The editor's first trip to Egypt included visits to many Pharoahnic sites and a trip up the Nile, among other things. This trip an effort was made to visit many of the medieval buildings of Cairo; there are descriptions as well of the many interesting things the group did as a whole.
If you read this account and enjoy it, please contact Iliana..
Early one morning in June of 2004, I was sitting in the JFK airport, bleary-eyed and stiff after an all-night flight from Arizona. Here at Terminal 4, I would meet the rest of Morocco's group, before we all boarded the 7:00 PM plane to Egypt. Our destination was Cairo, and the Ahlan Wa Sahlan dance festival!
Rocky and most of her group would not arrive at the airport until late afternoon, but she'd suggested I look out for the the
California dancers. They would be arriving at JFK around the same time as I would. So that we could meet up and keep
eachother company during our long wait, she'd given me the e-mail address of one of the California women. I'd let her know
what I would be wearing and approximately where they could find me.
I wrote in my journal:
6:10 A.M.June 23
I'm sitting in the Food Court. There are El Salvadorenas at the next table, Jamaicans with lilting voices sitting in front of me.
(And also several generations of Jamaicans working behind the coffee-shop counter...
"And a cranberry...."(said with rising inflection)..."muffin" (drop in inflection).
All with machine-gun rapid voices punctuated with laughter, the kids totally Americanized...)
The young Jamaican women seem so gentle and playful with their mothers, i've seen several examples of this already.
Overheard at a table of blue-collar airline employees, "I can't drink alcohol, I'm allergic to it...I break out in
I was very tired from the long overnight flight, and there was a dull persistent ache in my left hip and knee. (If you're
over fifty, you know what I'm talking about!) The new neck-support pillow I'd ordered from Magellan's had worked great, but I
hadn't slept much. On either side of me were delicate-looking young Asians. On my left a young girl slept curled up in her
seat, her smooth bare brown feet propped against the window ledge. On my right, a young man also slept, leaning slightly
sideways, shock of thick black hair over his aristocratic-looking face.
The passengers on the plane seemed quite the representative sample of New York City folk: a family of conservative Jews, a
mother and daughter from Jamaica, a jovial group of young men of all colors (African-Americans, Indians, Caucasions, Asians)
(who seemed to be on some kind of corporate outing), and a tall dark Rastafarian guy with long, fake-looking braids....
Walking before me as I entered the plane was a very attractive light-skinned young African-American girl, and I was amused at
all the guys on either side of the row giving her hopeful smiles. New Yorkers are nothing if not direct!
I wrote in my journal:
6:55 A.M.June 23 2004
When I arrived at JFK it about a half-hour ago, they had gotten rid of the rickety basement bus which used to take passengers from terminal to terminal. Instead, a new "air train" shot around the different terminals like something in "The Jetsons", that cartoon about a "space age" family that we used to watch (as kids in the 50's). Riding the "air train" with me were several very serious conservative Jewish men in suits and stiff black hats, looking like cartoons.
I got out at Terminal Four and found the "Arrivals" and "Departures" areas, but it seemed to take several grumpy groggy trips
up and down the elevator and down and back various halls before I found the "Food Court". (They had posted a map of the
air-port, but they hadn't included the usual "You are Here" note on it!)
The "Food Court" is just as I remembered on my first trip to Egypt*, everything painted white or gray. I got a cappuchino and
sat down, stomach tense and convoluted with from the trip.
As I sat there with my coffee and journal, my mind was turning over and over. Of course I felt that excitement which one
always feels in setting off on a journey to a far-away land. But I could not shake the pervasive gloom that had had a hold
over me for some time. Ever since my country, the United States, had invaded Iraq the year before, I'd been so upset, so sad,
and so angry. (I'd written over twenty letters to various U.S. government officials, and also participated weekly, ever since
the invasion, in a peace vigil with the local Women in Black.)
But then, in early May 2004, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal had broken. Though I had feared (known) from the beginning that
the invasion would be a disaster, this was more awful than my worst imaginings. I kept on pushing this new horror out of my
mind during the remaining weeks of work (I work as an aide at a middle school in Arizona, and the last few weeks of the term
are always hectic.) But when work had ended at the end of May, a cloud of black horror and excruciating shame (shame for my
country's actions) had hit me like a ton of bricks.
I really felt like I needed some time alone. But immediately after work stopped, I'd promised I'd go with my husband and
several other couples on a three-day fishing trip and camp-out up in the forest at Black River,in northern Arizona. In the
past, I had always enjoyed these camp-outs. These particular friends had started out being primarily my husband's friends,
but they'd become my friends also over the years, and I was very fond of them.
But I had felt so apart and so alone on that camping trip. I would look at the beautiful forest and I seemed to see bombs
coming down on the other side of the trees. There was no one there whom I could talk to about how I felt. (My husband is not
very political,and it turned out that these friends of ours were much more conservative than I had realized.) I had to "bite
my lip" many times during those three days in the woods. I didn't want to lose dear friends, or get in an argument out there
in the wilderness and upset my husband. It had been a while since we'd gone anywhere together, and I knew he had been looking
forward to this camp-out for a long time. So I kept my outer self amiable and cheerful and I don't think I showed any of my
In times of personal turmoil, there are two things that help one to heal (or at least that's what I've found). One thing
that helps is to have time alone, to think and write and digest the painful facts which have so disturbed the mind and soul.
The other healing activity is to communicate, to have deep conversations with people who care and who feel the same way. In
the several weeks that remained between that camping trip and the departure for Cairo, I had indeed had time to be alone. I
also was able to talk and correspond with certain friends and family who did understand and share both my views and my
Several times during early June, I'd come into Tempe to meet my younger son Brian for dinner at Haji Baba's restaurant.
Talking to Brian really helped, as it always does.
