The Librarian has landed

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Tuesday 15 Sept. 2009

Thirty years since I was last here in Cairo and the city is unrecognizable, at least so far. Descending over the city in the plane, it seemed as though the lights stretched forever in all directions, although that impression could have been due to our landing pattern, circling ever lower. Long strings of street lights marked the major roads; some were long and fairly straight, others wandered in curves. Islands of lights marked areas of dense settlement in seas of relative darkness between them. As we neared the ground, it was possible to see pulsing neon in the commercial areas-restaurants, casinos, amusement areas-and green lights marking the minarets. A long narrow dark band slipped beneath us: the Nile splitting the city in two. Streams of traffic moved along the major arteries; lots of cars on the roads, it seemed.

I was met at customs by Ibrahim, the Fulbright “expediter” who took charge, showed me where to buy my visa ($15 handed to a teller in one of a row of several kiosk-style banks secured an official-looking piece of paper) which Ibrahim then handed, together with my passport, to the customs official in his booth. Once he had stamped my passport, he passed it to a woman in headscarf who was seated behind him. She appeared to enter some sort of data into a computer and then returned the passport to me. With that, we were outside in fresh air (for me the first time in 18 hrs…) and into Ibrahim’s car. It took both of us to heave my 85 lb. suitcase into the trunk… A pleasant evening for late Summer in Cairo. The air was moist, smelled of city and traffic, but not terribly hot. We set off for the Hotel Safir in a section of Cairo called “Dokki,” one of the newer suburbs in the western part of the city. I was totally disoriented until we crossed the Nile and I asked Ibrahim in which direction we were traveling. He replied, “gharbi.” West. That meant away from the Red Sea, generally; Alexandria was off to our right, north down the Nile and on the Mediterranean. The streets were full of people and cars; we had to stop several times as heavy traffic crawled to a halt and then began flowing again. I was startled to see pedestrians crossing the main streets-four or six lanes of traffic-wherever they chose. Most were invisible until we were right on top of them because they were wearing dark clothing. Glad I wasn’t driving…

It’s the holy month of Ramadan and that means that observant Muslims fast from sunup until sundown. Not an easy feat when the month falls in the long hot days of Summer. Work hours are customarily shortened during Ramadan and people tend to shift their active lives to night time. Shops and restaurants are open and doing brisk business; the many mosques are full of light, the minarets marked with green lamps along their lengths. The windows of the mosques, covered with geometric designs in masonry glow warmly in the darkness. Ibrahim points out some of the landmarks along the way: the central train station, President Mubarak’s residence, city hall. Familiar green and white street signs bear both Arabic and English place names. We turn off the main thoroughfare and down a narrower, darker, quieter side street. A neighborhood with people standing and talking with one another outside shops, drinking Coca Cola, smoking cigarettes. Ibrahim pulls up in front of the Safir Hotel, brightly lighted and marble lined. Sleek, modern (Recently renovated” says the marketing literature.) and efficient. We lift out my suitcase, he summons a hotel employee to take it and we shake hands. “Alf shukr,” I say to him. Many thanks. We’ll see each other again in three days, when he drives me to my apartment in Alexandria. Check in. A mixture of Arabic and English spoken with the desk clerk and the “bell boy,” who is summoned to trundle my heavy bag upstairs to my room. The elevator is remarkably quiet and smooth. I hardly notice its motion at all. The bell dings and we’re on the twelfth floor. Key card inserted into the lock on the door. A quick introduction to the room’s features—TV, AC, mini-refrigerator (no booze in it…), lights. A tip to the young man in dollars (I haven’t yet had time to exchange money for Egyptian Liras) and I say good night to him, “Tisbah ala khayr.” May you awaken well. A forward-looking valedictory. A quick shower to remove the travel grime and off to a surprisingly restful sleep.

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