Travel is Fatal – Cairo in Review

Travel is Fatal – Cairo in Review
Featured Writer: Marilyn Gardner

A quote attributed to Mark Twain says, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Perhaps it is also fatal to contentment for it is hard to be content with the normal when you have experienced the extraordinary.

This post then, is an attempt to give glimpses of the extraordinary through pictures and narrative. Thank you for taking the trip along with me to Egypt, an extraordinary place with extraordinary people.

The Beginning

Arriving in Cairo on a Thursday afternoon is like arriving in a western nation on a Friday afternoon. There is a sense in the air that the work week is ending and as we arrived there was a celebratory feel that had nothing to do with the fact that it’s two days before Christmas and everything to do with the end of a work week. As I said in an earlier post, the comfort of familiarity greeted us immediately – we were, in many ways, home. We settled into the guest house where we were staying and then headed to Annie’s apartment on a busy street near Midan Falaki. The kusherie shop at the entrance to her building brought tantalizing smells of lentils, pasta, rice and spicy tomato sauce. Through a side entrance we took a rickety, ancient elevator careful to heed the warnings of a man who let us know that no more than three people should be riding at a time. The elevator stopped at the 9th floor, top of the building and we spent a good hour ooohing and aaahing over the view. It was incredible. The Mokattam hills stretched out miles away and a Coptic church was in the foreground. Across the street were the dusty remains of an ancient outdoor theatre, long gone but chairs still sitting ready for a show. Just below to the right we saw four tanks and ten army men in full riot gear, at the ready should any trouble erupt. This did not give us comfort but rather made us realize the force that is sometimes quietly, and other times loudly used against protesters. An early dinner of shawerma and fuul bean sandwiches was followed by chai and shisha in a coffee shop across a busy street and down a side street from the apartment. After hours of talk and laughter we headed back to Zamalek and a jet lagged sleep, fully of satisfaction and the comfort of belonging.

Tahrir Square, Bab Zuweila and More…

Friday is the Muslim Holy day and is a day off in Egypt. Sermons from mosques throughout the city are periodically heard and men gather in large numbers at local mosques to observe this holy day through prayers and meeting together. We headed out to get a lunch of fateer (Egyptian pizza) close to Tahrir Squarewhere a large demonstration was taking place. Newspapers quoted numbers of 50,000 and more at the square. We were amazed by the passion and numbers, something that was quickly squelched during the Mubarak years and now a common occurrence. Graffiti on newly constructed walls and leftover from the uprising in January captured our attention and the lens of the camera. We took a slow walk fromTahrir   Square over to the Nile where we took a boat ride, something that has long been a favorite family activity, on theNile. Dinner at a Yemeni restaurant ended a day that will stay in our memories for many years.

We headed out to Bab Zuweila and the Khan el Khalili on Saturday, Christmas Eve. If you ever go toCairo, Bab Zuweila is a must see, must do. Despite living inCairofor seven years and many trips back, it was only in 2010 that I entered this medieval gate and climbed the minarets to the mosque beside the gates. The minarets give a 360 degree view of the city and it was an overwhelming sense of how small I am in this city of millions.

We took the short walk from Bab Zuweila to the Khan el Khalili market and walked into one of the many entrances to this well-known tourist destination. The spice shop we have gone to for years was still there, solid through change and revolution, pungent aromas and spices you never see in the west ready in large burlap sacks.

Despite the vendors constant shouts of “Let me help you spend your money!” “Welcome toAlaska” and “Come here, I have lovely things for you to buy!” I still love this market. I love the game of bargaining and finding treasures for pennies. I love being served tea while I pick out perfume bottles. I love ending the shopping experience with mint tea at Fishawy’s café.

After cleaning up from the dust of the city, we put on our Christmas Eve best and met at the Lebanese restaurant Taboula in the heart of Garden City. Mezzas of every kind, fresh pita bread, and aseer lemon (frothy lemon juice) was a perfect Christmas Eve meal, followed by a 10:30 pm service at the All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek. Time was rushing past and I wanted to hold it back, hold it tight so that it wouldn’t escape us like a dream. Now as I sit inCambridge, it feels like a dream.

Christmas Day and Alexandria

No snow greeted us on Christmas day but clear skies and 68 degree weather were reminders of many past Christmases. Christmas dinner was roasted chickens from a street vendor with traditional condiments served buffet style in a high apartment overlooking Tahrir Square. We celebrated with friends of Annie’s from various places around the globe. Growing up overseas and then living overseas as long as we have makes us quite passionate and vocal about God not being an American, but rather a global God with an international vision. Christmas overlooking Tahrir was one more reminder of many of the truth of that belief.

The day after Christmas saw us on a train to Alexandria, beautiful city on the Mediterranean. You can read more here but this too was an extraordinary trip and an amazing time. The Alexandria Library is a beautiful building with a rich history and serves as both a place of learning as well as a cultural center. A must see in the city of Alexandria. This city has a different and more relaxed feel to it than Cairo – perhaps it’s the Mediterranean air that works its way into the psyche and affects everything from the pace to the general mood. It is another reminder of all that Egypt has to offer the world.

