After the revolution, burnt out cars sun themselves on side streets under billboards advertising escapes and getaways to Paris, Milan, Barcelona, New York. On the entrance to the bridge that crosses the Nile, a woman – Egyptian, perhaps; Sudanese, perhaps; Ethiopian, perhaps – sits with blankets and her children spread out around her. She sells small packets of tissues for one Egyptian pound. Her young daughter, the only daughter old enough to speak, collects the money and says, “Thank you.”
A small boat floats on the Nile filled with teens. Music blasts from the boat. In the middle of the boat, a few teens are dancing. On the other side of the bridge, we have now moved on to Zamalek, a more prestigious zip code. Men sit by the Nile and read the morning paper and smoke cigarettes and drink tea.
As if in retaliation to this prestige, this luxury, this life of leisure; a concrete bridge support, close to where the readers lounge, has been christened a toilet by the less prestigious.
I'm mad...And that's a fact /I found out...Animals don't help / Animal think...They're pretty smart /Shit on the ground...See in the dark.
The celebration is over. The camels have all been slaughtered. Teenage boys hose down the makeshift animal pens around the city. Fragments, pieces - parts of skulls, the ears of a cow, the horns of a bull, the animal scalps - have been swept away. But if you look very hard what you think might be an old mop is the scalp of a sheep, or a ram, or a calf, an old smashed water bottle may in fact be a the partial skull of a goat. Donkeys are safe. They are used to pull the fruit carts. The blood covered streets are only a memory, a faint smell of blood and dung with the continual wafting of the exhaust from the Fiats, Fiats that should have run their course two or three decades ago.
Last night, from the balcony of my hotel room, nine stories up, I listened and at times watched the revelers below on Talaat Harb. Car horns honking; young men yelling; drum beating, clapping and singing and more clapping, intermittent fireworks – all of this went on until the wee hours for the holiday celebration. From my vantage point, in the opposite direction of the boisterousness, I could see cars congested inching their way to the downtown party, honking in frustration and celebration.
“Great party, isn’t it?”
Yesterday, I moved into the Grand Hotel. With its Outlook Hotel hallways and its authentic cage elevator that rattles from floor to floor like the rattling of chains, old glamour haunts this haunt. The place was built in 1939. Above me are rooms of suites only accessible by a circular staircase. In one of them, a specter Norma Desmond continually gets ready for her close-up. She is set to play Cleopatra. Mae West and Marlene Dietrich swap stories about roaring Cairo. Marlene has doubts that Mae West was ever here in those days. “But I am Little Egypt!” West proclaims. The current date is a misnomer to them.
Ghosts from the Chelsea drift over oceans to their new home here at the Grand. Edie Sedgwick and Candy Darling drink champagne and shoot speedballs. But then they come down and slip into the Cairo cool, the swing of the Nile, the bebop of the Funky Tut quartet. That energy, that undercurrent of art, misadventure, and larceny is here; it is all here in Cairo.
The only time the noise dies is in the early morning, when the bakers are baking their bread and the old men sit and drink tea. Shuttle busses rattle past.
Yesterday, I was wandering around, this time I was trying to find Concrete, a clothing store that supposedly sells nice Egyptian cotton dress shirts. Why am I always buying dress shirts? At this point, I think I have given away or left behind a few closets full of shirts in my meandering. That is okay. These days I travel light. Here today, Concrete tomorrow. As I walked along Mother Focus - not Hocus Pocus - by Focus played in my head. Thijs van Leer operatically over taking my mind.
Concrete, I had read a review - Egyptian cotton shirts, fine quality, not overly expensive. I typed the address into a maps application and perhaps found the vicinity but not a concrete (oops!) address. The address that I found I wrote down and asked the concierge at the front desk if he might know where Concrete is located. He suggested I take a taxi. It would be a ten-minute ride. I told him I would rather walk. He told me to walk down July 26th St. and cross the bridge to Zamalek. Once I got there I could ask specific directions. This was the cranky old man concierge, the one who can never be bothered. He was brusque and short to put it mildly.
Everyone is working an angle. I trust the policemen. They have minimal knowledge of English but that is okay. They can point me in the right direction. However, as soon as I got to Zamalek, I was sidetracked. I saw a billboard for hamburgers. There were two policeman standing talking to each other unoccupied.
