About a month ago, Shaun and I got a chance to be the hosts for some VIP guests, our friends Dustin and Lexia. It was great to be able to be the host and show them around Cairo. It forced us to get out and see some sights and it gave us the chance to take a step back and see the city through the eyes of a vacationer. And on top of it, we got to hang out with good friends, drink turkish coffee, smoke shisha, and eat good Egyptian food all weekend! Plus, Lexia did our engagement photos, and they turned out amazing, obviously. She is so talented.
The first day, we decided to tour Islamic Cairo. We left late in the morning and headed to the Citadel, a fortress with mosques and museums located up on a hill on the edge of Cairo. Shaun and I had never been to the Citadel before, and it was great to finally see. The Mohammed Ali Mosque was very impressive with all the hanging lanterns and the bright red carpets.
Since Lexia didn’t have her shoulders covered, and we forgot to bring pashminas, she had to rent this fashionable galabeya from the door ladies for 5 pounds. Look how pretty!
Then, we ventured over to the area where the prisoners were kept. The prison was locked but there was a peep-hole to look through to see the barracks.
We then stopped by the Army museum before heading out. I have to say, much of the Citadel was in ruins. Even in the M ohamed Ali mosque, many of the lanterns were not functioning, or dirty or broken. But, the Army museum was impeccable. It is obvious where the priorities for funding lie. (note: I have no idea where all the funding comes from but presumably there is government/tax funding of some sort.) While the Army proudly displayed giant tanks, planes and missiles in a neatly trimmed garden, the much more historical mosques were falling apart. The outright display of military power and funding was unnerving, especially knowing that the US pumps a lot of aid into the Egyptian military. Overall, I was not over joyed with the Military museum and we decided not to go in. (note: this is the most political I’ll ever get on this blog. Promise.)
After our quick tour of the citadel, we walked about 30 minutes to Ibn Tulum Mosque. This was quite an interesting walk. We picked up two followers along the way. One kind young Egyptian student who from what we could gather just wanted to practice his English on us – 4 very obvious westerners. The other was less benign. With his broken English we were able to gather that he wanted to get Lexia or my phone numbers. There is a small possibility he was also trying to sell us drugs. We had our perspective male partners with us, so we felt safe. Thus, the second straggler was more of an annoyance than anything. After we toured the mosque and they were still following us, I turned to them and said “Khalas! Chokrun!” (We’re finished, thanks!) in the most smiley way possible. They both got the point and left.
We took a cab from the mosque to Al Azhar park. I have been there once before with Shaun. This park is a beautiful area of green in the city which can feel quite brown most days. It was built on top of an old trash dump, and it offers magnificent views of Cairo from the hill where it sits. We decided to grab dinner there at the Citadel view restaurant as the sun was going down. And, true to the name, we enjoyed a great view of the Citadel from afar as it lit up in the night sky. The food at the Citadel View was delicious and the service was also very good. It is one of my favorite restaurants in Cairo, hence why we decided to bring our guests there.
After we were stuffed from dinner, we took a cab over to the Khan El Khalili for some shopping. As I’ve mentioned before, I love the Khan. I decided it is my favorite place in Cairo. For some reason, the hassle of the shop keepers does not bother me at all there. Maybe it is because they have more comical sales pitches? – “Welcome to Egypt. How can I take your money today?” “I have what you are looking for!” – or maybe it is because they are less pushy? Or maybe it is because there are so many beautiful handicrafts to distract me from them? It is likely a combination of all that. Anyway, I love the Khan, and I was happy to show our friends my favorite place in the city. After a bit of shopping, we sat down at El Fishawy, the oldest (700 years old!) cafe in the Khan. At first, we were bombarded with people trying to sell us things and other beggars, and we were getting pretty frustrated. But, we figured out that if we just continued with our conversation as normal, they walked away pretty quickly. Now, this was hard to do, especially to the young girls or moms with babies, but it was our strategy and we stuck to it. It worked for us.
We ordered an apple flavored shisha and some turkish coffee. We sat and talked there for probably 2 or so hours! It was the most fun I had the entire weekend of their visit. Sitting there, in my favorite place, drinking and smoking and getting to know Dustin and Lexia so much better than I had before. Also, we got to practice blowing smoke rings and that is always fun.
We finished 2 shishas, 6 turkish coffees and 2 mint teas. But, before we could continue shopping, I had to relieve myself of all that liquid! I found a restroom just around the corner, and upon walking in I saw a few men facing urinals. Thinking I had gone into the wrong room, I immediately turned around and left. I could hold it, I thought. But, a few minutes later I went back unable to hold it. An elderly man met me at the door this time and ushered me past the men. He gave me a door handle and some tissues. The door handle was the lock for the stall. You needed it to open the door from either side. Very clever. I did my thing and gave the man a few pounds as he ushered me again past the men. In a country that is so conservative with PDA and clothing, I really never expected to see a unisex bathroom, especially in the center of Islamic Cairo. Obviously, I was wrong.
We did some more shopping, and the boys gave Lexia and I a hard time for not being better at haggling. I am awful at it. The problem is, I usually really want whatever I am trying to buy and so I have a hard time sticking to a low price. Also, a lot of times the prices seem completely reasonable. For example, Lexia and I found these adorable sequined slippers and we had the shopkeepers running all over the Khan trying to get them in the right size and color. After about 20 minutes of trying on all the different options, the men bagged up the two pairs of shoes we finally chose and gave them to us. Crap. We forgot to ask how much they cost. Yet, somehow they were all packaged up and in our hands! We had no negotiating power. They cost 50 pounds. That’s less than 10 bucks. For shoes! I still haven’t heard the end of that. Apparently, I should have offered 25 and stuck to that. Whatever. The guy got 50 pounds and I got shoes. Win. Win.
*All photos by Lexia Frank. Please ask before taking!
I’ll post more about our trip to the pyramids later. It was much more enjoyable this time!