The City of a Thousand Minarets

There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.
—Robert Louis Stevenson


We waited morbidly in
the Seven Heaven lounge, morbid because we were finally about to leave after a three week stay, and because the road to Cairo put us one step closer to inevitable separation.

My arm still hurt from Richie of New Zealand's Tae Kwon Do twist. The lanky second-degree blackbelt, third in the world in the senior division before he discovered alcohol, had been drunk when he showed me some holds. He taught English in Leipzig and regularly patroned the English pub there for rugby matches up until a few months ago, when he came to Dahab and got a job in the Seven Heaven dive shop.

“Glory?” scoffed the Kiwi, swinging his leg around in the air to show a power move. “There's no such thing as glory. It's all ego, mate.”

While Jean attended his Facebook, Amelia and I listened to a wild tale from Maria of Denmark, which I will here relate. Maria first arrived in Dahab four months before, for a short beach vacation to precede her Arabic course in Alexandria, with a glowing Norwegian girl in tow. They met a Kiwi with an Egyptian friend, and the four of them went together to one of the cafes on the esplanade for drinks. After, the Norwegian girl rose to freshen up; the Egyptian got up moments later, to make sure she found the bathroom; and when the girl returned, it was with a disheveled outfit and a tortured countenance.

“He tried to rape me,” she said. The Egyptian had pushed her into a stall and pulled at her clothes, but the Norwegian pushed free and did not know what to do. Maria and the Kiwi started walking the girl back to the hotel, and the Kiwi worked himself into a fury at his acquaintance until he said, “I'm going to knock him out,” and turned back towards the restaurant. The Scandinavians continued on to the hotel, and Norway broke down in the courtyard, sobbing and screaming. Maria lay her down on the bed, and Norway would sleep and wake and scream and sleep again.

They called a doctor, who ruffled his robe very officiously and said, “She needs to be told to calm down, that everything will be okay.” Maria shouted, “No, she doesn't! Give her something!” then shouted, “What are you giving her?” and took morphine and vicodin out of the prescribed cocktail. When the girl was asleep, Maria went to find out about the Kiwi, who had laid out the Egyptian on the floor of the cafe and made their case look very silly.

The next morning at 9, Maria and Norway went to the police station. They sat around all day doing paperwork and describing the event. “They don't know what they're talking about,” said the policemen. “I can understand you!” said Maria in Arabic. “Oh, well, I was talking about someone else.” The girls identified the accused local face to face and left the station at 11 that night. A trial date was set for a few days later.

In the following days, people came up to them, strangers in the streets and in restaurants, staff at their hotel, and said, “Sign the peace treaty.” “The what?” “Sign the peace treaty. He is a young man. He has a sick mother and a family. Who will take care of his children if he is in prison. Sign the peace treaty!” “It's not our fault he did what he did,” said the girls. “He knew what the consequences would be when he tried to commit the crime.”

But the Scandinavians asked about this peace treaty and could not get a straight answer. The police said it would call off the trial and put the Egyptian in jail for three months. Locals said it would save his family from poverty. Finally, a hotel manager told them, “No, if you sign the treaty, it will cancel all charges. He will go free. And, he will be able to take you to court for all the money he lost not working while the police held him.”

On learning this, the Norwegian decided not to sign the treaty, yet her problems had not ended. In the courtroom, the defense attorneys asked her every sort of question about the bathroom. How many stalls were there? What color was the door, and what did the sink look like? Ad nauseum. Any mistakes in descriptions were duly noted. (“Jesus,” said Amelia. “I'm going to start keeping track of everything when I go to the bathroom.” “I already do,” said Maria.) The Egyptian paraded his family around and begged for mercy, on his mother's behalf.

Nevertheless, after a long and trying process, the man was sentenced to a few months in jail—justice served against horrifying odds.

