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An Unlikely Cairo

By Brad Zembic

cairoKiosks Galore, Khan al Kalili Bazaar. ©The Real Chrisparkle

An unwitting tourist learns that in Cairo, one of the planet's most fascinating cities, preparation and keeping your wits about you can save you a headache and a lot of Egyptian pounds. But sometimes going with the flow in this Pearl of the Nile can open up whole new world.

"Lesson one: you have to be careful with Cairo cabbies," young Mina, the desk clerk at my hotel, told me before I ventured off to tour the sights. "You're a tourist. They'll take advantage of you and charge too much."

I researched the amount I would have to fork out for a taxi to Islamic Cairo, a section of the city deemed a World Heritage Site by the United Nations and one that bears no resemblance to Cairo's more modern city centre, with its post-colonial sandstone office blocks, skyscrapers and unbelievably busy streets.

"Not more than five Egyptian pounds," Mina counselled me sternly. Even if an unscrupulous driver charged me tripled that, I thought, the idea of a three-dollar fare for a twenty-minute taxi ride started me giggling like I'd just won a lottery.

Whistling my way out of the hotel, I was startled by the sheer volume of taxis that streamed, like an endless herd of black and white-coloured fish, up the congested channel of asphalt called Haalat Hardhat, one of the city's main traffic arteries. Getting a cab was as easy catching salmon in a soup bowl, but convincing one to take me at a rate the locals pay turned out to be a challenge.

cairoShoppers' Paradise, Khan al Kalili Bazaar. ©The Real Chrisparkle

The first driver snapped his tongue against the roof of his mouth to produce a kissing sound, the Egyptian equivalent of 'no', when I made my offer. The next cabby leered at me as if I'd just offered him a subway token for a ride to Paris. Eventually, though, a smiley man in a shabby-looking taxi agreed to take me for seven pounds.

Near Hadaat Square, a tidy roundabout sentried by a statue of Col. Farouk Muhammad, who in 1922 led the charge against the British at the battle for Khartoum, I began sorting out the vast array of unfamiliar bank notes in ready for payment. When the driver began to help by plucking money from my hand faster than I could follow, I became suspicious and decided to cut my losses and bail out.

I spent the rest of my day wandering the streets of central Cairo, taking in its wealth of Baroque architecture and bustling city life. Women in dark head scarves, and men in business suits and traditional galabiehs strolled by or sat in restaurants dining on felafelas and kocheri, a noodley dish topped with tomato paste, lentil beans and fried onions. Downtown Cairo, day or night, resembles one huge block party with sidewalks so glutted with pedestrians many are forced to join the endless rank of some two hundred thousand taxis that cruise the streets, their horns honking like migrating Egyptian geese. Others, though, just crowd in front of Cairo's multitude of shoe, clothing and electronics shops, glaring at merchandise that, at night, is so brightly illuminated cars don't bother to use their headlights.

The next morning, after a breakfast of fresh croissants from a nearby bakery, I made a second attempt at visiting Islamic Cairo. This time I was armed with a better working knowledge of the local currency. After agreeing to another seven-pound fare, I slowly made my way along the Azhar Bridge, over Opera Square, with its mobs of pedestrians, and past Cairo Central, the 1890s train station built during the British occupation. At Khan el-Khalili, in the centre of Old Cairo, the driver earned an involuntary tip when he made out that he didn't have any change.

"Lesson Two of riding in Cairo taxis," I thought. "Always have in your possession a large number of small bills."

Islamic Cairo was a chaotic maze of mostly connecting brick and clay buildings that date as far back as Marmaduke. Sadly, many were destroyed during earthquakes that struck the region in the early 1990s. During my visit the destruction seemed as if it happened only weeks before. Sections of the area still lay in ruin: buildings stood roofless, their walls irregular jigsaw puzzles of smashed brickwork, and rooms remained piled with rubble.

cairoKhan al Kalili Bazaar and some local colour. ©The Real Chrisparkle

In the ancient Khan el-Kalili bazaar, I became overwhelmed by the large volume of shoppers and workers plying the main alleys. Dust rose like incense and, as the sunlight filtered through it, the haunting wail of a muezzin's call to prayer and the incoherent mutterings of hundreds of people melded momentarily into a single wall of sound. Young boys carried steel trays of steaming chai to tight shops filled with vertical bolts of fabric; dark-haired people, mostly men, stood in vestibules conversing, or hauled on carts merchandise and building materials. I took refuge from the seeming chaos in a small outdoor kocheri restaurant where, for less than a quarter dollar, I was served up a steaming bowl of noodles and condiments.

As I left to re-enter the slow stream of people, donkey carts and motorbikes that navigated the narrow alleyway, a small galabiehed man with a wrinkled and coppery complexion offered to help me find a shop with bottled water. Ahmed had lived in Old Cairo his entire life. His father and grandfather were born on the very street I was being led down, straight toward a tiny clay building that housed his dusty and rusted collection of antiques: bronze boxes from the days when the Ottoman Turks occupied Egypt, candelabra, ornate metal picture frames and hanging candle holders. His charm was unsurpassable, and although I didn't buy any of his wares, I eventually hired him as a guide to escort me through the labyrinthine streets. Along our way, he pointed out for me the intricacies of Old Cairo's architecture. I marveled at the Ottoman gables of centuries-old buildings, the wooden-latticed balconies of harems and the ornate mosques – things I may not have noticed had I wandered the alleys alone.

During my week in Cairo, as I strolled the canyon-like streets, window-shopping and sipping Turkish coffees, I learned to refuse many of the offers of assistance by ordinary-looking Caireans – at least in areas frequented by tourists: Whenever I had allowed myself to be befriended, I invariably found myself skillfully shepherded into a curio shop or bartering for the services of an unwanted guide. But thanks to Ahmed, I did, on occasion, utter the occasional Insha'Allah and put myself in the hands of an Egyptian host to enjoy the hospitality that is part and parcel of Egyptian culture.

Brad Zembic is a Vancouver-based writer of travel stories, book and film reviews, and fiction. His work has been published in the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times. Images by The Real Chrisparkle can be viewed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/therealchrisparkle/.Cover image by Louise Al. Louise's images can be enjoyed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/louise_al/.