It's always fun shopping for a trip. I'd bought a journal to write in, I'd checked that my shots were still current, and I'd
ordered a neck-support pillow and a cute little travel alarm clock from Magellan's travel supply catalog. I'd also had to
apply for a new passport because I'd spilled coffee on my old one! My photo had separated a bit from the page it was on,
making the document no longer valid. (Passports look as if they are laminated, but I can vouch for the fact that they are
Morocco had sent my tickets in plenty of time, so I was spared that last-minute anxiety I'd had before my two previous
I'd sewn a dressy but simple gown to wear at the "opening and closing galas"; I'd bought three long-sleeved turtle-neck
tops and three long gauze skirts (I always seem to find plenty of these at second-hand stores). I'd sewn a couple of
sturdily-made underskirts with attached hidden pockets, and ordered some high-topped black shoes and a soft black hat with a
(This modest way of dressing is actually the way I always dress, even at home. I've been doing so since I turned fifty. A few
years ago, after a malignant skin cancer was removed from the bridge of my nose, the surgeon suggested I cover up if I'm out
during the day. (Plus, I think most people over 55 look better if they stay away from short skirts and shorts!).
The day I was to leave for the trip, I was packing my bag; the house was quiet as my husband was out on some errands. It
seemed quite a coincidence when I switched on the Charlie Rose show, and found that he was interviewing the young
Egyptian-American woman who directed the film "Control Room". The film is about Al Gezira, the Qatar TV station which has
been in the news so much during the last few years.
She said that Al Gezira has much more credibility with Arab audiences than does "Al Hurra", the Arabic-language TV
station which was recently started by the U.S. government with the goal of countering Al Gezira's influence. Charlie asked
her about the charge that Al Gezira's news is slanted to conform with the views of its Arab audiences.
"Well yes", she said ironically, "The station does show events from the Arab perspective, in that the U.S. news stations show
the bombs leaving and Al Gezira shows them arriving."
She said she felt had to make the film because she was going crazy sitting in New York City and watching TV and
hearing all the crazy things being said about Al Gezira, and then talking to friends and family in Egypt and hearing how
differently they felt about it.
She also said that she actually thought Al Geziira promoted democracy among the Arabs, by airing hours of U.S. Senate
hearings on the Abu Ghraib scandal every day. She said, "Arab audiences know that a high-ranking general of any Arab
country would never have to appear. They see democracy in action."
My Kuwaiti tutor had told me that she didn't like Al Geziira, because of "those shows where they have representatives of two
different Arab countries arguing with eachother". She thought these shows were not conducive to Arab solidarity. She was a
graduate student in linguistics, a charming and pleasant girl; she and I would meet every two weeks in a coffee-house and
she'd teach me different things in Arabic, and help me translate songs. In our last session before I left for the trip, I'd
asked her to teach me a dozen or phrases which I might use while in Egypt, such as "I have two sons and one daughter", or "I
hate George Bush", or (a good one to use while tipping, she said) "Divide it up among yourselves". I did end up using all of
My husband Dale had not gone to work that day because he had to go to the doctor's for an ex-ray. We'd had lunch together at
"Tortas Hermosillo" after our morning errands. (There are a large number of Mexican immigrants living in the town of Mesa
now,and some great little restaurants have appeared that cater to them.) He had left a pot of green-chile burro-filling
simmering in the crock pot, and I'd eaten two "burros" (the green-chile beef filling rolled in a tortilla) before I'd left
for the "red-eye" flight to JFK.
The following morning, as I sat there writing in my journal at the JFK International terminal "food court", I kept looking up to watch the constant stream of passers-by, on the look-out for the
the California members of Morocco's group. I saw some women go by whom I thought might be dancers; they plopped themselves
down on a semi-circle of stone benches by the windows off the side of the food court. I was girding myself up to go find out
if these ladies were the ones I was supposed to meet up with, When one of them, a tall, self-assured out-going young
Afro-American woman came over, saying, "Are you Lennie?" and, grateful for the friendly gesture, I followed her over to join
We had a long time to wait, and we were all tired from our overnight flights, but we had a great time hanging out
together. They were, I found out pretty quickly, a fun group, not afraid to be silly. They introduced themselves and we all
exchanged some information about eachother, our collective mood charged by our anticipation of this exciting trip.
Yolanda, of Mexican heritage, one of those hispanic women who have a Middle Eastern look, a real beauty whose features look
Persian, carrying herself with an inner dignity and classiness. She is a well-known dancer-instructor in the Palo Alto area,
who has a twice-weekly gig at a Middle Eastern restaurant in that city. Her daughter Audry, dark and beautiful, also dances.
(I found out later that Yolanda's husband had died earlier that year, and both of them still were mourning him deeply.) Their
friend Amelia is blonde, serene, curvacious, with big blue eyes and full lips, of those young women who can look unabashedly
sexy even in a calf-length skirt and loose over-blouse. All dance often in the Palo Alto area.
Gloria at first was quiet, a slightly plump young Hispanic women who turned out, as the afternoon wore on, to be fun-loving
and giggly, with a gorgeous smile. She's a student of Yolanda's and apparently quite a "hot ticket" as a performer, according
to her teacher. For a while during the day, she and Amelia made an outing to the bar.
Antonia was petite, a little older, an experienced dancer, who seemed intelligent and caring. Glee, a thoughtful, serene
woman is a massage therapist and a student of Shira (the well-known Shira who has the belly-dance website).
Rose was talkative, assertive, intelligent, her out-going friendly personality instantly likeable. In fact they were all easy
to like. As the afternoon wore on, I found that I felt quite close to all of them. We had a lot of fun conversation related
to dance experiences. We even danced some, at least to the extent of getting up now and then to demonstrate moves to
eachother. Several of these women were old friends, but you would have thought we all were by the way we acted with
As 3:00 drew near, we went up to a carpeted area closer to our check-in, following instructions which Morocco had given to
Rose. We waited there for a while, and Rose left to go scouting around a bit. Suddenly she came back to say that Morocco was
already here, and that we were all to go to terminal 4. We went around the coner and took our places in our long winding
line, that wound around other lines of people and their baggage, including a row of about forty conservative Jewish gentlemen
in suits and flat dark grey and black hats, right across from us. What a crush! There was Morocco, up ahead (finally in
person!) black hair with threads of grey cascading down her back, large turquoise-and-black-framed glasses, talking a
mile-a-minute in her warm New York-accented voice.
