Uncovering Cairo

In which our correspondent makes rabbit stew, views an Egyptian film comedy about America and sees the pyramids in a new light.

Published March 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

By my fourth day in Cairo, avoiding the pyramids has taken on a comfortable sort of rhythm. I have fallen into the indolent habit of waking up past noon, stumbling down to the market for oranges and falafel, then wandering into the city for afternoon sightseeing. The fewer goals I set for this activity, the more Cairo seems to bloom out from its strange corners. My favorite activity is to buy a ticket for the Metro, get off at random, walk until I'm lost, then ask directions back to the station.

In this manner, I have collected sights like souvenirs: men in alleys building lattices, baking bread, butchering chickens; a herd of goats toddling through a public plaza; Berbers in donkey carts stuck in traffic jams. I have seen the incense man swing his censer through a fruit market, collecting 10-piaster tips; I have seen women in full ninja-style chador dive onto speeding buses; I have seen pious Muslim men selling vegetables, their foreheads black with welts from praying to Mecca. I have seen garbage choking rooftops and raw sewage flowing through the medieval gate of Islamic Cairo. The call of the muezzin from the mosques -- at first a strange, haunting cry -- has now blended into the music of my day.

Gustave Flaubert was equally impressed by the random mundane in Cairo. "I am scarcely over the initial bedazzlement," he wrote. "It's like being hurled while still asleep into the midst of a Beethoven symphony, with the brasses at their most ear-splitting, the basses rumbling, and the flutes sighing away; each detail reaches out to grab you; it pinches you; and the more you concentrate on it the less you grasp the whole ... It is such a bewildering chaos of colors that your poor imagination is dazzled as though by continuous fireworks as you go about staring at minarets thick with white storks, at tired slaves stretched out in the sun on house terraces, at the patterns of sycamore branches against walls, with camel bells ringing in your ears and great herds of black goats bleating in the streets amidst the horses and the donkeys and the peddlers."

As with Flaubert, these details captivate my imagination: I go for hours at a time without feeling the slightest twinge of pyramid anxiety.

Today I return from my afternoon wanderings to find out what kind of absurdity towering Tom Bourbon has cooked up for the evening. Yesterday, he and Don the Canadian went off to find a foreign wife for a neighborhood kid they've dubbed (because of his eponymous T-shirt) Rolling Thunder Boy. Rolling Thunder Boy's main impetus for finding a foreign wife is to avoid conscription into the Egyptian army -- a ruse that goes back at least a couple of hundred years (in Flaubert's day, young men were known to gouge out an eye to avoid hated conscription; the viceroy of Egypt finally circumvented this stratagem by creating a special one-eyed army regiment). Tom and Don's solution to Rolling Thunder Boy's dilemma was not to find him an American bride (as perhaps was hoped), but to go to the Internet cafe and enroll his name in a half-dozen mail-order marriage services based in the Philippines. On the basis of socioeconomic guesswork alone, I don't think I'll hold my breath for Rolling Thunder Boy's chances, but Tom and Don remain optimistic.

Tonight, Tom suggests that -- in a culinary attempt to "go native" -- we visit the market, find a live animal and cook it for dinner. Last week, apparently, he and a few other members of Team Sultan failed to cook a pigeon ("we never could find any meat on it," he explains ruefully), so tonight he wants to try to boil a rabbit or two. About half a dozen Sultanites are up for this, but this number quickly dwindles the moment the market vendor starts pulling bunnies out of the split-reed cages and sizing them up for us. By the time our two rabbits' throats have been slit and the butcher has begun to peel off the fur, Tom and I are the only takers left. Undaunted, Tom buys a sack of vegetables, and we go upstairs to start in on the rabbit stew.

This activity proves to be an interesting study in the psychology of eating meat: After we slowly boil the rabbit along with vegetables and aromatic spices for two hours, half a dozen new Sultanites hungrily volunteer to join us for dinner. Those who saw the rabbits when they were alive, on the other hand, keep a grim distance from the kitchen.

We decide to cap off Rabbit Night by walking down Talaat Harb Street to catch an Egyptian flick at the Metro Cinema. None of us is good enough at Arabic to fully understand the dialogue, but that's half the reason for going: The task of trying to discern the plot will add a bit of mystery and challenge to the experience. Tonight, the Metro is showing a film called "Hello America," a comedy about an Egyptian man who travels to New York in search of the American dream.

