What exactly were our expectations of Egypt? The only "background" we had before coming here was based on our history lessons at school (20 years ago), on what the current media in Europe state about the security and political situation in the country, and on the touristy picture with diving, Hurghada and harassment of female European tourists by Egyptian men. All in all, this image was rather square till negative!
Our arrival in Cairo is unexpectedly quiet and unagitated: we arrive at a nearly deserted airport, all the people we meet are extremely friendly and our luggage is not checked by anybody (not at all!).
During the taxi ride to our friend's place in New Cairo, we experience the Egyptian traffic for the first time. The roads are cramped-full of cars, everything is very fast and accompanied by a cacophony of car horns which has no equal. Ghost drivers are rather normal, any speed limits are adjusted to the current circumstances, scratches and dents in cars are not stressing anybody. Still, it seems that traffic-aggressivity only seems to play a rather minor part, if any at all. Everything is based on some kind of secret and mysterious choreography, cars are navigated by sight and ears, and honking is communication instead of it being a way to express irritation and anger. How will we succeed here in this traffic-chaos when we have our Land Rover back!?
On our first afternoon excursion to the basar Khan en-Khalili in the old quarters of Cairo, apparently the largest basar in the complete Middle East (I thought we were in Africa?) we wander mightily impressed through the labyrinth of small and even smaller lanes, the kid's eyes getting bigger and bigger being so very impressed by the wonders of 1001 nights around them.
We are amazed that the majority of the people around us are Egyptians and not tourists. Of course, we are constantly being approached by dealers and bargainers waiting for customers in front of their shops. However, they are friendly and polite without any exception and their "intrusiveness" is more than comprehensible in a country in which rather suddenly 75% of all tourists have stopped away. Every hard-earned Egyptian Pound secures the survival of families ... for another day, for how long howsoever! But after a "No, Thanks!" from us, the reaction nearly always is "Welcome to Egypt!".
In the café which for sure did not look so much different in the old Ottoman times, we indulge in fresh mango juice, coffee, houmous, falafel and delicious deserts - we don't miss alcohol at all!
Sóley has been wanting to go to a mosque for ages, so we also include this into our tour even though it has darkened by now. Mischa and Sóley go into the men's part and Juliane and Anouk into the part reserved for women. While we are trying to organise ourselves, Sóley suddenly gets lost ... and an Egyptian lady straightaway brings her back, who seems to be reminding me as a father that I should take care of my children. Juliane asks a young woman in the street to show her how to put on the headscarf properly and on we go! In the men's part it is very quiet and Mischa and Sóley sit down on the carpeted floor next to one of the mighty pillars that support the roof to take in this impressively vast prayer room. There is a peaceful silence around which "sounds" like learning, meditation and philosophical conversation instead of ringing from religious agitation. Juliane at first has problems getting into the women's part because she doesn't have any money on her for the people who take care of the shoes. After a small anteroom they enter a room, half used by men and half by women which is very loud and crowded. In the middle is a cubical cross-barred "thing" at which the people seem to be praying. In spite of that, mothers sit on the floor chatting into their mobile phones with their kids playing around them. One lady hands out sweets to everybody. It is loud, bustling, crowded, there is a lot of gossiping. Back on the way out, Juliane has to stand in line to get her shoes back. When the old guy there finds out that she doesn't have any money to pay him, she is being snarled at by him in Arabic with a gloomy look on his face. Only when she is able to answer in English ("My husband has the money!") the reply is "Ferenji" ("foreigner") and a young man lets her go out.
Without the headscarf Juliane has eye-contact and people on the street address her, pay compliments and want to sell things. But here and there some men go beyond what's acceptable, such as the barber, who tries to steal a kiss from Juliane. But these experiences are rather rare! Wearing a headscarf, Juliane has less eye contacts, is less addressed at ... it is just a bit like a magic hood. She says that it is actually rather relaxed wearing a headscarf, because she can observe more and has to react less to other people.
During our excursions to different districts, always first by taxi and then on foot, we incidentally experience the Egyptian police as being xtremely friendly and obliging. Sometimes it is a small smile or a friendly "Salam", which regularly conjures a smile on their faces. Everybody seems to be liking our kids.
In front of the old synagogue of Cairo in direct neighborhood of mosques and ancient churches, we stop and get into a conversation with two policemen. We take photos of each other and the uniform hats are being put on the kids' heads. We drink tea together. Apart from the friendliness of the people we here realize that Egypt is looking down on a long Jewish and Christian tradition in addition to it being a Muslim country.
Maybe, the old Egypt was the first country in which Christianity gained a foothold in roundabout 50 A.D. Today, still about 10% of the population are members of the different Christian churches. Open hostility we don't witness anywhere but we only have been here for a very short while!
The view of the city is as diverse as it's inhabitants: there are extremely dirty places and very clean and tidy ones next to each other. Ancient, sometimes ruined buildings alternate with glittering shopping malls which appear to be European. Next to beautifully ornated mosques we see Roman ruins.
The people here live tightly packed, or - just like we do at the moment - in the cordoned off and guarded "compound". We notice that a large number of houses remain unfinished, which is because on the one hand, a man has to build a house before he is allowed to marry to show that he is able to provide a home for his future family (otherwise there is no wedding!), and on the other hand nobody here is paying off debts for a house but goes on completing it whenever there is the money for the next steps. People invest in real estate instead of putting the money on the bank.
We are captured by the diversity of this city and by the cheerful-friendly slyness of the people. Because of this it is not that terrible that we will have to wait for some more days until we will get our Land Rover out of customs in Alexandria.