Clear signal from Cairo

Egypt is a country best viewed through a prism of contrasts and nowhere is it more apparent than in the capital city.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | Updated: May 22, 2016 1:20:50 am
The mosques in smog The mosques in smog

Report? Show us your report,” boomed a voice behind us. After a long day of playing tourist, we had just settled down with a cup of kahwa on Cairo’s most well-known public square, squatting down on the grass like locals, watching families take a breather in front of the flagpole erected by the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government when it came to power. An old man had nodded when we’d asked him if this was the place which had birthed two revolutions since 2011. He spoke no English, but he had prevailed upon a couple of passers-by to indulge us. “Of course, this is Tahrir Square. In 2011, it was full of demonstrators, everywhere you looked you could only see people. In 2013, too,” said a young linguist at the Cairo University who had stopped by. Does he live in happier times since? “That’s a difficult question. Are we ever completely happy? Are you happy with your government? Maybe, there will be a third revolution here, and we shall all meet again,” he said with a smile, before waving us goodbye.

But here was an irate lady behind us and a man in a galabiya clearly displeased with what they perceived as unseemly nosiness. Out of nowhere, a handful of policemen, officious in their white uniform, had materialised too. The next day, April 25, was the day of celebration of the liberation of Sinai from Israel, but this year, it was preceded by protests against the return of two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. There was security everywhere. What were we doing with our huge cameras and our questions about revolutions? And where were the reports we were speaking to people for?

When no amount of explanation could get us past the language barrier, we were escorted off to a senior officer sitting two streets away in a shadowy alcove. “No big camera, no talking to locals, no report,” he said before shooing us off like errant school-children. In 2013, a law enacted by the present government effectively banned street protests, violations run the risk of jail sentences. It has made the Cairenese wary of strangers asking them uncomfortable questions. Later, Adel El Masry, director, International Tourism Department, would tell us that caution among citizens was encouraged by the government. “Many troublemakers in Egypt today are foreigners, we want people to be vigilant,” he said.

Cairo will have you know that do what you will, you cannot ignore it. It comes at you with the persistence of one who will not be thwarted, pulsing with vigour, teeming with energy, caving under its own existential crisis and rising from its ashes. On the streets, cars streak past in a never-ending stream, even as pedestrians weave their way past with the litheness of trapeze artistes. Young men on bicycles carry trays laden with bread. The Nile, ancient and prescient, flows gently, girded on either side by promenades; feluccas glide past and the throb of the motor boats is as familiar as the sound of muezzins calling the faithful to prayers.

In central Cairo, the 20.5 km long Sixth October Bridge, which took nearly 30 years to be completed, is lined with billboards announcing dream homes in upmarket locations and concerts by “King” Mohamed Mounir, one of Egypt’s most popular musicians. The island of Zamalek is the hub of expatriates and diplomats, its leafy boulevards sprinkled with boutique cafes and designer stores. On the outskirts of the city, unpainted matchbox houses in brick and mortar rise like columns. The desert wind is merciless, it peels off paint and plaster and many middle-class Egyptians don’t bother with either anymore. In the sprawl of the Citadel in Islamic Cairo, with its rising minarets and labyrinthine lanes, sudden vistas open up this metropolis of 22-odd million. The smell of smoke lingers in the air — Egypt is a smoker’s paradise and one can light up anywhere in public.

Everywhere you go, Egypt is a country best viewed through a prism of contrasts. It’s probably one of the reasons why the common man on the ground has set their hope on Sisi’s rule, even with its curb on some civil liberties. “Everyone wants a government which thinks about its people, not just about the rich, but about its poor too,” said Hassanein Mahmoud, our genial tour guide in Cairo. The Egyptian government seems to have added the country’s women too, to its list of prioritites. As many as a record 89 women are now a part of its new Parliament. Not just that, according to the new Constitution that it adopted in 2014, Egyptian women are now deemed equal to their male counterparts and have an unprecedented equal right to divorce.

But, in the years since the Revolution, Egypt has also grappled with security issues. The murder of an Italian doctoral student in Cairo in February this year, the Metrojet airliner that was brought down over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015, killing all 224 passengers on board, and the attack on mostly Mexican tourists by Egyptian security forces in a case of mistaken identity in September 2015 have all contributed to one of the worst tourist slumps the country has seen. In 2010, Egypt registered a total of 14.7 million visitors, accounting for revenue worth US$ 12.5 billion. In 2013, the revenue fell to US$ 5.9 billion, because of a footfall of a mere 9.5 million tourists.

Today, most tourist sites wear a forlorn look, visited primarily by locals and the intreprid few who remain undaunted by the negative travel advisories issued by many Western countries. On ground, though, the fears seem slightly exaggerated. There is heavy security at most tourist sites and at Giza and in Coptic Cairo, the few tourists we meet — mostly Asian — say they feel “no different from any other place in the world.” It’s a good time to be in Egypt, they said, because it gave one the opportunity to linger.

This is what the tourism industry is banking on too. Rising behind Tahrir Square, along the Nile corniche, the regal Nile Hilton hotel, had a makeover and was reopened late last year as the Nile Ritz-Carlton. At $340 a night for a Nile-view deluxe room, the Ritz-Carlton is still one of Cairo’s priciest hotels. The number of Russian and British tourists, among Egypt’s top visitors once, might have fallen alarmingly, but Masry says they are doing all they can to build back Egypt’s reputation as a top tourist destination and bring in new visitors.

As a tourist, it’s almost impossible to not be moved by all that Cairo has to offer. Even though it was never a Pharaonic city, its history is rich and captivating. In the near-empty National Museum, with its rich trove of Pharaonic antiquities, I am awestruck by the beauty of Tutankhamun’s gold death mask and by the intricate craftsmanship on his jewellery and other personal belongings. After the first underwhelming glimpse of the great pyramid of Giza of the fourth dynasty Pharaoh Khufu, the immensity of the complex slowly brings home the architectural marvel that it is. In the narrow lanes of Khan el-Khalili, I halt at El Fishawy, the grand dame of Cairo’s coffee houses, with its archways and mirrored interiors and steaming glasses of mint and imli tea and apricot-flavoured shisha that men and women share during outings. It was here that Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz wrote parts of his Cairo Trilogy. While scouring for souvenirs, I am accosted by a ful (cooked fava beans) seller. “You from India?” he asks me. “Do you know Amitabh Bachchan? Tell him I am a fan. I call myself Babbar Singh.”

There’s a reason why Egyptians refer to Cairo as Umm al-Dunya (mother of the world). Here, the modern and the ancient co-exist in rambunctious harmony. Here, all one needs is good humour and patience and the city opens up like an oyster to reveal its pearl within.

The reporter was a guest of the Egyptian Tourism office.

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