Thus, I pointed to the sign and asked the nice policemen, “Where?”
The younger one shook my hand and pointed in the direction and said “Five.” He then continued to talk to me but I did not understand him. I just smiled. He told me his name. I did understand that. I told him my name. He did understand that. He introduced me to his older policemen friend who had one shifty eye. After our conversation of hand signs and hand jive, I headed for a hamburger. Within a few doors, I passed a pizzeria that had an authentic look to it. Maybe I would come back and eat here, I thought, if I did not find the hamburger.
As I walked, I passed the bookstore I had read about. This was all going very well. Not at all like the day before when I had tried to find the book market and wound up in a ghetto where I thought I might be beheaded.
This is what happened; I was off to find this market that had inadvertently become a huge market for books from all over the world. It had been touted as this grand thing, this book market to end all book markets. This was very exciting. I had never really been to something so vast, so exhaustive, so bookish.
Since I get up relatively early these days and had nothing better to do, I started out at 8:30 a.m. thinking that I would take a leisurely stroll and though the book market may not be open I would come back in the late afternoon once I had found it.
The walk was an estimated 30 minutes. This would be good exercise. The weather in the morning is perfect. I was all set to go. The directions were fine. I followed them and each landmark was as it should be until I got about half way there and that is when things started to go awry.
The directions were written in English, which was useless to policemen and others who could only read Arabic. I happened upon an automotive market that was absolutely not it but I thought maybe if I wandered along the road that was supposedly where the market was located I would come to it.
The market was next to a metro stop. I crossed a train bridge thinking the market was there. Maybe the road had a sister road on the other side of the train tracks. Since on my directions, the road was listed as Ahmed Helmy and I was on Ahmed Helmi. I crossed the tracks to find Ahmed Helmy, the sister road that did not exist.
Across the train bridge, I had truly wandered into a third world, a world of dirt roads and dirty children and old leering men, suspicious and grim. This slum wound like a maze. Now I had wandered into a place that was off the grid, hidden from view, a place where a knifing might go unnoticed for days, weeks, years. Trying to keep my composure, I thought at each opening there would be the market; there was not. I crossed back over the train bridge. At this point after an hour or more of tracing and retracing my steps, I had to decide if I should cut my losses and go back to the hotel or edge onward. I edged onward.
The market was by a park. In the distance, I saw an overpass and trees; that must be the park. I walked a kilometer or so. At this point, the sun was high in the sky. I was sweating in my linen blazer. I was thirsty. Books did not sound as wonderful as they had an hour or two before. At this point, I was absolutely less than bookish.
Then I came upon it, the market. I was overjoyed. There was the welcome sight of cheap plastic jewelry and atrocious knock-off leather belts. This made my heart leap. The books were here. They had to be.
Before I tackled the book browsing, I stopped at a little outdoor café. The place looked new and clean. Some of the chairs looked as if they had never been sat upon. There was a gleam to the place that made it shine like a diamond in manure.
A boy in a red uniform came to my table and took my order. I ordered a Pepsi. He brought my Pepsi and then went over to the corner of the building where his young co-worker friends were congregated. All of them peaked their heads out to get a better glimpse of me. This was much like the munchkins getting a glimpse of Dorothy and Toto for the first time.
Their curiosity was endearing. I called the boy over who had taken my order. I took a picture with him and with a man that I assumed was his father but then probably was not. Then I took a photo with the boy and all of his friends. A young man, older than the boy but younger than the father figure, asked me if I would like some tea. I was still drinking my Pepsi so I told him no thank you. He stood and talked to me for a bit. He had a friend in the US. He asked me if I spoke Arabic. He asked if this was the first time I was in Cairo. Realizing he did not sit because I had not asked him, I told him to sit. He did. We chatted and then I was curious about the book market.
“Is the book market here?” I pointed in the direction of closed stalls that dead-ended into Ahmed Helmi.
“Yeah, book market,” I confirmed, “Books, like this,” I pointed to my Moleskin.
“No,” he told me, “No books. Nothing here.”
“Nothing here?” I asked crestfallen.
