A rolling stoic gathers no mosque

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[I've only written 12,000 words so far about the big trip, so I suppose there's no reason not to go ahead and slap on a few more and close this out.]

Our lame-duck tour company had, belatedly, offered us some options for our Cairo sightseeing pleasure on Saturday, May 31. We could have a tour guide, or a driver, or a tour guide and a driver, or we could do it all on our own using public transportation and taxis. After some hasty private consultation, Laura and I opted for a driver only. We figured it would be useful to have someone who could take us where we wanted to go, but wouldn't get in our way or try to drag us off on annoying consumer side adventures.

Laura Chavoen in the courtyard of the Mohammed Ali Mosque, The Citidel, Cairo We set off on our adventure first thing after our buffet breakfast at the hotel (which featured the best damn fresh orange juice I've had in a long time). We had three items on our sightseeing agenda: the Citadel, Islamic Cairo, and Coptic Cairo. Well, two out of three isn't bad.

Things started off well enough. Our driver whisked us away to the Citadel, that ancient fortress city built up by Saladin to defend against the Crusaders. We were especially enamored of the Mohammed Ali Mosque, a grand structure in the Ottoman Baroque style—even though Laura's carefully composed outfit was not proof against being wrapped in a green cloak as we entered. Our small playlist of five videos from the Citadel complex will give you an idea what we saw there. Or, if you prefer to see only one, try this video of Laura in the courtyard of the Mohammed Ali Mosque:

We wandered the streets around the Citadel for a while before the appointed time to meet our driver again, and that's when we received our first real baptism into the game we came to call "Cairo Frogger." Simply put, that's the way you cross most streets—like the hapless videogame character, boldly striding into the street and progressing from lane to lane as you see opportunities open up. The streets around the Citadel provided us our training round of Cairo Frogger. The expert levels would come later.

One agenda item down, two to go! But it was the next item that caused us problems. "Islamic Cairo" is a specific area of the city, filled with ancient mosques and markets. It's a common tourist destination. (We did not exactly realize it, but we were already on the edge of it.) But our driver did not seem to grok our drift. "Anywhere you look," he said, "that is Islamic Cairo. You want to see mosques. Anywhere you look, there are mosques."

Apparently the term does not translate well from English.

If we'd had a better idea what exactly we were looking for in Islamic Cairo, or maybe if we'd chosen guidebooks with better maps, we might have made some headway in this debate. As it was, we decided to curtail our mounting frustration and move on to the third agenda item. We figured we could always go back to the hotel, get some directions from the concierge, and take a cab to where we wanted to go later.

So it was that we skipped ahead to Coptic Cairo, where our frustrated driver parked and told us he'd meet us in an hour. The Hanging Church was marvelous, with elaborate cruciform woodwork all over the interior, and some of the more gruesome icons I've seen in a Christian church. Our driver had shadowed us from the car to the church, which creeped me out until I passed him lighting a candle and he sheepishly admitted to me that he was Christian and only got the opportunity to pray in church while squiring tourists around.

We saw some other cool stuff in the Coptic quarter, including the Roman Tower and the Church of St. George. In an underground market passage, as I was paying for a photographic print of a zeppelin over a mosque (possibly a Lehnert & Landrock bootleg, I'm not sure), I managed to knock a crocodile magnet off a wall and break it. The superglued croc is now stuck to our fridge.

After Coptic Cairo, we had our driver take us back to our hotel. We paid him and thanked him and sent him on his way. Then a very helpful fellow at the front desk assisted us in getting a taxi to the Khan al-Khalili, the ancient marketplace in Islamic Cairo we had hoped to see that morning. The taxi ride there was easy, and we spent an overawed hour getting lost in that complex, crowded maze of narrow merchant alleys. By now we had gotten pretty good at ignoring the hawkers' come-ons, so we actually had a fairly pleasant time.

Eventually we got hungry, so we found an attractive-looking cafe in a relatively uncrowded plaza and sat down for some coffee and falafel sandwiches. We chatted with a pair of tourists at the next table, and then somehow found ourselves wrapped up in a conversation with the owner of the restaurant. He was a distinguished-looking older gentleman dressed neatly in pristine Western business casual. He looked as if the heat did not dare touch him. When we told him how much we loved his falafels, he told us it had been his grandfather's restaurant, and that the place was listed in our guidebook as having the best falafels in Cairo. (Sure enough, it was.)

Wanna buy a turtle? He also owned an import/export business, he said, and, as he was the designated collector of alms for the poor from the businesses of the Khan, he claimed to know all the merchants around. This was an assertion he proceeded to back up by taking us on a whirlwind backstreet tour of the marketplace, where he helped us acquire all the gift items that remained on our Egyptian shopping list. Alabaster, mosaic glass, saffron, hibiscus tea, he helped us buy it all—or in point of fact, purchased it for us from the merchants in question. Along the way, he led us up backstairs and through the dusty workshops of the artisans who produced filigreed silver and mother-of-pearl-inlaid wood and more. He slapped backs and shook hands all around, everywhere we went. He and I both sneezed and needed to blow our noses in the covered spice market, where a hundred exotic scents hung heavy in the air, puffed up from open barrels and burlap bags with the tops turned down in neat cuffs.

It was a magical hour, and at the end of it, back in the gentleman's own shop, he had all our purchases wrapped up for us, and we settled with him personally for the amount of 400 Egyptian pounds (a little less than 80 bucks, which still seems a bargain for everything we bought). He cadged an additional 30 pounds from us as alms for the poor, helped us find an honest cab driver to take us back to our hotel, and bid us farewell.

If we were fleeced, then we were fleeced with gentility and urbanity, and we were happy to let it happen. Laura still wonders why he singled us out. I look at Laura and I don't wonder.

That evening, after stashing our booty at the hotel, we played several harrowing rounds of Cairo Frogger in the process of hunting down a place to have dinner. On a pleasant side street that for some reason had a series of signs advertising Activia running down its grassy median (I guess even Egyptians need yogurt that makes you poop), we found a restaurant called Prestige and took a table at the sidewalk. Over the course of about three horus, we drank fruity drinks, ate a small pizza, and smoked some shisha (watch us toke up here and here), while colorful Cairenes filled in the tables all around us. Altogether, it was a fine and civilized way to close out our Middle Eastern adventure.

[ original post:  http://shunn.livejournal.com/460671.html ]

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on June 12, 2008 11:50 AM.

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