We got in at 7, and a hastily arranged taxi took us past new mosques and hotels and through an ancient cemetery of desiccated domes, like some ruined city in India. The streets were silent, but the driver warned that in an hour they would be full. He dropped us off at the Ismaelia House, a hotel on the eighth floor of a building across Midan Tahrir from the American University of Cairo and within sight of the pink palace of the Egyptian Museum, abutting the Nile. The rickety free-hanging elevator spilled us out, and we met Yashar, who had recommended the place and was on his last day there, checked into the gender-segregated dorm rooms, and looked out at the city from a balcony.

Cairo has a thousand minarets. It's rooftops, bedecked with rubble and old furniture and satellite dishes and billboards, recede into the smoggy infinite like the waves of the sea. The stale, cracked tan, the colonial craftsmanship, and the Islamic artistry of its buildings gives the impression of some artifact purchased in a far off port of call and left to gather dust on grandfather's shelf—something of inner beauty, exotic mystique, and tacky ugliness.

It toiled to life like a newborn. Immediately below our balcony, a ful stand and a felafel one served their fare to Egyptians who stood eating around tables between the cars parked in the alley. The felafel came in newspaper, the ful in metal bowls. People boiled out of the buildings, and the streets became like arteries. The flow of traffic generated a consistent blare of horns, used on Cairo's lawless streets like reverse sonar, to let everyone else know where you were. The cries of humanity drown you, and the songs of the minarets are beautiful, for only the best can sing here. Otherwise it would be a constant drone.

Amelia fell asleep in a curl on the couch, Yashar had business at the post office and train station, and Jean and I ventured out into the young and polluted sunlight. We asked at the American University for TEFL courses and walked up streets north of the Museum. We saw strange things: troves of old Peugeots, motorbikes with side cars, a camel tied up between the fruit stalls and those selling old Iraqi banknotes and loudspeakers and other random things; boats parked in the street, a synagogue under guard, a basilica under construction; and always that constant press of humanity, which by its multitudinous activity diminishes the individual. I felt as if I was moving in slow motion, and all the trackless others at full speed. It was strange and surprising and exhaustive.

In Cairo, 20 million people need jobs to support them. Walk into an empty bakery in the early morning and see a mass of employed inefficiency. Behind each dish of sweets and savories stands an attendant, and in between them a man takes payment and gives you a token to be redeemed by the server two feet away. Finally, a woman stands by the door, with the sole duty of opening it for you. They earn nothing and are expendable. They are Cairenes.

We found our way back to Ismailia House and woke Amelia, who came with us to the street food stalls for lunch. Egyptians are generally a warm, energetic, friendly people, as extroverted as they are self-conscious. Outside of the country's many tourist trips, where touts sharpen their fangs on the bones of a globetrotters, the locals help you for nothing and crowd about you as they would a marvel. Few tourists travel Egypt on their own, and those who do are rewarded.

Amelia rode with us on the Metro, south to Mar Girgis, and not on the woman's carriage. We arrived in the Coptic Quarter and went into the wide courts of St. George's Cathedral. “This is not what I expected to see on my first day in Cairo,” said Amelia. Greek lettering and candles marked the Orthodox icons. Beneath the chapel were relics of George's torture. A little girl was wrapped up in his chains and asleep. Some of the tombs in the somber Coptic cemetery were broken, and we wondered if it was grave-robbers.

In the maze behind the cathedral, we went into the Church of St. Sergius, its ceiling built like Noah's Ark. The synagogue had a metal detector at the door, and the guard asked, “Do you have any bombs?” The Hanging Church is the holiest Coptic site—a shrine built on two pillars without a foundation, on one of the resting places of the Holy Family in their flight from Herod.

Leaving the walls of Old Cairo we went up into the warren between it and our House. Children playing football kicked the ball our way and mobbed us. They were only ten but sweet talked Amelia—“You are beautiful. Take off your glasses. Oh! Your eyes!” The streets were made of dust, and from up ahead came a thump of bass and music. A group of Egyptians were loading suitcases onto trucks and dancing.

