the city that captured my heart, from its insane traffic to its architectural treasures.
As my driver Mohamed drops me off at my hotel, he gives me one last instruction: Crossing the street, he says, is different here. Boy is he right! It’s a game of Frogger and a test of wills. There are no crosswalks or street lights. Tourists feel like they take their life into their hands to cross the street, but after a few times I get the hang of it. Here’s the trick: Watch for a slight break in the cars, step off the curb, and make eye contact with the driver behind the break. Then go. Walk in a straight line. As you get to the next lane, shift your gaze to the upcoming car in the next lane. Stare them down, like “it’s my turn, buddy, slow down.” More often than not they will slow down. If not, you’re not glaring at them hard enough.
With adrenaline coursing through my veins I survive my first major street crossing and meet Mostafa from Cairo Walking Tours at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo’s most famous museum. There he instructs me on where to buy my entrance ticket and where to show it. “Don’t show it to anyone after that,” he warns me. “Anyone else will just be trying to get you to hire them as a guide.” I’m grateful for the advice, because after my time in Petra, Jordan and Istanbul, Turkey, I’m well aware of the antics these vendors will go through to get my business.
I catch up with Mostafa inside the museum, where he tells me he likes to spend several hours taking people through the museum. “You have one hour,” I inform him. To his great dismay, I am not a museum person. I saw the Louvre in Paris in only 45 minutes and don’t feel like I missed anything. Same for the Egyptian Museum. Sure there was some cool stuff, but to me, the good stuff happens in real time, not in history.
An hour later, Mostafa shakes his head in frustration when I inform him his hour is up. “But there’s so much more to see!” he insists. Nope. I’m the client, and the client gets what the client wants. Mostafa is a pro, so despite his misgivings he leads me outside into the Cairo heat for our next stop. Mostafa has been running Cairo Walking Tours since 2007 and it’s the only free walking tour in the city. He has gone out of his way to rearrange his schedule around mine so he can take me around Cairo today.
We cross the busy street again and head into the denser part of Cairo, passing bland concrete buildings and countless alleyways that all look the same to a visitor. I make sure to note landmarks – like breadcrumbs, they might be my only hope of making it back to my hotel if Mostafa and I get separated. Drivers packed into narrow streets honk their horns in frustration at nothing in particular.
Mostafa takes me through a small alleyway in a neighborhood filled with the sound of artisans working on metal. “Take no photos here,” he warns me. “The secret police headquarters are just a few blocks away and the whole area is under heavy surveillance. They detain anyone they see taking photos or doing anything they think is suspicious.”
He then leads me through the Victory Gate onto Al-Muizz Street in the Old City. The street, which leads from the spice market to El Hakim Mosque a kilometer away, is considered an open-air museum and is thought to have the largest concentration of medieval architectural treasures in the Islamic world. This is my kind of museum.
We pass store fronts, shisha cafes and my favorite – a sopia stand – where we sample sweet, refreshing coconut milk, on our way to the El Hakim mosque. After making sure I was properly covered, Mostafa leaves me in the courtyard while he goes inside to pray. The sunlight is fading and small groups of young people congregate in the cool, quiet courtyard while I wait. From what I can tell, the mosque is more than just a place of prayer – it’s also a social gathering place. Many westerners believe that Muslims drop everything and pray five times a day, but Mostafa informs me this isn’t true. “Can you imagine what would happen in traffic if that happened?” he laughs. Instead, he tells me, the call to prayer is merely a reminder, and men simply need to take a few minutes to pray any time before the next call to prayer, whether in a mosque or not. I think about this as I wait for him in the peaceful courtyard. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea, I think, to pause periodically during the day to be grateful or to merely meditate peacefully.
As we get ready to leave the Old City I ask to stop outside one of the beautiful buildings. I just want to watch the street and the people in it, and within minutes I am rewarded. An old man, dressed in traditional Egyptian clothing sits on a curb and pulls out a cell phone that looks totally at odds with his outfit. A man pulling a cart full of dates and nuts walks by, calling to someone he knows. Then to my right, I hear the sound of a guitar. Soon three handsome young men are singing in sweet harmony. This is the Cairo I was looking for – the moments of real life you can’t find in a guide book or on display in a museum. It’s a perfect appetizer for tonight’s main course: attending my driver Mohamed’s brother’s wedding.