Thursday, May 26, 2011

Summer in Cairo, part one

I have arrived safely in Cairo. Simsim (Sesame), an Iraqi refugee who has been here 7 years, and a friend of a friend, picked me up. He must have done this before since he had a piece of paper with my name scrawled on it, like the other chauffeurs waiting for their guests. He is about 30 and has an Egyptian girlfriend.

After we placed my bags in his car, he asked me if I wanted to stop by the duty-free shop. I didn’t really need anything, but Simsim needed alcohol. So, off we went.
As we re-entered the airport doors, the metal detector seemed abandoned, so we proceeded. Of course, our cell phones set off the magnetometer, but the security guard on the side – half asleep, waived us through.

As we pull out of the parking lot, the wooden traffic arm barrier slams down on his windshield. No damage is visible. Simsim speaks politely with the parking attendant, “hey man, please be careful!”

“Welcome to Egypt!” I reply. On the drive to downtown, Simsim tells me he’s a manager at Cook Door, a fast-food restaurant in downtown that’s known for its Viagra Sandwich. I tell him that I will have to stop by for a bite later. We are in a Honda 4 door. “In Iraq, there was a system for driving. Here, no system.” It took him a year to get used to the fluid traffic of Cairo.

We pass a large mosque for the police with twin minarets that reach for the sky. A few minutes later, we pass another majestic mosque. It is also for the police, but for special occasions such as weddings and celebrations. (Are there any more occasions for the police to celebrate these days?)

The roads are clean and smooth. We are still in Masr Gedida, or New Cairo, northeast of downtown. A white van speeds past us and cuts in front without signaling.

When we park close to my hotel, Simsim says normally, we would not park here; however, now the police do not monitor the parking so much. Perhaps, this is one unintended benefit to the revolution.

I'm now at a cheap hotel in Midan Talaat-Harb for 85LE / night (or about $15). I had to bargain them down from $35 / night or 210LE. I think speaking Arabic helped somewhat. I don't see anyone else here on the floor. Tourists have been scared away in the last few months.

I am searching for a simcard so I can reconnect with a few friends. I stop by Midan Al-Tahrir, Liberation Square, which is just a few minutes away. Several dozen young men are milling about in the middle, surrounded by taxis and the regular flow of traffic. Many of them still have protest signs. Gamal, a middle-aged vendor explains that there was a demonstration today and next Friday another large protest will take place. Is it about human rights? The elections? “About freedom!” explains Gamal.

It is good to be back.

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