Women howled when they saw us. Jean started recording wildly on his camcorder, and a boy came up to Amelia and I and rubbed a stick on his finger. When I did not understand, he grabbed me and took me back into a red room with an open wall and two billiards tables and a dozen boys. They challenged me to pool, and I am grateful that Jean showed up since otherwise we wouldn't have won. Everyone clapped and cried out at the click of the billiard balls. An old fat man came in near the end and started shouting at the boys, who backed away from the table to give us room.

When we won, they cried, “Money, money, money!” with hands outstretched, and we left through the gaping wall. We kept on north through the slums, up through a wall and onto the busy river of a highway, crossed like in Frogger, then back down through another wall into a new ghetto of auto-repair shops and markets. The meat market stretched before us, for miles. Let me describe it:

Herds of sheep waited for the slaughter behind the dead, stripped corpses of their brothers. They wear painted marks on their backs. Cows were tied to the posts of fences. Id al-Adha was four days away, and everyone needed a sacrifice. They loaded sheep into the backs of trucks or cars or taxis. How much does fare for a sheep cost? we wondered. We navigated the stalls, stepped over the puddles of dubious providence, avoided the constant traffic of cars and people—sometimes missing an accident by the twist of an ankle away from crushing wheels, the swivel of hips from a scything side mirror—and gazed in gruesome wonder.

There were lines of carts, and each held a different body part in a pile: camel legs, cow livers, sheep heads, anything you could think of. Some stalls were set up like circus tents, all bright colors and lights and mutilation. One had an announcer on a wooden stage, and he shouted, “Hey! Hey! America!” when he saw us. Someone in black pushed his way past us, with a train of stick-wielding vigilantes in hot pursuit. There was a fight ahead. Amelia and I kept losing Jean, who was taking too many photos. We found, at length, a subway, and pressed into it like sardines to get home.

Yashar was asleep on a couch when we got back. Cairo is exhaustive, but he loved the city. He described it as “a constant heart-attack” and a “28-hour a day city.” Amelia went to bed, and Jean and I went with Yashar to Felfela, a popular Egyptian restaurant with a sit-down area for foreigners and tourists and a fast-food standing area for locals, which costs half as much. Yashar entertained us with energetic stories, as Jean ate chicken and I stuffed pigeon. Yashar left that night for two days in Luxor and two in Aswan, and then he would return and go with us into the Western Desert. Alright, we said.

After Yashar had boarded the metro to the train station, we met Daniel of Perth in the hotel and settled for tea and shisha at a place on the side of the street. The Aussie had come to Cairo from Dahab the same night as us, but because he had not bought his ticket beforehand, he had to more or less bribe his way onto the 1:30 bus, to the seat next to the driver. He had seen the Pyramids and the Souq and would fly home the next day. It was the penultimate day of a year-long trip, a fact his mind was just beginning to understand. Since Amelia was not there, we talked about helicopter blades and George Lucas.

We slept in the next day, and set off late to visit the oldest Islamic districts and the Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar. Our cab let us off outside the Al-Azhar Mosque, one of the open enclaves of clear-headed tranquility in cluttered Cairo.

The caretaker of the mosque, a compact and energetic-looking man, asked us where we were from. “France.” “Australia.” “Germany.” “Ah,” he said. “Alemania! Come, Hans Christian. Good no Americans!” “I'm from America,” said a voice determined to be heard. “Oh, well, Obama?” “Yeah.” “Obama good, Bush bad,” said the Muezzin. He mimed spitting on the floor of his mosque. An earthquake had come close to destroying the building in the last decade; many countries donated money for its restoration, but—“America does not. Iraq, Afghanistan!” He could not find the English words, so he mimed a sort of weapons, with spit for bullets.

