March 17, 2012

My Hotel on the banks of the Nile Cairo

After a while, we came out onto the banks of the Nile. I must have made this journey from Cairo Airport to the center of the city over a hundred times, but for some reason I always marvel at how nothing seems to change. “It’s all just as it was,” I thought.

On The banks of the Nile River
The taxi passed the Nile Hotel, where I had reserved a room, but I purposely said nothing to the driver. When we reached the apartment of the police officer, he got out and, turning to me, pressed me to spend teatime with him. I replied that we would meet some other time, and with the word “Inshaalah” (May Allah protect you), I said good-bye to him. With an expansive gesture, he tapped me on the shoulder, confirming, “We’re firm friends now,” and then he left.
Experiences like this one came to govern all my feelings about this country. A little of the spirit of maareish is what has made it possible for me to remember Cairo with such pleasant memories.

Whether the spirits of Cairo were actually demanding my return will never be known, but it was completely by chance that I found myself in Cairo for the second time. I first visited Egypt in September, 1969, at the time of the coup d’etat in Libya. I was then chief of my newspaper’s New Delhi bureau, but had been assigned to cover the events in Libya, since the Cairo bureau chief was out of the country. I dropped everything and rushed to the Middle East to write about the incident.

When the coup was settled and my work in Libya completed, I headed back to New Delhi, stopping in Cairo for a few days. Thinking this was likely to be my only opportunity to visit Egypt, I played the part of the insatiable tourist, traveling everywhere and seeing all there was to see.

Nile River Map
But soon after my holiday in Cairo, to my astonishment and pleasure, I was sent to head our bureau there. Since my posting to Cairo, which lasted a little over three years, I have returned to Egypt a number of times. I suppose it would be true to say that it was my business to get to know life in the Middle East as well as I could. From the development of my career since 1969, it would in a sense be true to say that Colonel Gaddafi’s take over was a fateful event, not only for Libya, but also for me.

There is little real similarity between the Illinois town built at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and the Arabian city after which it was named. It seems that some American pioneers were reminded of the ancient Egyptian city on the Nile, its water running out into a delta, when they saw the place where the two great American rivers join together to form a watery fan. Apparently, on the basis of this superficial geographical resemblance, the American city was named Cairo. So other than the name itself and the fact that the cities stand beside wide rivers, there is no parallel to be drawn between Cairo, Illinois, and the original Cairo.

Banks of the Nile River

I think there are three things which impress themselves forcefully on the first-time visitor to Cairo a certain pungent odor, the dryness of the atmosphere and the noise.

Visitors arriving in Cairo by plane who are not used to the sounds and smells of the Middle East are likely to be struck by the heavy, cloying odor which permeates the airport buildings. It seems to be the smell of lamb, mixed with the odor of coconut oil.

Lamb is consumed in huge quantities in Egypt, as it is throughout the Arab world. So much so that the word “meat” is automatically assumed to mean “lamb.” At festival times, butchers’ stalls at the Ataba Bazaar sag under mountains of sheeps’ heads, brains, stomachs, offal and legs tied in bundles. Three-wheeled trucks laden with meat race through the streets of the capital. Driving around Cairo, I often found myself behind one of those vehicles piled high with whole carcasses of sheep. The heads would still be on and the eyes open. This could be most disconcerting, and I was frequently startled at the animate way those eyes stared at me.

Anyone who does not like the smell of mutton is bound to grimace on landing at Cairo Airport. But like it or not, this is one of the things most people recall about the city and that gives me the feeling of coming home, of really being back in Cairo.

The supreme dish to lamb gourmets is a whole roast, and the eyes are considered the greatest delicacy. Naturally, they go to the guest of honor. I had them presented to me once. I found them gristly and lacking in flavor until I bit into them. . . .

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