Love, Literature and Cold Kebabs in Cairo

How the Egyptian capital helped me discover an incredible lightness of being.
Pyramid Cairo Egypt
The three pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure are perfectly symmetrical. The sheer scale of this building enterprise led to many outlandish theories about their construction including alien intervention! Photo: Tom Bonaventure/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Three years, four months, and 13 days—that was exactly how long it had been since my husband and I had last taken a vacation. In that time, we moved cities, found new jobs, and survived family and health crises—big changes, in other words. During this time of flux, travel plans were always the first to be axed. As the seasons passed, the daily grind was wearing us down, almost without us noticing.

One day at work, as I was researching and proofreading a story on Egypt, something clicked and I was gripped by wanderlust. The country checked every box on my travel list. Next morning I tossed the idea at breakfast, as casually as passing the toast. My husband, a history buff, took to it immediately. Before long he’d set about populating excel sheets and creating itineraries. And just like that, Egypt entered our lives, conjuring up images of desert mirages, donkeys trudging dusty paths, pharaonic treasures, cursed tombs, and a vast library of ancient books.

However, like all the best-laid plans, ours ran into trouble, just two weeks before our departure. On the morning of 11 December, 2016, a bomb ripped through St. Mark’s Cathedral, one of Cairo’s most significant shrines for its Coptic Christians. Egypt was back in the global limelight for the wrong reasons. Frantic calls from all and sundry and Western travel directives added to our media-fuelled fears.

We thought about the constant violence and terror of the world we’d inherited, and decided to take our chances. On the eve of our journey we reassured each other a little shakily and boarded our flight to Cairo.

Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square Cairo Egypt

Today Tahrir Square is a traffic-filled part of downtown Cairo, surrounded by important government buildings, hotels, and commercial establishments. Photo: Khaled Desouki/Staff/AFP/Getty Images

We landed in Cairo in the wee hours of the morning. Despite being sleep-deprived, our groggy brains registered our hotel’s iconic downtown location. Its proximity to Tahrir Square meant that it never really left our imagination. On our first morning, when my husband crossed the square to buy something as prosaic as toothpaste, his predominant emotion was one of disbelief. “I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in the Tahrir Square.”

And it is a square like no other I have seen. A giant traffic island provides respite from the crisscross of flyovers, bridges and roads. It is massive with undefined boundaries and skirted by important public buildings including the majestic Egyptian Museum and the glittering Ritz-Carlton hotel. As we craned our necks skywards, we saw a massive Egyptian flag fluttering in the wind, no doubt an important symbol in a place that has been at the forefront of revolutionary activities.

As I write this, it is exactly six years to the day that thousands of Egyptians congregated at Tahrir singing, chanting slogans, waving flags, and demanding freedom. We had followed the dramatic events on the news and formed opinions on the crisis unravelling in another part of the world. Now, here we were on that very spot, in some way, a minute part of its history. Everything that had transpired here filtered into our conversations with each other, and the locals we met. Tahrir Square helped us understand contemporary Egypt and its people in a way that perhaps no museum could.

Adrift On the Nile

Cairo Egypt

Glittering barges anchored by the banks of the Nile often function as entertainment centres offering a mix of restaurants, bars, and live music. Photo: Walter Bibikow/Awl Images/Getty Images

Both my husband and I are from Kolkata, a city built on a river. Yet our morning walk along the Nile Corniche, was a universe away from our experience of walking along any of India’s polluted urban rivers, better seen at night when their detritus is camouflaged. The Nile, on the other hand, was bluer than the skies above it, and its mirror-like surface reflected the giant metropolis on both sides. Cairo’s biggest hotels, government offices, and its most atmospheric cafés vie for the best views of the river.

At the Valley of Kings, one of our guides had pointed to an image of a pharoah praying to Hapi, the Nile god. The ancient kings believed that before their entry into the afterlife, they would have to swear that they had been respectful of the Nile, and done nothing to pollute it. This reverence seems to prevail even today as this river forms the gleaming spine of the city. We explored Cairo with the Nile as our axis, instinctively interlocking fingers as we followed its serpentine course.

That evening, our dinner cruise turned out to be an awkward river party with a soundtrack of off-key songs by a live band. As we settled in to watch the entertainment, which also included belly dancing, we ended up next to a large group of fellow Bengalis, each a veritable Lawrence of Arabia with a monkey cap over a checked keffiyeh. Their conversations ranged from gustatory adventures to inevitable comparisons with the Hooghly back home. We escaped to the top deck to look across the inky river, lit by myriad neon signs from the restaurant barges and fairy lights on cruise boats. A cold wind was blowing, and we felt an occasional spray as the boat spliced through the water.

Night and day, the Nile continued to hold us in its thrall. From the plane, we had seen the city laid out in ribbons of green and brown around the river. Up close, we saw ships sailing past elegant feluccas, and lines of cars snaking across Cairo’s many bridges. We saw a boat carrying sand, and thought of how building materials for the giant pyramids of Giza were ferried in much the same way millenia ago.

