Friday 28th October, 2011. One week after the serious violence between Christians and Muslims on the streets of Cairo known as “The Maspero Massacre”
That morning Mohammed picks up Pauline, Liz and me from our apartment near the Pyramids at Gizeh at 8.30, as arranged. To prove his point that things have “returned to normal” since the deadly violence of the preceeding weeks he takes us through Tahrir Square, where small groups of people are setting up for demonstrations scheduled for later in the day. Violent demonstrations aside, “normal” in central Cairo, as we discovered soon after our arrival, is a ring road in the form of an eight-lane race track on which small children, donkeys, horses and the occasional camel, take their chances in a game of human and animal roulette. On the edge of this chaos the Bab el Futuh, one of the two medieval entrances to the old city, suddenly looms up incongruously, and it is with some relief that we leave the race and wave Mohammed goodbye.
What a haven of peace it is beyond the gate, all the more welcome for being so unexpected; and clean and ‘civilized’, presumably the result of the refurbishments and pedestrianisation of recent years. The walk through the winding streets to the great medieval market of Khan al Khalili is wonderful; none of us can quite believe the combination of exquisite architecture and near-perfect calm. At one point this is only broken by some men playing football in the street and, around another corner, a party of schoolgirls chatting joyously, sketching on an art class trip. As we approach the bazaar, things become livelier. A man delivers huge blocks of ice on the back of a cart from which, for a small fee, passers-by can take a refreshing drink with the aid of the attached water dispenser and mug. Two men at a temporary stall selling t-shirts for ten Egyptian pounds (“ashara! ashara!”) do a roaring trade.
After an hour or so we emerge from the network of streets at Midan Al Hassan where we eat our snacks. Liz gives in to some boys selling bracelets but gets a deal for three at ten pounds which heightens their entrepreneurial spirit and there is some amusing banter. Next stop is the famous Fishawi’s coffee shop where we take tea. The surroundings are gorgeous but the ambience is a little impeded by a constant stream of hawkers, the majority of whom, somewhat bizarrely, demonstrate ‘fire-proof’ wallets with flicks of their cheap plastic lighters.
Suitably refreshed we rejoin the chaos of the modern metropolis at the Al Azhar cross-city highway. It takes us a moment to readjust, as four lanes of traffic honk and bleat their way in both directions against the added soundtrack of police and ambulance sirens. Luckily there is a pedestrian overpass from which I see that the impressive building on the other side, the16th-century complex built by Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri, is that which features in one of my favourite works by the famous Scottish landscape painter David Roberts. In the painting it is identified as the “Silk Vendors’ Bazaar” but as we get nearer it becomes clear that the costly fabrics of yesteryear have been replaced by the cheap nylon of the present day.
As the girls press on through the racks of gaudy fabrics that line these narrow lanes I take a moment to check my GPS for the remaining distance to the southern gate of Bab Zuweila. It is as if he was waiting to pounce: no sooner have I stopped than I have been taken by the arm by a small man in a very western checked shirt, with something of the look of a diminutive Omar Sharif. (Later I learn that he is 71-year-old Fathi Abdilsahil, a man who claims to have worked, in more propitious times, as a guide on behalf of the capital’s foreign embassies). When the girls return he declares, with suitably flamboyant arm gestures, that he will “show us the real Cairo, at no cost”. The girls are understandably reluctant but I try to reassure them that within the confines of the old city walls he will not be able to take us too far out of our way.
Feeling like the captives of a benign kidnapper we follow at a few paces behind our self-appointed guide as he points out features of domestic architecture, some of which he describes as “Roman” but which are surely no earlier than the 19th century. Despite our slight concern, the back streets on this southern side of the ancient city are as atmospheric as those we passed through earlier. It is also noticeable that on crossing the main road beyond the great bazaar we have also passed from a prime tourist zone (albeit in late 2011 with little evidence of tourists) and into the “real Cairo” promised by our guide. Soon he is leading us through narrow streets hung on either side with air-dried carcasses and sheep’s heads and through lanes where live sheep are penned awaiting slaughter at the festival of Eid. “They only have ten days left!” Fatih enthuses.
