I am in the air above the Adriatic.
We will soon be crossing over Sarajevo, down across Greece,
above Athens, across the Mediterranean, and then, in
2 1/2 hours, landing in Cairo.
Somewhere along the way
we will cross an invisible line that separates the
world I know from one that is completely
foreign to me, ancient, mysterious.
My pulse is picking
up with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. I
got back from Egypt a week ago
and every night since my return I have dreamed of
Cairo. In some of the dreams, I walk endlessly in a maze of twisting streets.
In others, I sit along a busy thoroughfare, watching time and a hundred
thousand black and white taxis stream past. One night
I dreamed that I was alone on
the Cairo subway with 3 al-Queda types, sitting in a row, breathing fire,
long knives between their teeth.
A few times I have
awakened in the early hours of the morning to peer
around my darkened room, groggy
and confused, seeing a foreign country where there
is only my desk and my chair and my own four walls. Eventually, the strange
shapes become familiar and I recognize the moonlit shadows on the floor.
The noise and the bright lights of the bazaar recede. I am home, I remind
in my own bed.
And then there is the dream where I find myself standing
in a dusty alleyway, near sunset, leaning over a volatile
game of dominoes. An old man in
a turban shakes his finger at me. The droning, mysterious song of the
to prayer, sweeps along the street, reflecting off the hard stone walls,
surrounding me like thick smoke. Is this a dream, or is this real?
When the morning comes,
I wake to see my sandals in the corner by the door. From my bed I can
see the yellow dust still clinging to them.
It has been a week and I
am still mixing up my dreams and my real-life; how
can I explain that?
For starters, there are the obvious things about Egypt:
the mosques with their impossibly tall, slender minarets,
graceful as trees, towering over the crowds below, looking
as if a slight bump would bring them crashing down in
an instant. And there is the surreal chaos of the streets
with taxis and trucks and donkey-drawn wagons and the
careless pedestrians who stride effortlessly right down
into the whirling heart of it all. And the intensity
of the sun in the hot, white, implacable sky.
there is the language and its impossible script, more
like art than syntax. And the forceful jargon
of the street salesman, reducing tout and tourist to
hunter and hunted. And the food, yes, the food. And the
faces that tell a thousand secret stories.
In all of these
ways and a multitude more, Egypt pursues the foreigner,
paints you into a corner. If you are not
ready for this, you may find yourself feeling a little
confused, under-prepared. Egypt insists that you play
your part. Egypt is clever. It will get what it wants
from you. And also Egypt needs you, like an old woman
needs flattery, thinking to itself “I must be important,
because the foreigner pays attention to me.”
And then, just when you were about to give in, Egypt
will push you away. “You will come this close and
no closer,” it will say, “for you are an
outsider and do not understand.” The mystery will
remain intact; 10,000 years of time hidden away in a
box on the shelf just out of reach. In this way, Egypt
is like a walled fortress with lights in all the windows;
you are mystified, enthralled, outside. Egypt is like
sweet music playing in the night, somewhere in the dark.
Egypt is like a man, leaning forward, one hand beckoning,
one hand holding you back.
All of this can be disorienting.
It makes you feel sometimes like you’re walking
in a dream.
There are a few possible responses to this
disorientation. Some people run for the nearest McDonalds.
you can even go for a long lunch hour at the Applebee’s
Neighborhood Grill & Bar. You can order yourself
a nice plate of Boneless Buffalo Wings or the Ragin’ Cajun
Bourbon Street Steak. It is a natural response to the
confusion and intensity of the city. But even there you
aren’t safe, not even there, from Egypt’s
push and pull and this is why: in Cairo, the Applebee’s
Neighborhood Grill & Bar has large windows and it
is situated on a boat. In the middle of the Nile River.
option if you want to avoid the confusion is to hide
in your hotel, to only eat from the buffet, to
drink the safe water, to take the air-conditioned tour
bus to the museum. This will insure that everything,
mostly, will be explained to you in your own language
and that you will not have to worry about much of anything
except to buy enough film for a few nice pictures of
the camels at the Pyramids and to save space in your
luggage for some pretty papyrus art. But what would you
do about the security guards at the door with their machine
guns and metal detectors? Obviously, not everything is
safe here. What about the veiled Muslim women in the
elevator? An what would you do about that view from your
room, the one that overlooks the river and the mosques
and the sprawl of that sun-blasted city? Can you really
hide in a place like this?
