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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 1/11/21

Unmatched Cairo

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Mosque of Ibn Tulun, 2021
Mosque of Ibn Tulun, 2021
(Image by Linh Dinh)
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It's nearly impossible for me to write here. The streets beckon, and I'm a street rat, for sure.

Right this moment, I could be in that bitsy Bab Al Louq cafe', having my first cup while watching people and traffic swarm by, or I could be on the subway, heading to Al Azbakiyyah, with its thousands of street stands flogging everything. Many have a tiny, tinny speaker looping the same pitch. Layered, they become a minimalist symphony of mutually cancelled come-ons.

Yesterday morning, I poked around Bab El-Wazir, with its centuries-old mosques all magnificent yet decaying. Passing that of Ibn Tulun, completed in 879 thus the oldest in Africa, I marveled at its Tower of Babel-like minaret, but I'm not really drawn to great sights. Small surprises hold me, and there is an infinity of them, for people are so delightfully fresh. At best, we're here to amuse each other.

Entering a highway entrance ramp, a bus had to slow, thus allowing a middle-aged man to jump off, which he performed athletically. Out, he started to curse, his fist waving, at the disappearing vehicle. With it gone, he turned to an unrelated bus to continue his invectives, his middle finger wagging.

For ladies, old folks, cripples and perhaps foreigners, Cairene buses do come to a full stop. Wearing old brown shoes on his hands, a young man with lame legs dove off a bus and scuttled away, his face a foot off the ground.

In an alley, I puzzled over the statue of a white woman in a turquoise colored gown, her shoulders bare, her hair flowing. Egyptians chicks don't flounce around like that.

Just like in Vietnam, people watching is a pastime, so many cafe patrons face the street. Unlike in Vietnam, many coffee houses keep their lights off during the day, so in the semi dark, men can more easily contemplate, brood or just space out, in silence or with music barely audible. Besides car horns, noise pollution is a serious problem, though many young tuk-tuk drivers do boom mahraganat beats as they drive by.

Twice I've been to Giza, and having walked for several hours through it each day, I can vouch there are no pyramids or Sphinxes there, only ragged sheep, stray dogs and cat s, grim tenements with exposed bricks, lots of garbage in the middle of streets, invigorating markets, warm, smiling people, welcoming cafes and a Gannt El Moslem Nursery where your lucky toddler can learn since, math, English, Duetsh or Frech. It is sic, sic and sic.

All those who claim to have seen pyramids or a Sphinx in Giza are likely to believe in UFO, Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster and other nonsense. Else, they were presented with holograms or even cardboard facsimiles. Had they merely stepped to the side, they could clearly see their precious "pyramids" were laughably two-dimensional. Don't waste your time arguing with such clowns!

Remember those ancient days when you had to unfold an unwieldy map in the middle of a strange city to figure out where you were, thus looking even more out-of-place? With Google Maps on smartphones, even the dumbest ditz knows exactly where she is now, at all time. Here in Cairo, I have neither map, working phone nor guidebook, for it's bracing to be lost. Exposed, I plow. The sun gives me directions, and I generally know where the Nile is. Back in my hotel room, I consult Google Maps.

With the Covid situation dragging on, I'm on an open-ended trip, so it's best to be frugal. My seventh-floor room costs $23 a night, and my hotel is only thirty seconds walking from Tahrir Square. The bedsheet is too small to be tucked under the mattress. The square shower head sprays water sideways onto the bathroom floor. The elevator door doesn't close, but if you're dumb enough to stick hour hand or head out when it's moving, you're clearly hankering for heaven.

With business slow, they've given me a room with three beds. The last time this happened was in Zgorzelec, Poland. That hotel was so cheap, I started to wonder if I had booked a shared room by mistake. I went to sleep half expecting strangers to barge in at any moment.

In Cairo, I have a balcony to dry my laundry and even a midget fridge, which I've unplugged, for it's a tad too noisy. On the back of the building, I face grimy walls with louvered windows, and covered walkways littered with broken furniture, plastic laundry baskets and half dead potted plants. With so much car exhaust plus dust from some nearby desert, Cairene air is always hazy.

Across the street, there's a closet sized-store that sells a large bottle of water or a small cup of Turkish coffee for only 32 cents. Half a block away is an overpriced McDonald's, so I generally pig out on koftas, kebabs and chicken panne at Gad, a short stroll east. Yesterday, its music was Koranic verses broadcast over the radio. Muslim or Christian, Egyptians are intensely religious.

Like Vietnamese, Egyptians also eat pigeons, so I tried it at Gad. Stuffed with rice, it was tasty enough, its dark meat rich and firm. Since a pigeon is no turkey, there's barely enough protein for a cat, however. Still, they're easy to raise, even in cities, so that's something to keep in mind as your income tanks further.

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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