The Muezzin gave some defensive religious books to Amelia, who had her scarf tied over her head. He gave a pamphlet in Chinese to Jean. When I tried to look, he pushed me apart and said, “They are for her!” He showed us the Madrasa for the blind and the tomb in the back, a service for which we refused to make donations, and so he sent us out with a curse: “No Americans come here! No Americans!” He refused to take his books back, but his anger echoed down the long stone galley as we put our shoes back on. I looked at Amelia's books on the stairs outside, but the Muezzin appeared like a goblin behind us and snatched them away. “No books!” he said. It was the first time in the Middle East anyone had treated me poorly for being American.

We crossed under the street and entered a medieval world. The roads twisted through narrow tinkling warrens of silver and goldsmiths and jewelers and watchmakers, through filthy side streets where pedestrians with bags or baskets of bread balanced on their heads walked across gaping holes on the exposed pipes, like the obscure remnants of some ancient empire in the midst of all those ancient customs and old buildings. We sat on seats against a mosque and drank tea as we watched them pass. Blacksmiths pounded on metal plates or ground hooka stems on wheels or welded in the street. Most of the work of stalls spilled into the road, so there was chaos.

The main artery from the southern gateway to the northern wall of the Souq was cobbled and lined with beautiful mosques, which at night lit up in mild and warm colors. They bear the names of heroes: An-Nasir Mohammed, Al-Hakim, Qalaun, and Al-Ghouri. Inside they were beautiful, and we listened to the muezzin sing the call to prayer. We ate in the streets, and I tried some strange desert of couscous and powdered sugar, a cousin of the rice pudding that Egypt loves.

We ate more in the new marketplace across from the Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar, where locals shop for clothes and car parts and meat and anything else they need. We bought oven-roasted yams from a street vendor and koshary cups from a cafe, and ate them on the steps of a huge mosque. We felt very anxious eating there, but an imam came out to offer us napkins and a rubbish bin. The taxi back to Ismaelia House took longer than walking. Woe to the Cairene drivers!

The next stop on our flash flood tour of the Land of the Nile was the Egyptian Museum, a pink-stained warehouse of antiquities near the river.

“Everyone says we should get a guide,” said Sven when we were standing in the courtyard the next morning, along with Jyunko, a hair-dresser from Tokyo. “It's a very confusing museum, and a guide is only one hundred pounds—that's twenty each,” he continued. A stunned silence! “Just look at their faces,” said Jean of Amelia and my phrenologies,—“They never spend money on anything, they're so cheap.” I apologized for the virtue of thriftiness, though inwardly I thanked it. Plenty is a wonderful word that can make life dull.

We wandered around looking at the old things. The artistry present in those rocks, from an age when the Greeks and Romans and Europeans yet dwelled in huts and caves, had Jean speaking of alien origins. Jean and Sven paid 200 extra pounds to see the mummies of Rameses II and other heroes, and Amelia, Jyunko, and I went around to see the gold of Tutankhamen and the wonders of his tomb.

Waiting outside for our friends, Amelia bet me that Jean would come out raving about the mummies, and I bet that he would be disappointed because of the heavy cost—a Pyrrhic victory brings no joy to the general! We bet a hand massage, (Jean once had a Colombian girlfriend who taught him, among other things, the means of massaging hands and heads; Jean showed these techniques to Amelia, who taught them to me) which is a better bet than money or the slap-bets described by Daniel of Perth. “It has to be the first words out of his mouth, though,” said Amelia.

Jean's first words: “Yeah, it was awesome. You would have been disappointed, though.” It was contestable, but I agreed to pay up in the end.

On our way to Felfela for koshary, we ran into Bernard of Amsterdam, the Dutch troubadour. He was a skinny young man of Nordic features with a wispy goatee and long hair who had been sick when we left him in Dahab and now looked better, though exhausted as could be expected after a day spent seeing the Pyramids and the Museum. Like Daniel, Bernard had only one day in Cairo.