We became part of the hustle-and-bustle, as we joined approximately thirty other group-members, all with their baggage. I
met Zora, my roommate for the trip, who was a few spaces ahead of me in line. I recognized her name when she introduced
herself to someone in front of her. She was a tiny little thing with a warm caring spirit and a loving outlook on the world.
The slow-moving line didn't bother me; it was nice to people-watch and to know that we finally were about to be on EgyptAir.
Morocco suddenly turned and yelled, "Are you Lennie?" and ran over and gave me a big warm hug.
"You're beautiful!" I said. (She had warned me that without her costuming and stage makeup she looked like "dracula in
drag"!) but she was beautiful, vibrant and dramatic, like a swift pulsing river cascading through life.
First we all congregated at the top of the stairs, then we were all told to eat, then we all congregated in a corner near the
Egypt Air gate and heard Rocky's travel advice based on her many years of making this trip, and then we got in the long line
for the plane; we seemed to fill about a third of it! I found my seat, in one of the two outside rows next to a slender
urbane man from Alexandria; I didn't mind that I wasn't seated with people from our group as I wanted some time to calm and
collect my thoughts......
* For an travel account of my first trip to Egypt, click here
** Charlie Rose is a daily show on the Public Broadcasting System (U.S.A.) Charlie is an excellent interviewer.
** Charlie Rose is a daily show on the Public Broadcasting System (U.S.A.) Charlie is an excellent interviewer.
The flight was long, and as always, it's difficult for those of us over fifty to sit still that long. I listened to the classical Arabic station on the earphones, which helped. The new neck pillow made a big difference because it didn't let my head fall forward, and the those aggravating aches in my left hip and knee, which I always get on long flights, were ameliorated somewhat by changing leg position: feet on the bag, over the bag, in front of the bag.
(Later I talked to a young woman in our group who said that there were some Egyptian passengers actually sleeping in the rows, under the feet of their families, taking turns. First the kids did it, then the adults.)
The Egyptians on the plane were, as a whole, dressed quite differently than the other time I'd flown EgyptAir. There were some headscarves on the women, and some of the little kids were dressed up, but on the whole people dressed pretty much the way western people dress when they fly. When I'd taken this EgyptAir JFK-to-Cairo flight on the first of June in 2002, almost every woman on the plane had been dressed very conservatively but in fine clothes (expensive-looking head-to-toe outfits in shades of black, brown, cream, grey with matching headscarves) and all the little kids were all dolled up. (Perhaps there had been some kind of holiday that I wasn't aware of, because the whole plane at that time had been full of excited chatter, like they were all going to grandma's.)
This plane was completely full, as that one had been. One of the airline workers told me that she always works EgyptAir check-in, and that everyday it's the same, the plane leaves once daily at 7:00 PM and always it's full. (Judging from the huge amounts of stuff the Egyptians were checking in, the airline must make quite a bit on check-in baggage over-charges.)
Toward the end of the twelve-hour flight, feeling painfully stiff, rather cold from the air-conditioning, and too uncomfortable to really enjoy the coffee and a breakfast roll, it seemed difficult to appreciate the fact that this plane had taken us to the other side of the world. Excitement began to grow an hour later, as we began our descent into Cairo. It wasn't that "unbelievable dream come true" ecstatic rush I'd felt the first time I'd seen this fabled city from the air, but it was a very special feeling all the same, almost like a homecoming.
What a crush there was in the cavernous, dingy concrete baggage-pickup area, with all of us and all of our luggage and all of the Egyptian passengers and all of their luggage! Segmented metal conveyor belts snaked on long parallel tracks out into the room, and it was hard to not feel claustrophobic as the crowds of people grabbed for their bags. The two Peacetours travel agents, rather European-looking Egyptians (round-faced, balding close-cropped grey hair, pale short-sleeved shirts and grey slacks) struggled to make order out of the mayhem; they had to check that each of us had received each piece we'd checked in, and that we'd added each piece to their large and growing island of luggage (which other passengers had to make their annoyed way around).
As with all groups, a few of our bunch were complaining loudly (as if this aggravation had been created just for the purpose of making their trip difficult) while others waited patiently or at least quietly. Finally the PeaceTours guys signaled to us that we we should follow Rocky to the bus, was waiting outside to take us to the hotel. We all climbed on and sat, chatting animatedly while our baggage was loaded into the luggage compartment underneath. It was kind of interesting to look around and surrepticiously "take stock" of my fellow group-members. We took off; I was happy at the prospect of seeing the streets of Cairo again.
Everything was much as I remembered it, though we were driving through a different area of the city than I'd seen before. At
one point a wooded hill stretched upward on our left, with several distinguished-looking old brick buildings. Someone pointed
out that it was the Coptic college.
The Victoria Hotel is in a much more "baladi" area than was the Sheraton Gardens (where I'd stayed on my first trip to the city two years before). "Baladi" in
this context, means "of the people", and the streets were full of them. Little wooden tables and chairs were set out here and
there on the sidewalks in front of small store-front businesses, and groups of men in slacks and short-sleeved shirts were
sitting drinking tea from little glasses, gesturing and talking. Stalls set out on the street sold stacks of bright yellow
and orange citrus fruits, green vegetables, and assorted other merchandise. The worn, paved streets were crowded with
traffic; here and there a donkey-cart plodded along the side of the road. On both sides of us, three and four-story buildings
loomed, older but still sturdy, and some other buildings older still, partially crumbled and layered in dust. Women and girls
were out also, walking purposefully, usually accompanied by one or two other women, leading groups of small children. It was
rare to see a woman who was not wearing a headscarf. They wore long-sleeved blouses and long skirts in muted colors, dressing
much as Muslim women in the U.S. do. (Few long stiff coats or long shoulder-length veils here.)
