I was lucky in the way that I went to Cairo - it was for a conference/workshop -which for once was genuinely stimulating. I met old friends after a while - Kamran from Austin via Karachi, Svati from New York but who's spent some time in Bombay where I first met her; and made some new ones whose work I really liked and with whom I had many rich conversations - while floating down the Nile and walking around the city. It was the gentlest, loveliest time.
At a more pragmatic level, the fact that Kamran had done his fieldwork in Cairo helped a lot and insulated us from the usual despair of tourists at being constantly cheated, lost, confused, feeling that they're missing the main point somehow. And he is game for anything and makes everything so much fun. So a bunch of us would follow Kamran around, seeing the sites. For me this was so unusual because I usually travel alone - and this year this is my third trip when I've been with other people - people I liked - and I had a great time, and maybe should start to do this a bit more instead of guarding my splendid solitude so zealously.
I mean it was fun to have someone to talk to and someone to share the load and someone to fool around with like Svati and I did in front of Um Kultum's statue below.
Although of course we respect Um Kultum.
Here we all are at the Pyramids in Giza, looking funny and innocent like we're on a friendly family picnic, no?
And here are the pyramids without us
(BET YOU COULDN'T GUESS THAT'S THE BACK OF THE SPHINX'S HEAD)
And heiroglyphics too...
Or as the guide said pointing below - Woman, Man, Superman
And along the way it became very onvious that Cairo is a city of night. Shops don't close till past midnight - in tourist parts of the old city, even later. People are out all the time sitting in cafes, smoking hookahs, doing timepass, lovers hang out in corners and bridges and gardens. As evening falls chairs come out on bridges as if to indicate that the time for tafri has begun, time to let the cool breeze from the river wash over you...
Quite often we found ourselves at Fishawy's which is a famous cafe in the heart of Khan-e-Khalili and all guide books will tell you to go there - while this may seem like a reason to avoid doing exactly that I'd say one should go. It's exotically full of huge old mirrors but it serves amazing drinks - chopped up strawberries in their own juices, mint tea, hibiscus and tamarind juice, it has great atmosphere, very paisa vasool and it's good for people watching and even for mild banter with the dozens of people trying to sell you scarab necklaces and head-dresses and all manner of tchochke thingummys.
It seemed that Love was everywhere in Cairo - downtown was bursting with couples. People were always walking arm in arm and it was heart-heaven so you can imagine my state....
(Please note Hitchcock moment in mirror...)
At first sight one may think this is all marvellous - but I think one also can sense quickly that it's not so simple as Cairo just being impossibly romantic more than Paris and Rome put together. As my friend Nadia later told me - it's the opposite of what it seems. Restrictions and repression at home and downtown Cairo is seen as an anonymous space where you can meet secretly and un-noticed and these meetings are all furtive, often involving bribes to policemen. And you dont' see any evidence of same sex couples either - as one shopkeeper delicately informed me: if two homosexuals come into my shop I will throw them away. Well, the path of true love runs no smoother than the path of true lust and that's how both acquire their edge and messiness I suppose.
The other striking thing about Egypt is of course, the headscarves. 90% of the women you see are wearing tight headscarves. This has been a contentious issue in Egypt (especially among older feminists since in the 1920s, feminists publicly cast off the veil as a political act) - and I have strong feelings about the way we are allowing imperialist agendas to push us into cultural relativist arguments, but I won't get into it here. All I did notice was that the scarf is a sort of strange thing - symbolic of something I guess, but again as Nadia said, the more they veil, the sexier they want to look. And definitely I saw some rather interesting fashion statements going on.
No doubt about it, Cairenes like their style - the men too given how many "coiffure for men" places there are
Since I was going to be in Egypt for so many days I had thought that maybe I would go up to Luxor, to the Valley of the Kings. But in the end I thought it would all get too crazy and that it might be better if I just stuck around in Cairo and got as full an experience of it as I could. It was perhaps the right decision for I hope to go to Egypt again.
But on my last day in Cairo I went to the Egyptian museum - a good thing to do when you've finished doing everything else - because it's huge, stuffed to the gills and totally random in the labelling - sometimes no English, just French or Arabic.
I must say, walking around, taking in the antiquities brought in and kept here en masse I felt a twinge of regret at not going to Upper Egypt. I could feel the old romance which had sucked me in in the first place flood back, as I looked at the huges stautes and sarcophagi and the treasures of who else - Tutankhamen.
And perhaps, looking with a new eye I saw something of what is so compelling about these dead kings. And it's not just that I share their love of charm bracelets ;)
One of the things that struck me looking at the statues was their individuality - their sense of portraiture.
And it seemed that this desire to preserve themselves in this highly sophisticated civilisation, is so much like ours with our incessant photographing, blogging, facebooking. The desire for posterity both met and cast asunder by your bed, your personal goblets, your likeness being transported to a museum where in the end, you are just, dead and an example. It felt peculiarly fragile, vulnerable, heartbreaking, prescient of our futures.
So I think, the next time I go, I'll definitely be going to the Valley of the Kings.