Backpackers' ball at the Sultan Hotel

With Flaubert's 1850 letters as a guide, our correspondent explores the enduring allure of opera, orgasm, belly-dancing and other Cairo clichis.

Published March 14, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

My first instinct upon arriving in Cairo is to fear the pyramids.

This is not a fear of existential belittlement in the presence of the ancient megaliths, nor do I fear some presumed Pharaonic curse. Rather, I fear letdown. I fear I won't see the grand old monuments with the proper degree of awe or historical perspective. I fear that in the process of comparing reputation with reality, I will be disappointed. I fear that the pyramids -- which have been perused, praised and plundered for thousands of years -- will prove, in experience, to be little more than a static tourist cartoon, devoid of genuine inspiration or beauty.

The most irritating part of this pyramid phobia is that I will ultimately be forced to confront it. After all, going to Cairo without seeing the pyramids is like a marriage without consummation: You can try it, but ultimately the obsession with what you're missing will get the best of you.

I can procrastinate, however -- and that's what I've resolved to do. Taking a taxi from the Cairo airport to Orabi Square at midday, I unsling my pack at a park bench, do a bit of reading and let the city soak in before I look for a place to stay.

My literary companion in Cairo is Gustave Flaubert, who, before penning "Madame Bovary," traveled to Egypt in 1850 and recorded his impressions in a series of letters to his friends. Like me, the 28-year-old Flaubert was indecisive in his opinion of the ancient Pharaonic ruins. At times, he regarded the old tombs and temples with humble awe, but at other times he expressed disappointment at the realities of his tourist itinerary. "The Egyptian temples bore me profoundly," he wrote home at one point. "Oh necessity! To do what you are supposed to do; to be always, according to the circumstances (and despite the aversion of the moment), what a young man, or a tourist, or an artist is supposed to be!"

In keeping with the age-old traveler's instinct to seek on the road what one enjoys at home, Flaubert eased his tourist angst in Egypt by frequenting the local whorehouses. Not only did this activity provide his journal with some memorable passages ("Coup with Little Sophie: She is very corrupt and writhing, extremely voluptuous -- I stain the divan"), but it also gave him the impetus to stray from his luxury hotels and riverboats into the seedier parts of town. Here, Flaubert found the depraved exoticism he'd hoped for. "There is one new element which I hadn't expected to see and which is tremendous here," he wrote to a friend shortly after arriving in Cairo. "And that is the grotesque. All the old comic business of the cudgeled slave, of the coarse trafficker in women, of the thieving merchant -- it's all very fresh here, very genuine and charming. In the streets, in the houses, on any and all occasions, there is a merry proliferation of beatings right and left."

Sitting on my bench, paging through Flaubert's memoirs, I take in the sights of Orabi Square. Around me, a brown smog hangs low over the buildings as Egyptians in jeans, dresses or djellaba robes crowd the sidewalks. Children wrestle with each other at curbside, and round-faced Berber women sell tissues on the corner. Colored pyramids of fruit stretch back into alleyways; purple slabs of meat swing in doorways. Teenage boys bicycle through the crowds with crates of bread balanced on their heads; old men wearing checkered kaffiyeh scarves stop to ask me where I'm from. Idle businessmen haunt the teahouses to smoke their sheesha water pipes and play dominoes. Out in the street, stalled taxis blast their horns uselessly.

From what I can see, Cairo is noisy, crowded, chaotic and friendly, but by no means grotesque in Flaubert's sense of the word. If first impressions mean anything, I would have to conclude that this city has tamed a bit in the past 150 years.

But then, I've only been here for an hour.

When Flaubert visited Cairo, he passed his days at the Hotel du Nil, a comfortable and lavish place where "desert robes brush against all kinds of things that civilization sends here as supposedly the last word in Parisianism." There, he was waited upon at dinner by a team of silk-jacketed Nubians, one of whom had the sole assignment of waving away flies with a feather duster. Since my means are considerably humbler than those of the 19th century French aristocracy, I shop around for accommodation among the grotty backpacker dives adjacent to Orabi Square.