It becomes clear that Fatih has a particular destination in mind for us, illustrative of a point he wants to make. After a few more twists and turns we arrive at a tower in the Romanesque style, adorned with a massive painting of a very white lady in the dress of a Hellenistic aristocrat holding by the horn a rather sorry-looking – and very black – winged devil. The lady is labelled in Greek as St. Marina (the Great Martyr; daughter of a pagan priest, tortured to death by the Roman state for refusing to renounce her adopted Christianity). As a Muslim, Fatih is eager to emphasize that when he grew up among these back alleys in the 1950s, amidst all the excitement of a newly-liberated country, Christians and Muslims lived happily side by side, and that the recent unrest was an aberration stirred up by those clinging to power and by those who had ambitions to seize it. It is indeed a sign of our own times that to get inside the building we have to pass through a strong metal door, where Egyptian visitors have to show their ID cards with the identifying stamp: “Christian”. Beyond the paranoia of the metal door is a busy courtyard full of people of all ages chatting, sharing food, playing – being happy. Despite the religious difference, Fatih is clearly at home here and it is with no little pride that he takes us into the church and points out various icons of St Marina, St George and other luminaries of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Not long after leaving the church we reach my original goal of the Bab Zuweila – the great southern gate of the Fatimid city – where the guardian quotes us 15 pounds each to ascend the minaret. Fatih insists this is too much, that he can take us in a back way for cheaper. But for our part we are happy to make this modest contribution towards the upkeep of a fine piece of architecture. Even from the first level the view is spectacular, from the courtyard of the 15th-century mosque of Al-Muayyad across scores of minarets of all shapes and sizes to the citadel of Salah ad-Din. It is only the modern detritus on the roofs that inhibits the feeling that you are back in the middle ages. As we ascend, each stage of the minaret becomes a little narrower and at times the spiral staircase is in pitch darkness; Liz follows me up and says she is grateful for the white soles of my shoes to show her the way. We climb as high as the penultimate level. It’s pretty precarious and only the knowledge that it has remained standing for the last five hundred years reassures us that the this ancient turret will not collapse at any moment. Yet right at the top we find Fatih balancing on the ironwork, as if to mock the twenty years difference in age between us while simultaneously asserting his ownership of the sprawling city beneath him. For our part, it is as much as we can do to keep ourselves pressed against the inner wall and avoid being pulled, psychologically, into the abyss below.
Back on terra firma Fatih leads us first through the 17th-century Tentmakers’ Bazaar, full of gorgeous silks and multi-coloured fabrics, then into another maze of winding alleys. I tell him that we will have to go soon as we are meeting a friend of Liz’s for dinner in Al-Azhar Park. But he insists that we go for tea and I manage to persuade the girls that we should do it as a courtesy. We end up in quite a rough alley where a man is smoking a sheesha, next to an old TV set sitting under its own little plywood roof. Fatih asks the man to make us tea and it comes with mint. Despite protestations from Pauline I take up the offer of a sheesha myself but struggle to make it draw.
By this stage the girls are eager to bring things to a close and when Fatih describes a particularly narrow alley as the ‘street of Ali Baba’ even my own nerve is tested a little. Finally taking the hint, the old man leads us to his little shop built in to the city wall where he makes trinkets for sale in the bazaars. Here he shows us an old copy of the “Lonely Planet Guide to Cairo” with a picture of him on the front that appears to corroborate his earlier story. I don’t let us get drawn into any discussion about buying anything but, in truth, he does not press us. He tells us it is too far to walk to the citadel, he will take us to the corner of Al Azhar mosque where we will be able to pick up a taxi. He leads us out of the warren of side streets to the main road. I make another attempt to at least pay him for the tea but he will take nothing. As he returns my wave, and I am conscious of the fact that we have frustrated his best attempts at hospitality, I am struck by his humanity. At the same time there is something in his face that seems to reflect the uncertainty of his country’s future.