In its portrayal of American stereotypes alone, "Hello America" provides a fascinating example of Egyptian filmmaking. From the moment the movie starts, however, I notice a strange detail: Almost all of the American-looking characters -- gang members, bodyguards, cops and homosexuals alike -- look a bit unkempt and vaguely emaciated. Tom eventually explains this detail: Since film work in Cairo pays a pittance, the only foreigners consistently willing to work as extras are backpackers. Over the course of the movie, Tom spots three minor characters -- a robber, a cross-dresser and a homeless person -- who are portrayed by current or former occupants of the Sultan Hotel.

What the film lacks in authenticity and artistic value, it makes up for in quirky moments of satire. When the main character joins what he thinks is a "freedom march," for instance, it turns out to be a gay pride rally; when he shows affection for his young American nephew, he is accused of being a pedophile; when he relaxes in his room with a late-day sheesha, the fire marshal kicks in the door and hoses him down. Although there are a few scenes that take digs at Egyptians (when the main character is stopped at the airport for suspicious-looking luggage, he declares, "It's OK, I'm an Arab!" and the other passengers flee screaming), the movie is certainly a reinforcement of traditional Egyptian values. Relationships take precedence over rules, individualism is suspect and family is more important than money.

When we return to the Sultan Hotel, our obligatory post-film discussion turns into a heated argument between Stu the Wrestler and Orgasm Girl about American imperialism. Relishing their roles as agitators, the two North Americans lay into each other -- Stu citing statistics and examples of how America is a benevolent, impregnable superpower, Orgasm Girl quoting stats and examples of how America is an insidious, bullying neocolonizer. Not up for the Patented America Debate (an endless polemic that invariably surfaces whenever strong-minded Americans share hostel space with strong-minded near Americans), I go to bed early.

In a way, though, both Stu and Orgasm Girl are correct: America is, at this moment in history, both a benevolent superpower and a bullying colonizer. The thing is, we of Team Sultan are -- without really being aware of it -- a manifestation of that neocolonial instinct.

Unlike its Persian, Greek, Roman, Arabic, Ottoman, French and British predecessors, this American-influenced (but by no means American-dominated) colonialism is affecting Egypt not by military occupation, but through global osmosis: through international wealth and the strength of the dollar; through free trade and technology; through the passive threat of standing armies and nuclear bombs; through information media and pop culture; through aid workers, the English language and -- yes -- the surplus of good-natured budget tourists from America, Europe and Japan.

Just as ancient Rome found it was easier to maintain its empire when it treated its subjects as citizens and contributors, and just as the old Arab empire multiplied its influence by incorporating the diverse practical knowledge from within its ever-growing borders, those of us in the Sultan Hotel are part of a dynamic, hybrid strain of what might be called (to use a word that is largely pejorative these days) an American-style empire.

Even in our $2.35 beds, even as we smoke sheesha, drape ourselves in kaffiyehs, practice our Arabic and question the merit of our own societies, each of us is an inevitable extension of our own culture. We are travelers, yes, but we also constitute -- to a greater extent than Flaubert and his cronies in 1850 -- a de facto, somewhat innocuous (and decidedly unpretentious) occupying force.

As I drift off to sleep, I realize -- with a twinge of trepidation -- that I've run out of original, legitimate reasons to avoid the pyramids.

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To travel the historical sights of Egypt is to invite information overload. Whereas less than 5 percent of Egyptian land is arable and the local oil output is a mere drop compared with Egypt's cousins in the Persian Gulf, this old Pharaonic land has repeatedly proved to be an inexhaustible source of ancient relics.

Just last year, for example, 200 new mummies (thought to be part of a necropolis that held as many as 10,000 preserved human remains), some of them wearing golden burial masks, were discovered in the western desert. A mere four months ago, ancient symbols carved into a limestone cliff -- believed to be part of the earliest known alphabet -- were discovered west of Luxor. Also near Luxor, the temple precinct near Akhmim, which is still being excavated, might join Angkor Wat and the Vatican as one of the world's biggest religious complexes.

Someday these discoveries may find a special place in the Egyptian tourist canon, but for now, none of them comes close to rivaling the popularity and allure of Gîza, Saqqara and Dahshur. Cowing to the inevitable, I arrange a trip to the pyramids on the morning of my fifth day in Cairo.

