I’ve been struggling with how to tell you about my recent trip to Cairo, which is funny since my friends and family can attest that I’ve hardly stopped talking about Egypt since returning, especially with the return to Tahrir and elections. Even in talking about it though, I’m not sure I’ve done it justice.
The thrill of experiencing an entirely new culture firsthand would have made the trip memorable enough, but pair that with getting the opportunity to meet and talk with some very accomplished and passionate people who are in the thick of defining real political change in their country and seeing the iconic pyramids, and it quickly became one of the best trips I’ve taken to date.
It was humbling and eye-opening, and I wanted this post to convey all of that. Rather than delay it any longer, I’ll just let the trip speak for itself and then you can see everything that made my five days in Cairo so special.
We stayed at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek, which is an affluent neighborhood that sits on an island in the middle of the Nile, separating Cairo and Giza, both of which make up the metropolitan city of Cairo. As you might remember, I came to Cairo to participate in Afar Experiences’ inaugural event. Since it didn’t begin until midday on my first day in Cairo, I ventured out to explore a little of the surrounding area on my own.
I set off in search of the Diwan Bookstore. It’s well known for carrying titles in English that are hard to find in the US, and it didn’t disappoint. I ended up carrying home two books – one titled Road to Tahrir containing photos taken by young Egyptian photographers of the January revolution that ousted Mubarak and the other titled What the Arabs Think of Americans.
Then I climbed the Cairo Tower to take in the 360 degree view of this massive city with its population of approximately 18 million people.
Overlooking downtown Cairo.
The southern tip of Zamalek.
You can actually see a faint outline of the pyramids from the top of the tower when overlooking the Giza side, but sadly because of the haze you can barely see them in the picture above. There will be more pictures of pyramids soon enough!
After spending my morning in affluent Zamalek, I met up with the Afar group for our first activity and ventured much further afield. I selected a tour of Manshiet Nasser, one of the largest slums in Cairo. Our tour guide was Jawad Nabulsi, a young entrepreneur and Tahrir revolutionary whose Nebny Foundation is working with local contractors to help revitalize the neighborhood, which has been largely neglected by the government, before and after the revolution. It sits in stark contrast to the leafy Zamalek. We walked through only the small part of Manshiet Nasser that was involved in the revitalization efforts, and one of the nicest blocks in the area.
People gathered and welcomed us as we made our way with Jawad through the streets of their neighborhood. As we were getting ready to leave, an older woman motioned to us from one of the windows you see above and invited a few of us to come up into her home. We were able to talk with her and her family about the work the foundation was doing and about the fall of Mubarak. It was an unexpected glimpse into their daily lives.
The Egyptian Museum
We woke early to visit the Egyptian Museum before it opened. We broke up into groups of four. Each of which was paired with an egyptologist who deftly led us through the never ending halls of the museum and all the ancient treasures to show us just the highlights.
Walking through the museum felt like traveling back in time, not just because of the age of the artifacts, but also because the display cases and the building evoke the British colonial period of Egypt’s history at the turn of the century when the building in Tahrir Square was built. The mummy room near containing the mummies of about 9 ancient pharaohs was definitely a highlight of the tour, albeit a slightly creepy one. It’s hard to believe you’re really looking at ancient kings and one queen.
A Remnant of the Revolution
Another highlight of the visit to the Egyptian Museum was the opportunity to see up close the burned out headquarters of the National Democratic Party – the ruling party under Mubarak.
It was burned during the revolution and still stands empty now. The building backs right up to the museum, and you can see how devastating the fire could have been if it had gotten out of control.
From the museum, we walked to Tahrir Square. As you can see below, in late October it was a bustling mess of traffic, and back to business as usual after the January revolution. Having seen this spot made the news come alive in a way I haven’t experienced when only about three weeks later people gathered again in Tahrir to protest the military’s efforts to maintain political control and protections under the post-revolution government and when reports and photographs showed people being injured, tear gassed, or killed during those protests.
The day also included speakers at Cafe Riche, lunch at Arabesque, a reception at the Marriott with opening remarks from the Minister of Tourism, and dinner at Abou El Sid.
We began the day with a walking tour through the Coptic Christian cemetery to the church of St. Barbara.
