EDITORS’ NOTE: The author visited Cairo from June 16 to 18, 2013. This piece reflects the conditions he found at that time, rather than the unpredictable events that continue to roil Egypt today.
Cairo – A wise man once said that time keeps everything from happening at once.
This rule does not apply in Egypt’s capital. The clocks keep ticking, yet everything here is going on RIGHT NOW! Even for a 25-year veteran of Manhattan Island, Cairo presents a Niagara of stimuli that makes Times Square feel like a Quaker meeting.
Even before the June 30 Revolution inspired the Egyptian army to excuse from power former president Mohamed Morsi and his Islamofascist Muslim Brotherhood government, Cairo was plenty thrilling indeed.
On Sunday, June 16, at 8:30 p.m., the scene at Cairo’s Opera Square is nearly beyond one man’s ability to absorb. The former Grand Continental Hotel is on fire. Smoke billows from the south side of this landmark, which held court here from about the 1880s until it was vacated and subsequently neglected in the 1970s. The adjacent block is black, perhaps because of this blaze, or maybe due to one of the brownouts that have defined the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign of error. Firefighters move equipment into and out of this pandemonium, as cops and civilians alike try their hands at directing traffic, with decidedly mixed results. Some cars have their lights on. Others navigate this traffic circle with their lights off — a very common and confounding practice here. How this saves energy in a gas-powered car exceeds my third-grade understanding of electrical engineering.
Meanwhile, white smoke pours from the former hotel, as flames start to peek through the windows. None of this seems to concern the firefighters terribly much. They move glacially and with little sense of purpose. They look as if they have shopped for groceries more intensely.
After five minutes of unhurried activity and few results, Mohamed Fawzy asks, “Are they going to put out the fire, or are they going to watch?” Fawzy, my independent tour guide, is well informed about Egypt’s history and current events and passionate about sharing his knowledge with his guests.
Amid dozens of piercing car horns, an imam’s low, solemn moan beckons Muslims to evening prayers. Adding to the bedlam, a young man steers his bike clockwise around the circle as traffic inches forward counterclockwise. Several large bread-delivery trays stay perfectly balanced upon his head as he weaves among the cars, cops, fire engines, and thickening smoke.
A statue of the late general and ruler Ibrahim Pasha (1789–1848) looks on in silence atop his horse. That’s about as much quietude as one will find here tonight, this side of the Sphinx.
Cairo’s skyline includes gray and beige poured-concrete structures in the Brutalist style beloved by socialists worldwide. (Egypt has had its share). Among them, one finds stately, if bedraggled, European-looking edifices. These mainly were erected by Ismail Pasha (1830–1895). This son of Ibrahim Pasha ruled Egypt from 1863 to 1879 and famously opened the Suez Canal in 1869. Educated in Paris, he returned home hoping to make Cairo more like the French capital. He had the power to implement this vision and, in places, succeeded, with many old buildings boasting features and flourishes that one might see along the Seine. More frequent maintenance in downtown Cairo would help fortify the architectural legacy of the man also known as Ismail the Magnificent.
Talaat Harb Square looks like a plaza on the Rive Gauche. French-style buildings, complete with neoclassical details atop stone facades, surround a statue of Harb (1867–1941), an economist and founder of Egypt Air, Misr Bank, and other major institutions. Cairo’s fascinating drivers swirl around Harb’s monument. Perhaps to protect it from the graffiti that maddeningly has marred many other local statues, this tribute in stone is swaddled completely in Saran Wrap, or its Egyptian equivalent.
Among these streets, circles, and sculptures, Cairo’s residents are outside, everywhere. They occupy sidewalks, side streets, and cafes, where they dine, chat, smoke hookahs, and drink coffee, seemingly down every alley and around every corner. Virtually every square inch of walkway is filled with people enjoying alfresco experiences. In some spots, right downtown, restaurant owners have set up HDTVs, which they hotwire to the bases of street lamps. They prop the screens atop chairs or boxes, and patrons watch soccer matches and sip largely non-alcoholic beverages.