You wake up to sunlight bursting through the tightly shuttered windows. Everything is closed but the light finds a way in, heating up the room and urging you to start your vacation. You’re in Egypt, wake up!
You’re staying with a friend, Nancy, whose apartment is furnished in typically Egyptian style: fanciful upholstery, thick rugs and wall hangings of strange-looking flowers. There are balconies everywhere and you can see your friend’s vegetable vendor, fruit vendor, university campus and more from the windows. After a strong cup of thick coffee with your host, you set out together to see the Nile. The Nile!
You learn that the ‘Corniche’ is the name given to the street on either side of the banks of the Nile. At first glance, fifteen minutes from Nancy’s apartment, you think it looks like any other river – mostly blue, mostly shimmering, with bridges forming railroad-track-like-stripes over it and boats bouncing at the edges.
But as you walk along the shaded street, ducking under palm tree leaves eager to bid you salaam and stepping over stray cats – so many of them pregnant! – you get a sense that there’s more to this river, although you’re not sure what. The tree-lined Corniche is inviting and shady, and you peer through the leaves to see an imposing skyline of minarets and buildings, getting distracted by the colorful Ramadan lamps swaying in the branches above you. Nancy returns home to study but you continue meandering, admiring the dilapidated European architecture looking onto the river.
You slept through the morning prayer call but it’s noon as you find your way to a nearby hotel to exchange money, and the rich voice of the muezzin, who performs the call to God five times a day from the mosque, penetrates the air. You expect a Cinderella effect – people turning into prostrating pumpkins or scurrying like mice into mosques, but no such metamorphosis occurs. You notice during your walk – and you are strikingly brisk because you come from New York and you want to explore! – that movement around you is constant but sluggish. Idleness hangs like a heavy curtain in the polluted air of Cairo that vehicles and people struggle through at every moment. Cars crawl because of the hordes of pedestrians threading carelessly through them, and the people themselves stop frequently to light a cigarette, stare a stranger up and down or catch up with friends. It’s not that people are loitering, they just don’t have anywhere to be. 10% of Cairo, like the rest of the country, is unemployed and 100% of Cairo appears to be in love. Couples snuggle in the shadows – the few patches of darkness they can escape to – and gangs of men exchange punctuated banter and create symphonies with their cell phones.
That evening you set out to visit Al-Azhar Mosque, your very first. You pad through the heavy gate, barefoot, and encounter utter peace. In spite of the bustle raging on the street just steps away, a gentle hush has settled over the huge courtyard – blowing away the heavy curtain from earlier – and you can’t help but whisper. Domes bulge, then taper into a perfect point, their curves both calming and alluring. You are struck by the detail everywhere – everywhere! Lattice work on the doors, patterns painted on the ceilings, calligraphy etched onto the walls, lights casting the enormous structure in a divine glow.
You sit on the soft carpet and your head naturally tilts back to gaze upon the towers sprouting from every corner. You're moved to pray, to ponder, to stop thinking and allow the mosque to work its magic. It does. You feel cleansed.
Back on the street you are struck by the majesty of each minaret, each wall, each door that you pass. Not only are they perfectly constructed and intact, but they grace the very streets where carts and trucks and market vendors graze with a nonchalance only a local can feel. You admire the juxtaposition of hand-to-mouth street vendors smoking sheesha next to architecture from millennia ago. The mosques are as tall as the alleys are narrow, their minarets as solitudinous as the streets are crowded. You are struck by the symbiosis between the city’s base and its lofted spirituality.
Time for another Egyptian tradition: coffee! You and Nancy walk like experts through clusters of tourists, curious locals and lackadaisical tourist police, from mosque to midan (square) and arrive at Fishawy’s, one of Cairo’s most popular ahwas (coffee shops), made famous by the globally renowned author Naguib Mahfouz. If he was as inspired by the color and coffee and cacophony as you are – your mind reeling a little after basking in the serenity of the mosques – it’s only natural that he wrote as effectively as he did. Perhaps a little of him will seep into you!
Energized, you press on, deeper into the city. The mosques and the markets continue to exist harmoniously. So much of what you have seen is strips of street buttressed by superbly high walls on either side, as if the streets are but lattice work on a topography made up entirely of mosques.