I eventually settle on a place called the Sultan Hotel, which charges 8 Egyptian pounds (about $2.35) for a bed in a dorm room. I am attracted to the place not because of its facilities (the showers are leaky, the halls stained, the elevator dusty and disused) but because of its lobby, which is the epitome of jolly international chaos. There, under kitschy day-glo wall paintings of Pharaonic gods and camels, street hustlers and fruit vendors from the alley have come inside to practice their English with a motley mix of Western travelers, who -- not to be outdone -- are throwing out phrases of Arabic. Half-understood insults and ironic declarations of love converge into a disorienting swirl of fractured English and pidgin Arabic. A Swiss teenager, draped in a red-checkered kaffiyeh, packs honey tobacco into a sheesha pipe in the middle of the room. Arabic pop music crackles from a boombox at the reception desk; a black-and-white 1950s Egyptian musical shimmers, ignored, on a TV in the corner.

I soon discover that the de facto ringleader amid this afternoon madness is Tom Bourbon, a wild-haired aspiring playwright from Toledo, Ohio, who has been slumming at the Sultan ever since he arrived in Egypt two months ago. At 6-foot-8, with steel-rimmed spectacles and a patchy beard, Tom looks like an ebullient cross between Gustav Mahler and former L.A. Laker Kurt Rambis. By the time I've moved into my room, showered and put on fresh clothes, Tom has persuaded a dozen or so fellow travelers to crash a local performance of Gioacchino Rossini's "Il Signor Bruschino." Inspired, a gaggle of Belgian, Canadian, German and Japanese travelers fuss their hair, rummage through backpacks for clean clothes and otherwise try to make themselves presentable enough to pass the standards of the Cairo opera.

Figuring this kind of experience is simply too charming to pass up, I tag along. As we walk to the opera house, I meet a few of my new companions: Kathleen, a German teen who has been working as a camel wrangler at a kibbutz in Israel; Don, a 45-year-old Canadian who had planned to motorcycle around the world, but was forced to improvise when he wrecked his bike before he got out of Canada; Stefie, a willowy Belgian whose parents first met at a Rossini opera; and Stu, a recent Harvard grad who seems inordinately proud of his high school wrestling career.

By the time we settle into our seats at the Al-Gomhouria Theater -- most of us clutching $1.50 student tickets -- we've received more than a few baleful stares from the high-class Egyptians and European expatriates in the audience. No doubt, in our hiking boots, kaffiyehs, assorted facial piercings, rumpled T-shirts and stained khakis, we look like the boorish epitome of youthful irreverence. Fortunately, the opera, which Rossini wrote for the Venice carnival season at age 21, is as youthful and irreverent as any of the teens or post-teens in our group. A credulous, slapstick tale of romance and mistaken identity, "Il Signor Bruschino" is as much a blueprint for the '80s sitcom "Three's Company" as it is a precursor to "William Tell." We leave the opera in high spirits and retire to the Sultan Hotel lobby for beer, whiskey and half-baked post-curtain analysis.

Inspired by our brief taste of Cairo high culture, Tom disappears into his dorm room and returns with some of the duty-free liquor he says he has been hoarding in the hopes of (and he says this with a straight face) starting a speakeasy. Mixing slugs of Four Roses whiskey with Coke, he fills me in on the idiosyncrasies of the Sultan Hotel.

"We always have a pretty interesting crowd here," he tells me. "Especially in the 6-pound [$1.75] rooms on the third floor. Up there, you're never really sure why or how long people are going to stay. Just last week we had a transvestite from France: nice legs, a full collection of sequined miniskirts and a 5 o'clock shadow. He -- or she -- didn't last long. On the other hand, we have a Sudanese Christian up there who first checked in a year and a half ago. She tells people she's an opera singer."

"Why are you staying here?"

"Lots of reasons," Tom says, absently pulling at his beard with long fingers. "Right now I'm learning Arabic. Plus, I'm trying to pull some strings and get an Egyptian passport."