“I am looking for the book market,” I told him. “I think it must be around here somewhere but I cannot find it.” I showed him the piece of paper where I had written the directions.
“No, no book market here,” he told me one more time as if I did not believe him the first time.
He then asked some of the other workers. He consulted two of the father figures. This naturally all took place in Arabic. I was not sure what was being said.
“I get taxi,” he said. “Taxi take you.”
We went out to Ahmed Helmi St. He hailed a taxi. I asked how much the taxi should be. He did not answer. I thanked him and got in. The taxi took off and did not turn on the meter. I asked him to turn on the meter. He was on the phone and ignored me. I thought he would turn on the meter once he got directions from the person to whom he was speaking. This was a ploy. Once we got to where the market supposedly was which was back near where I had found the automotive market, he stopped the cab.
I gave him a ten and got out of the taxi. He got out too and said “No, this,” and pointed to a twenty. I told him “No, Ten.” We stood there. I shook my head no. I knew I was being rooked. Although we were probably not standing there longer than a minute, this seemed like twenty minutes. I was not going to budge. He was not going to budge. He showed me a five. I gave him the additional five he demanded and preceded to the market at long last.
But neither was this the book market. This was an extension of the automotive market. On a muddy side street, a boy had a ram by the horns and was pulling the ram with all of his might. The boy was slightly bigger than the ram and the ram did not want to go. The ram planted its hooves and refused to budge. The boy pulled and pulled at the ram’s horns until the ram finally did budge. This happened every few steps. The ram did not want to go where the boy was taking it. This made quite a scene.
The sight of this lifted my spirits. There was plenty of daylight left and the markets really get going in the night anyway. I would go back to the hotel and regroup and reexamine my directions. Maybe I had made a blunder.
At the hotel, I realized that I could take the metro over to the book market. It is criminally cheap, less than 25 cents a ride. I found directions via the metro. The book market was supposedly at the exit of the Attaba stop. Finally I would see the book market. I rode the metro in anticipation thinking about all of the great books I was going to find, all of those strangely beautiful foreign editions of classic lit; a Moroccan edition of Catcher in the Rye or Naked Lunch perhaps, or a Algerian edition of a Gide or a Camus novel. The possibilities were uncountable.
The Attaba metro station is mad. I suddenly had flashbacks of the Shanghai North Railway Station. Oddly, it seemed like 1,000 other people were itching to go to the book market as well. The crowd was so thick at times that I thought I might faint. I calmed down and just let the crowd sweep me along. Everything was fine. I was floating and drifting and meditating and feeling up and over and high and feeling the low tones of the pull of the crowd and nothing mattered and then…
I had found it. I was absolutely ecstatic and incredibly anxious to start browsing. There was stall upon stall upon stall upon stall. I was in heaven until I visited stall upon stall upon stall upon stall and saw with disappointment where all of the John Grisham and Michael Crichton novels had come to die. On top of that, most of the books looked as if they had been kissed by a fair amount of rain and heat, slut lit of the desert sun. The book market can kiss my ass.
Here I should mention that when I had tried to walk to the book market, my directions were completely wrong and I had not even been anywhere in the vicinity of the book market. Thus everyone I asked either thought I was a lunatic or thought I was a, uh, lunatic. The really nice man at the outdoor café, in the end, was probably just trying to get rid of me since I would not let the idea of the book market being right there where he stood, I would not let that go.
So this time, I was off to find Concrete and a hamburger but I was not absolutely set on the hamburger after I had passed the pizzeria. At the same time, I realized I needed cash so I needed an ATM. ATM, Concrete, hamburger – these were on my list, my must haves.
At a corner, I asked a policeman. I showed him the piece of paper where the concierge had written the directions in Arabic. He pointed straight down the street where I was walking. I kept walking but then I saw a man sitting who looked slightly Bedouin, and a little slow as well after I had already approached him. He pointed up at the sky. Heavy. Then a young hip female crossed the street towards me and I asked her.
She pointed to a side street that I had just passed and said:
“Follow that street. The store is on the right.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” and I am almost certain that I bowed.
