During the mid-nineties I shuttled between Philadelphia, Chicago, Frankfurt and Cairo at least a dozen times. For pleasure, Cairo won hands down. From ’94 to ’97 I spent about four months in and around Cairo trying to launch a vegetable division of a corn seed company. Alas, without success. However, I became acquainted with some of the most interesting and friendly people on earth. Nothing beats a European education, and the typical Cairene I met certainly had that. As the New Zealander is more English than the Brit, the Egyptian is more continental than the European. Also, the younger adults are Americanized, at least in their music and vocabulary. And everyone watches U.S. television. “Baywatch” in particular. It was amazing to sit with the hotel staff—from bellmen to cooks to front desk supervisors—on a slow night in the back office, and to enjoy the almost mythological stories of the seaside lifeguards with their timeless plots. Gradually, I saw California as the “new Mediterranean” and Americans as ancient Greeks or Romans playing on a universal stage. Such heroism, intrigue, and triumph! It was weird. I’d never so much as glanced at “Baywatch” before. In crowded, noisy Cairo it was an escape for the young, while for the older employees (all men) it was amusing to see young people flirting with danger (not to mention the actual flirting).
Cairo is incredibly—and permanently—beautiful, like LA can be at fleeting moments, or when viewed from Pasadena. After gazing, transfixed, into Ramses II’s face, with its skin, hair, teeth all intact, and even wearing a slight expression of life, I shuffled out of the Cairo Museum and proceeded down nameless streets for several hours, haunted by the palpable sense of a cosmic clock, of which I was an atom sized gear, pounding the ancient pavement. “At least I have this much,” I thought, as I trudged the sidewalks. Infinite footsteps.
The pyramids would finish off a sick man, I’m sure, so powerful are they. See them healthy! Actually I didn’t recognize the first one, the great or Giza. It registered first as a distracting sky pattern, and barely that, at the side of my vision as I rode in a cab. Then a double take, and the science-fiction size took my breath away. We were several miles from it, yet it was completely still and as if within an arm’s reach.
My mother was a huge Naguib Mahfouz fan, so I went to the café he frequented, hoping to see him, but by then he was too ill. A modern master and Nobel laureate, he died last summer. Hardly anyone noticed in the U.S. I am partial to Albert Cossery, who wrote Men God Forgot while in exile in Paris, a book of working class Cairo stories from the 1920s, impossible to find outside a library, unfortunately. However, both are fantastic writers. They laid a path for Al Aswany and others.
After the Oslo peace accords in 1993, much of the money that wealthy Egyptians had placed for safe keeping in Zurich and London flowed back to Cairo and the city boomed. It’s still thriving, though it quieted down somewhat after Rabin’s assassination in November, 1995—a great tragedy for the Middle East. My friends among the hotel staff shared their alarm and sadness with me, and my business partners became nervous, if not a bit crazy. A nation of 75 million—larger than all in Europe except the unified Germany—and the undisputed cultural center of the Arab world, Egypt suddenly became a difficult place to do business. This was a great disappointment to me. I could have easily lived in Cairo. The magically beautiful Nile alone was reason to stay. The character of its people made it almost impossible to leave. Without a doubt the safest city of 7.5 million in the world, Cairo will always call to me, like a womb of civilization. For example, a woman may walk home from work unaccompanied down the streets of Cairo after midnight and never be molested. Except for petty theft among the poor and “crimes of passion” (rare family murders), there is literally no crime, extraordinary even in a city of a million. After hearing of them, I checked the crime stats with my Egyptian colleagues. Certainly, I saw hardly a single policeman the whole time I was there.
My favorite memories: long stretches of the broad city avenues lined with huge beds of nasturtiums—the favorite annual of Egypt; the cries of the boys playing soccer at recess (on cement) in the school across the street from our office; the gentle and poignant call to prayer of the muezzin after sunset, so like a cantor’s; the delicious boiled and sautéed broad bean, or “fava”—enjoyed at breakfast with the oily flat bread and strong black coffee; the fabulous meals the men’s wives would make of lamb and stuffed pale green summer squash. I loved this last so much, that I imported seed and introduced it as “Sweet Gourmet” in the Burpee catalogue. They love it in Michigan and Southern California, where most of the Egyptians and Lebanese live. Light or pale green is the favorite color in the Arab world. Green shoots alongside a stream.
Our gardens—indeed, our very notion of gardens—are versions of those invented in the Islamic world. It was to be a literal reflection of heaven—a piece of paradise—mirrored on earth. Before the Crusades, a garden as we know it didn’t exist. A few monasteries contained botanical collections—like ours at Fordhook and Heronswood—while the kings and courtiers of Europe went hunting. The poets and philosophers of Islam gave us the small, enclosed garden of contentment, pleasure and meditation. One can often see them very clearly in classic Persian, or Oriental, carpets.
If there’s a city whose air I wish to breathe again soon, it is Cairo.