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Special Reports Last Updated: Jul 11th, 2007 - 01:23:28

Egypt, a vibrant land of contrasts and contradictions -- Part 2: Cairo and Alexandria
By Bev Conover
Online Journal Editor & Publisher

Jun 5, 2007, 01:12

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Cairo [Bev Conover photo]

Alexandria [Bev Conover photo]

Cairo, a city that never sleeps, is a sprawling metropolis with a population of more than 16 million, making it the largest city on the African continent and the seventh largest in the world. By contrast, Alexandria, Egypt�s second largest city, has a population of approximately 5 million.

Of the two cities, Cairo, on the Nile, is very cosmopolitan and Alexandria, on the Mediterranean, is more conservative.

While feluccas, barges and small fishing boats ply the Nile day and night, the river truly comes alive at night with boats decorated with colored lights, many blaring music, offering dinner cruises or just rides until the wee hours of the morning.

Time seems to have little meaning in either city. You breakfast at lunch time, lunch at dinnertime and dine anywhere from 8 p.m. to midnight or later. People phone and come to visit at all hours. A young lady in Alexandria came to call at 1 a.m. to show us the photos of her engagement party.

Driving in both cities is an adventure. In Cairo, more so. Streets and roadways marked for two or three lanes usually are congested with three or four lanes of vehicles. Vehicles are so crowded together that there is barely inches between them. Drivers only seem to pay attention to a few traffic lights. They inch their way into intersections until someone gives to them. Most drive at night with no headlights. No one seems to mind double-parking.

On the narrower streets, parked vehicles line both sides, barely leaving room for two cars to pass and sometimes one has to back up to let the other through. On the main thoroughfares, I was told, the curbs were built so high to keep vehicles from parking on the sidewalks.

Then there are the pedestrians, some who walk in the streets and others
A bicycle for two in Cairo. [Bev Conover photo]
who cross wherever by winding their way through moving vehicles. In addition, in the sections of the cities that few foreigners ever venture into, there are horse and donkey drawn wagons, laden with produce or other goods, street vendors and bicyclists who mix it up with motorized vehicles and pedestrians.

Air pollution is a double whammy, more so in Cairo that has more vehicles burning leaded fuel than Alexandria, and if you look toward the horizon, on most days, you can see the sand blowing in from the desert.

Interestingly, the British occupation of Egypt is still reflected in Cairo where the street and highway signs and many of the signs on shops are in both Arabic and English. In Alexandria, the street signs are all in Arabic as are many of the shop signs.

One thing is certain, if you�re handicapped, Egypt is not the place for you. Egyptians seem to have a love affair with stairs and steps, in addition to the high curbs. Also, the ground around the pyramids and Sphinx in Giza is uneven, contains holes and open excavations, and is strewn with sandstone rubble.

Even the Egyptian National Museum only has long flights of stairs. The new $225 million Alexandria Library only has elevators that stop before ground level, leaving you to use stairs between certain levels and the ground. You would think for that kind of money they could have installed escalators or a more friendly elevator system.

Worse, the new Alexandria Library, which fronts on the Mediterranean, is a modernistic building totally out of character with its surroundings. It�s so big that it was impossible to photograph it from the outside, so I settled for some postcards. From across the bay, it looks like a blue-gray slab. Inside it harbors not a scrap of the original Alexandria Library.

As a matter of fact, while Alexandria has a Greek community, just about all the ancient Greek architecture has disappeared from the surface. It now reposes under the sea, apparently as a consequence of earthquakes. The few ancient Greek artifacts now rest in the library�s Antiquities Room.

If it weren�t for the fact that the fabulous King Tut collection has been returned to Cairo, the Egyptian National Museum would have been a total disappointment. It�s not climate controlled and the markings on exhibits are either poor or non-existent.

The US influence is everywhere. From Pepsi Cola, made with sugar, Coca Cola, made with that awful high fructose corn sweetener, to Lipton teabags, Heinz ketchup, Friskies and Whiskas cat food, to you name it. For the less adventurous American eaters, who are afraid to indulge in scrumptious Arab food, there is the inescapable McDonald�s, Pizza Hut, Domino�s Pizza, Little Caesar�s Pizza, Papa John�s Pizza, Hardy�s, Chili�s, Appleby�s, ad infinitum. In addition, there are restaurants that specialize in just about every ethnic cuisine you can think of.

Egyptians also have a love affair with cell phones. But the ring tones and conversations are less intrusive than what we encounter in the US.

Shopping malls, hotels and apartment buildings are springing up like mushrooms. Both cities even have the French owned Carrefour Hypermarkets that put Wal-Mart Supercenters to shame in both size and range of products available -- and none of that Wal-Mart �what�s cheap this week� stuff.

Then there is the sprawling Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo, Egypt�s most famous, founded by Emir Djaharks el-Khalili in 1382. You name it and one or more of the shops either side of the narrow, twisting labyrinth of streets has it. There are also restaurants and cafes. The best prices, according to the locals, are found in the even narrower streets of what they call the old Jewish section. The Jews, though, have long departed and today there are just a relative handful still residing in all of Egypt.

On the southeast side of Cairo, in the old city below the massive medieval Citadel that dates back to the 12th century, is Qarafa, commonly called the City of the Dead, where poor families have set up housekeeping in mausoleums due to a shortage of housing. I was told that some families have lived there for generations. The City of the Dead actually constitutes several cemeteries and I got to visit the Coptic Christian one, which, like the Muslims,� has evolved into a self-contained, closely knit community complete with shops, eateries, church (actually, two) and even a playing field.

As odd as it seemed that people were living among the dead, residents sitting in the doorways of the tombs they call home greeted us with smiles and nods. Everything looked well kept and they even had electricity and water. Unlike Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro, there are no shantytowns in either Cairo or Alexandria.

Coptic section of Cairo's City of the Dead. [Bev Conover photo]

Coptic church in Cairo's City of the Dead .[Bev Conover photo]

The priest seemed proud to show off his church and, for a small donation, even allowed me to take photos in the interior. He then took us to the older church that is undergoing renovations.

In Cairo, you see fewer women wearing hajibs (head scarves), abayas, or niqabs (veils) than you do in Alexandria, where the uncovered Muslim woman tends to stand out.

While Egypt is predominantly Sunni Muslim, of the two cities, Alexandria has become the more religiously conservative. Even at the beach it�s not uncommon to see Muslim women�s bodies and heads covered. It wasn�t always that way, according to an Egyptian gentleman who was born and raised in Alexandria. He said his late mother wore bikinis at the beach.

In Alexandria, particularly, you will notice Muslim men with small, roundish scars on their foreheads. I was told that these were a result of their fervency in striking their heads on their prayer rugs.

Five times a day, the imams� calls to prayer ring out from the minarets: dawn, sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset and night. One Friday night, while on a Nile dinner cruise, the difference between the Sunni imams� and the Shi�a imams� call to prayer was pointed out to me. The Sunni imams� is more of a chant, while the Shi�a imams sing. There is a haunting, unforgettable beauty in both.

Part 1: Getting there

Part 3: People, politics and economics

Final part: The return to the US was the trip from hell

Egypt Photo Gallery

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