Halfway down the street was a store, a store that sold Egyptian cotton shirts but it was not Concrete and since the day was a holiday it was closed. That was okay. I was not disheartened this time. I had quickly become enamored with this pocket of Cairo. At this point, I was just in the mood to wander. Walking down the side street, I came upon two security guards who were clowning around with each other. The bigger one mussed the slighter ones hair. They did not notice me. At another point, I came upon a bunch of men in animal costumes dancing and beating drums. They wanted me to dance with them. They put a rabbit head on my head. We all laughed.
I never did find the hamburger place but that was fine because the pizzeria looked so appetizing. I headed that way. Halfway there, I ran into the shifty eyed cop. He asked me a few things but I was not sure what he was saying. I stood there for a moment wondering how to make my exit without seeming rude. Finally he said:
“Five pounds is enough.”
“You want me to give you five pounds?”
“No,” and with that I brushed past him and walked on into the pizzeria.
The pizzeria had the appearance of one of those places in the West Village, the ones that have been there since the 1940s ran by the same family, that have served the likes of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Chairman of the Board Sinatra.
One table was occupied. The rest of the place was empty. I sat at a three top positioned against a window. The waiter brought me a menu. I quickly chose the Napolitano and a Pepsi. The pizza was spectacular like authentic New York inspired thin crust pizza should be. The anchovies were pleasingly salty. I tasted the memory of New York.
When I finished, I asked the waiter if he knew where Concrete was located. He asked a couple of coworkers and they all agreed that I took two lefts and then from there walked straight down the street. Concrete was at the end of the street.
To be honest, even though they probably would know if anyone knew, I was still hesitant to believe them. I did what I was told and was even more skeptical when I found myself walking down a street that was just a glorified driveway for several huge apartment houses and the Indian Embassy.
Nevertheless, I kept walking. I probably walked half a kilometer and there it was – Concrete. Like Anthem, it stood like a monolith. Actually, no, I am kidding. It actually just looked like an old man store. It was closed. I headed back to the Grand Hotel. Maybe I would spot the ghosts of Dick and Liz playing dress up - Cleopatra and Mark Antony, George and Martha
“It's this habit you've got of chewing on your ice cubes like a cocker spaniel…”
When I came out onto July 26th Street where the pizzeria was located, I bumped into the younger cop who had had the nonsensical conversation with me when I first got to Zamalek. We talked again. Though I did not understand a word he said, I found him endearing. We continued our conversation of Arabic and nonsense. Then he said:
“You want me to give you five pounds?”
What was the deal? This mirrored the conversation I had just had a half hour or so before with his buddy before I walked into the pizzeria. Is everyone including the cops on the take? Were these guys even cops dressed in white with their black Cairo Police berets? This was an outrage.
“Okay,” I told him and I pulled out my wallet and gave him the five pounds.
But then that billboard, that billboard behind the after-the-revolution-burnt-out cars, maybe it is not advertising getaways to Paris, Milan, Barcelona, New York. Maybe, in fact, the billboard is an advertisement for a new Cairo, post-revolutionary. The grime of the revolution is upon us and then on us - and we love the liberation of the filth. We are all looking for the pay off, the big score, the payday. Cairo in its change is the same, looking for that payday in the renewal, in the rebirth.
And, we look for some hip song to fill the void, make the blanks less blank, to speak for us. Radiohead’s National Anthem swims into our collective heads, though this song has not been properly celebrated on the streets of Cairo; Mott the Hoople’s All the Way from Memphis gives Memphis a new meaning - less Mississippi, more Nile; lest we forget the Alice Cooper Group’s Elected, beheadings daily on Talaat Harb courtesy of the Coop; or Brian Eno’s Dead Finks Don’t Talk, for the afterglow and the solitude. Yes, all of these would be fine choices for Cairo’s theme song, Cairo’s new beginning. But the most fitting song, the undeniable best choice would have to be:
You always won, everytime you placed a bet
You're still damn good, no one's gotten to you yet
Everytime they were sure they had you caught
You were quicker than they thought
You'd just turn your back and walk…
And you're still the same…
No one standing in your way
Turning on the charm
Long enough to get you by
You're still the same
You still aim high.
That’s right, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s Still the Same blasts from the museums and mosques. Citizens rejoice!