Nick and I have been in Cairo barely an hour and still getting our bearings when we encounter Mikhael on a busy corner. An older man of medium height, pot bellied, and sporting a desperate combover, he walks up and greets us with an open-faced smile.
His English is excellent; his conversation seems to start mid-stream. "I'm just returning from work. I manage a textile factory. Upholstery fabrics. My wife is radiologist and my daughter is graphic designer. I am Christian. I am 72 years old! Can you believe that? Don't I look younger? Welcome to Cairo! Let me show you around…it would be an honor. Come, let's go to a mosque first."
Before we know it we're off, following his lead through the mania of cars and people, all moving too fast to fix an image in the mind. At a 900-year old mosque near Ataba Square, we watch as dozens of men and boys line up to pray, bowing and kneeling toward Mecca as the muzzein intones the Koran. Afterwards, Mikhael leads us on quickly, stopping for some sobiah at a street stall. This sweet and sour yogurt-like drink would "open the appetite" he assures us.
We're famished. During the long cab ride to a restaurant he recommends ("A place clean enough even for my wife! She had to inspect the kitchen first."), we weave through dimly lit streets teeming with people, cars, bikes, horses, an occasional goat. Sad, dust covered buildings provide the backdrop to all the action, but it feels like a party's going on despite the shabbiness. Mikhael seems like an old uncle, happy to show some younger foreigners around, proudly pointing out an English church here, a statue of Nasser there, joking and commenting to people as we rush along.
Mikhael had paid for the sobiah as well as the taxi to the restaurant, so we invite him to dinner. He offers to pay the bill and we would reimburse him after ("If you ask for the bill, they will surely overcharge you"). After dinner we go around the corner for sugary tea, sitting on cracked plastic chairs in a poor, unpaved residential street. Next to us a grease-covered mechanic is repairing a motorbike. Touching his right hand to his heart he greets us in Arabic, a broad grin across his face. A group of boys across the street point at us curiously. One yells out "Welcome to Cairo," in English, a phrase we were to hear all over the city, so many times that we lose count.
Down a narrow alley we see flashing colored lights. Ear-shattering Arabic music reverberates off bare brick walls. The alley has been decorated with streamers and balloons and folding chairs are placed about. "They're preparing for a wedding," Mikhael tells us. "The family puts on a party in the street to announce it, and everyone is invited. It's considered an obligation for all the neighbors to attend." The din is painful so we move on.
Night Tour of Cairo
Although it's past 10pm, the street is busy with shoppers taking advantage of the cool night air. We pass butcher stalls where entrails and bloody sheep heads hang from metal hooks, bakeries where hot pita bread is cooling on palm frond racks, fruit stalls where veiled women pick over bruised mangoes. Men wave or nod or say "salaam," or just stare curiously at the foreigners in their midst--we seem to be the only ones. Women mostly ignore us, although there is an occasional smile or wave, a furtive glance.
"Quick, get on this bus," Mikhael directs us as we reach a busy intersection. Suddenly we find ourselves barreling down city streets in a shaky school-type bus, gaping at the theater of life, Cairo at night, whizzing by. Tugging at Nick's sleeve, Mikhael introduces us to a young girl and her mother with whom he has just struck up a conversation. "Talk to her! She speaks English. Ask her something!" he insists. Outnumbered, we obey, chatting about university studies, before they get off. There's a lot of friendly talk amongst the passengers, who all seem to know one another. "No, I've just met these people," Mikhael tells us, "We're like that here—we talk to each another all the time. We share our food. We are all neighbors, no one is alone."
After about an hour, we realize we're not heading back to our pension, but getting a full-blown night tour of Cairo. At some point we cross the Nile and have no idea where we are. We decide to relax and enjoy it, but as midnight passes, we plead jet lag. "I'll take you for a haircut now," Mikhael urges, hoping to squeeze one more experience from the city's all-night offerings. "Or maybe girls?" he says in a hushed voice, which we ignore. We do accept his suggestion of ice cream, and Nick offers to pay. As he opens his wallet, a wad of newly cashed bills fans out, and Nick turns to hide his money. "You don't have to do that here," Mikhael reassures us. "Cairo is a very safe place. You can go anywhere here and not worry. There are no bad neighborhoods."