The place teemed with life in the hazy mid-day sunlight; the people appeared energetic and lively, the roads crowded with
constantly-moving small cars and cabs, horn-blowing their way through the traffic.
As we passed a small canal, one of many branching off from the Nile, my eyes were suddenly delighted by swaths of intense
green: lushly vegetated banks, vines crawling over trees, a small shack on the river-bank hemmed in by tiny fields set
between the crowded road and the water's edge.
I was pleasantly surprised when when we got to the Victoria Hotel: I love older hotels with a lot of character. Built in
1928, it has high ceilings, gleaming polished parkay floors (slightly uneven from the years of a drying climate),
dark-varnished wooden walls with molded designs, wrought-iron wall-sconce lighting with frilly glass shades, and a lovely
old-fashioned elevator. There are large amoires in the rooms (and very firm beds), and a helpful, considerate staff in
pressed white shirts and black slacks (all men except the girl behind the reception desk and the maids who manned the upper
floors). The lobby and seating area with upholstered over-stuffed chairs and oriental rugs, the sunny/shady patio with jungly
garden plants: all this is set right in the middle of bustly, narrow city streets.
After we took our bags to our room and tipped the aged blue-uniformed and capped bus-boys, Zora and I went up a flight of steps
to have a coffee in the dining room, as several others were doing. Across one of the long linen-covered tables from us was
Jackie, a lovely, serene, slender young woman with dark eyes and hair. She is a dance instructor from the Palm Springs area
and, like me, she had come on this trip by herself.
All of a sudden we noticed her eyes were full of tears. Zora was immediately all concern, "What's the matter?"
"Oh, I'm just so tired and so exhausted and I need a bath and no one speaks my language," Jackie said.
We invited her to come walking with us to find a little street market which Rocky had told us about. As it turned out, we
took a wrong turn and the walk, though interesting, was stressful. The area was full of little shops selling hardware, bike
parts, car parts, and so on. Though there were also food stalls and places selling lemon juice and sun bread (whatever that
is) most of the merchandise was "guy stuff" and, predictably, the only people on these little streets were men. It wasn't a
hostile atmosphere, but we felt out of place, strange, and rather anxious---three foreign women wearing head scarves we
weren't used to. There were no catcalls or remarks, rather, it was as if we didn't exist.
The only other women we saw were a couple of middle class Egyptian ladies. Elegantly dressed and coiffed, wearing western
outfits with skirts which only came to the knee, they emerged from a cab and were politely ushered into a shop which carried
several different kind of floor tile.*
We realized that we were lost and had no idea what to do. Suddenly, Jackie remembered that she had the business card of the
hotel. We showed it to a guy who looked like the manager of one of the tile shops, and he, like most educated Egyptians,
spoke English and directed us back to the Victoria. I'm afraid the walk didn't do much to help Jackie feel more at home, but
perhaps our concern about her was a comfort.
(Later that evening, Zora and a couple of others went out again, took a different turn, and did find the street market which
Rocky had told us about. She said it was a lot of fun: racks of clothes for sale on the street, families and groups of women
and children, the feeling of a social event, and a welcoming admosphere.)
As soon as we got back from that afternoon walk, I lay down on the bed in our little room upstairs. I fell immediately into
such a hard sleep that Zora had a difficult time waking me in time to go for dinner at 7:00 PM. (Rocky had scheduled the
group's first evening meal at a Chinese restaurant near the hotel). Rather groggily, I joined the group, going through the
metal detector and out into the soft light of the evening. We all trooped the few blooks to the restaurant in our motley head
scarves (Rocky had asked us to wear them, and being dancers, there were many colorful ways group-members responded to this
request!). We caused comments from men and boys along the way, and giggled as we rushed across the little streets trying to
miss the zipping oncoming traffic!
Going up a narrow flight of stairs, we entered the restaurant, which looked similar to Chinese restaurants at home:
aqua-colored walls with red accents and muted lighting from Chinese lanterns. I sat with Karen, (a tall, willowy,
model-pretty girl with a slight pout) her sensible-looking friend Barbara, and an amiable, easygoing young woman who turned
out to be an emergency room nurse. She asked us not to tell the rest of the group, as she'd been on trips where everyone took
advantage of her knowledge.
We ended up having a great time "dishing the dirt" about the belly dance scene in our various communities, and venting about
our favorite pet peeves: women who take classes for years and don't improve, yet lord it over the beginners, girls who
perform in lingerie bras with a few beads sewn on them, "American Tribal" dancers who seem to think that their dance form is
more authentic, "goth" bellydancers (Barbara had to explan that one to the rest of us!). Karen turned out to have a really
dry sense of humor that was hilarious. I told them about my first trip to Egypt, and Karen told me about someone on their
troupe's trip to Greece who dressed like a slut, and who actually had an affair (Karen in her elegant Virginia drawl
described it as a "little fling") with the tour guide during the trip. We all cringed.
We also talked about the world situation. They were surprised when I told them about the backlash crimes that were committed
in the Phoenix area after 9-11: the murder of a local Sikh man, the rock that was thrown through the front window of a
Middle Eastern restaurant, and hate threats phoned in to a local Islamic school. (People who live in the more progressive
areas of the U.S. can forget what it is like to live in the comparatively more ethnocentric hinterland).
The restaurant is owned by a Chinese family who have lived in Cairo for generations, and Rocky has taken groups to this
restaurant for years. She chose it for our first evening meal because she felt it was better to feed us familiar food on the
first night, when We'd had to adjust to so many new things on our first day.
