40 for 40: Day 24 – The Citadel and Islamic Cairo

So, this morning, the neighbourhood I work in had a mass shooting. A gunman opened fire indiscriminately on several blocks of people, killing an 18 year old and a 10 year old girl who, and I don’t know this yet, is of the age that I may have taught her or one of her siblings. As far as awful ways to start the day go, it’s got to take the cake.

I mention this in the context of all the safety concerns people raised with me going to Egypt. Digging into the stats after the fact, I learned that, while Egypt does have a slightly higher crime rate, its gun violence and murder rate are, in fact, both lower. So while I’m in a city of 22 000 000 people today, I’m technically safer than I was in Toronto. Even as a person who cant “blend” with the population.

Now, that being said, this is Cairo. It’s a special kind of challenging. We gave ourself a minimum of things to do today, and Cairo still took as much out of us as it could, especially after starting the day in a state of emotional exhaustion. After GoogleMaps and the heat conspired against us a few days ago, we decided to take the most direct route to Cairo’s Citadel that we could, snagging an Uber and ending up at its base fairly easily. The Citadel, used as anti-Crusader fortification by Saladin in the 12th century, features one of Cairo’s most distinct landmarks, the beautiful “Alabaster Mosque” of Muhammad Ali (not the boxer), a palace that is under renovation, a police and military museum and an older mosque within. It’s more of an open-air museum than a living, breathing religious centre at this point, and it continued the “Egyptian Domestic Tourist Asking for Photos” trend that hit us in Alexandria, with Daina apparently looking distinctly famous and photo worthy. It was a wonderful walk-around, with beautiful views of the city below, a fortunate viewing of the pyramids through the not-too-thick smog, and it would have been a simple activity to do before engaging in some souvenir shopping at Khan el-Khalili.

I’m sure you can see where this might be going.

Having had a lot of success with Uber thus far, we snagged another one and set the destination as Bab Zuweyla, the oldest and most beautiful gate in Medieval Cairo, home to two massive towers that provide excellent panoramas over the city. Cairo traffic was bad (and the sky was blue and water was wet), and the direct route through the streets was blocked off by a few tuk-tuks that were badly parked (because Cairo), so our guy tried to take the longer run around. Having my GPS out, we got to a point where I figured it was easier to walk than to finish the ride, so I signaled to Daina “We can get out here and walk to the right.”

To which our driver decided “Oh, I can go down that street.”

We tried twice more to indicate that we could get out and walk, but the language barrier ended up being a bit much so we went with it, and our guy was slowly using the smaller streets to get us to where we needed to go.

And then a mid-sized truck backed into the back door, leaving a massive gash.

Now, one thing we noticed about Cairo is that, when things go bad, the bystanders don’t just hand back with their cell phones. There is a simmering undercurrent of feelings in this city, and a lot of bystanders seem more eager to help mediate fights than just observe, which was good. This truck was definitely in the wrong, as there’s no way our driver could have avoided him, and he backed right up into a moving car. Still, Daina and I are standing there, watching the Cairenes talk to each other, and we wonder “Should we be here right now?” Like, is our presence actually helping this situation, or will somebody eventually get mad and think “This is because you were driving these two foreigners around”. I tapped our driver on the shoulder and tried to mime if we should stick around or if we should go, and we got a non-verbal communication that said “go”, so we did. I’m thinking that was the right call, hoping it was the right call. Even when I tried to Google Cairo accident laws minutes afterwards, all I got were links about how cab drivers are mad that Uber is taking their business, even though the cab drivers squandered their opportunity to advance by turning their newly-metered cabs into cabs with “broken” meters, or meters that run to fast, or optional air-conditioning. I know pleading ignorance hasn’t helped much here, but literally in this one blind.

We did managed to wander up to Bab Zuweyla, which was beautiful and did give the as-advertised views of Islamic Cairo. The next stop was Khan el-Khalili, for a bit of final souvenir shopping, as I needed to get my nieces and nephews country-specific swag.

On the way, we heard a yelling match break out, right near a covered marked that I decided to photograph. At this point, I’ve gotten used to the occasional Egyptian yelling, so I didn’t think much off it as I looked up to snap a photo, but then I felt somebody push against me and realized two people were being held apart. One took a swing at the other, missed, and got Daina in the shoulder. So we moved on from that, wondering what the hell was happening with the day.

The rest of the day was a more regular bit of Cairo craziness, as we had lunch at a 100 year old restaurant, haggled hard for some souvenirs (I did well on the shirts, probably could have done better on the next one), and then tried to grab our last Uber, which switched drivers on us twice before getting stuck in a traffic jam, at which point our driver decided to put on what I can only call a “Pop Divas Mix”, starting with Adele’s “Hello” while we were stuck, “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson as we finally picked up speed and hit the highway, and boy did the lyrics of that song encapsulate the day, before ending with “Roar” by Katy Perry as we pulled up to the hotel. It was at this point that Daina remarked “Do you realize we were in a car accident, a fistfight, and there was a mass shooting? That’s pretty much everything under the sun.”

Seriously, you try to keep it simple in this city, and it just wrecks you.

Our evening was at least somewhat more manageable, as we did some clothes shopping, had dinner at a pizza restaurant known as CaiRoma, which apparently also has a location in Rome at San Giovanni, before ending the night with some drinks at the historic Cafe Riche, which has been serving alcohol for 110 years to Cairo’s intellectuals. We talked about how challenging and amazing Egypt is, how lucky we are to do it, to have the opportunities and take them and, that no matter how insane things got here, it never took away from the experience. In fact, in many ways, it added to it.

Tomorrow, we head to the airport, head back to Italy for a night, and then go our separate ways. That big old “checkmark” is going next to “Egypt by 40”, and I couldn’t be happier. Realistically, I feel we’ve done all we can do here, but I want to stay longer. To do what, I’m not sure, but… something.

This is Egypt.

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