Today in the Christian Faith is a day we set aside. I recognize that many readers do not share the same truth claims and I am so grateful that you still come by and read! But today I am at A Life Overseas where I stop and reflect on some of what this means to me. I hope you’ll stop by!
In the city of Cairo twin minarets stand tall, their silhouettes marked against a clear blue sky. They stand distinguishable from the thousand other minarets because of their fame as a city landmark. The minarets frame a gate still standing since the 11th century, the gate of Bab Zuweila. The minaret towers are so high that they were used to look out for enemy troops coming up to attack the city. Now, centuries later, the minarets of Bab Zuweila provide an unparalleled view of the old city of Cairo.
Climbing up the minarets is a journey. Around ancient steps you walk – farther and farther up, dizzy from the spiral and half frightened from the dark staircase. You make it to the first area where you go out and stand looking over the vast city of 18 million people. But you’re compelled to go farther. So on you go. And it gets more rickety and frightening, the centuries-old steps become even narrower and darker. You can see nothing and you are grasping on to the steps in front of you for fear of falling. But you keep going.
You arrive at the second level. And it’s even more magnificent than the first. To your right you see Al Azhar Park, significant for its large and beautiful green space in a city that has so little. In this 360 degree view you see vast numbers of minarets, you hear the call to prayer going off at split-second intervals across the city – a cacophony echoing around you. You see thousands of people, tiny as they go from bazaar to mosque to bus. You see the tent makers bazaar, making out the beautiful colors even from this distance.
It’s the view from above. And it is glorious, breath-taking and conversation stopping. But you can go even farther…..READ THE REST HERE!
Bloggers Note – Thank you everybody who responded and chose to follow this blog following the post Tahrir Square – Walls and Graffiti being Freshly Pressed. I hope to respond to all your comments and appreciate that you decided to follow this blog. Here’s hoping you won’t be disappointed.
One of my readers and friends commented on the post “These are the Moments – Alexandria, Egypt” that she felt the stories from our trip to Egypt would tumble out once back in Cambridge. While they are not tumbling, they are swirling around my brain and I know I am not finished writing about them. A quote attributed to Mark Twain says that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Perhaps it is also fatal to contentment for it is hard to be content with the normal when you have experienced the extraordinary.
This post then, is an attempt to give glimpses of the extraordinary through pictures and narrative. Thank you for taking the trip along with me to Egypt, an extraordinary place with extraordinary people.
Arriving in Cairo on a Thursday afternoon is like arriving in a western nation on a Friday afternoon. There is a sense in the air that the work week is ending and as we arrived there was a celebratory feel that had nothing to do with the fact that it’s two days before Christmas and everything to do with the end of a work week. As I said in an earlier post, the comfort of familiarity greeted us immediately – we were, in many ways, home. We settled into the guest house where we were staying and then headed to Annie’s apartment on a busy street near Midan Falaki. The kusherie shop at the entrance to her building brought tantalizing smells of lentils, pasta, rice and spicy tomato sauce. Through a side entrance we took a rickety, ancient elevator careful to heed the warnings of a man who let us know that no more than three people should be riding at a time. The elevator stopped at the 9th floor, top of the building and we spent a good hour ooohing and aaahing over the view. It was incredible. The Mokattam hills stretched out miles away and a Coptic church was in the foreground. Across the street were the dusty remains of an ancient outdoor theatre, long gone but chairs still sitting ready for a show. Just below to the right we saw four tanks and ten army men in full riot gear, at the ready should any trouble erupt. This did not give us comfort but rather made us realize the force that is sometimes quietly, and other times loudly used against protesters. An early dinner of shawerma and fuul bean sandwiches was followed by chai and shisha in a coffee shop across a busy street and down a side street from the apartment. After hours of talk and laughter we headed back to Zamalek and a jet lagged sleep, fully of satisfaction and the comfort of belonging.
