Cairo: First Impressions

Traffic

Noise. People. Traffic. Horns beeping – just to let you know they are there.

There are few traffic lights, no pedestrian crossings. Most people walk in the street rather than on the pavements. In spite of this, there don’t seem to be many accidents. To cross the street you hold out your hand and hope the cars will stop! This goes against everything I have ever been taught! Walking out into oncoming traffic, the sense of risking my life every time I want to cross the road. Even after three visits now to Cairo, this is still one of the most difficult things to master.

Travelling by Uber is popular – some locals prefer it to taxis as you get a fixed price. It is generally efficient and reasonable, and the drivers are willing to wait for you if you go somewhere remote and need a ride back. You do need to know your numbers in Arabic to check the license plate when the Uber arrives!

Tahrir Square, Cairo

Ramadan

It’s Ramadan and tensions are high. Maybe fasting from sunup to sundown causes tempers to be frayed. And then partying all night long… it’s not what I expected. I thought it would be an atmosphere of contemplation and prayer, but it seems more like a commercialised Christmas with lanterns and gaudy festoons in the streets; soap operas specially made for Ramadan with thirty episodes, one per day. These TV shows are heavily promoted on billboards along the highways.

The city centre is chaotic with all the traffic and the hustle and bustle. Few restaurants are open, of course, because of Ramadan. We are staying in a fairly quiet district with small shops where you can buy groceries. One is a greengrocer, another sells water and eggs, another bread. You just buy what you need for your next meal. If you didn’t speak Arabic, it would be difficult. Our daughter tried out her language skills and was complimented on her accent.

Local Greengrocer

There are also a lot of street vendors with a variety of goods on offer.

Another aspect of Ramadan is that a lot of business takes place at night. We had an appointment at 10 p.m. Of course, after the sun goes down it is also cooler.

On Saturday night there did seem to be more aggressivity present in the streets. The traffic was faster because of Ramadan with everyone rushing home to break their fast. One day, our Uber driver arrived just as the sun was going down, which is the first time during the day Muslims can eat and drink during Ramadan. In a touching demonstration of camaraderie, a neighbour opposite approached the car and offered the driver a drink of water.

A variety of cultures and religions

Various cultures and religions seem to live together relatively peacefully here – at least in the capital. There are tensions in other parts of the country. The state religion is Islam and the majority of people, between 85%-90%, are Sunni Muslims. The next largest group are the Coptic Orthodox Christians, making up about 5% of the population, although statistics vary enormously. The remaining 1% are made up of other Christian denominations, Jews and Buddhists. Given this demographic, obviously Islam affects many aspects of daily life, with the call to prayer by the muezzin five times a day and a general prohibition on drinking alcohol. Alcohol is available in some restaurants catering to tourists, but it is interesting how the lack of alcohol being served creates a very different atmosphere. For example, we went to a café to watch a football match. The lack of alcohol meant that it was much quieter and more peaceful than watching a match in Europe. No raised voices, people sitting quietly at their tables watching the match on the big screen.

A city of extremes

As we walk through the streets, there is constant interaction between our friend and guide and the locals, asking for directions, checking we are going the right way. People are friendly and eager to help, although they don’t seem to think a foreigner could possibly have the correct information!

A lot of the buildings seem unfinished or crumbling. There is rubbish and rubble everywhere. The population of stray cats is high. Broken chairs in the street with a piece of wood across them, mean the parking spot is reserved.

Some of the blocks of flats and even the interior decoration is reminiscent of Spain in the 1970s. A bit like going back in time to Cuéntame.

Hanging basket for deliveries

From our apartment, I see a basket hanging outside the window of the house opposite. Our friend explains that it is for deliveries, so you don’t have to go outside. Useful, too, when many apartments blocks don’t have lifts.

This is not a COVID-19 precaution, it existed before. Again, it reminds me of some villages in Spain.

But Cairo is a city of extremes. Modern Cairo, flashy opulence, bright lights, enormous hotels. There’s definitely money here. A local anecdote is the number of bridges that are built; if they don’t know what to do, they build a bridge.

Garbage City

At the other extreme, there’s Garbage City. There is wealth here too, but it is well-hidden. Even when they make their money by selling rubbish, they don’t change their lifestyle.

The official name for this area is Manshiyat Nasser and there are around 60,000 people living there. It is on the outskirts of the Moqattam Hills, within the metropolitan area of Cairo.

One of the Zabbaleen – the garbage people

Garbage City exists because for many years there was no official rubbish collection in Cairo, although this changed in 2003. For more than 70 years, groups of Coptic Christians have collected, sorted and recycled the rubbish. They call them the “Zabbaleen” – the garbage people. They collect the garbage from the various districts in Cairo in pick-up trucks piled high or carts pulled by donkeys and then bring it here to sort it and recycle it. Usually the men collect the rubbish, and the women and children sort it into categories, either to sell or to recycle. It is surprisingly efficient, with over 90% of the rubbish collected being recycled. When you drive through the area, they smell is overpowering. The streets are lined by small storage locker type facilities, where the garbage is piled high to the ceiling. The people live there amongst the rubbish.

Garbage City

This is also one of the few places in Cairo where pork is sold, as the Zabbaleen keep pigs to dispose of the organic waste in the rubbish.

At the top of Garbage City, a surprise awaits: a church that has been dynamited out of the rock that seats 20,000 people. A friend tells us it is in constant revival. People come from miles around to visit this church.

It is known as the Monastery of Saint Simon and is the largest Christian church in the Middle East. The garbage-collecting Zabbaleen are mainly Coptic Christians. When the Egyptian government decided to relocate all the garbage collectors into one area, they wanted to build a church. However, it was destroyed by fire and so a new church was planned, built right into the cliff face.

Cave Church
Our impromptu guide

After visiting the church, we wander around the area at the top of Garbage City. An Egyptian teenager, a would-be tourist guide, shows us a nearby sports facility built to train local children and provide a healthy outlet for their energy. When our interpreter mentions Garbage City, she grimaces and says, “It spoils it to call it that.” There is an obvious sense of pride in the community that is being built here in high Cairo.

The Hanging Church

In this multitudinous city I try to find beauty, order and abundance.

We found a haven of peace on this first trip when we visited the Coptic Hanging Church in Old Cairo, dating from 692. The people are sincere in their beliefs and extremely helpful. An amazing building named for its location above the gatehouse of a Babylonian Fortress.

The pyramids at Giza

Of course, a visit to Cairo would not be complete without visiting the pyramids at Giza. The whole complex of the pyramids and the sphinx is located surprisingly close to the city centre – just a taxi ride away. The area is smaller than I had imagined, and you can easily walk around and see all the different monuments, depending on how hot it is, of course. On our visit, in April, temperatures were quite low.

At the pyramids, there was the typical tourist hassling, although, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were relatively few visitors. It was actually quite pleasant to visit such a major tourist attraction without the usual crowds. The people who work there are helpful, but rather too invasive and insistent, trying to persuade you to take a camel ride or a horse-drawn carriage. How could you possibly want to walk in the middle of the desert? No, we really do not want a camel ride!

Giza without tourists during the COVID-19 pandemic

This was the first visit of many. There is so much more to see, of course. Our Egyptian adventures will continue!

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