Finally we manage to convince him that we need to sleep. "I'll get a cab for you and negotiate the price. They always rip off foreigners here. But do you mind if we settle the restaurant bill now? It was 90 pounds each, so you owe me 270 pounds. Is that OK?" Forty-five dollars strikes us as a bit steep for the simple place where we ate, but our meal was delicious—skewers of succulent grilled chicken and lamb, sesame rich hummus, perfectly seasoned tabouleh, glistening salads of cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant, and fresh pita bread. Mikhael had warned us that "downtown restaurants charge double," and he'd covered the cab ride to get there, so we readily pay what he asks. And as it turned out, that first meal in Egypt remained unsurpassed.
"Let us meet again," he says eagerly as we get into the cab. "Come to my house on Thursday. My wife will cook. She makes the best Egyptian food there is. I will get camel meat for you." Fascination trumps queasiness over the camel meat and we accept, wondering how happy his wife will be to have to entertain two foreigners. "Meet me at 7PM on Thursday in front of the Café L'Americaine—it's on the corner right near your hotel."
Egyptian Hospitality…or Not
During the week, we fret about what to wear, what is proper etiquette in an Egyptian home, how to deal with the gay issue if it comes up, and what to bring our hostess. "Pastries," an American friend living in Cairo tells us, "They all bring pastries. You can't go wrong." So we line up at El-Abd bakery and buy a kilo box of the syrupy Egyptian sweets that we'd already become addicted to.
Freshly shaved, shirts ironed, we wait at the designated corner, our ribbon-tied pastry box seeming heavier by the minute. After a while we start to confess to each other the doubts that have arisen over the previous days about Mikhael. It hadn't taken long in Cairo to realize that our meal could not possibly have cost $45—more likely half of that, at most. The details of how the bill was paid, our money transactions, start to smell suspicious. When he doesn't show up after an hour, we finally admit it. We'd been taken by a Cairo con man!
Our Lonely Planet guide had warned us in its "Dangers and Annoyances" section about the touts in Egypt, but Mikhael had seemed neither dangerous nor annoying--I thought he was my friend! The money was a small matter, but the sense of being tricked was troublesome. We'd been taken for a ride in more ways than one. All the details, the invitation to dinner—the fun we'd had together! Could it just have been an act to squeeze a few dollars out of a couple of unwitting tourists? We'd had such a good time that we don't want to entertain the thought that his hospitality had been insincere.
We finally give up and go back to our pension, feeling a little foolish. Unwrapping the box we'd meant as a gift to an Egyptian family, we glumly devour the sticky pastries.
Almost two weeks later, after visiting Alexandria and El Raschid, we're back in Cairo, strolling through the bustling area of cafés and restaurants near Oraby Square, when Nick spots him. "Isn't that Mikhael over there?"
His hair is newly dyed black, stretched in greasy streaks over his bald skull, making his claim of being over seventy, doubtful at the time, seem even more absurd now. We approach him from behind as he tries to sweet talk a pair of frightened Dutch tourists, who flee as we arrive. We greet like old friends, but the look of guilty surprise in his eyes and the slight, self-protecting hunch of his shoulders confirm any lingering doubts we may have had about him.
"I…am…so sorry. My…um, brother-in-law. He…he got sick! He's in the hospital. I had to go see him on Thursday." He speaks as if trying to remember lines in a play. Various revenge fantasies I'd entertained vanish as I listen to his sad tale—not sad for his brother-in-law, who probably does not exist, but sad for the man who earns his living by lying. We decline his offer of tea and part with a handshake.
Later, on the flight to Barcelona, Nick and I recall the highlights of our time in Cairo: the old Islamic quarter, the pyramids and sphinx at Giza, the food, the friendly people, the delirious traffic. We'd spent almost two weeks in the city and had developed a fondness for this scruffy, improbable place. But we both agree it's that first night that stands out, our wild ride into the whirl of Cairo after dark.
I imagine how the city might easily have seemed to us—overwhelming, dirty, dangerous—and realize the gift Mikhael had given us, even if he'd charged us for it without telling us the price. It turned out to be a great bargain. He showed us Cairo as a friendly, inviting, and safe place. We took that awareness with us through its maze-like back alleys and garbage-strewn neighborhoods, into carpenters' workshops, iron smelters' forges, and fatheer makers' kitchens, places we might not have gone if we hadn't met him, places where we most often heard the words "Welcome to Cairo".
Jim Johnston is a writer and painter living in Mexico City. He is author of Mexico City: an Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler. He blogs at www.mexicocitydf.blogspot.com and www.liveonarrival.blogspot.com
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Other Africa travel stories and Middle East Stories from the archives
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