Friday, July 21, 2006

The Maze

There are some must-do’s when visiting Cairo. The Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, a stroll down Corniche al-Nile are all musts. Equally amazing is a trip to old Islamic Cairo. This is a neighborhood that lies on the eastern edge of the city and it is a startling departure from the modernity of downtown just a mile or so away. It’s a vast neighborhood, and for my first visit I decided to approach the area from the most straightforward route, a taxi up al-Azhar Street. The first thing that strikes you when you approach this part of the city is that it is guarded by Egypt’s two major mosques. Driving up to the entrance of Islamic Cairo, minarets dominate the skyline announcing the presence of the sprawling complex of the al-Azhar mosque on the right side of the road and the more compact, but equally impressive, al-Husayn mosque on the left. In addition to these two, the area is full of mosques, a fact that I’ll discuss later. Quick history: the al-Husayn mosque is sacred because is guards the head of the Prophet Muhammad’s successor, Husayn. The al-Azhar mosque claims to be the world’s oldest university, teaching Islam to students since the year 970.

Getting out of the taxi, I took a walk around the plaza in front of the al-Husayn mosque. Here there were Egyptians of all shapes and sizes standing in groups of two, three, or four having discussions and enjoying the early evening hours and the day’s first break from the heat. Around the perimeter of the plaza is an endless spread of old Egyptian cafes filled with Egyptians, probably just of work, enjoying a cup of coffee and a couple puffs of the shisha before heading home. It is off of this main plaza that the fun begins. Khan al-Khalili is the famous old commercial section of Islamic Cairo and I set off down a street in the corner of the plaza, determined to make heads and tails of this area.
By stepping down any one of these streets you forfeit your grasp on modernity and surrender yourself to a strange mix between feeling like your walking through a 15th century world and getting ready to shoot a scene in Hollywood. It’s that strange. As soon as the main plaza disappears behind you, you begin to understand the world you’ve entered.
Islamic Cairo is made up of miles and miles and miles of tiny roads and alleys all teeming with the crush of humanity. The major thoroughfares of this pedestrian-only neighborhood are little wider than a New York City sidewalk. When you get really off the beaten path, you sometimes have to navigate alleyways with both shoulders brushing up against the walls on either side. The main strips in Khan al-Khalili are lined with salesmen hoping to sell you anything from cheap plaster souvenir pyramids to old exotic Egyptian clothes to “Anything you want, sir! Anything!” (I didn’t ask any questions).
Once you get off all these “bigger” roads, you get into the real heart of Cairo: small alleyways with young boys playing soccer and tiny cafes with the city’s ancients enjoying some summer shisha. Here you don’t get attacked by salesmen desperate for business. Here life moves slowly, in dignified poverty. These are not slums; the people here are poor but they seem to maintain a kind of pride that I can only guess comes from the
ir intimate connection to Islam. Around each corner is another alleyway, probably narrower than the last until you are forced to change your mindset from enjoyment to escape from the labyrinth. But within a minute or two you find yourself in one of the wider alleys, once again surrounded by the crazed shopkeeps and the endless parade of tourists who, I like to think, looked more helpless than I, myself, did.
When I decided it was time to call it a day, I simply put the setting sun to my right and walked south until I ran into al-Azhar street. From there I went up the avenue to the very edge of the city for dinner in the Azhar Gardens. This is a park that, when initially proposed, many thought would be another broken promise by the central government. Surprisingly, the government completed the park, and it stands as an amazi
ng testament to what Egypt is capable of. Built on top of a massive hill, the park overlooks the entire city with Islamic Cairo in the foreground and downtown on the horizon. It is a park filled with trolleys (to take you on tours), fountains, and impressive gardens. At the same time, however, the park is able to maintain a natural feeling that is a welcome change from the city. Also, the park charges a fee for admission and it is tightly policed, so it remains uncrowded and respectable.
As I settled down for some Labna (yogurt made from goat’s milk) and lamb kebab, and as I watched the sun set over the city, slowly I began hearing the calls to prayer. I hear the call to prayer often throughout the city, but because I was in Islamic Cairo and because I was on top of a hill, the air soon became filled with dozens of voices chanting the Koran, calling the faithful to prayer.
I couldn’t help but get goose bumps as these chants went on for several minutes in a fuller chorus than I had ever heard. And I could just imagine those grizzled Egyptians in the most remote of back alleys pulling themselves away from their coffee and smoke for a minute or two as they had surely done everyday for decades.

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