I landed in Cairo last afternoon. Made it through security checkpoints without being searched or interrogated. I was, for the first time since 9/11, able to get a boarding pass through the kiosk at the airport (My name is one of many on the no fly list and am used to getting much attention). The Jet Blue machine gives me an "Oops! there's a problem" printout. I call it the "Oops, you're an Arab!" slip.
From the air, Cairo looks like a massive mud brick, lifeless abyss. I was a bit concerned at first. Didn't see many trees or anything that wasn't the Nile or a large brown, too close to the next, building. That is not the case at all. Cairo is amazing, beautiful and full of life. After landing, getting a cab, accidentally giving the baggage handler a 100 pound note as a tip, (he was honest), we drove about an hour through a series of deceptively organized streets and highways, passed several elaborate military compounds and Honsi Mubarak's palace to Zamalek, a sort of exclusive island in the middle of the Nile, to my friend Ashraf's apartment. Zamalek is where diplomats, journalists and many foreigners live. It's quaint, quite for Cairo, pretty, but not pristine (nothing here is, there is no rain to wash away dust and grime from buildings, streets and trees). I met Kareem at Ashraf's house and barely had enough time to put my bags down before being whisked away to a "poker game, world cup pool party" in Ma'ade, a super nice neighborhood in the southern part if the city. Ma'ade has the feel of the Garden District in New Orleans (lots of well kept green and the charm that comes with it.) There were about ten of us playing poker and watching the game, no one made it out to the pool. The apartment was sick. Three floors, marble stairs a 55" TV and with virtually no kitsch. We ordered burgers half way through the game. Yes, burgers! I'm in Cairo for less than two hours and I'm playing poker and eating burgers in an apartment that looks like it's been furnished by Martha Stewart. I won 684 pounds. Maybe they were distracted by the Germany and Spain... I actually think that the fact that I had no idea how much I was betting (because I was unfamiliar with the currency) made me a much more conservative player. I felt bad about winning. I normally feel bad about taking my friend's money but this time I was a guest, in a new country, with new hosts and they may never have the opportunity to win it back. I don't plan to make poker a habit. Oh yeah, I saw the pyramids on the way to the game from the highway!
I got up the next morning and began my search for a phone card and a hotel room. I took a cab from Zamalek to Wust al-Balad (downtown) and asked the driver to drop me off at at hotel that Rania and Jakob recommended. It's called Pension Roma and is owned by a lovely French Egyptian woman named Madame. The elevator was broken and I had to walk up 4 flights with my bags. These are not four ordinary flights, these are four Egyptian flights. Ceiling here are miles high. Each floor seems to have twice as many stairs as the buildings that I'm used to. Roma is quite nice. There are long hallways accented by a thin red slightly patterned carpet on a white marble floor, lots of plants and flowers... some of them real. There are foreigners of all ages staying here, including some traveling families. It costs about 15 dollars a night. I was unfortunately only able to secure two nights. I tried to charm the clerk with my Shammy accent into putting me on the "waiting list."
I left the hotel around noon in search of a SIM card for my phone and began having my first real encounters with Egyptians. I speak Arabic with an accent from what's known as the "Sham" (Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Jordan). Egyptians have a pretty exclusive accent, which is loved by few outside of this country. I initially thought that I'd have problems communicating here, but I was wrong. I'd say that I probably understand 90% of what I hear and they 95% of what I say is understood, notwithstanding the few that feel that they are above the Shammies and pretend not to understand. Some Egyptians feel that Egypt should be the capital of the Arab world and have a sight superiority complex. So, I walked the streets of downtown asking for a cell phone store. Egyptians are very nice and super accommodating as I got lots of suggestions from lots of people, but was never able to find a store. The problem was that they didn't really understand what I was looking for. SIM cards and the phone cards that fill them can be found on any street corner. In many different types of stores. I finally bought mine in a little strip mall convenience store. I have yet to see any large stores. There is an endless amount of extremely well kept and super small retail stores. There is a shoe district, a luggage district, an electronics district and two art supply stores next door to each other. Many shops are only 100 square feet. Getting to them is quite difficult. There are few traffic lights and no flashing "don't walk" signs. To cross a street one must insert himself in front of cars and force them to yield. It took me about 10 minutes to cross my first main street because I was expecting some sort of opening to miraculously appear. When it never did, I followed the lead of an old woman and kept walking, with hand out. That, is not considered rude. It's perfectly acceptable for both drives and pedestrians to cut off or overtake. Beeping or horn honking is perfectly acceptable and never stops. It's kinda like the buzz of 80,000 vuvuzelas individually sounding for a few seconds each while creating a soft consistent buzz, which is easy to get used to.
With new phone number in hand, I called and then met my friend Jakob for lunch and had shawarma served on a hero. I asked for it "Shammy" style (pita), but they didn't have the bread. "Subway" style hero bread in very popular here. Jakob is a Swede puppet theater master that's lived here for ten years. We sat down at one of those outdoor cafes with the plastic molded chairs and he gave me invaluable advice for about an hour. His friends say that he is more Egyptian than the Egyptians. He called me later that night and asked if I wanted to join him on his usual Thursday night routine (Thursday nights are Fridays here.) We me at another plastic chair outdoor spot that I call the plastic chair district. It's Cairo's equivalent of Jerusalem's Ben Yahuda Street or as we call it "Shara' Yaffa." It was about three blocks long and in a "T" shape. We had dinner and waited for his friends to slowly arrive. Some Cairo advice: Don't feed the cats until you are ready to leave (I saw my first clowder.) When you do feed the cats, don't attempt to hand feed them. They are not polite and one almost took my finger off. So... friends came, we had coffee and pondered our next move, because the usual spot, Cafe Hurryia, was closed due to a religious holiday. Bars and clubs stay low key or close during these times. If they do open, Egyptians are not allowed, even the Christians. A Muslim foreigner is allowed to drink, but an Egyptian Christian is not. We decided to go to this Greek supper club not far away, which for some reason, seems immune to these "traditions." It was through a gated courtyard and upstairs in a large apartment building. Six of us walked in and the maitre d' said, "sorry we are full..." and they were, but we continued to walk in anyway and oddly enough were served. It was a large place, with lots of tables and even more empty space.
We left at about 1 am for a party at a Spanish NGO worker's house in Giza. It was a typical house party that could have been anywhere. We could hear the chatter from street and it had a diverse crowd. I met a woman from Texas, who lives on a houseboat on the Nile and a hipster guy who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn... "off the Morgan stop" (hipsters like to identify where they live by the subway stop that they take to work).
I plan to see the pyramids, take a boat down the Nile and see Rania's mom in the coming days.