Therefore, in light of this, a challenge: if you are
ever in Cairo on a morning when the sunlight is slanting
through the gaps in the buildings and the smooth blue
face of the Nile looks like a piece of the sky fallen
down, walk out the front door, right away, before the
late-rising city comes fully aware. Slip through a crack
in the wall. Pick up a stone and put it in your pocket.
If you are ever in Cairo and the noise of the traffic
begins to sound like a great chorus of voices singing
one immense song, then I advise this: get out, get down
to the street, put one foot in front of the other, and
see what reality you can wrestle from the dream. And
take your camera, because no one will believe you otherwise.
The morning after we arrived in Cairo I left the hotel
and crossed the street to look at the river. It was my
first experience with hello-where-you-from. I was caught
by surprise. He looked like any other pedestrian, and
he was speaking English. I answered his question; I told
him, “I’m from the United States.” “I
love New York,” he said, with an air of deep sincerity.
He shook my hand warmly, “Welcome to Egypt.” Here
I am, I thought to myself exuberantly, in the country
for only 12 hours, and making friends already. “I
am an artist,” he told me. “What a coincidence!” I
exclaimed. “I am a photographer!” Look at
me, taking risks, talking with the locals. I was so proud.
He had just finished art school, he said, and he had
a little gallery just around the corner, would I like
to come and see? I had only a few minutes before I was
to meet with my friends, I told him. Just a quick visit,
he assured me, so he could give me his card. What can
it hurt, I thought, and, besides, it will be an adventure.
After a few days, I discovered that the hello-where-you-from
routine is an almost surefire tipoff that you are being
pursued, or seduced, or whatever it is that they do so
well. Hello-where-you-from is, in fact, the opening line
of every street salesman’s script; maybe they all
read the same book. Another thing to realize is that
no one ever really seems to have a card to give you once
you have arrived at the shop. It is just another script
element. In general, this is how it goes: first, the
friendly greeting on the street. This can take any one
of a million variations. One man dressed in a pink polo
shirt told me he was a doctor, a doctor of perfumes,
would I like to come see his shop? One pair of motivated
students offered to show my friends and me a good, inexpensive
restaurant. It was. Then they sat down next to us for
the next half hour while we ate, telling crude jokes
in English, asking about America. After dinner, they
finally returned to the script. “Let us give you
a business card,” they said. “Come along,
it is just around the corner from here.”
you go along with the act, like I did on that first morning
by the Nile, you will then be herded toward
the little door off an alleyway. Stepping inside, you
must first sit down. You drink a cup of tea, no, no,
you must take this cup of tea, please, drink, it is our
way, our hospitality, please, sir. And look at these
fine paintings. Which one you like, sir? Not to buy,
of course, just to look. In that particular shop two
blocks from the Nile, there were hundreds of paintings
hanging in rows down a long wall, lit by fluorescent
lights. In my estimation, many more than one “just-graduated” art
student could have painted. But this is just how it works.
Nothing to be upset about. He follows your eyes. That
one? Yes, that one is nice, sir. And somewhere along
the way you move from the friendly chatter to the serious
talking and you feel the pace quicken and you realize
that this is something different than what you thought
it was, that this is an expert you are dealing with and
that you are being run headlong into a box canyon.
prices are being tossed around, of course, much reduced
(only today and only for you.) Soon you find
yourself in a daze, reaching in your pocket for the money
that you just changed 15 minutes ago, the money that
was supposed to buy you lunch and dinner and the taxi
rides in between, and giving it to the man in exchange
for nothing you really need. And then you realize suddenly
that you are long past your appointed meeting time in
front of the hotel. So you set down the half finished
cup of tea, grab your tube of “handmade art” and
bolt for the door. And, as you step outside into the
street, you shake your head and rub your eyes as if just
waking from a dream.
