There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Cairo Before the Revolution (which might as well have never hapened)

[update at end]
We spent a week in Cairo last July. It was hot, dusty and crowded, but there was no sign of a revolution. Not since 1980 have we spent more than a day or two in the city, so we saw many changes, some expected, others more surprising.

The 6th of October Bridge
The Cairo of 2010 is a much tidier and neater city. It has far to go before it gleams like Seattle or Guilin, and you still need to watch your feet to avoid falling into holes or tripping over protruding cables, but at least it no longer resembles a building site after a typhoon. The traffic is calmer too, though a first time visitor might find that hard to believe. The standard of driving has improved little, but modern road systems impose a hint of discipline, and the donkey carts that roamed the streets following a set of rules entirely of their own, have (almost) all gone. You no longer see the foul-smelling heavy green rubbish carts, pulled by tired horses and driven by boys as tired as their horses and malodorous as their cargo. I do not know how modern Cairo deals with its waste, but I hope the sons and daughters of these rubbish boys are now at school, where they ought to be. Dress has changed, too. In 1980, my memory claims that only a minority of woman wore headscarves and there were no veiled faces. Now headscarves are almost universal, while veils are not uncommon. Men, on the other hand, have overwhelmingly taken to western dress, while thirty years ago about a quarter wore Arab costume.
Our hotel room faced the Nile, but the other side of the building overlooks the 6th of October flyover and the bus station beneath. Although the main action in the last few weeks has been in Tahrir Square, two blocks south, we have seen many television pictures of crowds milling, or charging, under the flyover, and of tanks creating barriers from overturned vehicles. Never have rooms on the ‘wrong’ side of the Ramses Hilton been so popular.
We did not see the pyramids, except in the distance. We visited them in 2009 and 1980 (and in 1965, in my case) so this time we looked at some of Cairo’s less ancient – though still old - monuments. We could not, though, resist the lure of the Egyptian museum, just beyond the bus station, and prominent in recent TV pictures. The collection is disorganised but magnificent. Building work has started on a new the museum and after the move I hope it will still be magnificent but better organised.

The Mohammed Ali Mosque
Cairo Citadel
Cairo’s citadel sits on a rocky outcrop some 3 km southwest of Tahrir Square. The fortified complex was begun by Salah al-Din (Saladin) in the twelfth century, though its crowning glory, the Mohammed Ali Mosque, was built between 1824 and 1848.
Inside the Mohammed Ali Mosque
Cairo Citadel
From outside the mosque there is a fine view over Cairo to the pyramids beyond - at least there was on a clear day in 1980, last August the pyramids had disappeared into a smoggy haze. The huge interior was filled with tourists, not all appropriately dressed, and has become a secular space. The nearby medieval mosque of Sultan al-Nasir still feels like a religious building and features a magnificent gold and marble mihrab.

The Mihrab and Minbar in the Sultan al-Nasir Mosque
Cairo Citadel
After coffee, where the waiter attempted to pass off an obsolete 25 piastre note (worth 3p) as a 25 Egyptian Pound note (worth £3, if there was such a thing) we inspected the police museum. We saw the cells where the British had once incarcerated Anwar Sadat, and a model of the ‘battle’ of Ismailiya Police Station in 1952, in which Lynne’s father played a small role as a national service squaddie.

The Prison Cells
Police Museum, Cairo Citadel

We spent more time haggling over the fare to the Ibn Tulun mosque than we did in the taxi. Built in the ninth and tenth centuries, this massive mosque has an unusual spiral staircase around the outside of its stumpy minaret. The huge central courtyard, open to the sky, is impressive in its simplicity, and also in its quietness – we had the place to ourselves. (For more about the Ibn Tulun Mosque, click here).

Minaret, Ibn Tulun Mosque,
Built against the outer wall of the mosque, the Gayer-Anderson House is actually two old houses knocked together by Major Gayer-Anderson, a retired British soldier who lived there from 1935 to 1942.  He filled the houses with antiques, including several ornate harem screens, and with a little imagination you can convince yourself you are really in seventeenth century Cairo. The roof terrace, which served as a set in the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, affords a fine view of the Mohammed Ali mosque.
The Citadel from the Gayer-Anderson Roof Terrace

Cairo’s metro is cheap and surprisingly clean and efficient. The lines were designed to link Cairenes with their places of work and are generally of less use to those heading for tourist sites, but four stops south from Tahrir Square is Mari Girgis (St George’s), the gateway to Cairo’s Coptic quarter.
Mari Girgis

Some 10% of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christians. Pope Shenouda III has lead the church since 1971 and overseen a revival while keeping good relations with the country’s Islamic leaders. The bomb that killed twenty-one worshippers in an Alexandrian church on New Year’s Eve showed that extremists do exist, but the vast majority of Egyptians, Christian and Muslim, favour peaceful coexistence.
In 1980 the Coptic quarter was a warren of narrow streets and high walls, with hidden entrances into ornate churches. Now the visitor is greeted by the extensive grounds of the Coptic Museum and the remains of the Roman castle. The excellent museum covers the long history of the Copts in Egypt, while more literally covering the ground that was home to many thousands of Copts for several hundreds of years.