When we got back to the hotel, I went to find Zora, thinking she had the key (actually she'd left it at the reception desk,
per our arrangement). I found her in the dining room, talking to two interesting women who knew many of the others in the
group but had arrived on their own. Jena was blonde, young, and intelligent with a confident way of talking; I liked her
immediately. Elaine, around my age, with black upswept hair and a funny opinionated manner, was "riot" to talk to. When I
told her that I was going sightseeing with Leyla Lanty's friend Ahmed the next day, it turned out that she'd spent a
day going "all over town" with Ahmed the year before.
Though I'd never met Leyla in person, I'd corresponded with her for several years by e-mail. When I was setting up my website, (a collection of information on how to find available
English translations of Arabic songs), I asked her for advice because I'd admired the intelligence of her "posts" on the
Middle East Dance List, an internet group. Before this trip I had posted a query on the same List asking if anyone could
recommend a guide in Cairo. I wanted to go do some sightseeing of my own on the days that Rocky's group was going to see the
Pyramids, the Sphinx, and other Pharoahnic ruins which I'd already seen.
Leyla wrote and recommended Ahmed. Although he's usually a "shopper", not a guide, she said he'd be able to do a great job
and she recommended him highly.
Leyla has been going to Egypt every summer for years, and she always buys Middle Eastern dance items when she goes. Ahmed
knows what things should cost, so even though she pays him a surcharge, it ends up saving her money; vendors tend to raise
the prices sky-high for foreigners.
I was so excited that on the following day I would finally get to see some of the beautiful Islamic buildings I'd been
wanting to see for so long. I'd only been to see the interior of one, the beautiful Al Ghuriya Mosque. (Muhammad, our guide
on my first trip to Egypt, had taken me to see it on the last afternoon because I'd lamented not seeing any of the historical
Islamic buildings. True, I'd been to the Muhammad Ali mosque inside the Citadel, but it is not in the Egyptian style).
Before this trip, I'd gone through the guidebook, daydreaming, and made a wish list of the sites I wanted to see. I
had also found Andre Raymond's book Cairo which tells the history of the buildings of the city and who built them. To
me, there are few examples of architecture which move me as much as some of the beautiful medieval buildings of Cairo, and
few western tourists ever see them. It is assumed by the tour organizers that westerners are mostly interested in the
Pharoahnic sites. The tour organizers cannot be blamed, because, for the most part, this assumption is accurate.
*Driving through Cairo, one gets the impression that all of the women in Egypt wear headscarves. The women one sees on the streets are the poorer women, not a sample of everyone. The more well-to-do take cabs or drive, and have groceries, etc. delivered to their apartments, so one does not see them on the streets.
June 24, 2004, 7AM
I'm sitting in the dining room: highly polished parquet floors, aqua walls with raised patterns on the paneling, prints of nineteenth century etchings, and long tables covered with crisp white linen cloths. It would be perfect if only one could see out the windows, but they're shrouded in dark green velvet drapes, which match the upholstered chairs. The breakfast buffet is not set out yet, but coffee is already available, so I'm happy. An animated trio of Japanese are the only others in the room, both men lean and tall with expressive dark booming voices, the woman tiny and amiable.
I had slept well, though at first I'd found my roommate Zora's struggling sleep-apnea sounds rather frightening. She had brought a breathing machine she was supposed to use, but found it difficult and turned it off! But I was so tired I soon fell asleep and slept soundly all night.
Soon after writing the journal entry, I was joined by Robin and Demetrius, One of the few couples in our group. Both of them Afro-American, tall, dark, and good-looking. He had a strong, thoughtful face and the build of a football player; she was serene and lovely with delicate features. I found out that they were only married two weeks ago; perhaps that explained how radiant she looked! They had been together for a few years though, and had been overseas two times before (though only once to what would be a called a "third world" country). They told me that they were finding it really interesting so far. Demetrius was curious about "the demographics"; when I said "Arab", what was the difference between "Arab" and "Egyptian", because Egyptians were African, weren't they? I tried to explain what I knew (the best I was able), that the Arabs had conquered Egypt and had brought with them their culture and their religion, and many Arabs had intermarried with native Egyptians, so that Egypt *is* an Arab country, though it is part of Africa.
After they left, Dee, the Puerto Rican girl from New York, came and sat down, and we spoke some Spanish. A lovely girl, she has a look reminescent of women from India. She was interested to know that I speak some Spanish and asked me, in Spanish, where I learned. When I said "the telenovelas" (the Latino television version of "soap operas") she said animatedly, "That's the best way to learn!"
I wished her a good day (Rocky was taking most of the group on a tour of Cairo sites which I'd already seen before) and went up to the room to gather the things I would need for my day
I'm sitting in the front room a few steps up from the lobby, waiting for Ahmed, the guide whom Leyla recommended. The room has tiled floors and casual tables and windows that overlook the busy little side street, ....an interesting scene of storefronts, two-and-three-story buildings, tall shade trees, and hustle bustle of traffic: tiny cars, tiny trucks, little boxy black and white cabs, a lot of honks! The streets are paved but rather dusty. This room is not air-conditioned, and to me it actually feels better than the air-conditioned areas.
One of the waiters came in, asked my name, and said that someone was here to see me. Waiting in the lobby were Leyla and Ahmed. I was delighted that she had come along! Though I'd e-mailed back and forth with her many times, and talked to her on the phone the preceding Christmas, I'd never met her in person. She was blonde, slightly plump, in her late forties, a lovely woman. Since the days of the glamor-queen picture on her website, she had had a heart attack, and had had to work her way back to health with very small but steady steps. She was even going to dance during one of the evening shows at the hotel this year! I was very glad to meet her and to have the chance to get to know her in person.