Jean, Sven, and I met him later under our building to get tea and shisha. We grabbed some more rice pudding at Felfela, picked up a South African from Praetoria who was there by himself, then went up to the Tawfiqiyya Souq, which deals in produce and auto parts. We turned left into the first alley, stepped over a pile of cabbages, passed two cows, and found the Sun Restaurant exactly where Yashar had told us it would be. It was a high old building wedged back in a narrow alley, strung with lights and neon, and looked something like a medieval tavern or a western saloon.

We talked about travel, which could sometimes be dangerous, as Maria's story certifies, “but you're from South Africa,” I said to the Afrikaner,—“you must have some crazy stories.” Well, he had once been the victim of a gas attack. The burglars had pumped gas through his open window to knock him out, and he woke up on a bare mattress in an empty apartment.

Bernard had to leave the next day, and we told him, “It must suck to go back.”

“Nah,” said the Dutchman. “I have a girlfriend waiting for me, and an okay job. All my friends are there. I wrote a lot of songs while traveling, and I want to try and publish a CD. Life is good.”

“Yeah, I like to travel and all,” said Jean, “but Paris is my home. I have friends there. We’ve been friends for twenty years, some of them. It’s good to see the world, but I want to have, you know, connections.”

“Roots,” said I, I who have traveled but never come home from it.

“Yeah, exactly. It’s important to have roots. Otherwise, what’s the point? It’s okay to travel for a few months, even two years, maybe, but all these people who travel for five, ten years—what do they have to go back to? Their friends have moved on. They can't keep in contact for that long.”

Denniz arrived that night, Yashar's Danish friend, exhausted after seeing the sunrise on Sinai and leaving Rachel at the border at sunset. His father was a Turk and an exiled communist, who received Swiss, German, and Danish asylum and visas when he showed his own wanted poster to those countries. He fell asleep drunk on a train with some Germans and woke up in the capital of the latter. Soon he met a Danish communista, and soon after Denniz was born. His name means Sea, and his middle name, Göl, means Leg.

As a boy his big ears and wide face earned him a spot in a Danish television ad for frozen chicken. There he was, in the midst of a family enjoying their dinner. He put his glass down on the end of his fork, which catapulted a piece of chicken cradled on the other end straight out the window. The father rose from his seat and dove out the window to grab it. You cannot waste good food!

The Turkish Republic forgave his father's opinions a few years ago, permitting the family to visit and buy property. Denniz's grandfather is a content old man who spends his time gardening and cooking at their home on the coast near Izmir. Then the road called Denniz, and he quit a good job at a sports channel, left his slowcore band, the Lightning Choir, and came to Eastern Turkey for a real world education in photography, which lasted through Syria, Jordan, and Israel.

He came with us the next day to see the greatest funeral cairns mankind ever constructed, the oldest and the last standing wonders of the ancient world. Getting there was an ordeal, and the three monstrous stone stacks popped out of the morning smog between buildings to surprise us. From the bus stop we approached them up a long road, past a golf course and tourist shops and a hundred camel touts, and through a ticketed gateway. This opened on the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which stepped up to the sky. Perspective made it look smaller up close than it really was, and still we marveled at it.

People swarmed around it and up the steps to the tomb's entrance, but we had not paid for tickets. Stray dogs or Bedouin had shat on the pyramid steps, and they slouched around staring with carnivorous intent at the globetrotters that passed, carrion already. In truth, the hassle was not as bad as you might hear, the crowds much smaller than we expected.

We circled Khufu's Pyramid and the outlying buildings and came to that of Khafre, for which some of us had bought tickets. The ramp led down and straight and back up into a bare and humid chamber with a slanted roof, carved from a single stone. All about the Sphynx that Khafre built, with leftover stone from his cairn, Russian tourists posed as boxers or heavy lifters, and Jean and I joined them in parody—but who can tell the satires from the enthusiasts?

The third Pyramid belonged to Menkaure and was the smallest, though its lower levels were sheathed in unworn granite blocks. Walking through the debris surrounding Menkaure's tomb, we talked about the aliens that built the structures of Egypt.

