Welcome to Cairo

Egypt
November 2008

“Welcome to Cairo, my friend. Where are you from?”

Everyone wants to be my friend: the cheerful taxi driver Geemy Cartur, Omar the noble university student from Aswan, people on the street. “Welcome to Cairo,” a toothless old man asks me downtown. “Where are you from?” He walks with me down the Talaat Harb, dapper in a gray suit. “May there be peace and friendship between Egypt and the USA,” he says, taking my arm. “May I show you my shop? Yes?”

Geemy Cartur is my friend, pointing out the sights on the drive from the airport. There was a row at the airport because I bypassed the taxi desk inside the terminal and went out on the street to find a cab. I had been warned the airport taxis will rip you off and take you to hotels you didn’t want. I got in a cab beyond the car park, but the man from the taxi desk ran out and shouted down the other driver, and I was made to change cabs. That’s how I ended up with Geemy. Geemy hands me his card with his name printed on it. “I love USA,” he tells me. He says he once lived in Arizona. “To go back to America is my dream.”

All along the streets of Heliopolis, men in dark glasses are stationed on the rooftops spying for Mubarak. Mubarak is due back from India today after a state visit. Soldiers in riot gear line both sides of the highway. More men in dark glasses stand on the street corners. They and their brethren watching from above are like the angels in Wings of Desire. Jimmy Carter once rode in this taxi, Geemy tells me. Jimmy Carter brought the peace. “Nasser was a crazy man — made war with Israel,” he says. “But Sadat brought peace. Mubarak brought peace.”

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Geemy gets lost on the way to Midan Opera. Do I mean the old opera or the new? There is more than one. The old one burned down. He winds at a crawl through the crush of cars on the downtown streets, beeps his horn and nudges into space, asks the next car for directions, lots of hands flailing and horns beeping, constantly beeping, a cacophony of beeps. We cross the Nile. We’ve gone too far, I say. It says so in the book. I show him the map. An honest mistake. He asks for more directions. He drives around in circles. We finally arrive in the right place. Standing in the street, beside a gas station, I offer a 10 pound (LE) tip on top of the fare and three U.S. dollars. Geemy berates me until I give him five dollars more. Geemy is not my friend.

“My friend, come look in my shop,” says the silver merchant in the Khan al-Khalili. He bids me inside his little shop. He is tall in his long, linen dubaya. Silver rings, silver cases. I am not the right customer. I get lost in the narrow passageways in the ancient marketplace, which is the point. North to the city walls, south through the food market.

“Do you know this person?” he asks me. “Your friend is not your friend.”Near the Citadel, the student Omar wants to practice his English. He’d like to show me his mosque. “I don’t want your money,” he assures me. He asks me where I’ve been in Cairo. I tell him it is my first day, but tomorrow I will go to the Pyramids with a friend from the hotel. “Do you know this person?” he asks me. “How long is he your friend? Many people say they are your friend. They will take your money. When you go to the Pyramids, go alone. Your friend is not your friend.”

Omar and I walk past some ruins. There was an earthquake in 1992, he explains. It killed children and destroyed a mosque and a Coptic church. Mubarak decided there would be a fund, part for the children of the mosque, part for the Coptic children. “When you enter the mosque, put forty geneh in the box for the children,” Omar instructs me. “Don’t give it to the attendant. Give forty to the attendant to climb the minaret. See a view of the pyramids.” For the poor children, Mubarak set up a fund. “How is my English now?” Omar asks. “I grew up in Aswan. I am studying to be a teacher, at the American University. Do you remember what I said? Eighty-eighty. Do not give the money to the attendant. You put it in the box. You have no change, put one hundred in the box. Then one hundred for the minaret.” We are in the middle of the prayer hall now; the old attendant is watching. There are people inside. I’m starting to protest. “It’s for the children,” Omar assures me. “Think of the children. … Then one hundred for me. I’m getting married.” Your friend is not your friend.

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The Citadel

“My friend, may I show you? Come closer and see. You can climb up.” At the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, a haggard soldier follows me around, a submachine gun slung over his shoulder. He offers me phosphorous crystals he found on the ground. I won’t take them. He asks me to change two U.S. dollars to Egyptian money. I offer him 10LE, which is closer to the exchange rate, but he looks at me with a dead, stupid stare.

I move closer to the youths from Hamburg who I drove in with, and the soldier hovers back a while, then gives up and moves on. “It’s annoying, the baksheesh,” says Melanie from Hamburg. Touring Dahshur and Saqqara today, Melanie and I and her friends Brian, Peter, and Lukas, have made a pact. We have decided we are from Iceland. When they ask, we say we’re from Iceland. “May there be peace and friendship between Egypt and Iceland,” a man in the fruit market downtown says later that day. I don’t think he believes we’re from Iceland.

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