Ahmed, in gray slacks, short-sleeved open-necked dark-red-and-grey striped shirt (and those well-shined loafers which seem to be favored by businessmen throught the Mediterranean countries), gave the impression of reliability and good humor. Fit, solidly built, energetic, with hair going grey around the temples and a square handsome face, he looked very much the urbane successful gentleman.
I sat down to join them, and showed him, in my colorfully illustrated Fodor's Egypt guidebook, the buildings and sites which I had hoped to visit. He said that most of the places I mentioned were right near the Khan El Khalili*, and he suggested a quick itinerary which sounded fine to me. Leyla said she'd accompany us as long as her energy lasted, and I was so pleased that she would be along. Out the door we went, Ahmed first exchanging warm greetings with a man who was sitting behind a little table by the metal-detector pass-through.
"The owner of this hotel and I are good friends for many years now, you see?", he said calmly, smiling with unabashed self-satisfaction. He spoke in a measured, pleasant voice with sing-song changes in pitch, and his manner made one feel that whatever happened, one could feel at ease when he was along for the excursion. So this was my introduction to Ahmed, who likes to call himself "The King of the Khan el Khalili".
We caught a cab, and after a short ride through the busy streets the cab stopped and we got out, at what seemed an intersection of two crowded alleys.
"So here is the Bab Zuwayla," said Ahmed. Surprised, I looked up to find that indeed we were at the great arch, which in medieval times was one of the main gates in the wall around the city. (The word "bab" means door or gate). At first eye-level glance I had not even noticed the massive ancient walls; crowded construction scaffolding clambered up one side of the narrow street, and racks of goods hung from the entrance to the tent-maker's bazaar on the other.
Light-colored sandstone blocks, each about a foot high and more than a foot wide, in shades variegated by age, had been used to build the arch and the huge round towers which framed it; smaller arched openings above looked out from the upper walkway, gun turrets on their lower edges. Except for the light color of the sandstone, the huge gate appeared very similar in style to the castle fortifications found in Europe. Simple rows of cut sandstone outlined the arches, a spare and elegant adornment which did nothing to detract from the grand solidity of the structure.
We walked into the murky tunnel (if you can call something two stories high a tunnel) of the interior of the gate. The sense of history was overwhelming. How many people had passed through these shadows in the centuries since it had been built... common people, armies, the great camel caravans of the rich merchants, the yearly pilgrimage on its way to Mecca.....How many people had, like myself, reached out and touched the cool large blocks of stone, so smoothly and solidly cut to form these enduring walls, which have stood unchanging, as so much history changed around them?
I watched the dark silhouettes of people walk through in the shadow and out into the brilliant sunshine beyond, just as they had for hundreds of years. The bustle of the market stretching out on either side did not seem that different than the bustle of the markets of antiquity... I was happy that this gate still stood in the midst of a living souk.
Leyla waited on a seat in the shaded little entry room while Ahmed and I climbed the many stairs to the roof, which actually was part of the adjoining el Muayyad Mosque. I was rather upset to find how many times I had to stop and rest. "Too steep?" said Ahmed. "No, just too fat." I said.
"Not to Egyptians," he said gallantly.
What a thrill to look over the ramparts, and imagine the armies passing through below, the strings of camels loaded with merchandise...! It gave me an uplifting, glorious feeling. The air was filled with sunlight and I leaned against the wide stone and felt its warmth, just letting the sense of history pass through me. From this very spot, according to my guidebook, Mamluk sultans watched the departure of the annual pilgramage to Mecca.
From the roof, the skyline of Cairo was level with us, all the tops of apartment buildings in different shades of grey, new and old, here and there a minaret, all in the blinding daylight. A group of workmen were applying plaster to the roof of an adjoining mosque with a large interior courtyard. On one corner of the building sat a huge stone dome,interlocking geometric patterns worked in brick all over its surface, under a layer of lacy scaffolding. The mosque was being completely renovated, white gleaming paint on the arches of the shaded portico around the sunny courtyard; only the circles of carved calligraphy remained unpainted. I was happy that these beautiful old buildings were being restored.
"I'm not sure I like the white color:", said Ahmed. I agreed with him; an off-white or a sand color would be more compatible with the antiquity of the building. Perhaps the white was just a base coat.
We went back down the steps to the entry room, where the studious-looking young caretaker/guide showed us some interesting exhibits. These were objects found inside the walls by workers during the rest
oration process. There were bits of pottery and some long strips of paper with many lines of writing and a bead hanging off at the end. The guide referred to these as "charms" and said that people would pay a religious "sheikh"*** to write them and leave them inside the walls as the gate was being built so many years ago.
A display with photographs and text illustrated the steps of the restoration process, and I was pleased when Ahmed pointed out that the restoration was paid for by the American University of Cairo.
We walked through the Salih Talai Mosque, the one which we had seen from the roof of the Bab Zuwayla. A shaded walkway with many arches surrounded the interior courtyard, and around the edges of all the arches wound bands of intricately carved Arabic calligraphy.
The next mosque went to was called the Fakahani (if I remember correctly) Again it was right off a crowded noisy alley of vendors. We took off our shoes and I also put on my scarf, though Ahmed said it wasn't necessary. Again one walked into a quiet, peaceful space off of a crowded little alley, and again there was a beautiful interior courtyard with filtered sunlight streaming down onto it through a shade covered roof. A couple of guys slept in the shadows, which you often see in mosques. There were turquoise colored tiles around the mihrab****, a color of decoration I'd not seen yet in Cairo.
We went for a brief look at the "tentmakers bazaar" (a covered alley of little open-fronted shops all selling fantastically ornate and colorful applique pieces). I had seen it in the guidebook and had wanted to visit it on my first trip to Cairo, but we'd ran out of time and the guides had said it was far away (it wasn't!). We looked at some beautiful pieces---The walls were covered with ornate colors and shapes of applique: arabesque designs, geometric designs, and mandalas made of lotus shapes....most were small pillow covers,but there were some large wall hangings and some Pharoahnic pieces. Many years ago, entire tents were made of this style of applique and used for weddings and for gatherings held to mourn a person who dies. Now, a printed cloth with the same type of designs is often used for these gatherings. I fell in love with the applique, and I wanted to get some right then, but Ahmed said that the store he usually delt with had much better quality and we would come back the next day and buy there.
