The Other Side of Cairo, Egypt
The shoe stores were the first big indicator. The main drags in downtown Cairo are packed with stores that sell the most happening shoes I've ever seen. Slips-ons, boots, trainers, business-stodgy… Cairo's perfected them all.
Like most people, my vague preconceptions of Cairo consisted of pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, women in veils, men smoking big water pipes, medieval streets, and, well, that's it. I was too hung up on mummies and hieroglyphics to think about anything else.
In fact, Cairo is a bursting at the seams with life and progressiveness and passion and contemporary distractions. I'm fairly certain that Cairenes never sleep. Traditional life and modernization mash together here with greater harmony than I've seen in other capitals around the world. And the women are definitely not all hidden behind veils.
A Yardstick for Urban Progressiveness
(I also believe that you can judge a city by its public statuary. Predictably, Cairo excels in this area as well.)
Young Urban Elite
Five girls in their early 20s sat at a table next to us. Like Egyptian Shakiras, they all wore low-rise jeans, fat leather belts, and belly shirts. They smoked and flirted and shimmied to a mix of Arabic and Western pop; they stayed alluring and animated right up until the 4am closing time. I even managed to rap with them for a while; we talked about 50 Cent, a new Dr. Dre prodigy.
Yeah, Cairo is down with the Dri-zay.
(Incidentally, many of these young and beautiful conversed with each other in English. As in India, this phenomenon filled me with mixed emotions. In a way, these people are groomed for the international business world – and accessible to me as a traveler. But at the same time, I feel pangs of cultural imperialism guilt, as if McDonalds, Tom Cruise, and Baywatch have driven an even greater wedge between the haves and have-nots of the Third World.)
The doorman looked at my creased, straight-out-of-the-box shirt; 1980's tie; black belt; and brown canvas hiking shoes. He closed his eyes slowly and exhaled through his nose. "Rule number six on the back of your ticket," he said. "Jacket and tie required."
"Um, yeah. I heard I might be able to borrow a jacket here…"
He looked at me as if I'd said, ‘I heard I might be able to borrow a turtle here,' and directed me toward the information desk.
I'd come to the Cairo Opera House with two students from Wisconsin whom I'd met the night before (small world, etc.) to hear the Cairo Symphony Orchestra take on Beethoven. With some creative use of saris and a borrowed tie from the hotel staff, we'd faked just enough sophistication to meet the dress requirements.
Regarded with more than a little suspicion from our fellow symphony goers, we settled into the best (floor, 12th row, center) and least-expensive ($4 after student discount) seats I've ever enjoyed at a concert event. Together with well-heeled Egyptians and the wives of Ambassadors, we settled in for a night of Ludwig Van in Cairo's premiere performing arts venue.
Of course, Cairo isn't all pop stars from the Americas and luxury German automobiles. The narrow streets of Islamic Cairo still elicit medieval fantasies. Donkey carts occasionally hold up traffic on the main thoroughfares. Calls to prayer pierce the air five times a day. And, to be fair, most women dress modestly, covering their hair with scarves.
Yes, the pyramids of Giza are still here, the Egyptian Museum too. I plan to explore all of Cairo's classic attractions – just as soon as I find the right pair of suede slip-ons.
Posted on May
21, 2003 05:18 AM