We met with Father Sarabamone, a Coptic priest who told us about his church and answered most of our questions. On the heels of Coptic Christians being killed during protests in Cairo, he effectively sidestepped political questions about discrimination or persecution, but admitted that times are tough. Copts represent only 10% of the population in Egypt.
Next we found our way through Cairo’s traffic to the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrasa to meet with a young, modern imam named Moez Masoud. I’ve written a little more about him and his unique perspective on Islam here on Afar.com.
Outside Sultan Hassan
Inside Sultan Hassan
After returning from the mosque, our afternoon speakers included filmmaker Mohamed Diab and economist Seif Fahmy. Both were outstanding. Mohamed Diab is a longtime screenwriter who recently produced and directed his first film, Cairo 6, 7, 8 about sexual harassment in Egypt. Seif Fahmy spent years in business and in politics at one time within Mubarak’s National Democractic Party before resigning en masse with other ministers when it became apparent that they couldn’t accomplish within the NDP what they’d hoped to accomplish. His perspective was interesting and invaluable.
We concluded the evening with dinners in various Egyptian’s homes to get another opportunity to speak informally and to get to know Egyptians around their kitchen tables and outside of the tour bus. My dinner was at the home of Sherif Maklouf a young entrepreneur in the technology space. We’ve taken to calling it the young revolutionaries dinner…. He and many of his friends who joined us were in Tahrir, involved in the protests, and are actively helping to change the political future of Egypt. It was like political theory 101. Maybe it was more like an advanced political theory course actually, because the issues they’re grappling with are complex with no easy or simple answers for bringing Egypt through this transition. I left that evening being genuinely impressed with the passion, commitment and intelligence of those individuals helping and hoping to direct Egypt’s future.
The day started with a brief overview of Egyptian architecture – all four thousand years of it! We gathered at La Bodega to hear architect Tarik Labib introduce the highlights and show us pictures of his buildings as well. Then we headed to the El Sawy Culturewheel for a few activities over the course of the afternoon. We heard traditional Egyptian musicians perform, listened to Riham Bahi a women’s rights activist and professor of political science about the issues facing women in Egypt, and met Bassem Youssef a comedian, surgeon, and talk show host, who is also called the Egyptian Jon Stewart.
Me and Riham Bahi
Since I didn’t taken any pictures of Bassem Youssef in Cairo, I decided to include the one above. When author and journal Robin Wright spoke recently in Dallas, she showed a picture of him during her slideshow as an example of the changes the Arab world is facing in the area of humor. He’s a YouTube sensation who now has his own television show doing political comedy.
Farewell Party at the Pyramids
After a quick shopping trip around Zamalek to secure a few souvenirs (bath salts from the Red Sea), it was time to board the bus to the farewell party overlooking the Pyramids.We arrived right before sunset to see our beautiful tent for the evening full of colorful rugs, a traditional Bedouin band, and amazing food.
There were also quite a few camels and their handlers waiting to give the tourists a quick ride around the tent.
It was an amazing end to a thrilling event, and I’m looking forward to hearing in January where the next Afar Experience will be.
On my final day in Cairo, I joined a few of the others from the group and returned to Giza to see the pyramids during the day – to climb down inside the smaller pyramid, see the famous Sphinx, and visit the boat built with no nails.
Contraband photo from inside the Pyramid. Climbing back out.
Having already seen the pyramids the night before, I’d questioned whether it would be worth the return trip to Giza, but in the light of day, they did not disappoint.
After taking in the sights, we visited the historic Mena House hotel (owned by the Indian Oberoi group). The hotel has hosted many celebrities, but it also served as a meeting place for Winston Churchill and General Montgomery as they made plans during World War II and was the site of the talks between Egypt and Israel in the 70s. We reveled in the opulent surroundings and views of the pyramids and ate an amazing Indian lunch in The Moghul Room.
The last thing we all wanted to be sure to see before leaving Cairo was the Khan al-Khalili souk so we went straight from Giza through all the evening traffic to the souk. We arrived just before sundown and finished a full day with a walk through the winding alleys. You can see pictures and more about the souk in my last post.
While it’s hard to believe that I only spent five days in Cairo, they were five very full days that gave me a greater understanding of Egypt and laid the ground work for a better understanding of the region in general.
For more on my trip to Egypt, check out Khan el-Khalili Souk.