Cairo: Beyond the Pyramids and Mummies

The situation in Cairo is critical, yet misunderstood by anyone who has not walked this ancient city’s streets. BBC reports one viewpoint while The Globe and Mail featured nine pages of news on the rioting and unrest. Still, the situation on the ground is so far from the freedom chants that Americans imagine in their minds; this is rioting for food and basic living conditions. If the world is not careful, then Egypt will fall under the sway of extremist groups just as Germany, Italy, Iran and China did when their revolutions took them to dark places.

I traveled through Egypt and Jordan for three weeks in 2009. Actually, that is where I met V., and Cairo will always remain the reformative place where I found myself. I woke up in Cairo more than a few times,with bats flying across the swimming pool at midnight, and the airport is straight out of an apocalyptic novel with hulking jetliner bodies off the runway filled with sand. I even spent my final night at the luxurious Oberoi Hotel in a double suite overlooking the pyramids.  I did the tourist traps. The Egyptian museum is the worst museum in the world; it is like a high school from the Silent Hill video game series. Dark, hollow, and void of any reverence, the museum is a tomb for Egyptology. The pyramids are littered with Coke cans and camel rides. Cairo is not a place for the faint of heart or the delicate hygiene that requires clean money or water. No…I do not want to ride your camel!

In Cairo, I spent an afternoon away from the tour group in search of the real city. Eventually, I followed a small herd of sheep into the market place where I was the only Westerner to be found. It was a ghetto area. Frankly, had I not been slightly off-kilter at the time from the collapse of my marriage and a violent illness on the Nile, I would never have imagined walking through the area, let alone taking three rolls of film. It was a National Geographic moment, wherein I felt like a part of moments greater than me. I was eventually chased by two younger men in a truck who swore at me, metal wrenches in hand,  for taking photos of women. The market was the only place I had even seen Egyptian women, so I could only hazard a guess that it was not acceptable to take photographs. Frankly, most Egyptians paid me no notice as my EOS 3 with the 70-200mm lens must have seemed like anything but a camera to them. My death-defying retreat left me without any idea how to get back to the hotel, and walking through tense neighbourhoods until I spied a main thoroughfare. Truthfully, I did my best to get into trouble there. I ate the food, drank water from the sink, walked the streets at night alone, and took pictures of things I probably should not have, but in the end Cairo let me do as I wished, like an indulgent soldier dealing with a child.

When you line up for bread that may run out, then you know the value of food. Until the world addresses Egypt’s need for financial support and reform, it sits upon a powder keg of desperation. Cairo dreams just as we do, but when it wakes up the city may be on fire.

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