The Coptic Quarter
There remains a small area of narrow streets where you can visit the church in whose undercroft the Holy Family stayed after the flight to Egypt. The Nile now runs 300m away, but used to wash the walls of the castle and, by a happy coincidence, the very spot where the original Moses basket was plucked from the bulrushes lies just behind the church of the Holy Family. You may believe all this, if you wish.
Where Moses was found in the bullrushes (allegedly)

It is sad to see the whole quarter becoming museumised, but it was inevitable. The Copts have chosen to move out of their medieval ghetto - and who can blame them?

Central Cairo offers few eating options, but nobody visits Egypt for the cuisine. Ignoring the overpriced international food at the major hotels, we followed the Rough Guide’s recommendations.

The dimly-lit Estoril, down an equally dingy alley, provided good food at modest prices. The other customers seemed to be expatriate Europeans, while at the brighter Felfela just north of Tahrir Square there was a more mixed crowd of younger middle class Egyptians and foreigners. I can recommend the stuffed vine leaves, spiced meatballs and several variations on the theme of pigeon.

The nearby haven of peace that is the Café Riche serves an older clientele. The future president, Gamal Nasser, plotted the overthrow of King Farouk here in 1952, while last weekend Robert Fisk, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, retreated to the café from the mayhem outside. Lynne and I used it more than once as a refuge from the midday sun. A waiter in a long blue robe would produce a satisfying bowl of lentil soup and a cold beer, and serve them with a smile.

Sharia Talaat Harb near the Café Riche

All these places serve alcohol but, as Cairo is largely an Islamic city, they are the exception rather than the rule. The restaurants used by most Egyptians are cheap, often crowded, but can be good. At Gad, on 26th of July Street, we walked through the busy take-away and up the stairs to the packed restaurant. I had a long wait for my chilli dusted Alexandrian style liver. It was excellent, but Lynne had finished her fish before I could take my first forkful.

Abou Tarek, which claims to be Cairo’s best kushari restaurant, is also crowded and you expect to share a table. There are two dishes, kushari and fuul, which should be eaten by every visitor to Egypt, but are often missed. Kushari is a mixture of noodles, lentils and rice topped with caramelised onions. Served with a spicy tomato sauce, the combination of sweetness and carbohydrates make it the ultimate Egyptian comfort food. Fuul beans are similar to dried broad beans. Boiled until they start to disintegrate they are the breakfast of choice for all Egyptians, whatever their status. Fuul is also popular in Sudan, where for many poorer people it is not just breakfast but lunch and dinner too. In the morning it is eaten with a hard boiled egg or cheese. I like fuul best lightly crushed, mixed with raw onion and feta cheese and sprinkled with sesame oil and chilli, though perhaps not at breakfast.

Hot and noisy, with the continuous blare of car horns, Cairo seemed frenetic but not rebellious, though Egypt is, obviously, a police state. Travelling outside the city involves negotiating regular police roadblocks. Every crossroads has an armed guard with at least one man kneeling behind a heavy metal shield. Parts of Alexandria seem to have more policemen than ordinary citizens. The government is not particularly corrupt, by the standards of its continent, but low-level corruption is endemic. Repression is felt most by the politically aware and Egyptian democracy is not about getting out the vote but controlling the count. With healthy economic growth discontent was muted, but Egypt is not immune to the world’s problems, and people have started to notice what they are missing.
Looking down from the Citadel
Mubarak will go, he is after all, 82, but that may not happen before September. Egypt may contrive an orderly transition to democracy, or the army may impose their man in the usual fraudulent election.

Harem Screens, Coutyard of the Gayer-Anderson House,
It is not up to foreigners, or their governments, to tell the Egyptian people what to do, but we should be quietly cheerleading for democracy. The Americans, having bankrolled Mubarak for years, are wavering, reluctant to see the back of a man who brought stability and a pro-American foreign policy. They seem worried by the thought of democracy and in particular by the Muslim Brotherhood; it must be the name, everything the Brotherhood have said over the last few weeks has been a model of moderation. Some American commentators even appear to judge the merit of any potential new government on how good it will be for Israel, not on how good it will be for Egypt.

To support another son-of-a-bitch just because he is ‘our son-of-a-bitch’ would be deeply hypocritical and morally wrong. I think it would also be politically shortsighted.

I hope that when this is over Egypt will emerge with a robust liberal democracy, it is what the people deserve. Whether or not that happens only time will tell.

Update (Jan 2012): This post was written during the 'Arab Spring' about a visit in August the previous year. There may well have been a revolution since - well at least Mubarak has gone.
Uncouragingly, the recent elections seem to have been free and fair - a first for Egypt, but the question of whether an elected parliament will be able to wrest meaningful power from the military is still unanswered.

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