Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy
March 8, 2005 Back in Egypt.
I got back to Cairo on Sunday, and it felt like home. Iím staying at the Marriott this time, not the fancy Four Seasons. Not that the Marriott isnít fancy; itís a former palace, built for Empress Eugenie and her entourage when they visited Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Itís seen lots of different things since then, but in the 1950s (I think) it was converted to a hotel. The palace is on an island in the Nile, and was graced with gardens exception in their extent and grace, at least for this terribly crowded city. The conversion to a hotel
burned up some of that space, of course Ė to fit in two towers of guest rooms, a swimming pool, and a fitness center Ė but the Marriott gardens are still famed, and the cafť that stretches the length of the long palace wall is a gathering-place for gilded Cairene youngsters with their cellphones buzzing, expats here on business, and extended families with their Filipina nannies in tow. Sheltered from the clutter of the city streets, the air is almost fresh, and birds sing among the flowering shrubs and the gently waving fronds of the palm trees. I certainly canít complain about being here for six weeks.
Unlike the glitzy Four Seasons, the Marriott is in a real neighborhood, Zamalek, which I explored (and wrote about) one afternoon last summer. I feel like I fit in here. There are lots of foreigners, and lots of students both Egyptian and foreign. Lots of little shops, and lots of people who speak English or French. I donít feel so different in Zamalek. I headed out Sunday evening to pick up a few bottles of water, and didnít hesitate to walk into tiny shops where Iím sure no one speaks English. I didnít feel that anyone was watching me on the street, or that anyone saw me as an in appropriate outsider or a visitor to be taken advantage of. I donít care that I donít speak Arabic. Iím not afraid to try the few words I have in the shops, or to use sign language. Iím not afraid of getting ripped off on the prices. Even if I do, things arenít expensive. Even the expensive things Ė six pounds each for a pair of ripe cherimoyas Ė are pretty inexpensive. I couldnít get any cherimoyas in the US, itís okay to pay a dollar apiece. And they are exotic for here, I think, that is probably what they actually cost.
I could be part of this community. It even has a coffee house with no smoking and free wifi, where I think Iíll spend a good bit of my weekends. Cairo doesnít feel threatening any more, it feels friendly and comfortable. Iím glad to be here.
It rained last night. Iíve been in Egypt any number of times over the past twenty years, and I have never seen rain here before. Not just a few drips, la pluie des mangues, as they call it in Mali when it rains a bit in winter. It poured out there. There were shining puddles spattered with drops, streets gleaming in the dark. The riverís surface was dimpled with the pounding of the rain. Cars slowed down to enter a big puddle in the road below my hotel balcony. Perhaps people here donít know how to drive in the rain, as people in Washington canít drive in the snow. A few pedestrians seemed to be running as if they wanted to stay dry, but most people ignored it, enjoying the novelty of the soaking rain. Today the air feels washed and fresh, a total novelty for this horribly polluted city. Perhaps the rain has washed the soot and chemicals right out of the air and onto the ground Ė where it will eventually run into the river, making it even more toxic than it usually is. Well, itís a nice change, anyway.
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