“When we lived there, I always thought of it as four or five different places at once—a great, infuriating, ramshackle, remarkable city, set superbly on the Nile. For centuries, it had been the citadel of Islamic learning and thought—enlightened, civilized, yet secular and chic. It is also violent, vigorous and vivid. It assaults you every day.” Mary Anne Weaver, of The New Yorker, wrote these words in the late ’90s. They still apply today and probably have for decades.
Cairo is a metropolis where Arab princesses come to shop and where students may camp out on grave sites in the City of the Dead for the duration of their university careers. Beneath the ancient pyramids, camel drivers gather to sip tea and talk on their cell phones. In the alleys of the famous Khan el-Khalili bazaar, you see women in black burkas bustling past teahouses filled with Cairenes in the latest fashions, the men and women smoking shisha pipes between courses. The World Bank estimates that 40 percent of the country’s population lives beneath or just above the poverty line of $2 a day, so entire neighborhoods survive on trash collection and communities have lived on grave sites for decades. In Cairo the modern world coexists with the ancient just as extravagant lifestyles exist alongside severely impoverished ones, and professional women share the female-only subway cars with an increasing number of figures who are veiled or completely cloaked except for their eyes.
Lining the main boulevards are flags and billboards bearing images of President Hosni Mubarak in dark sunglasses, a constant reminder of the man who has ruled with emergency powers since Mubarak assumed the presidency, in 1981. The emergency laws restrict press freedom and civil liberties, empowering police to detain suspects without charging them. The government’s repression, torture and corruption are well-documented, as is its ineptitude in dealing with social services: this autumn, after a cliff collapsed on a neighborhood, flattening apartment buildings, rescue teams did not arrive for six hours. The tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of Muslims between those who hope to establish a secular society in the Middle East and those who lobby for a religious state plays out daily in neighborhoods, cafés and schools around the country. On one side is Mubarak, who controls the army; on the other are the imams and young militants, who have the advantage of living among and understanding the masses. The outcome will have enormous global consequences.
View our suggested reading list for travelers to Egypt.
Read a member’s postcard on traveling off the tourist’s path in Egypt
Read a member’s postcard about a family trip to Africa, including time in Egypt
Read a member’s postcard about a family trip to Israel and Egypt
See What’s New for a selection of articles on Cairo for further reading.
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