On my first free afternoon in the city I went to Old
Cairo, the Christian section, a district full of museums
and ancient churches. This was for me, I admit, very
similar to running to McDonald’s or hiding out
in my room, seeking something familiar. But I was trying
to adjust. And I was not the only one. In a country where
the tourist industry has almost completely collapsed
in the wake of international terrorism and war fears,
Christian Old Cairo was full of Western travelers. After
an hour of photo-snapping families and aggressive, arm-waving
tour guides, I became restless and found myself sneaking
away from the crowds, hurrying down a side street. I
surfaced near the subway station and was immediately
accosted by the locals. This happens almost everywhere
in Cairo. “Hello!” someone shouted. I did
my best to appear absorbed, out-of-touch, fiddling with
my cameras. “Hello! Hey you! Hello!” People
were turning around to look at me. I gave in and looked
He was a tall man, well dressed, standing in the shade
along the street, “Where you from?” he asked,
rather forcefully. I took a breath. A number of curious
onlookers had already gathered. “I’m from
the United States,” I said. He put out his hand,
looked me straight in the eye, “I’m from
Iraq.” There was a pause, during which I thought
of about a million things to say and none of them seemed
right. “I’m sorry?” I ventured. He
burst out laughing. “No, really, I am from Egypt.
Welcome to Egypt. But do not take pictures of the police
station.” He nodded his head toward the armed man
standing in the doorway. This led to a discussion, or
rather, a forum, which soon came to involve the tall
man, the policeman,
a shopkeeper from around the corner, a large group
of teenagers leaning against the wall and a miscellany
of others, as to what things I could, should and should
Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion
-- the stairs, right here, of course, these would make
a good picture, or maybe those kids over there, hey
kids, let him take your picture, how about the policeman?
no not the policeman, hello hello can I help you find
something sir? why are you looking around? do you want
to find the train? are you thirsty? would you like
a Coke? come with me, what you need? what is your name?
where you from? I fled the gathering crowd, crossing
the street to sit on a bench in the sun. An old man
at other end of the bench looked up when I sat down.
He eyed me for almost a minute. Finally, the inevitable. “Hello,
where you from?” he said.
nighttime, just past 12 o’clock.
I am sitting at the edge of the Red Sea where we have
driven today in mad race across 90 miles of desert.
I am alone (which is a rare thing in Egypt.)
On the horizon, like stars, the lights of six, or ten,
or a hundred container ships are flickering in the
They are waiting to pass the Suez Canal.
I am picking out the constellations in the sky above
They are the same as the ones at home, which is strange,
because everything else here is different.
The still night air is carrying the faint sounds of
laughter from some window somewhere.
We were driving alongside a trash-filled, dry canal
in roughly three lanes of traffic. I say roughly because,
for one thing, this was Cairo, after all, and for another,
cars kept zooming toward us, racing the wrong way on
the one-way street. I was keeping a steady eye on the
road. Our driver was not. Rather, he was carrying on
an animated conversation with my friends in the back
seat. He would occasionally turn his head enough to
glance at the road in front of us. Most of the time,
this would give him enough warning to ease the car
toward the right to avoid the oncoming, renegade cars.
Other times we would swerve hard, honking. When I ventured
a comment, “Isn’t this a one way street?”,
he waved his hand airily. “Yes. Mostly,” he
Egypt is the Nike running shoe and blue jeans that
you glimpse in a flash just below the hem of the woman’s
One evening I went to the Islamic quarter, and climbed
to the top of the minaret in a mosque built by the
Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri in 1504. The sun was setting
across the sprawling city of 8 million, turning the
sky to gold, lighting the rooftops and the rocky bluffs
above the city on fire. The stairs of the minaret curled
upward, tight and twisting, up to the roof of the mosque
and then another set of spiraling stairs through cramped
darkness where I couldn’t see my hand in front
of my face, ascending a step at a time, one hand on
the wall, another in front of me, until I rounded the
corner into light glorious light and then found the
ladder to the very top just beneath the curving crescent
spire and I sat down with my camera and journal and
an hour of time and took in the voice and the breath
of the seething city below. There was a warm breeze
rising. It was heavy with the smell of the spice market
and incense and the exhaust of the ubiquitous taxis.