"Why would you want an Egyptian passport?"

Tom looks at me as if the answer should be obvious. "So I can go to Iraq," he says.

As the whiskey makes its way around the room, people start telling travel stories, all of them outrageous, most of them third hand: the Norwegian guys who sold a bottle of Chivas Regal for $1,000 in Saudi Arabia; the British teen who bought a camel in Darbw, Egypt, and supposedly rode it to the Sinai; the Japanese trekking group who lost their jungle guide to a land mine in Laos. Hassan, the Sultan's charismatic night clerk, puts some Arabic pop tapes into the boombox, and the Swiss kid unwraps his honey tobacco and primes some more sheesha coals on the kitchen stove.

As the lobby conversations reach a boozy crescendo, I wonder to myself whether Flaubert would have felt at home here. On one hand, the flophouse atmosphere -- $2.35 beds and bad plumbing -- combined with our middle-class goofiness might have caused the patrician French novelist to sniff with disdain. On the other hand, this far-flung international cast, with its freewheeling late-night discourse, harks back to social rituals that were much more common in Flaubert's day. Indeed, the scene here in the Sultan Hotel lobby is in its own way reminiscent less of commodified 21st century electronic culture than it is of ritualized 19th century parlor culture.

As the night wears on, Tom breaks out a few more choice bottles from his speakeasy stash. The conversation becomes less coherent, and our post-opera soiree dwindles down to a handful of sleepy-eyed stalwarts.

On the TV in the corner, an Egyptian man in a cardigan sweater and black horn-rimmed glasses sings a 10-minute love song to a corpulent woman in a headscarf.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My second day in Cairo begins at 2 in the afternoon, which is when I wake up. Encouraged by the fact that it is far too late to try to see the pyramids, I wander down to the Sultan lobby in search of diversion. There I find the towering Tom, who tells me that he plans to lead an excursion to the Palmyra belly-dancing club later in the evening. Thrilled by the excursion's exotic implications, I tell him to count me in.

When Flaubert visited Egypt 150 years ago, he took particular interest in belly-dancing. In all likelihood, this had more to do with the fact that most dancers doubled as prostitutes than with the dancing itself. In Esna, Flaubert saw the performance of a dancer named Kuchuk Hanem, who performed "The Bee" -- a striptease reputedly so erotic that the musicians had to be blindfolded. Flaubert's descriptions of his extracurricular activities with Hanem ("Effect of her necklace between my teeth; her cunt like rolls of velvet as she made me come: I felt like a tiger") and various other Egyptian performers ("and there was another, on top of whom I enjoyed myself immensely, and who smelled of rancid butter") seem to underscore Europe's erotic obsession with "the Orient" at the time.

However, erotic stereotypes in Egypt long predate Flaubert -- as even Herodotus' description of the Nile Valley in the fifth century B.C. is full of sexual footnotes. When describing Egyptian customs, for instance, Herodotus noted a spring festival wherein women carried puppets with huge, hinged penises that were pulled up and down by strings. "There is some sort of religious significance to the size of the genitals," Herodotus noted dryly, "and the fact that they are the only part of the puppet's body which is made to move."

As it turns out, belly-dancing performances in Cairo don't start until after midnight, so I have a full evening to anticipate the sensual delights that await.

I ultimately discover, however, that anticipation doesn't always mesh with reality.

The best belly-dancing in Egypt, it is said, costs $50 a show and can be found at five-star hotels like the Meridien Le Caire or the Parisienne. At the Palmyra club, which is within walking distance of the Sultan Hotel, admission is about $1.50. The performance value (I suspect) is calibrated accordingly.

