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January 6, 2008

A Christmas stroll through Islamic Cairo—ماشي عيد ميلاد في القاهرة الإسلامية

Filed under: Masr —مصر — Tags: , , , — admin @ 2:19 am


On December 25th, Adrienne and I decided to go for a stroll through Cairo. It didn’t have anything to do with it being Christmas, really. We just wanted to get out. A friend of mine who had lived in Cairo many years ago suggested a walk through Sayyida Zeinab and Islamic Cairo. I plotted something of a route and we set out, first across Qasr al-‘Aini, through the neighborhood called al-Mounira, alongside the Metro tracks for a bit, over a pedestrian railroad crossing and through Sayyida Zeinab to the mosque of the same name. Sayyida Zeinab Square was filled with throngs of people and cars going every-which-way. Navigation was particularly difficult around a big blue police personnel carrier that had just dropped its load in front of the Sayyida Zeinab Police Station. We continued toward the Citadel along ‘Adb al-Meguid, a narrow street flanked by old mosques from the middle of the last millennium. They all had historical markers on them, but the dates on one had been scratched out, leading me to wonder as to the controversy there. We eventually reached Ibn Tulun mosque, where we were urged to take a tour inside by a couple men possessing all the subtlety of proprietors of Indian restaurants in popular quarters of New York City (which is to say, not much). On the other side of the mosque, I caught sight of the immense billboard for Ibn Tulun, nearly illegible despite its size for the layers of diesel and desert dust caked upon it.

We continued on what was now Saliba St., up a hill, choking on automobile fumes, followed by a fellow who was obliged to walk his scooter up the hill. The canyon of buildings opened up to the seven-way intersection that forms Salah al-Din Square. The Citadel with its massive walls and the towering minarets of Mohammed Ali Mosque stood in front of us on the other side of the square. Adrienne remarked that she hadn’t realized how close it was to where we live. We stood at the north end of the intersection for a while, discussing where to go from there: Through some neighborhood streets to al-Azhar and Khan al-Khalili (where we could get the full experience of walking through the city of Cairo), along the old city walls (which would take us on a less-traveled path through neighborhoods built against the walls) or through al-Azhar Park (which would cost some money, but would be trouble-free, and we could get some fresh air).

Unfortunately, a big open square next to a major tourist attraction is not a smart place to hang around looking at a map, wondering what to do next. Sure enough, having made our decision (I forget now what it was) and having begun on our way, we were intercepted in a most friendly way by a man who was clearly ably-trained in that peculiar practice of talking while (seemingly) walking past us, as if to convey that he has his own trajectory that has nothing to do with extracting money from wary tourists. He was good at this shtick, and succeeded in persuading us (in such a way as to render the persuasion as little noticeable as possible) to follow him on his “usual” route “home” and to “his” mosque, where we would soon have a wonderful opportunity to catch the sunset from the minaret. A sweeping view over Cairo from a minaret at sunset did, admittedly, sound attractive. Nor was the conversation unpleasant, particularly with a “history teacher” telling stories of the river of blood that flowed down the steep, tiny road we were descending when Mohammed Ali massacred 500 Mamluk amirs at the Citadel in 1811. Presently, the road was flush with Vespa scooters and repair shops servicing the same. There were as many Vespas as people on this road. But, while a few streets and alleys here and there were still sticky from the slaughter of Eid al-Adha several days previous, there were no butchers that I recall here and so no rivers of blood. Our history lesson was accompanied by the obligatory announcement of a birth or marriage in the family that is a staple of every tourist money extraction shtick worth its salt. There are enough births and marriages in this culture that there is likely no need to make one up, but it does make me wonder.