At my feet, the main street of the bazaar made its
tangled way along the base of the tower and toward
the south, disappearing around the corner of another
larger mosque. A few buildings away, a man sat on his
balcony overlooking the street. Through an open door
a woman handed him a plate of food. A block over, two
children peered out a window in my direction. On the
roof of a building below me, two young women sat talking
in the soft evening light, covered head to toe in dark
In the bazaar one afternoon, I saw a man whose
face caught my eye, an old man. I asked him if I could
his picture. Without answering me, he turned his head
and shouted something over his shoulder. A young man
came out of the stall behind him and walked up to me,
speaking Arabic, standing close. He grasped my hand
as if to shake it and held it tightly. I smiled at
him, waiting for the predictable greeting. He didn’t
fail me – asked me straight out, in English,
where I was from. We stood in this funny stance for
a good minute. He gripped my hand, pulling me so that
I was almost leaning against him, speaking quickly
again in Arabic, looking at me steadily in the eye.
I was a bit alarmed after awhile, when he would not
let go. He did not appear unfriendly, or openly angry,
but neither was he welcoming. He held on, pulling me
close, pushing me away. Eventually his grip loosened.
I nodded, smiled, slid away down the street. I am still
curious. I would like to know what it was he was saying
as he grasped my hand so tightly.
So, I ask, like the old game show, will the real Egypt
please stand up? Can we stop this little game of charades?
Why is it that I seem to be just another role player
in some big desert stage show? Okay, you play the part
of the clever Arab. I’ll play the wealthy, bumbling
tourist – hello, sir, where you from, sir, put
this cloth on your head, red and white like the Saudis,
sir, you look impressive, like Lawrence of Arabia,
only 2 dollars, sir. Why do I feel needed, and admired,
and ignored, and despised, all at the same time? Why
is it that almost no one wants to know my name but
everyone wants to know where I come from?
Time seems to move differently here,
like the river, slow and seamless, steady.
How long have I been here?
I don’t know.
Maybe I have lived a year in this place, maybe a lifetime.
The afternoon sun was burning high in the sky on my
last day in Cairo, and the air was heavy like a thick
blanket of heat, foreshadowing the oppressive summer
months to come. I had been walking all morning, anxious,
aware that my time was short. Just a little more, I was
thinking, a few more pictures and then I’ll be
done. I was tired and irritable and almost out of film.
I was hoping for a few quick shots when I entered the
square, but there was nothing, just another dingy street
full of honking, torrential traffic. The heat was getting
to me. I put my camera away with a strange sense of relief
and crossed the square to rest in the relative coolness
of the shadows along the edge of the street. Finding
an empty step in front of a bookshop, I sat down. Miraculously,
no one seemed to notice me. The minutes slipped past
and I felt myself begin to melt into the background,
joining the busy swirl of life around me. To my left,
two men sat on stools talking, watching the traffic roar
past. Further down, a young man stood leaning against
the wall, apparently seeking the same shelter in the
And then one of the men noticed me and tried
to catch my eye. I looked away, steeling myself for the
inevitable. “Hello,” he
said, waving his hand, “Hello.” I pretended
not to hear. After a short time, he stopped, but a few
minutes later he was at it again. Finally I looked up. “Hello,” he
said and pointed to a frail stool a few feet away from
me, nodding. I looked at him, surprised, moved over,
and eased onto it, testing its strength, thanked him.
He smiled and turned back his friend. I waited for the
question, waited for the show to begin, 10 minutes, 20.
Maybe this time I would tell him I that I was Chinese,
or Eskimo, just to see his reaction.
After 30 minutes,
he seemed to remember that I was there. He turned and
held out a half empty pack of cigarettes. “Smoke?” he
asked. “No, thanks,” I told him, “No
smoke.” He nodded and leaned back against the wall.
And that was all. Nothing else. I suddenly realized that
I had somehow slipped outside the script, outside the
dream. Suddenly, I was just another sitter along the
wall. I sat still, not wanting to disturb the moment,
feeling the hardness of the street beneath my feet and
the heat of the air all around me. In the street in front
of me, a woman stepped out of a car, walked a few steps,
turned back to wave good-bye. A boy brought cups of tea
to the men on the stools. A man came by pushing a cart
of propane tanks, banging on them with a heavy spoon,
watching the windows and the doorways. The young man
against the wall smoked a cigarette into the afternoon
heat. It was my last afternoon in Cairo. I picked up
my backpack and started for the hotel.