When Flaubert went to see the pyramids of Gnza and Saqqara, he traveled by horseback and slept in the desert. These days, Cairo's urban sprawl has turned these sites into virtual suburbs. Hoping to catch all the sites in one efficient trip, I hire Hussein (the Sultan Hotel night clerk) to drive me around for the day. Stefie the Belgian, her friend Nele and a Japanese fellow named Yoshito join me; Tom, who has already been to the pyramids three times, elects to stay in Cairo.

We strike out from the Sultan early in the morning. Hussein's driving style is a blend of good intentions and bad technique; we sputter through the stop-start Cairo traffic in second gear. At one point, when I ask Hussein the name of a towering mosque, a chubby Egyptian adolescent goes bouncing off the front fender. Fortunately, Cairo traffic is generally slow enough to preclude physical injury in this type of situation: The kid flamboyantly curses Hussein, but seems otherwise unharmed; I make a point of not asking any more questions while Hussein is driving.

Our first Pharaonic destination is Saqqara, which lies south of Cairo's sprawl. As we leave the Nile Valley, a pale tan desert drops out from beyond the palms and canals; mud-brick houses crumble in the sun. A sign near the monument admission booth reads "Good life, immortality and happiness can be found in Egypt."

At Saqqara, the tombs and pyramids of Teti exude a quiet, plundered grandeur. As I walk through the dusty chambers and corridors, I try to imagine these places as they might have been in their original splendor, but my brief reveries of ancient Egypt keep getting pushed aside by remembered images of the Luxor Casino in Las Vegas. This proves to be a disconcertingly persistent association, so eventually I just give in and allow my mind to wander -- blending personal memories and spontaneous feelings with historical speculation. At Zoser's step pyramid, my thoughts are interrupted by a fresh carving in the limestone near the bottom: "Edward, 1/1/2000," it reads. And beneath that, "Fuck you."

Such thoughtless defacement of the ancient here in Egypt is certainly nothing new. When Flaubert explored the Gnza pyramids, he expressed shock at all the recent graffiti. "One is irritated by the number of imbeciles' names written everywhere," he wrote. "On top of the Great Pyramid there is the name of a certain Buffard, 79 Rue Saint-Martin, wallpaper manufacturer, in black letters; an English fan of Jenny Lind's has written her name; there is also a pear, representing Louis-Philippe."

I return to the car and tell Hussein about the scrawl on Zoser's pyramid, but he doesn't seem all that shocked. As I've seen in so many other countries, the flagship phrase of English profanity doesn't resonate much with Egyptians. As with Nike or McDonald's, perhaps "fuck you" has simply become another Western trademark -- a standardized mantra that tough guys say in American movies.

"You know," I say to Hussein, "I think someone should build a huge limestone monument that says 'fuck you,' just so people will have to think of something different to carve on it."

Hussein nods over at the pyramids of Zoser and Userkef. "Maybe that's what they mean already."

"How's that?"

"The pyramids," he says. "Maybe they're Egyptain for 'fuck you.'"

Hussein grins to show he's joking, but for a moment I see the pyramids in an unexpected and brilliant new light.

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After a stop at Dahshur, we finish our day at Gnza. There, I discover all the tourist madness I'd originally hoped to avoid, but now it seems novel in its own weird way. As I walk up to the ticket booth, swarms of pasty-faced Scandinavians pour out from pink tour buses to jostle me on the walkway; touts bully me with offers of camel rides or painted papyrus. A demoralizingly long line stretches out from the Pyramid of Cheops; Cairo's skyscrapers tower in the distance. In front of the Sphinx, a ragged band of German hippies bangs on drums and bows in prayer; in front of the adjacent Pizza Hut, Mexican backpackers pose for photos. For some reason, this all seems perfect: I pay my ticket and see what I'm supposed to see.

"You ask me whether Egypt is up to what I'd imagined it to be," Flaubert wrote to his mother after having been in Cairo for five weeks. "Yes, it is; and more than that, it extends far beyond the narrow idea I had of it. I have found, clearly delineated, everything that was hazy in my mind. Facts have taken the place of suppositions -- so excellently so that it is often as though I were suddenly coming upon old forgotten dreams."

At sunset, black-uniformed guards chase us out of the pyramid complex, and Stefie, Nele, Yoshito and I pile into Hussein's car and ride back into the living heart of Cairo.

By Rolf Potts

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

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