As I finished unfolding the map to take a last look, Adel, the owner of the hostel, burst into laughter. Despite its sheer and impractical size, it covered a small part of Cairo. Adel looked at it as if it was a relic that belonged in the Egyptian Museum and asked: “Have you considered GoogleMaps?”
But I have always had a soft spot for paper maps. It may have to do with the touch of paper. It may have to do with the pleasure of sliding my fingertips along streets, squares and roads, becoming acquainted with their names and shapes, following them to see where they lead, thus randomly feeling my way across the two-dimensional city.
“I am going to Islamic Cairo,” I told Adel while I was folding the map on my way out.
“To Al-Hussein? If you go to Bab Zuwayla, you can ask the tentmakers to make a nice Bedouin tent out of that map and you would still have some paper left to make yourself a suit,” he replied in an example of the Egyptian knack for jokes.
Out in the street, the roar of a city inhabited by 20 million people hit my ears violently: electronic music blasting from cell phones, cars honking, street vendors engaged in shouting matches from both sides of the street, the guttural inflections of Arabic in packed roadside cafes, headscarved women window-shopping, policemen scolding reckless minibus drivers. I looked around and finally realized where I was: Cairo, Egypt. I had arrived a few days earlier and had the feeling that I was seeing it for the first time.
But there was neither time, nor room for self-reflection. Before I knew it, I was swallowed by the ever-present bustling crowd of Cairo’s streets.
I had a vague idea of how to get to Islamic Cairo. In the safety of my room, my fingertips had already done the scouting on the map by going back and forth between the hostel in downtown Cairo where I was staying and Al-Hussein, which is how Cairenes call the area. The sense of touch sparked my imagination and I let my head fill with visions of the city of 1,000 minarets, the Nile, the famous bazaar of Khan al-Khalili…
With those visions still lingering, I headed down 26 July Street, turned left, and walked around what was supposed to be a park and was in fact wasteland. There was a strong smell of rotten fruit, garbage, urine and gas. The unusually empty road was peppered with oil stains and stalls selling tools. I just had to turn right at the end of the street and then walk a straight line until Al-Hussein. A piece of cake.
Or so I thought.
Because all of a sudden I was standing on the edge of roundabout. Honking was deafening. Cars, buses, motorcycles, and horse-drawn carts drove in every direction in any lane, even creating new lanes where there were none, congesting every road, overpass, street, and alley that converged on that junction. Vendors pulled carts carrying fruits and vegetables across the street in a tiresome game of stop and go. Men carrying large trays of bread on top of their heads weaved through the traffic on bikes. Donkey carts piled up with garbage spread their aroma in the air. Pedestrians zigzagged between taxis and minibuses to cross the street, and a police officer stood alone in the middle of the roundabout, trying to put some order into chaos to no avail.
Before my eyes, the two-dimensional map suddenly became the three-dimensional city. Cairo gained mass and came alive. The empty and odorless streets were now filled to its full capacity with the hustle and bustle of humanity.
Needless to say, the picturesque images of minarets vanished in thick air.
The words of the great philosopher Mike Tyson came to mind: everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. And that is exactly why I love travelling. No matter what you have envisioned or imagined, what you actually end up finding is completely different.
Too philosophical a thought for somebody who had trouble finding the right street.
It took me some time to figure out which way to go. The street I was looking for, the Al-Azhar Street, was in fact an overpass, so I decided to walk under it. But, faced with mad Cairo traffic, that felt like something that would happen in a remote future. First I had to tackle a more pressing challenge: crossing the junction and making it to the other side in one piece.
With the corner of my eye, I saw a couple about to cross the street. I mustered courage and, using them as cover, I took the plunge into traffic. Banzai! So long cruel world!