We walked down the little, crowded street a little further and he pointed out the fezmaker (the only one remaining in Egypt) and I asked if it was possible to take a picture of the front of the shop. I said I wanted to give the shopowner a tip for taking the picture. Ahmed went inside to give him the tip and spent some time in there, coming out and telling me that because he gave him a tip, the man insisted on showing him all his wares!
Next we went to visit the el Ghouriya Mosque, which is still my favorite building in all of Cairo. Because of the staircase leading up to the entrance,
Leyla sat in a little coffeehouse at the foot of the Ghuria Mosque and chatted with the owner while Ahmed and I went into the mosque. It was the only medieval mosque I had the oportunity to see when I was here in 2002 but I wanted to experience it again. We didn't go to the top as we'd just seen the same view from the roof of the the Bab Zuayla. The use of bands of black and white striped stone, the inlaid floor of black and white marble in gorgeous designs, and the beautiful black and white calligraphy affected me as much as it had before. "This is the nicest one", Ahmed said. The blinding daylight which came in through the skylights gave the mosque a very different feeling than what I remembered last time, when I had seen it in the late afternoon, a dim dreamy interior. Both times it was just as beautiful, and I was very happy to see it again.
Continuing down a little pedestrian alley, We had a quick stop at a little cafe for "shai" (tea, served in little glasses) and for me "qahwa" (Turkish coffee). The furnishings were very basic: plain walls, a counter along one side, and little wooden tables and chairs with graceful bentwood backs; there was only one other customer at this time of day. As soon as Ahmed sat down, a teenaged boy sprinted up to him with a shiisha (water pipe) at the ready. The owner and Ahmed exchanged warm greetings. We chatted for a short while, relishing the chance to sit. Half the front wall of the place was open to the narrow twisting street. We hadn't been there long when the same teenager came jogging out with fresh hot coals for Ahmed's shiisha. A skinny young boy in a soiled grey galabeya, about twelve years old, energetically entered the cafe carrying a shoe-shine box. He shined Ahmed's shoes, and Ahmed gave him a tip. (You see these shoe-shine boys all over Cairo). "I always like my shoes shined, and it helps them out, you see." said Ahmed.
The next restored building we went to see was the 16th-century merchant's house called the Bayt al-Suhaymi. Lela would have loved to see the interior, but even the short flight of stairs was too much for her. They brought her a chair, and she remained in the courtyard entrance, chatting with the young men who were hanging around there.
As we had headed down the steps from the street to the entrance of the building, Ahmed spoke quite sharply to one of the employees. "I hope that you don't talk that way to your wife!" I kidded him.
"Oh no!" he said fervently,"This is work, I must appear strong at work!" It turned out later that he had not wanted to use the guide which they had assigned to us. There was one of the young guides whom he thought was much better, and was the one he wanted us to have as our guide. And he got him, too!
It was wonderful to see the various rooms, as the serious young guide, who looked like a university student, gave brief descriptions. such as "Men reading Qur'an" in one room, and then, a half-level up behind the mashrabiyah windows (mashraybiya is delicate wooden lattice, with the appearance of lace) "women listening Qur'an". In the spacious lower floor, one could imagine (though he didn't say it) the men being entertained by dancers and musicians, while above the lacy wooden windows allowed the women of the house to enjoy the show also, but without being seen. Quiet, cool spaces (though the house was not air-conditioned) dim light, beautiful old carpets. All in various tones of tan, brown, dark red; the walls were creamy off-white. On the ornate dark wooden ceilings, calligraphy and elaborate arabesque designs were carved into the heavy beams and ceiling and then highlighted in yellow, orange, and gold. A beautiful dome in the top of the main room had skylight windows all around the base and a geometric arabesque star which fitted exactly into the upside down bowl of the dome, and, suspended from its absolute zenith, on a long cord which hung all the way down to the first floor level, a large and beautiful light fixture of elaborate metalwork.
We stepped out into the bright daylight of the garden courtyard, where Leyla was able to join us again. All around us was the house, three stories high, painted white which contrasted with the dark wood framing the windows, with their many little panes of glass cut in designs. Here and there were lush patches of plants, and a tall meandering tree with a two-story high bougainvillea vine climbing up it, heavy with vivid magenta blossoms. On one wall, under an overhang, was a photo display showing the steps of the restoration process. The beautiful old building had been a wreck before it was rescued by the restorers! It was very worthwhile to see: an interesting look into the lifestyle of the well-to-do class of Old Cairo.
We had lunch at a tiny little fish place in the Khan el Khalili. On its outside wall, below a little window, a tilted shelf faced the street, displaying carefully placed rows of fresh fish on ice. Ahmed chose for us, and the meal was delicious: various kinds of fried and breaded fish, one of them opened up and spread out flat with a lot of colorful hot spice. In spite of constantly brushing away the flies, we had an enjoyable lunch, sitting one of the six little tables in the place. Half of the front wall was open to the alley; bright calligraphy in Kufic style declared that the little place opposite was a lamp-shop. Our conversation touched on Egyptian movies and music, and I learned that Ahmed's oldest son had just graduated from high school, that Ahmed is forty-six, he has three boys, and his wife is named Faiza. He and Leyla have known eachother for a long time.