Sleepless in Zamalek

Mr. Raheb, music enthusiast and the owner of a vintage record and audio equipment shop in Zamalek, ensures that visitors have a great listening experience at his store, whether they make a purchase or not. Photo: Diya Kohli

Mr. Raheb, music enthusiast and the owner of a vintage record and audio equipment shop in Zamalek, ensures that visitors have a great listening experience at his store, whether they make a purchase or not. Photo: Diya Kohli

Wherever my husband and I have travelled, we have always found a neighbourhood, city square, café, or bar to make our own. In Cairo, that place was the Zamalek district. One morning as the city emerged from its smoggy winter shroud, we decided to walk without purpose. Ambling along the Nile, as if we had sponges for legs, we absorbed the city with each step. We crossed a bridge and suddenly emerged on an island far removed from the medieval Islamic and Coptic Christian quarters, away from the political squares and museums. This was Gezira Island’s Zamalek neighbourhood, a twin to cosmopolitan burbs like New York’s Brooklyn or Mumbai’s Bandra.

In our five days in the city, we returned here at least once a day with the instinct of homing pigeons—for a meal, a jaunt, a drink, or a cuppa. And, every single time, we discovered something new.

We marvelled at the laid-back ahwas or coffee shops, where locals sipped Turkish coffee and took drags from shishas. A curious sign with the word Sufi on it led us up the stairs of a beautiful 19th-century building. On one side of a landing was an apartment-turned-antique store called The Loft. It was like entering Ali Baba’s cave of treasures, stacked with exquisite furniture, shamanic totem poles, ceramic crockery, leatherbound encyclopaedias and journals. It even had a medieval suit of armour, and so many lamps—all manner of delightful confections in stained glass and mosaic—bathing the place in fantastically shaped shadows. We bought nothing, but leafed through books, picked at odd instruments, and fooled around with scimitars. In the café across the landing, the air was heavy with smoke and the smell of coffee. Scruffy bearded intellectuals, ladies in designer abayas, and hipsters smoked incessantly, discussed college assignments, and read, alone or in groups.

High on our agenda was hunting down vinyl records—my husband’s singular passion. Zamalek felt like the right kind of place to find vintage gramophones and LPs. Aided by Google maps, we arrived at Ion Electronics, an old curiosity shop stocked with seriously retro stereo equipment and odd bits of audio machinery. And of course boxes, cupboards, and old trunks filled with records. The gregarious proprietor, Mr. Raheb, took his time creating the perfect listening experience. An ancient player was summoned up from a dusty shelf, along with two mismatched speakers. As my husband extracted choice LPs from tattered sleeves, the attendants wiped them and delicately placed them under the stylus. The music soared from that little shop, capturing our hearts and floated out into the quiet, treelined Mohamed Mazhar Street. As a finale, Mr. Raheb played us an old Arabic LP, which he said was his father’s favourite and a perennial pick-me-up record. After nearly two hours, we left the little shop, with Swan Lake under my husband’s arm.

Another sign lured us to the Greater Cairo Library, a grand baroque building right by the Nile. It was just the library I’d expected to find in Egypt. A grand staircase led to a large room with books on Egyptian history. Light poured in through large windows and the Nile glittered in the distance. Besides us, there was a lone guard, busy playing Candy Crush at the door. We sat companionably at a long table in this sun-dappled room stacked with books, my husband’s head buried in a tome, the silence broken only by an occasional message notification from the guard’s phone. I tucked this perfectly romantic moment away in my memory vault.

A couple of times, we returned to Zamalek after dark, when it thrummed with Cairo’s young and restless, looking for a good party. Our search for a bar in a city of teetotallers took us to the buzzing L’Aubergine. For a place named after a vegetable, it was pretty cool, with an eclectic crowd, banter across tables, and Jagerbombs doing the rounds. We stopped counting the drinks and ended up singing along off-key to the retro songs on the radio.

On another evening, we found ourselves in a café on the Nile-side barge Le Pacha. There was raucous cheering and table thumping as home team Zamalek FC scored a goal on the giant screen. Neither my husband nor I have much enthusiasm for football as we grew up in cricket-crazy families in a cricket-crazy country. Nonetheless we understood the enthusiasm generated by the sport, and drank our beers in happy camaraderie with the fans. Zamalek became our counterpoint to the city of pyramids; it was the neighbourhood that felt uniquely ours, and anchored us to Cairo.

Shadowing a Heretic King in the Egyptian Museum

Museum Cairo Egypt

The Egyptian Museum is a magnificent repository of treasures that helps visitors piece together the country’s ancient grandeur. Photo: Robert Harding/Indiapicture

Museum Cairo

Akhenaten’s statues are depicted with elongated limbs and female curves, an unusual look for pharaohs who were usually represented in their prime masculine form. Photo: Jose Lucas/Alamy/Indiapicture

 

 

Every single superlative in the dictionary has been used to describe the Egyptian Museum’s unbelievable historical artefacts. From King Tut’s treasures to the mummies of the great pharaohs, this museum is a great vault of mankind’s history.