Stop, let a few cars pass, take a few quick steps, stop again at the sight of a passing mule, ignore the honking and cursing, pick up the pace, swerve sharply to avoid being hit by the motorcycle you have not seen coming, zigzag between cars and carts selling watermelons, cookware, figs, plastic toys, keep your eyes wide open and your mouth shut to avoid inhaling the thick exhaust of cars, ignore the heated quarrels, duck to avoid losing your head to the side mirror of a bus, mutter apologies to vendors for accidentally stepping on the merchandise displayed in the median strip, understand that there is no right of way so push and be pushed and don’t expect or waste your time on apologies, get knee-deep in an unexpected pile of garbage by the roadside, don’t hesitate or turn back or you will be trampled on by a forward-marching crowd, receive a free lecture on free competition and entrepreneurial spirit at the stalls that occupy every inch of the sidewalk and a big chunk of the road, and test your nerves of steel (if they are not already on edge at this point) seeing how close you can walk to a car without having your feet run over.
By the time I reached the point where the overpass and Al-Azhar street merge, I was drenched in sweat and exhausted, but I did not care. I was out of breath and had learned that there was no such a thing as a straight line in Cairo, but it did not matter. My eyes were fixed on the Sultan Al-Ghouri Complex, which was enveloped in a fine layer of dust and the golden light of the afternoon, as if it had just been unearthed from the desert.
Cairenes sat idly on the shade, their backs leaning on the cracking walls of the mosque, sheltered from the sun by its wooden roof. I must have spent a long time looking at the latticework on the top windows and betrayed myself as a tourist, because in no time a group of souvenir sellers, tour guides, and taxi drivers materialized out of nowhere to offer their services.
I was fair game.
Political unrest and terror attacks in Egypt are scaring away tourists, leaving many Egyptians either unemployed or scraping for a few pounds. Foreigners have become coveted catches.
Wielding leaflets, khamsa amulets against the evil eye, and pyramids and sphinxes made out of plastic, all their voices spoke at once: “Welcome, welcome, welcome…Souvenir very cheap. Mister, mister, mister…Do you want to go to minaret? Great view! Monsieur, monsieur, monsieur…Taxi? Mister, mister, mister, where are you from? Spain? I have a cousin in Marbella. Come to my shop!”
I tried to walk away at a fast pace. Some of them gave up. Others refused to take a no for an answer and relentlessly hassled me, hoping to change my mind. Wherever I laid my eyes, an offer ensued: “Are you going to Al-Azhar Mosque? I will take you.” “Do you want spices? My friend has a shop. He will make a good price for you.” “Do you like shisha? Come to my shop. Very cheap.”
A choir of desperate voices.
As soon as I saw a gap in traffic, I made a run for it. “To hell with it,” I told myself, determined to postpone my visit for a better time. At that point, I just needed a moment of peace and quiet, but I was heading in the wrong direction, getting deeper into the Khan al-Khalili market area, putting my head straight in the lion’s mouth.
Flanked by souvenir and handy craft shops, I mingled with the crowd and pretended to know where I was going. I looked straight ahead, as if I had seen everything before and had no interest in buying. However, merchants know every trick in the book and have a talent not only for guessing where people come from by simply looking at them, but also for uttering a few words in their language.
Sometimes it seems that they can speak every language on Earth, that Babel is an Egyptian market alley.
And, like in Babel, everything turned out confusing. The market crowd began to grow larger and denser. The constant human flow from adjacent alleys converged on a single street and picked up speed, becoming a strong current I could not outswim. The meandering grid of streets, dead ends and alleyways seemed to have been laid out with the sole purpose of containing and diverting that unstoppable flow, as a dyke to prevent flooding. Souvenirs had long given way to colorful fabrics and clothes. I could not tell if I was shooting the rapids or drowning as I was dragged deeper into the Al-Mosky market.
Suddenly, the rare glimpse of a nearly empty street.