Pyramids, Bulaq and Al Azhar Park

Our last days in Cairo included family favorites. Egypt is best known for the ancient Pyramids, said to be the oldest and only remaining ancient wonders of the world. Built around 2600 BC, they are beyond what you can imagine – only this time, I stayed back for coffee and shopping with Annie while the others headed out for horseback riding out into the desert and another visit to the pyramids. I know some of you may be thinking “Are you kidding? You skipped a trip to the pyramids!” but let me assure you, I have been to them dozens of times and have been wowed every time. Plus – I didn’t want to put my 51 year-old body on a horse. The stories that came out of the trip for the rest of the family are not mine to tell but are great and include a falling horse and amazing pictures.

We ended our time on Thursday at Al Azhar Park. This park is my favorite place in Cairobesides Marty’s balcony. In a city with little green space, the park is an oasis with views that cannot be described. I wrote about this park in the post “In Praise of Green Space” so will not go into more detail here, but it is a calm and beautiful space in a city where you need to get refreshment.

Back in Cambridge Cairo feels like a dream but bearing witness in narratives is as old as life itself – so thank you for listening and letting me bear witness to our trip through this medium. I realize that even as I write, the words are far too many and I don’t want to bore. So I’ll end with pictures and hope that you want more! I have said this before, and I’ll say it many more times – it is a privilege to share just a bit of this country. It is so much more than you will see on Fox news or CNN. It is so much more than the pyramids and old mosques. It is a people and a place that move into your heart and mind so that you beg to experience more.

Tahrir Square – Walls & Graffiti

During the 18 days that changed the course of modern-day Egypt, Tahrir Square, in the heart of downtown Cairo, became known throughout the world as the epicenter of freedom and change. We couldn’t wait to get a glimpse of the square and talk to people about what had transpired and what is transpiring.

Just a few days before our arrival the area around Tahrir was in chaos so we made contingency plans for where we would stay. Our daughter lives just a couple of blocks away and by the time we arrived things had quieted down. Quiet is a relative term. We headed out on Friday with plans to eat Egyptian pizza (fateer) and head toward theNilefor a felucca ride. At one end of Annie’s street ten soldiers in full riot gear blocked any movement and just past the soldiers sat four army tanks, ready and waiting to be used at the sign of any trouble.

As we attempted to get to the Nile, every where we turned we ran into obstacles. Large circles of barbed wire blocked street after street. And then there were the walls. These walls are like nothing I’ve seen before. They are massive square boulders built into 12 feet high walls. They are strategically placed in the downtown area to restrict movement and prohibit protesters from gathering. They are quite simply a clever means to block civilian dissent. To put this into context, it would be likeNew York Cityblocking off all side roads leading to Zuccotti Park with massive, immoveable, concrete boulders, sending all traffic in the area into chaos and frustration. Taxi drivers shake their heads in disgust as all attempts to drive places are met with detours imposed by the walls.

As quickly as the walls have been built, the graffiti has appeared. It was my children and Shepard Fairey that first challenged me to look at graffiti as an art form and a means of expression. The graffiti on the newly constructed walls does just that as it communicates powerful messages from civilians related to both the January 25th uprising as well as the violence that has been perpetuated this fall. This graffiti is well done. A common theme includes a patched eye, an accusation toward a young soldier who is infamous for shooting out the eyes of protesters – “Yes! I got another eye” is his arrogant quote.

More than anything, the graffiti is evidence of frustration and division regarding the ongoing role of the military in the new Egypt. For me the graffiti was a look into a society where I am an outsider. My Arabic is not good and even as I struggle to communicate, I want to learn more of what people are thinking and feeling. As with any kind of art, those who create the graffiti wish to use more than words to communicate their thoughts and ideas. Take a look and get a glimpse of Tahrir Square through the graffiti in these pictures.

64 thoughts on “Travel is Fatal – Cairo in Review

  1. I spent a month in Egypt about 1 year before the uprising. Granted, My now ex-husband and I stayed in luxury at the Four Season’s hotel in both Cairo and Alex, I could still sense the unrest in the streets. A certain feeling in the air told me that something was close to eruption, a tension, a feeling of resigned discontent among the people I spoke to.
    I have been many places, but Egypt is by far the most memorable of all. Your writing and recollections of it brought it all back. I hope to revisit someday, when the barriers are down, women and men share equal rights and the ruins are rightfully returned to their homes.
    I enjoy your writing and look forward to more!
    In Philly


    • Hi Jenni – I think I’m just a little bit jealous…I’ve always wanted to stay at the Four Season’s!! There is a proverb in Egypt “Once You Drink from the Nile you are destined to return…” so there you have it! I guarantee you’ll be back!


