Capturing Cairo

An influx of Western culture is found throughout the city

By: Allison Rost

It’s impossible to take a photograph that captures the essence of Cairo. Instead, Cairo’s character lies in the calls to prayer that reverberate down the street, the grit that gets under your fingernails and the shiver that goes down your spine when you realize that seemingly everyone in this bustling city is looking at you.

The livelihood of modern-day Egypt depends on tourists intent on seeing relics of a past civilization, but the city identifies itself more with the five pillars of Islam. Many women walk around with their heads covered, and anti-American sentiment is high.

We discovered, however, that we could enjoy Cairo even when we stuck out like sore thumbs. What we found was an odd mix of tradition and invading modern culture that typifies Egypt’s largest city.

Khan al-Khalili bazaar was a must-see experience the alleyways boil over with shouting merchants, sizzling delicacies and tacky tchotchkes. Bargaining is key, though it can be exhausting.

An underground pedestrian walkway links the main part of the Khan with a lesser-known adjunct near the el-Azhar Mosque there, stores carrying albums of Egyptian paper and linens with belly-dancing designs feature fixed prices.

El-Azhar is a formerly operational mosque that welcomes visitors as long as they remove their shoes, and women cover their heads (the operators also keep cloaks on hand to cover skimpy dress). The views of fantastical minarets and scalloped railings here are amazing, and there’s no cost except for a tip of an Egyptian pound or two to the employee who stashes your shoes.

In addition to the quintessential visits to the Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids in Giza, the most authentic Cairo activity is riding in cabs. There are no meters, so the price of a ride is up to the customer. But when you look Western, it can get complicated. If a cabbie immediately asks how much you’re willing to pay, get out and find someone else. We found it easier to locate honest cabbies a few blocks away from major tourist attractions, and those who spoke little English were less likely to scam.

Cabs definitely operate differently than in the Western world, but finding places to eat was a strange mix of both cultures. KFC and McDonald’s were prevalent everywhere including at the base of the Pyramids. Many places served American-style sandwiches and entrees, though we did sample the traditional Egyptian dish of kosheri, which consists of macaroni and rice topped with lentils and a tomato sauce. It’s cheap and worth a try.

One night, we went to the bar at the landmark Nile Hilton, and observed Latin Club Egypt giving entertaining lessons in rueda and salsa dancing to the well-heeled youth of Cairo.

We later headed to the Semiramis InterContinental Cairo to try out their nightclub, Rithmo. The margaritas were garnished with lemon slices but the American music felt familiar.

Finally, it was a bit of a surprise to find one of the better English bookstores we’d seen at home or abroad in Cairo. The American University of Cairo has a tranquil campus amid the dust and heat of downtown, and the bookstore provides even more of an oasis.



Nile Hilton
1113 Corniche El Nil
578-0444, 578-0666

Semiramis InterContinental
Entrance on Simon
Bolivar St.
Rithmo: Open 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

The American University in Cairo Main Bookstore
Hill House, First Floor. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday through Thursday.
Entrance on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.
797-5900, 797-5370

Cafe Tabasco
Dark, loud restaurant, with excellent cuisine and free Wi-Fi access.
18B El Maraashly St., Zamalek

American-style cafe opposite the American University of Cairo
31 Mohamed Mahmoud St.
792-4571, 792-4572

Web Exclusive: TRAVEL TIPS

The best word to keep in mind in Cairo is la. It means “no” in Arabic, and you’ll need it to ward off the scores of locals who approach you to ask for an Egyptian pound or two. Starting at the airport, when cabbies on commission from downtown hotels approach you, use it loudly. Use only the black-and-white taxis, and the tourist police will answer any questions that you have.

With the exchange rate of about 5.79 Egyptian pounds for each American dollar, it’s easy to get caught up in your buying power, but a little goes a long way. A 10-minute cab ride should cost no more than five pounds, but don’t give the money to your driver until after you get out of the car. Hand it through the window, and say “shukaran.” And walk away, no matter what they say.

Women will have fewer problems when traveling with a male companion, but as long as they dress conservatively (sleeves at three-quarter length, pants no shorter than Capris, nothing too tight) and refrain from looking men in the eye, they should be fine. Such dress won’t stop once-overs from Egyptians of either sex, but it should lessen the number of catcalls.