When our disheveled traveler posse arrives from the Sultan to take a table in the back of the Palmyra, a man in a djellaba and two women in chadors are happily shaking their moneymakers on the dance floor. At first I think this is a prelude to some kind of Islamic-themed striptease, until I realize that these people are just overzealous customers. The real dancer -- a big-haired, large-breasted girl in a faux snakeskin jumpsuit -- is at the back of the stage, idly joking with the accordion player. As my eyes get used to the darkness, I take in the surroundings. The club features tall ceilings and textured rock walls, accessorized with red curtains. If the lighting were improved and the velvety curtains replaced with, say, country knickknacks, this place could easily pass for a family restaurant in Minnetonka, Minn.

The crowd, however, is decidedly non-Middle America: Bedouins in red-checkered kaffiyehs and long gowns wave 5-pound notes (each about $1.45) at the edge of the dance floor; Egyptian office types with wrinkled neckties leap up from their tables to clap along with the music; fat men with thin mustaches sit alone in corners, sweat stains growing out from their armpits. The band looks straight out of a David Lynch movie: the melancholy lute player who blinks and stares at the floor as he strums; the grinning, leather-faced bongo drummer who wears brown pants over white, patent-leather shoes; the keyboardist who stops playing in the middle of the song to light a cigarette. The music is rhythmic, dissonant, deafening.

Eventually, the girl in the snakeskin jumpsuit starts to dance again, humming to the music into a cordless mike. After 30 minutes of this, she yields the stage to a dull-eyed blond with feathered hair and a sequined evening gown. This new dancer is so amorphously plump that her rear end seems to start just below her neck. As she dances, the slightest wiggle sends her sequined extremities into a gelatinous fury of motion. For those of us at the Sultan table, the effect is mesmerizing and somewhat disturbing. The Egyptian men, however, go nuts, barking along to the music and periodically jumping onto the stage to bust a few dance moves and shower the blond with 1-pound (30-cent) notes.

By 3 a.m. we can take no more of this, so we return to the Sultan Hotel lobby to discuss the merits of the performance. Since Tom's duty-free booze stash was nearly depleted the previous night, Don the Canadian brings out a bottle of Egyptian whiskey -- a Johnnie Walker Black Label knockoff called (literally) "Johnny Wadie Black Tabel." We sip the medicinal-tasting Egyptian spirit and grimace as we debate the dubious erotic merits of the belly-dancing performance.

We have nearly exhausted this topic when a previously taciturn Canadian girl suddenly begins to instruct everyone on her preferred methods of attaining orgasm. All conversation pauses momentarily, and before long everyone is merrily debating the merits and challenges of clitoral vs. vaginal stimulation. The more we delve into this topic, however, the more Orgasm Girl seems disappointed. Her purpose, it seems, was not to initiate an objective debate on the physiology of erotic climax but to create a personal mystique -- to pique any romantic attentions that might have been dulled by the belly-dancing fiasco.

Unfortunately for would-be Cleopatras and Mark Antonys, the physical realities of the Sultan Hotel pretty much preclude amorous intrigue. Within the entire complex -- which spans three floors of a run-down building in downtown Cairo -- there is not a single place wherein one can fornicate with any sense of dignity. The kitchen and lobby are always otherwise in use, the roof is home to a small community of Egyptian squatters and the back stairwells are swamped in years of accumulated garbage and grime. Coitus is technically possible (for the well coordinated) in the cramped shower/toilet stalls, but there is the ever-present danger of slipping on soap scum or impaling oneself on the unspeakably soiled copper bidet hoses that curve out from the toilet bowls.

This leaves only the dorm rooms themselves, which, in addition to being officially gender segregated, are crowded enough to discourage sexual dalliance. Thus, whereas cleaner and roomier backpacker dives on the travel trail can resonate with romantic maneuverings in the boozy wee hours, the sexual currents in the Sultan are for the most part friendly, theoretical and platonic. After a few more drinks and some pulls on the sheesha pipe, the sex chitchat gives way to talk of Sudanese visas and Israeli border stamps, of Arabic history, of where to score weed.

Perhaps chagrined at losing her spotlight, Orgasm Girl goes to bed early. Flaubert, no doubt, would have shared her irritation.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

MORE FROM Rolf Potts

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Egyptian Protests Middle East