CAIRO: In “Midaq Alley,” Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz describes the teeming Cairene backstreet that titles his novel as one that “clamors with a distinctive personal life of its own,” while retaining “a number of the secrets of a world now past.”
Cairo’s inimitable charms relate to its vaunted history, dating as far back as the first millennium B.C. The Romans erected a fortress town to the east of the Nile, the remnants of which now comprise the heart of Cairo’s Coptic community. But it’s glorified past do not account for the beguiles of the city in modern day.
Prior to my arrival to Cairo, I was told it had two unredeemable qualities: smog and harassment. Of the former I can confirm, indeed, the city is dusty, in certain places utterly filthy, and a day’s walk merits a long shower. Of the latter, I can only offer my experience, which did not involve full on assault, but there are certain areas where the pressure to cover up is undeniably apparent.
As in any new environment, there is a cultural code in Cairo that a visitor is obliged to follow, especially as it relates to relations between the sexes. I recall getting into a minibus, intending to take the free seat next to a male stranger. “No, no, a normal human being,” the driver said, motioning toward my male acquaintance.
In this way, Cairo can captivate as much as confound.
The bustling alleyways of Khan al-Khalili Bazaar and the area around the Al-Azhar Mosque, the mainstay of Islamic Cairo, where many of Mahfouz’s novels are set, is imbued with age-old architectural charms. The neighborhood is a source of enchantment for visitors but a mere backdrop for the perpetual commotion of locals.
To enter the bazaar, I opted to worm my way through the Muski, a congested street full of vendors, with shops selling rolls upon rolls of fabric, odd household items and even salted fish. A moment of quiet is impossible, the hum of a hundred voices and honking of cars is constant, and someone somewhere is always yelling about something.
The pinnacle of Saladin’s contribution to Islamic architecture is flaunted along the concentration of mosques and madrasas featuring ablaq patterns, the technique of laying different colored stones to create a striped effect. Bab Zuwella, a Fatimid-style gate with Mamluk-era minarets of the Sultan al-Muayyad mosque is a common point of reference for visitors, as is the breathtaking Sultan al-Ghuri mausoleum complex, which serves as another entrance to the bazaar.
Tourists are easily spotted, as they seem to be the only ones gawking at the sights.
Some mosques charge an entrance fee, and foreigners are usually charged 100 Egyptian pounds, while locals pay just 1 pound. Be prepared to provide evidence that you have roots in the region if aiming for the lesser fee.
While those with a penchant for romanticism might prefer Islamic Cairo, the area is but a part of the metropolis, which hosts a nightlife scene where the fruity trail of shisha permanently wafts through the air, with its various cafes and, depending where you are, dimly lit sprawling restaurants.
Take the metro, the only one in the region, to Downtown’s Tahrir Square, which has become another attraction for tourists, as it has been the site of the 2011 revolution and countless other protests since. Revolutionary graffiti still lines the streets.
In direct contrast to Islamic Cairo is the neighborhood of Zamalek, on the northern half of Gezira Island, which is quieter and full of tree-lined residential streets, a variety of eateries and quirky boutiques. Though it might offer reprieve from the more clamorous atmosphere of central Cairo, it feels private, and the streets appear lifeless after dark.
For a spectacular vista of the city and the all-seeing Citadel, the expansive Al-Azhar Park is ideal. Project for Public Spaces listed the park as one of 60 great public spaces in the world. Amid the rambunctious children, the handholding of discrete lovers and the sumptuous gardens, this might be the only place in Cairo that offers a moment’s peace.