After looking at hundreds of pharaonic statues, colossi, and splendid examples of tomb art, we came across one king of antiquity who, unlike the typical masculine warrior figures, was represented with fluid, elongated, and almost feminine lines. Akhenaten, earlier known as Amenhotep IV, was a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, whose ideas were too radical for his time. The poet-king tried to replace Egypt’s polytheist religion with the cult of one god, Aten, and to change the prevailing social order. Everything about the way he was depicted was different. His sculptures were not always flattering, but perhaps the most lifelike of all those that we saw in the museum.

Akhenaten’s angular face and enigmatic smile stayed with us. Intrigued by this pharoah’s unconventional approach to religion, politics, and art, my husband became adept at recognising Akhenaten on our various excursions to tombs and temples along the Nile Valley. Prompted by our Egyptologist guide to read Naguib Mahfouz’s fictional portrait of the king, Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, he became obsessed with enthusiastically spotting sculptures of the heretic king—no mean feat, as most of them were defaced—and then tried to find out more about Akhenaten’s connection to each site we visited.

Soon this over-3,000-year-old pharaoh started feeling like a friend. Fittingly, we returned to India with a giant black-and-white poster of our spectral guide in Egypt.

On the Trail of Naguib Mahfouz

Khan el kahllili Cairo Egypt

Khan el Khalili, the sprawling souk in the Islamic district of Cairo sells everything from hand-carved backgammon boards to old books. Photo: Gary Yeowell/The image Bank/Getty Images

Both my husband and I love books, and in Cairo we discovered Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. At bookshops, we spent hours flipping through different translations, veering between Mahfouz’s descriptions of ancient kings, as well as his exploration of colonial Cairo. While my husband devoured Dweller in Truth, I read Midaq Alley, looking for echoes of its dark and dodgy characters as we walked the streets.

Our visit to Khan el Khalili, Cairo’s famous souk, would have been fairly underwhelming had it not been for Mahfouz’s descriptions of it. To my disappointment, I discovered that perfume shops, jewellery, and souvenirs were really not my thing. We had completed the same circuit of the market for the fifth time—my husband was looking positively pained—but I was determined to make at least one purchase. Surely there was something I liked in one of the Arab world’s most famous souks?

After a minor accident, when a rash biker got entangled with my backpack and toppled to the ground, I felt a little shaken and in need of fortification. Happy chance brought us to El Fishawy, a little shop serving mint tea and thick-as-sin Turkish coffee. El Fishawy was also Naguib Mahfouz’s favoured haunt. Hidden behind shops selling carpets, abayas, and shiny balloons, it is one of those places that can literally be discovered by chance.

In the outdoor section, which is a tiny alley of the souk itself, I spotted a man with a lined face, hunched over his shisha, concentrating on each pull on the pipe like his life depended on it. He could very well have walked straight out of the fictional Midaq Alley into this back street. I recalled Mahfouz’s lines: “A senile old man is now approaching the café. He is so old that the passing of time has left him with not a single sound limb. A boy leads him by the left hand and under his right arm he carries a two-stringed fiddle and a book.”

Sitting surrounded by mirrors and aromatic smoke, I began to really take in the sights, sounds and smells of the 14th-century souk. A shoeshine boy offered to make my boots sparkle, a young girl insisted that I would look beautiful in a bejewelled veil, and another charmer selling bric-a-brac simply said “How can I take all your money?” I could see my husband smiling for the first time that day. And we had Naguib Mahfouz to thank for it.

The Final Countdown

Pyramids Cairo

The New Year’s Eve laser projection on the Great Pyramids of Giza continues long after the last light-and-sound show ends at 10 p.m. Photo: Khaled Desouki/Staff/AFP/Getty Images

It was New Year’s eve and I felt like we had been holding our breath for an epoch before the night exploded around us. A final burst of fireworks lit up the Giza necropolis and the Sphinx. Around me, voices echoing “Happy New Year” sounded tinny. Still, this New Year’s felt different, and special. For here, on the Giza plateau on the outskirts of Cairo, watched over by a 5,000-year-old Sphinx, we felt protected from the vagaries of the world. My husband and I turned our faces westward to watch pyrotechnic stars cascade from the skies above the three perfect pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure marking the arrival of 2017. What was this if not the eternal afterlife that the pharaohs had craved for? That, we felt was a good thought for the last night of the year and for our last night in Egypt. Though we were on a ramshackle rooftop, and the kebabs were cold, life seemed lighter than it had for years.

Appeared in the March 2017 issue as “Arabian Nights and Days”.

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    Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.

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