Sometimes I prefer to walk.

There are certain aspects of city life in Cairo – the whir of traffic, the smell of great tureens of koshary and the cool night breeze off the Nile – that simply can’t be experienced in the back of a cab or on the Metro. So, when I feel like I need to feel the pulse of the city or when I just need to do some thinking, I walk home from the Nasser metro station to my apartment in Zamalek (**for previous misadventures about walking home, read my entry about getting lost in a slum in Calcutta trying to make my way home in July).

It’s about a half hour walk if I go quickly, and along the way I get to see the heart of the city. Emerging from the station I’m thrown out into several lanes of traffic. Minibuses dart out honking to patrons who run – and with one hand extended out – pull themselves into the buses as they speed away. Those trying to cross the street dodge and hustle their way through several lanes of traffic, under an overpass and onto the relative safety of the other side. No one stops for anyone; it’s the constant motion, the constant vibration of millions of individuals animated by the same force.

My usual strategy is to wait for an Egyptian to go and just follow. It’s like having a blocker. For me to go down, I know he’s got to go first…and for some reason that’s comforting.

I walk by children fighting, men smoking in coffee shops playing backgammon, shopkeepers reading the Qur’an, men wooing their hijabi girlfriends. I move in and out of traffic, avoiding the sidewalk which is always blocked off by some business or another.

I pass military checkpoint after military checkpoint, where both black clad officers inattentively mind their posts and white clad ones mumble into handsets.

Crossing the 26th of July Bridge the city comes into view. 5 star hotels crowd the waters edge of a placid Nile. It’s here that you can really feel the river’s breeze; the one thing that makes the Corniche bearable in the hot summer months. I pass a party boat where Western tourists, expats and a handful of Cairenes bump and grind to last year’s Rihanna hits.

Once I get to Zamalek, I know I’m close to home. Signs start to appear in English – and sometimes French – more than Arabic. Fast food joints like Hardee’s, Pizza Hut and Micky D’s line the road.

Luckily, though, the street youths are still chilling in the street chain-smoking. The shabaab are still being shabaab. I know I’m still in Egypt, even if they are wearing designer jeans.


In India, on the backs of trucks on on the sides of buildings were murals that proudly proclaimed “My India is great!”

Alternatively, in Egypt, painted above shops, scrawled in elevators and plastered on bumper stickers you’ll find Azkar Allah, remember God.

If we take graffiti to mirror national priorities and interests – and why not it’s probably more accurate than polling – it seems clear where Egypt’s heart lies.

But a return to religion, doesn’t necessarily mean fundamentalism, just like Indian patriotism doesn’t necessarily equate to jingoism. There are dangers to be sure, but let’s try to avoid the Fox News logic of religious Muslim = dangerous Muslim.

Nobody thought WWJD bracelets were a bad idea.

The other day one of my friends met a man named Flavian downtown. Flavian, of an ambiguous European ethnicity, was carrying a cat in a cage. My friend, who last week took in one of Cairo’s more emaciated street cats, was looking for a vet.

They had nothing in common, except they were both white and presumably both spoke English.

My friend: “Do you know where the closest vet is?”

Flavian: “Sure, follow me.”

Welcome to the Expat Fraternity.

Though not as much as in India, there is a certain measure of solidarity among all the Western expats in Cairo. The common experience – being far from home, getting consistently ripped off by cabbies – is enough to bond them. Many of them have been abroad so long that they don’t seem quite like they’re from their native country either. They’re caught precariously in some nether region of confused geography.

I’m not quite an expat, not by any stretch. I still know where I’m from, but there are times when I feel that so many things about America that are fading from my memory, so many smells, tastes and textures that I’ve forgotten.

I can even feel my English skills fading. There are times when an Arabic words seems much more appropriate, or even when I find myself – unconsciously, mind you – saying something horribly awkward in English that is a direct translation from its Arabic equivalent like, “I’m in the street coming.”

I met Flavian the other night at a dinner party. I never did figure out where he was from.

In Cairo, little kids celebrate the beginning of Ramadan by lighting firecrackers and throwing them into the often crowded streets. Like most expat lessons, I learned this one first hand.

It’s a relatively innocuous tradition,¬† but it’s a little disconcerting to have something unexpectedly explode only a few feet away from you.

My roommates and I – the aganib we are – instinctively jumped and let out a flurry of curse words that, despite the language barrier, gave the street’s shabaab reason to laugh.

And why not, especially considering that we blow up bigger and flashier things to celebrate America’s birthday.

That night we were in Khan Al-Khalili – Cairo’s famous¬† street market in the heart of Islamic Cairo where the European downtown meets medieval Old Cairo. And the narrow streets were alive, even more so than usual. We struggled to get past the crowds shopping for all of Ramadan’s necessities – dates for breaking the fast and apricots for making one of Egypt’s most famous traditional deserts, qamar ad-din.

It’s one of the paradoxes of Ramadan – a month of of fasting and self-sacrifice – that more effort is put into
eating and entertainment. And even though the imams my rail against them, all of the best and new TV programs come out during Ramadan, in a fashion that is far more intense than May Sweeps.

But there’s more to Ramadan nights than a spirit of relaxation. The faithful do actually offer extra prayers and it’s not uncommon to find people – from lowly laborers to black-suit-clad businessman – readings from the Qur’an as they sit waiting for the next subway train.

And in another Ramadan irony, the poor often eat better than they do the rest of the year, because free tables of food are put out on the sidewalk during the night for passers by.

Just like Kolkata, Cairo has a particular rhythm. It’s a crowded city, a dense jungle that seems chaotic and Darwinian on the surface, but at its core its a friendly city. It’s a place where people can legitimately claim to feel safe walking anywhere at night, a place where violent crime and robbery are rare.

All people here – both Egyptians and foreigners – will tell you that if someone robs you, all you need to do is yell harami, thief. Anyone in the street will stop the thief and wrestle him to the ground.

This sort of public justice is indicative of a level of good-humored attitude of coexistence that persists here despite the heat and the poverty, especially in Ramadan when you would expect hungry and thirsty Egyptians to be most on edge.