How do you know when you’ve reached the tourist district? My first clue on my recent arrival in Cairo was the first sign I saw in English after miles of Arabic. In huge letters across the top floor of a shop were the words, “Carpet City.” Next door proclaimed itself “Fair House.” Both, I’m ashamed to admit, struck me as funny because they matched my preconceptions about Cairo: 1) we’d be hustled for carpets; 2) those hustlers would be certain to offer us a “fair” price.
Our group parked ourselves at a hotel near the airport in Heliopolis after our long flight from the U.S. because we were planning to fly to Sharm el-Sheikh the next morning. When we drove into the city we saw block after block of uninspired apartment buildings, the kind of places called tenement apartments when I was growing up. All were reddish-brown to match the desert soil either by design or default, and puffs of dust blew down the wide boulevards as the bus made its way through noisy traffic.
Once we got checked in a few of us went for a neighborhood stroll to find something to eat. Crosswalks meant little so we joined the locals in challenging the speeding traffic, timing our bursts across the lanes so cars would only have to break hard rather than slam on them or run us over. In the first block we spotted a Starbucks and a Hardees, not exactly the local fare we had in mind. So we walked. And walked.
After several long blocks in the dusty wind we found not a single restaurant or café. Turning down a lane took us to a fruit and vegetable market where locals traded citrus and greens. A donkey stood immobile hitched to a cart, an apparent anachronism in a city full of speeding cars and satellite dishes.
We ended up making a big loop without finding a single place to eat until we got back to within a short block of the hotel, when we came upon a shawarma shop where the locals were getting their fast Egyptian food. A shawarma sandwich cost 7.50 Egyptian pounds, or about $1.50; a bowl of foul (beans) was about $.20. A huge serving of friend eggplant set back my friend Clark $1.50.
And it was all tasty. We dined well leaning against a wall outside, Egyptian dust swirling about us, marveling at our disoriented stroll and how we would have found sustenance within minutes had we turned left instead of right when we left the hotel. But then we would have missed our little adventure, of seeing a lot by seeing little of note, coming to know one corner of Cairo immersed in its modernity, while a stolid donkey took it all in.