Greetings From Cairo
We were terrified. We’d had seventeen travel hours to contemplate the journey ahead and at last we began to appreciate the enormity of a trip from Cairo to Cape Town. For months we disregarded warnings from friends and family but making our final descent into Cairo, we at last began to doubt the strength of our own convictions. But now that we’ve arrived, what are our first impressions?
Central Cairo is like any other big city. Roads are wide amd busy, pavements are full of people. Everywhere you go, beautiful trees, amazing trees, line your path. Arabic is all around on sign posts and menus, on newspapers and timetables. Incense is in the air. Travel only a few blocks away though, and you enter another world of backstreets and dirt tracks and sweat shops and child labour. Travel a few blocks and you travel the distance between the first and third worlds.
Black and white antique taxis, devoid of airbag, seatbelt and even headrest, prowl the streets hunting prey. The drivers are a menace refusing to use headlights at night, ignoring road markings, traffic lights and even the stern traffic police officers whose futile job it is to try to manage the chaos. Nothing in my life has been as terrifying as taking my life in my hands with those taxis. But it is the sound of the streets that leaves you in no doubt that you are far from home. A cacophony of car horns are a constant reminder of the many misses and not so near misses and it seems as though the almighty car horn is possessed of a mystical power to confer right of way.
More so than Catholicism at home, Islam is a way of life here in Egypt. When the muezzin or call to prayer is sung by the Imam and broadcast simultaneously from every mosque in the city at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, dusk, or after dark, the haunting sounds echo from every direction and make even the streets feel holy. Once a day for one hour, every Muslim in Egypt, some ninety percent of the population will face mecca on bended knee to pray. Pork and alcohol are haram or forbidden. Islam has a poweful effect on the lives of women too but that story will have to wait for another day…
Sixteen people live in Cairo and it swells to twenty million during the day so it’s not surprising that the streets are a river of cars and pedestrians, chaotically dashing forward. The vast majority of people we see are men, handsome and mediterranean, with foreheads that are often bruised from prayer. Smiling, they say ‘Welcome’ and ‘Hello’ as we pass on the street. Just as the travel guide warned, they take much interest in Niamh: Western women are considered exotic here but theirs is a friendly and open interest for the most part. Women are less visible and are often accompanied by their husbands or family: they rarely travel alone. They wear the veil for the most part: some are completely covered while others wear the lightest of hijabs and some wear none at all.
First of all, let me tell you about the coffee. Turkish coffee is good stuff. It originated in the Middle East in the Middle Ages. The coffee is very finely ground (finer than espresso), and is brewed in little pots called ibriks or cezves and is often spiced with cardamom, chicory, or coriander. And then there is the cuisine. Falafel, a middle eastern dish, is known here as ta’amia and is typically served at breakfast. Falafel are little fried balls, crisp, green and fresh. Fuul (pronounced fool) is another favourite: it is the famous Arabic fava bean. Both are served with pita bread and an assortment of side dishes such as tahini, banger (beetroot) and torshi (pickles). Then there is kushari, an Egyptian staple consisting of pasta, rice and spicy lentil sauce. Plus there is the sumptous Fiteer or Egyptian pizza. Delicious.
Cost of Living
One of the best things about Egypt so far is the extremely good value to be had here. Everything costs on average about one tenth of its cost at home. We had a wonderful dinner last evening for example for about fifty cent. Having said that, the Egyptians know that we come here laden with money and so they are very good at extracting their fair share. For example, we took a tour of the Egyptian musuem today which cost fifty Egyptian pounds or about five euro.
One of the first sights to catch my eye as we travelled from the airport was the sight of a man with a rather large gun, sitting in a shelter on the street. He was the first of many. The tourist police wear all white, regular police are in orange and the storm troopers brought in after the bomb blast last week, wear black. The Egyptian Police Force are famous for abusing human rights: they are reputedly rather fond of torture, and because Egypt has been in a state of emergency since 1981, random police arrests are perfectly normal and legal.
– Written by Niamh O Riordan, Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People