“Come on,” said Jean. “Everyone else in the world was building huts and living in caves, and these guys had high art. And look at that: does that look like anything from Earth?”

We crossed a Saharan plain to the sunset panorama, but before the orb had dropped, the policemen informed us that the park was closing early. Denniz checked his calculator watch—the Danish are a nation of niche-dwellers, and Denniz had that timepiece and a vinyl collection—and told us it was only four—but tomorrow was Id al-Adha, so this was like Christmas Eve. The vendors had already packed up their stalls, and all the tourists were gone. We were the last, guided by two police on camels and by a stray dog who took the lead and growled at other strays, and we left singing national anthems: mournful Denmark, bloody France, proud America, and quaint Australia.

That day, I must add, was Thanksgiving, and although such a holiday is not celebrated in Australia, France, Germany, or Denmark, we all celebrated it together. A cart out front sold us yams hot from the oven, and at a restaurant we ordered a feast as close to Thanksgiving as you can get: chicken, salads, fries, spiced tomato slices, tahini sauce, and Arab flatbread. Everyone had something to be thankful for, and I did not feel lonely, even on the other side of the world from where I had always been.

After we had shisha in an alleyway place called Zahred al-Bustan, when we were watching television in the House, my parents called Amelia's Egyptian number; it was the first time I'd talked to them in a long time—forgive an ungrateful son! I am thankful for your safety and support.

The feast of Id al-Adha marks the beginning of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Good Mohammedans celebrate with a pious feast, and piety requires that the animals be freshly slaughtered. Well off families buy their own goats and sheep and take them home, and wealthier ones send cows into the slums while feasting on delicate kid. So many people, so much meat—the streets run red with blood!

The Turks call it Kurban Bayram, and it is something my friends in Istanbul despise. It colors Istanbul as crimson as the day the Turks took it. Turks in Deutschland carry out their sacrifices in secret, jetting blood into bathtubs and showers to keep the German streets clean and lifeless.

We wished to see some carnage. “I want to see a cow killed,” said Denniz, his Nikon at the ready. A subway took us to the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque, near the meat market and the slums we had explored on our first day in Cairo. The streets were already so stained we feared we had missed the show, but in an alleyway we saw a commotion. A pack of Cairenes were gathered around a convulsing cow with an open neck. Blood pooled around it, and a man hosed everything down. Its rear was brown with feces.

“Allah akbar,” came the gratitude! The crowd was ravenous and ecstatic. The men watched intently, the children in horror, the women out of duty. One girl in a hijab explained the ritual to us, and told us its meaning.

A butcher stood apart from the crowd, near a truck that held two more doltish beasts, chattel for his knives. He wore a white smock stained red, and a belt with a half dozen blades. Six men helped to pull a new beast out from the truck and into the street next to the fallen one. They tied its legs, though it kicked at the thongs, and pushed it spasming onto the ground. Six leaned over it. The butcher drew his poniard and cut the leash. The six held it down and pulled the head back, and the butcher had a machete. He slashed the blade across the throat, quick as a cobra, and blood sprayed across the thrashing flank.

“Allah akbar,” screamed the women. Children shivered and clung to parents, and some looked ready to cry.

The butcher emerged from the pack. He had blood splattered down his smock and across his feral face, and he rinsed it from his mouth at a spigot on the wall and spat in a basin. He laughed, the hero of the day, and wiped his mouth on the gray wool robe of the man next to him. The man smiled, and the butcher laughed again and went back to get the chainsaw.

We left soon after. “Eid sayeed,” we said to those we passed. Sven bought a roasted yam from a street cart, but the rest of us were not very hungry. We retreated into the Mosque. Amelia found the women's section to be a kind of closet, but the men's area was a vast enclosure. The faithful were singing around the tomb of Sayyida Zeinab, and the muezzin handed us metal cups with a sweet sanguine drink that we all mistook initially for blood.

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