Letters from Cairo 5: Islamic Cairo

We had a late start on Wednesday. We are going to take the train to Alexandria, and we want to make sure that we get the tickets, so we start with a trip to Ramsees railway station. I had expected the trains (which seem nice from the guidebook) to be much used by tourists, but as it turned out, all the information was in Arabic, with the platform numbers, and the word “platform” as the only thing in English.

Again, we relied on the help of strangers. This time, a police officer helped us. His English was passably good, and we were able to score two tickets to Alexandria on first class on Friday with little problems. The tickets had nice holographic anti-fraud stuff on them, and luckily, had all relevant information printed in English.

Leaving the train station, we got a further reminder of how intrinsic religion is to everything in Egypt. As it was drawing near on the mid-day prayers, the prayer chants could be heard over the loudspeaker in the station. Some people stopped up to pray in a public area designated for this, but most just continued their daily affairs.

We took the subway to Attaba station. According to the guidebook, we should be able to walk up Sharia el-Muski from here to Midan Hussein, which is the “hub” of (tourist) Islamic Cairo. It turned out that we were not following el-Muski, but again, the ubiquitous police were able to help us out. Only one of the five police officers loitering in the area we ended up spoke English. But they all rolled their eyes when we said we were going to Midan Hussein (which appearantly is also pronounced Husseen). Heh. We took a taxi.

Sarah and our guide to Al-Azhar mosque: Muhammed (Sarah in hijaab to appease the natives)

In Islamic Cairo, we had a tour of the Al-Ahzar mosque, possibly one of the most important ones (but not the largest) in Cairo. Our guide was named, you guessed it, Muhammed. The building is quite beautiful, and was well worth the visit.

Sarah in the main prayer hall of the Al-Azhar mosque

Next stop: Khan il-Khalili and El-Fishawi coffee house. We later learned the the craziness of the Khan was probably mostly attributed to the fact this this was still Eid il-Fitr, but it is still a very peculiar place. It consists of small streets, if you can fall them that, full of shops. The streets are more like corridors between buildings, with just allowing about three people to stand beside each other in the street. The vendors are pushy: One guy said the usually pleasantries (“welcome to Egypt, where are you from”), and shook my hand. Then he wouldn’t let go of my hand and tried to physically lead me into his store. Another guy yelled after me: “What can I do to smell your money.” No joke!

El-Fishawi’s was nice, and more quiet than the rest of the Khan. We sat for a while, enjoying a sheesha and a drink of water. You can’t really get anything to eat here, though, so we decided to head to what we thought was the nearby Al-Ahzar park for lunch at the Citadel View Restaurant.

Johannes at El-Fishawi’s coffee house

As it turns out, the park is pretty close, but the enterance is on the opposite side of where we were. As we were trying to orient ourselves, a pleasant young man, who spoke English very well, came up and offered his help. As we were pretty sick of people leeching onto us for money, we tried to avoid him at first (to which he said, “don’t be afraid, I am not a terrorist or anything” – oookay?). He finally reeled us in when he told us that he was studying English and was looking at this as a opportunity to practice. He took us to the park, and we had a pleasant chat along the way. The name of our guide was, you guessed it, Muhammed. But as he said: Everyone has called him Beter (Arabic doesn’t have P’s) since childhood. We ended up tipping Beter the LE 20 he asked for in the end, despite the fact that when he first me us he insisted that he didn’t want our money. Oh well. Welcome to Cairo.

The Al-Ahzar park is a beautifull spot with an excellent view of much of the city. Surprisingly, there are hardly any tourists that visits it. The hillside restaurant had a good, but overpriced buffet. The service was extremely slow. But the views were to die for. Sitting here during sunset, we realized the sun doesn’t set in the horizon, in Cairo, it sets in the smog!

View of Sal ad-Sin Citadel from the Al-Azhar park

Islamic Cairo in twilight from the Al-Azhar park

After the park, we took a taxi back to the hotel. The day had made us pretty tired, so we just sat down in the hotel tea garden for a few hours. Like everywhere else in Egypt, this place is full of cats, most of which will come up to you your table to beg for food or petting.

We decided to go for one last adventure this day. Especially Sarah had enjoyed the fast-food restaurant Gad on Sharia 26th of July. She also enjoys the fact that she’s better able to cross the street in the wild traffic of Sharia 26th of July than I am. This place is extremely popular with the Caireens, but you won’t see a European face there (unless you bring it yourself). The food is good and cheap and the service is very fast. When it is busy, different groups of guests will share the same table.

(Blurry) Sarah in front of pedestians on Sharia 26th of July

On our way back, I took a few pictures from the more quiet areas of Sharia 26th of July (I didn’t want people to feel like I was taking pictures of them). A few kids came and wanted to be part of the shot, and they thought it was really cool when I took a picture of them. They did hi-fives afterwards, and I mistook the gesture of one of them as a request for Baksheesh, so I gave him a pound, much to his friends amusement.

A group of boys on Sharia 26th of July

As we walked home, I came to think about the theories of new urbanism about the important of sidewalks that are being used. In the teeming mass of pedestrians that is Cairo streets, we never feel unsafe. Then again, maybe it’s just the constant police presence.

For much of this day, Sarah decided to wear a hijab (scarf). It was interesting to notice the different reactions we got. Many people would assume we were Muslims, and many people would look at me strangely for accompanying her. She said that she felt people reacted more positive to her, though.

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
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