We wound through streets along a path we likely would not have found on our own and eventually reached the mosque, where our guide pointed out shell holes from when the Nazis shot at the wrong mosque, or something (I always learned the Nazis were stopped in the Qattara Depression, a good deal west of Cairo). Adrienne was doing most of the talking, as usual, so I was a little unclear about the money part. It was, of course, to go into the “donation box” of the Mosque of al-Maridani. Students are apparently expected to leave half the “donation” (luckily we had our AUC ID cards), and different donations are expected depending upon whether or not we ascend all the way to the minaret. As is the usual case in this country, we were lacking in change, so we “donated” rather more than was “expected”. We removed our shoes, our guide introduced us to the muezzin (مؤذن), and after putting our money in the “donation box”, we were first given a tour of the funerary supplies for the poorer members of the mosque’s congregation—supplies we were repeatedly told were paid for by our “donations”. We were then given a short tour of the mosque’s architecture, which would have been enthralling if I knew anything at all of the rich tradition of Islamic architecture. We were told of the various architectural styles in the mosque, including pre-Islamic, featuring a granite column from ancient times. He then challenged us to decipher a glyph in tile on one of the walls. I eventually guessed “Muhammed” (kind of a no-brainer), and he rewarded me with a 10-piaster coin (that’s $0.02). Apparently this was because it has a mosque on it (certainly not the one we were in), or maybe because of the words “Arabic Republic of Egypt” (جمهورية مصر عربية) in ornate calligraphy on the reverse. He also gave us an idea of what the services look like, indicating that women stand outside. I was somewhat surprised Adrienne wasn’t given a green headscarf, as I had heard this was customary before entering certain mosques.

Finally, he showed us the way up to the minaret, the muezzin told us in Arabic to go up three balconies, and we were instructed to put our shoes back on to get up to the minaret. The path up to the minaret was a tiny, narrow spiral staircase. We went up two balconies, and there was a rickety metal spiral staircase to the third on this ancient minaret, but the opening at the top didn’t seem big enough for us to get through. Besides, it was pretty sketchy. We looked around, waved to our guide and the muezzin far below in the courtyard, and watched the sun go down and flocks of birds swoop this way and that across the skyline. There were a pair of kids on a rooftop waving a red and a green flag. I’m not sure why. Most of the pictures in the gallery below are from up here.

After the sun set, we scrambled quickly down the stairs so as not to have our ears blown out by the أذان (adhan, call to prayer) coming from the loudspeakers attached to the minaret or to be electrocuted by the green neon lights which are switched on after sunset. We made it just in time, and I recorded the أذان (part of it anyway) which probably jolted you when it was first played:


In addition to the adhan of the muezzin of this mosque, you can hear the muezzineen (that’s the plural) of many nearby mosques, along with the ubiquitous sound of Cairo traffic.

We descended back to the ground (the muezzin called to us on the way—he was maybe a little anxious) and continued on our way to al-Azhar. We made a random turn at some point (or, I should say that I made a random turn, and Adrienne followed me), and we spent the next 15 minutes wending along tight alleyways flanked mostly with fabric vendors and clogged with men carrying enormous bolts of textiles from place to place. I kept trying to use al-Azhar mosque as a landmark, but soon discovered that my lack of knowledge of Islamic architecture made it impossible for me to differentiate one mosque from the next.

We eventually made it to al-Azhar St. at the beginning of the flyover to Opera Square and determined to get some dinner somewhere in Khan al-Khalili, the place where tourists go (and many non-tourists, to be fair) to buy shisha pipes, belly-dancing outfits, boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ouds (a sort of lute), taxidermy and ancient-Egypt-themed kitsch and tchotchkes. After being propositioned by a phalanx of refreshingly direct (to the point of self-irony) vendors (“How can I take your money!?”), we obtained directions to a cafe with foul (فول) and ta’maya (طعمية). It was, of course, over-priced, but quite tasty and filling. I also had some shisha, which I’ve taken a liking to recently. While there, friends and colleagues Joel and Miriam Beinin found us and said hello with their son and his wife and their friends. This was quite a pleasant surprise, although we were slightly embarrassed to have been caught in Khan al-Khalili (they had the excuse of escorting guests from out of town). Upon leaving, I took some pictures of the ridiculous Santa ornaments in the tree at the cafe.

I had gotten a wild hair up my ass somewhere along the line here to make egg nog, so we went searching for nutmeg and a small grater for it. I also wanted to look at shisha pipes for a friend to whom I had promised to bring one back for (way to stack up some prepositions at the end of the sentence, eh?). I had a problem with the latter because I was looking for something with arabic letters on it. I was apparently unable to communicate what I was looking for because everyone kept showing me pipes with cheezy pharaonic crap on it, despite the fact that the ancient Egyptians were by no means arabs, nor can an image of Nefertiti be considered a “letter”. Whatever. I was also looking to get a picture of belly-dancing outfits for my step-mom, because she makes them. We did eventually get some nutmeg (as well as some nice-looking cinnamon sticks), but the grater was a bit more difficult.