Still agitated, I turned right and flew pass a few jewelry shops. Some goldsmiths made half-hearted attempts to attract my attention and immediately turned back to their tea sipping and chatting. The roar of the market was fading, the air was again breathable and I walked in the middle of the cobblestoned street, listening to the soothing echo of my own steps and the occasional screeching of passing wheelbarrows. I did not know where I was. I thought I was entering a residential area.
And I was, but I realized that it was an unusual one when I bumped into a giant 13th-century Mamluk complex.
Its warned-out facade stretched along an entire block in a never-ending succession of sand-colored mosques, madrasas, minarets, and mausoleums. Children played football in the middle of the street, using the walls of the madrasa as goals. Families sat on the stairs of the mausoleum of Sultan Qalawun and ate sunflower seeds. Elderly men rolled the dices loudly on their backgammon boards. There was something refreshing in the natural way in which the neighborhood dwellers interacted with those historical sites, which were so closely integrated in their daily lives that they paid no mind to its derelict beauty.
Life always prevails…and history or solemnity means nothing to children who want to play football.
The sun was setting when I sat on low wall in front of a semicircular two-storey building decorated with intricate stone engravings. Gilded suns and geometrical figures had been carved in the overarching wooden roof.
“Gamal Abdel Nasser went to school there,” the deep and hoarse voice of a smoker said.
“Not again,” I told myself as I lifted my head slowly hoping it would not be another tour guide. To my surprise, it was a skinny old man. He sat down opposite me, offered me a cigarette, and lit one for himself.
“Do you know who was Gamal Abdel Nasser? The famous Egyptian president in the 1950s and 1960s?” he insisted. He took a drag and a long look at me. “Do you speak Arabic young man?” he asked.
“A bit… and yes, I know who Nasser is,” I replied after overcoming my initial surprise.
“He grew up in this neighborhood and attended this school right here,” he said.
“Is this a school?” I asked, pointing at the semicircular building in front of us.
“No, that is the Sabil-kuttab of Kushraw Paha,” he answered. “You don’t know what a Sabil-kuttab is, right? Well, the ground floor is a fountain, a Sabil, where people used to go to get fresh water. The upper part of the building is a school where children used to go to learn how to write and read, but it closed a long time ago. Now, it is empty. But, you see, the upper and the lower part of the Sabil-kuttab are connected: the fountain is meant to quench the thirst for water and the school is meant to quench the thirst for knowledge.”
And he started laughing and patted me on the shoulder. His wrinkled face looked like a parchment in which I could read not only the ups and downs of his own life, but the contemporary history of Egypt.
“Excuse me, sir, what is the name of this street?” I asked.
“You don’t know the name of this street? You are truly lost my friend! This is Al-Muizz Street.”
And he began to talk about the rise of the Mamluks from slaves to masters. He told me about Sultan Al-Malik Az-Zahir Sayf ad-Din, who was nicknamed Barquq (Apricot) because of his bulging eyes. He spoke about the caliphs of the Fatimid dynasty, like Al-Muizz, who founded Cairo in 969 as the capital of the Fatimid Caliphate, and his grandson, the mad Caliph al-Hakim, who ordered the killing of all the dogs in the city because their barking annoyed him and banned the manufacture of women’s shoes.
“His mosque is at the end of the street, next to Bab al-Futuh,” he said. “Would you like to go and take a look at it?”
“Of course!” I said and stood up at once. He remained seated as if the account had left him exhausted and needed yet another cigarette to regain his breath.
“Are you not coming?” I asked him.
“No, my friend. I am staying here. You go and explore Al-Muizz Street, from Bab al-Futuh to Bab al Zuwayla. If you need anything, you just come here and ask for me.”
I left for Al-Hakim mosque in a state of excitement. I saw the street in a new light. The buildings around me began to gain depth. I suddenly realized I did not know the old man’s name. However, I did not turn back. I knew that he would always be there, in front of the Sabil-kuttab, chain-smoking, telling stories about Al-Muizz to yet another lost tourist.
Copyright © 2016 Ignacio M Delgado