Egypt Notebook

The American University in Cairo.

Ken Kalfus was in Egypt last year researching a novel. In the wake of recent events, we asked to see his travel notes.


Family-run hotel on the top floor of an eight-story commercial building, with a balky elevator. Terrace looking west, past a dun sliver of Nile, into the sunset haze. Venus is the evening star, burns hard through the smog; I impress one of the sons by identifying it in Arabic, Zuhra, and then running through the names of the other planets, which I’ve learned for my novel. This about exhausts my Arabic.

Overwhelming impression of Cairo is not its antiquity, its Easternness, or the heat. It’s the traffic: chaotic, brutal, oppressive, worse than Moscow or Mexico City. Sidewalks narrow, broken-up, and obstructed by parked vehicles. Very few stoplights, almost no crosswalks, no pedestrian right of way, the cars just plow ahead. To cross the street I position myself on the other side of an Egyptian, preferably a woman, preferably a woman who looks like somebody’s mother, and I cross when she does, hoping she’ll block for me. Pedestrian rights are a key indicator of a society’s respect for the individual, also the power relations between the haves and carless have-nots. In my walks I find a single pedestrian crossing signal; when it turns green, the little man-figure runs for his life. At Tahrir Square, the pink sandstone of the Cairo Museum. Not sure I want to spend a whole afternoon inside, it’s not relevant to my book; the deciding factor is that it’s not worth trying to cross the road to get there.

An afternoon in the Islamic Quarter, writing in a friendly outdoor restaurant in the plaza by the mosque where the head of the Prophet’s grandson, Hussein, is said to be buried. Vendors in the plaza, kids scampering, holiday mood. Al-Hussein lies directly across from the 10th-century Al-Azhar Mosque. A lovely, restorative setting, if not for the fast-moving highway that slices between them.

Watch out for the cars; keep hydrating. Everyone seems to be carrying a plastic water bottle. No signs of recycling, millions of bottles pile up every day. About 20 cents for 250 ml, 50 cents for the liter. I read in the paper that Egypt’s population will outpace its water supply by 2018; also that the four countries in the Nile’s headlands have united to renegotiate Egypt’s draw downward.

Sixteen million people in Cairo; I’m told the daytime population is actually more like twenty-two million, struggling to keep their footing on the congested, uneven pavement. A vision of our unsustainable future: too many people, not enough jobs; too many cars, not enough living space; too much refuse, not enough clean water.

The Yacoubian Building, a 2002 novel by Alaa Al Aswany, weighs heavily on my time in Cairo, informs everything I see here, an unsentimental picture of an exigent, corrupted people. I pass the actual apartment house downtown, less grand than I imagined, occupied in the novel by several strata of Cairo life: a wealthy wheeler-dealer, a rising politician, a closeted gay newspaper editor, the poor who occupy a shantytown of windowless “iron rooms” on the roof, each of the rooms two by two meters square. The tragic beat of events turns monotonous, but the book is politically provocative, a devastating portrait of the tyrant “Big Man,” who must be Mubarak. An Egyptian film was made from the book; I wonder how they toned it down.

The “Baladi” bar on Tahrir Square, with a US consular officer in her late twenties, an Arabist who has lived in Cairo before. Energetic, enthusiastic, pretty, a friend of a friend, she speaks Arabic well. The bar is decrepit, the paneling dark and stained, its clients mostly older men who look like they’re having more than one. Christian-owned, if it serves alcohol, but some of the drinkers wear galabeyas.

We eat at Caffe Riche, old Cairo restaurant, black (Nubian?) waiters in long blue robes. Nasser and the Free Officers met here to plan the coup. Pictures of old Cairo and old Cairenes on the wall. On my second beer and worried about keeping my companion entertained, I break my rule and tell her the plot of my novel. She’s fascinated! This is encouraging.

Then Café Bustan for coffee, located directly behind the restaurant. Feeling adventurous and playful, and knowing that I wouldn’t do it on my own, I try an apple-spiced water pipe. As if I haven’t been inhaling enough combustion products. The sheesha is pleasant enough, but after that I develop a cough and cold that last for a week.

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