  2. Wonderful, enlightening post – I hope to visit someday soon! Also like your inclusion of Tahrir/Zuccotti – was so moved to see Egyptian folks supporting our protests at OWS, after all they’d been thru. Posts like yours make the world even smaller and show us how much we have in common with other nations and peoples…


  3. hi,
    my son wants to take a gap year and travel the world – any recommendations? where to go, how to fund? where to volunteer, any body to travel with?
    I love your blog and sense of adventure and so does he….


  4. I completely agree with you by saying that we should not settle for the ordinary/normal when you’ve already witnessed the extraordinary. I think it is our true calling to maximize ourselves in the world we were given whether through traveling, interacting with different people, or just by reading a blog full of points of view– all these should be done without any prejudice. Great post about Egypt. 🙂


  5. Vivid pictures, Lesley! It’s great to see that all these beautiful things remain and carry on despite the current events there in Egypt.


  6. A fabulous post that gave me a really special front row seat to your insights into live in Egypt, especially Cairo at this special time within 12 months of the famous Arab Spring events there. The graffiti, the food, the views, the crowds–all fill me with awe just reading about them here and enjoying your terriffic photographs. Mark Twain certainly was correct in his observations with regard to travel and YOU GUYS!


    • Thanks so much – It was an amazing time. We had wanted to be there during the uprising as our daughter was there throughout – getting to be there this Christmas was the next best thing and like going home.


  7. A very interesting and insightful post.
    I went to Egypt in 2010 Summer and while I found Cairo a crazy and yet fascinating place, for me the grandest place in all the country is the Temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel. I was one of those crazy tourists that go to places out of season at times when others fear to go; in this case a mid-summer afternoon with a 50 degree temperature. My reward, however, was to have the site to myself (and my wife) in a place that gives an aura of overwhelming power with stunning views across Lake Nasser. If I never go back there this is a vision that will stay with me always.


  8. Fantastic coverage and photos, Marilyn….certainly made me ‘homesick’ even only being gone now for 1 mo. since our last visit…thank you


  9. Oh I love this post – I have such great memories of my Egypt trip – your post brought it all back. I particularly liked your description of koshery. It was introduced to us by a young fellow we met on the train from Cairo to Alexandria- after that we ate it ceaselessly for our trip. cheap and uhmazing! Thanks for sharing.


  10. What a wonderful post about Egypt! I went their for a vacation and got to experience some of the things that you did. I have a lot of memories and had the chance to speak with some of those from the tour agency about everything from politics and life in Egypt as they and the people have experienced it to how they see America and the role it plays in Egypt and the world. I enjoyed it so much that I wasn’t ready to leave and return to my work in Saudi. I hope to visit there again someday in the future.


  11. Egypt is on my bucket list; and I have always had the feeling that once I visit Egypt, I it will be difficult to leave. After reading your picturesque post, it seems that feeling is right. 😀 Great post, thank you for sharing your journeys. 😀


  12. “it is hard to be content with the normal when you have experienced the extraordinary…” So true, and that is why I love travel. Keeps us fresh and eager for more. 😉


  13. Egypt looks like a beautiful country and it certainly qualifies as a extraordinary country, to me. Need to go there some time soon as well. I am happy to read you enjoyed it.

    I also agree that places like that make it hard to enjoy our day to daily enviornment.


  14. Excellent post. The visuals are great and they remind one of the older parts of several Indian cities.The Twain quote reminds me of his hilarious exploits in the European museums, recounted in his Innocents Abroad. If I remember correctly, after a detailed exposition about the antiquity and other aspects of an Egyptian mummy, by an enthusiastic guide/curator, he enquires with an utterly deadpan expression, whether it was alive.


  15. 3days later. Hah! I found it again, finally. Are you going to archive this in the Africa section?
    Coffee is done now(10.15am here), going to relax and enjoy this read. Cheers, thanks a lot


  16. Vivid. The spices are screaming ‘come get me.’ Roasted chickens in a ‘penthouse’ on Xmas day in an exotic place sounds cool, American God doesn’t mind!
    Let me help you spend your money! Indeed. A nice read.


  17. Very informative but also great stories. I’m actually going to be moving to Egypt at the end of the month, so this paints a great pictures, but alos the pictures paint a great picture too 😛


  18. My father owned a metal fabrication company. He had a contract to build 100 double tractor trailers for a company in Sudan. We were there when Reagan won his first election. While in Sudan, we travelled to Egypt and stayed in Cairo. I was 14 at the time. It was a great experience, I learned more in two weeks there about their culture than I did in the classroom. I loved going to the bazaars, pyramids, seeing sphinx and going to the museum. I have a painting on papyrus.


    • I hope to travel the world with my daughter; and at 18 months old she already has a great start. There is so much to gain from travel and experiencing cultures firsthand. I hope that you continued what your father started and you’ve continued to explore the world. 🙂


      • Mostly to the Caribbean to learn how to snorkel. But now that my son is older. I want to take him to Europe and Asia. I was fortunate enough to play soccer in Ireland in high school. Travel to England and Scotland with my parents. and go to Japan with my college roommate for a month. One of my cousins just moved to Honduras to be a rescue diver. So now I’ll have to go there of course 🙂


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