We walked west, toward home, fighting for space with guys yelling ahead as they rolled drums of goods at high speed through the alley. We came across some beach towels with Nefertiti on them, identical to ones we saw for sale in Nuweiba and which Adrienne had considered buying (on a lark, of course) and she asked about the price, which was ridiculously high. Approaching us from the rear came a man commenting to us about the high price of towels in the customary fashion, passing us as if to suggest he is on his way somewhere that has nothing to do with us. He eventually followed us for some time, helping us to find a grater after learning of our quest. He did procure one for us, at a not-particularly cheap price, which I’m gathering he took a piece of. We walked with him for some time as he headed home, with no apparent intention to go a different direction. He was very nice and pleasant to talk with, so we didn’t mind so much. We walked along the three of us amicably enough, dodging harried workmen transporting commodities of various sorts, chatting about family, etc. Along came a man ahead of us with a bundle of lumber hoisted over his head. Before I had time to react, seeing our friend’s head turned temporarily downward, he walked straight into a 2×2 piece of lumber and hunched over. Dude carrying the lumber seemed unperturbed and carried on, but our friend was not doing so well. He had been hit near the eye and leaned against the wall, disoriented. We and some on-lookers asked if he needed help, but he waved us off. There was a bathroom directly nearby and he went in to wash, though there was no blood. He insisted we carry on, but then had to stop for a moment. I suggested to Adrienne that we take the Metro from the nearby Attaba station so that this guy would stop following us, not because we wanted to lose him, but because we were concerned about him getting some help. He had mentioned that he had a newborn son in the hospital. Whether this was true or not, we hoped that he would go to the hospital nonetheless. Upon parting ways at the Metro station, I gave him a bit of money, which I’m guessing was his reason for sticking around (the ubiquitous scamming has made me rather suspicious of Egyptians following me around and offering help). I soon regretted having given him so little, but it was too late. We went back, but couldn’t find him.

I spent the rest of the evening feeling depressed and despondent. I wished I had given him as much as we had given the mosque, and vice versa. But mostly, I was depressed about this whole situation and the place I occupy as a Westerner with a modicum of cash, white skin and poor knowledge of the language. There is not much of a Western work ethic in this country. In fact, there seems to be a cultural pride in using one’s social wiles to extract money from those who have it. This is strange to me, but I can’t say that I have any more problem with it than I do with charity or the bootstrap ethic. My biggest problem is that constantly being a mark for people who make a living by conning tourists has given me a bit of a thick skin. I got depressed because I was forced to recognize this thick skin. I can brush off all manner of friendly overtures, I can take every story about a marriage or a birth or a hospitalization with a boulder of salt, I can learn to regard every compliment with the highest suspicion, but I can’t very well ignore it when someone gets smacked in the head with a piece of lumber. But then what? How do I genuinely reach out to someone who has just spent half an hour trying to extract money from me…in the most amicable way possible. In many ways, it’s not different from the loneliness I feel in “my own” culture. There are plenty of barriers in the North America to honest, genuine relationships with people. It’s just that rarely are those barriers so starkly based upon money, not to mention decades and generations of colonialism and clientelism, mixed with the contemporary erosion of entitlements, informalisation of labor and institutional reliance on the tourism industry.

Where my shyness at “home” is a liability, here it is utterly debilitating. Were I more out-going, perhaps I would be filling these pages with those stories of the warmth and generosity of Egyptians, their humor in the face of cruel fate, etc., etc. Instead I find myself whining that I can’t make friends with scam artists (and I use the word “artist” in the highest sense). “Spare me,” I hear you saying.

In that frame of mind, I walked toward home with Adrienne, my head bowed, trying to muster some sense of amusement from the ridiculous and creepy Christmas window displays on Qasr al-Nil. We decided to take a cab the rest of the way.


  1. حواء…

    موجة جوجل عبارة عن تطوير للبريد الحالي ليشمل أسلوب الرد المتفرع بحيث تستطيع أن ترد على الرسالة كأجزاء متفرقة (أشبه بعملية الاقتباس في المن…

    Trackback by حواء — June 15, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

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    Comment by ugur — February 1, 2015 @ 2:03 am

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