Sunday, February 21, 2010


From CN Traveler, an article about Cairo that was more fascinating than I had expected:

Cairo's strata are psychological as well as physical, as exhausting as they are inspiring. Merely to cross the crowded streets requires patience, daring, and a sense of humor. For Egyptians, the trials of daily life are complicated by the need to create a personal identity from the crumbling past and half-constructed present amid centrifugal forces of secularism and religion, tradition and modernity, and the challenge of integrating a six-thousand-year-old culture with twenty-first-century technology. "We Egyptians are masters of compromise, which has always been the source of stability and tolerance," says the writer Alaa Al Aswany. But the increasing mood is of pessimism, claustrophobia, and economic frustration, which is chipping away at civility, friendliness, and family relations.

...West of the airport, near Ain Shams University, Zaytoun is far from the city center and the tourist trail. I took the Cairo Metro, a miracle of efficiency that circumvents the city's horrendous traffic, to see St. Virgin Mary's Church, whose central dome features a huge portrait of the Blessed Mother smiling soothingly down on pews of worshippers. From there, I walked to a covered market where Muslim fruit vendors and Christian fishmongers work side by side under hand-painted murals of buxom women while cassette players broadcast tinny recordings of Koranic recitation; the market is one of Cairo's most convivial, an example of the city's famous but now diminishing miracle of tolerance.

... The religious and the secular intersect in the sexy underwear souk that for years ran along Sharia Muski and continued on Sharia Al-Mu'izz Li-Din Allah, between the Madrassa of the Mamluk Sultan Al-Ghuri and the sabil-kuttab of Muhammad Ali. At first I found it shocking to see abaya-clad women fingering fire engine–red teddies with nipple cutouts near two of the holiest sites in Cairo—the mosques of Al-Azhar and Sayidna Hussein. Islam condones tender sexual pleasure between man and wife, however, and the market is patronized by brides shopping for trousseaux, though as one pushcart seller told me with a wink, "Not everyone who says she is a bride really is one."

... Cairo's rich and poor have always lived in proximity, and one of the capital's defining characteristics is fear of the mob. For all its famed stability, Cairo is spectacularly combustible. Just after Ramadan in 2006, after a movie theater unexpectedly canceled its regular Friday-afternoon showing, crowds of young men rampaged downtown, breaking shopwindows and chasing women to rip off their clothes and head scarves. The violent expression of boredom and sexual frustration shocked the nation, underscoring a generational shift—from people who had been teens in the first promise of Egypt's 1952 revolution, who view downtown with wistful pride, to restless youngsters who graduate with useless university degrees at the rate of two million per year and remain at home into their thirties, lacking jobs and the finances to get married. Political commentators lambasted the inability or unwillingness of the Cairo police to protect women from male harassment. Alaa Al Aswany complained in a newspaper editorial that Egyptian security focused too much on guarding political leaders and recommended that rather than shout, "Help," the most efficient way for a woman to get the attention of a policeman would be "to insult the president."

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