Our next stop was the "Wikalah", once a caraveranseri, where merchants stayed when they came to Cairo. From a busy Khan el Khalili alley one steps into a large, quiet open courtyard. The building, which is built of large sandstone blocks, is a beautiful and symmetrical design, obviously the work of an architect. Wide shallow arches top substantial square pillars, all along the ground level and all along the second level, where a covered walkway runs the whole four sides of the building. Behind each arch is a heavy wooden door studded with big hand-forged nail heads and a small square high window.These were the rooms where the merchants stayed, and the first floor was where their animals were stabled.
It was fun to speculate what it might have been like back then, the courtyard full of camels making their noises as they were unloaded, fed and watered, the noises of other livestock kept to feed the travelers, and all varieties of men, from merchants to grooms to the small boys running here and there fetching things for people...including boys running with trays of tea glasses, like you still see today all through the Khan el Khalili....
All along the top story, which is painted white, march large overhanging mashrabiiya windows, generous in size, and the square and rectangle sections of wooden filigree work on each is exactly the same. Ahmed said that the prostitutes had lived in small rooms on the middle floor at the back of the building, so perhaps the mashrabiiya windows were the living quarters of the families of the men who worked at the caravanserai, or perhaps they were for traveling families, or for the merchants to entertain business clients with dinner, musicians, and perhaps a dancer.....
The building is beautifully kept upand restored, which is not surprising, because the offices on the lower floor are all occupied by the engineers in charge of the various restoration projects in Cairo. I was very happy to see that there seems to be a lot of restoration going on. .
Our last stop was another cafe, again with most of one wall open to the street. I forget the name of it. Leyla mentioned that there was supposed to be live music there the following evening and it was possible that she might go with a small group, after the scheduled Nile Maxim cruise. Of course I said I was very interested!
I commented to Ahmed about the number of men one sees in Cairo who are wearing the galabeya (long shirt) and cap. He said
that most of these are Saeedi people who come to the city for work, and end up staying.
Although we still hadn't been to the Ibn Tulun mosque or visited the El Azhar mosque (the other places on my list), we decided to call it a day. I wanted to have time for a nap before the group went to scheduled restaurant meal for dinner.. We arranged to meet at 3:00 P.M. the following day. Zora, my roommate, had decided that she would like to join me for a shopping-centered outing to the Khan. (Because it would be Friday, Ahmed advised against being in the area in the morning, He said that there would be religous gatherings and demonstrations in Husseyn square, right in the same area as the Khan el Khalili.)
After all of that excitement it felt good to come back to the hotel, be greeted by the beaming smile of Nadia, the maid on
our floor, and have an afternoon lay-down, followed by a coffee in the lounge and some time to catch up on my journal.
As instructed by Rocky, the whole group (or most of them, anyway) met in the lobby at 6:30 P.M. We trouped through the
streets again, to Alfie Bey's, a restaurant which has been open continuously since before the 20th century. A rather small
L-shaped room, high Victorian window s with filmy white lace curtains, gleaming woodwork, and sparkling chandeliers;it was
like being transported into the nineteenth century. We were seated at a long table. I sat next to Morocco and had an
interesting conversation with her and Karyn and Alexandria, two of the core members of her performing troupe. I ended up
showing them the little photo album I brought along of my Renaissance Festival pictures and family pictures.
I ordered baked leg of lamb and rice; it was tasty...Egyptian food seems to be good, very filling and substantial, less
spicy than Indian or Asian food but still delicious. We had a good time. At first I was a little nervous to be seated next to
the famous Morocco, but the conversation was fun and interesting, and like good conversations assumed a life of its own. At
one point Morocco told a story about a crepe paper "gypsy skir"t which she had made for herself when she was a little kid.
She kept worrying her mother until she bought her some crepe paper, then cut it out in two layers with scalloped edges, and
made a "gypsy skirt". What a forerunner of her eventual career! It made me think of a time in my childhood, when my mother
got me a coloring book featuring costumes of different countries. How I loved that coloring book spent so much time coloring
the costumes! Another early indicator future interests; in my years in the Renaissance Troupe "Gypsy Magic" I spent so much
time sewing costumes!****
I mentioned that Zora and I were going on a shopping expedition to the Khan on the following day, and that Ahmed had asked us
not to arrive until mid-afternoon because of demonstrations in front of the Mosque of Al Huseyn. Alexandria said that she
had been there on a Friday morning, the previous year, and that it was indeed rather frightening. I didn't pursue the
subject then, but when I saw Alexandria at breakfast the following morning, I asked her to describe the scene.She said that
there were five large blue paddy-wagons with little high barred windows. People were congregating, some praying in large
groups aftger they had come out of the mosque, and there were military troops with plexiglass shields standing by these
groups, at the ready. Sermons were blaring from loudspeakers, including the word "Amriika" in an angry tone. Alexandria said
she wasn't scared of the people, but it was the police that made her nervous.
That evening Zora and I were in our room when we heard the sounds of the last call to prayer. We opened the long balcony
windows to listen, as we always did when in the room at that time. The calls were much longer than usual, reminding people
that tomorrow was Friday, I guess. The various chants of "Allahu Akbar" coming from different directions and overlapping
eachother had a wonderfully mysterious quality. Our window looked out on a side street, slightly shabby apartment buildings
all around us, the upper stories dark, the scene lit from below by streetlights in the canyon of the grubby street far below, where
shops were closed up for the night. The sounds of the various prayers from different mosques seemed to reverberate off the
silent buildings in the night air, and gave one an unearthly feeling.
*The Khan El Khalili is the famous old souk of Cairo. Part of it is in a covered building and part of it spreads
out onto the adjoining pedestrian-narrow streets.
* *The Bab Zuwayla was built in 1092. For more information about the fascinating architecture of Cairo, find the
book Cairo by Andre Raymonde.
* * *The word sheikh can mean a religious man who gives advice and will sell religious charms such as these to
* * * *the mihrab is an alcove or niche indicating the direction of Mecca.
* * * * * For short description of the editor's musical involvement with Middle Eastern dance, click here
More chapters to follow....