Tahrir Square, Bab Zuweila and More…
Friday is the Muslim Holy day and is a day off in Egypt. Sermons from mosques throughout the city are periodically heard and men gather in large numbers at local mosques to observe this holy day through prayers and meeting together. We headed out to get a lunch of fateer (Egyptian pizza) close to Tahrir Square where a large demonstration was taking place. Newspapers quoted numbers of 50,000 and more at the square. We were amazed by the passion and numbers, something that was quickly squelched during the Mubarak years and now a common occurrence. Graffiti on newly constructed walls and leftover from the uprising in January captured our attention and the lens of the camera. We took a slow walk from Tahrir Square over to the Nile where we took a boat ride, something that has long been a favorite family activity, on the Nile. Dinner at a Yemeni restaurant ended a day that will stay in our memories for many years.
We headed out to Bab Zuweila and the Khan el Khalili on Saturday, Christmas Eve. If you ever go to Cairo, Bab Zuweila is a must see, must do. Despite living in Cairo for seven years and many trips back, it was only in 2010 that I entered this medieval gate and climbed the minarets to the mosque beside the gates. The minarets give a 360 degree view of the city and it was an overwhelming sense of how small I am in this city of millions.
We took the short walk from Bab Zuweila to the Khan el Khalili market and walked into one of the many entrances to this well-known tourist destination. The spice shop we have gone to for years was still there, solid through change and revolution, pungent aromas and spices you never see in the west ready in large burlap sacks.
Despite the vendors constant shouts of “Let me help you spend your money!” “Welcome to Alaska” and “Come here, I have lovely things for you to buy!” I still love this market. I love the game of bargaining and finding treasures for pennies. I love being served tea while I pick out perfume bottles. I love ending the shopping experience with mint tea at Fishawy’s café.
After cleaning up from the dust of the city, we put on our Christmas Eve best and met at the Lebanese restaurant Taboula in the heart of Garden City. Mezzas of every kind, fresh pita bread, and aseer lemon (frothy lemon juice) was a perfect Christmas Eve meal, followed by a 10:30 pm service at the All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek. Time was rushing past and I wanted to hold it back, hold it tight so that it wouldn’t escape us like a dream. Now as I sit in Cambridge, it feels like a dream.
Christmas Day and Alexandria
No snow greeted us on Christmas day but clear skies and 68 degree weather were reminders of many past Christmases. Christmas dinner was roasted chickens from a street vendor with traditional condiments served buffet style in a high apartment overlooking Tahrir Square. We celebrated with friends of Annie’s from various places around the globe. Growing up overseas and then living overseas as long as we have makes us quite passionate and vocal about God not being an American, but rather a global God with an international vision. Christmas overlooking Tahrir was one more reminder of many of the truth of that belief.
The day after Christmas saw us on a train to Alexandria, beautiful city on the Mediterranean. You can read more here but this too was an extraordinary trip and an amazing time. The Alexandria Library is a beautiful building with a rich history and serves as both a place of learning as well as a cultural center. A must see in the city of Alexandria. This city has a different and more relaxed feel to it than Cairo – perhaps it’s the Mediterranean air that works its way into the psyche and affects everything from the pace to the general mood. It is another reminder of all that Egypt has to offer the world.
Pyramids, Bulaq and Al Azhar Park
Our last days in Cairo included family favorites. Egypt is best known for the ancient Pyramids,said to be the oldest and only remaining ancient wonders of the world. Built around 2600 BC, they are beyond what you can imagine – only this time, I stayed back for coffee and shopping with Annie while the others headed out for horseback riding out into the desert and another visit to the pyramids. I know some of you may be thinking “Are you kidding? You skipped a trip to the pyramids!” but let me assure you, I have been to them dozens of times and have been wowed every time. Plus – I didn’t want to put my 51 year-old body on a horse. The stories that came out of the trip for the rest of the family are not mine to tell but are great and include a falling horse and amazing pictures.
We ended our time on Thursday at Al Azhar Park. This park is my favorite place in Cairo besides Marty’s balcony. In a city with little green space, the park is an oasis with views that cannot be described. I wrote about this park in the post “In Praise of Green Space” so will not go into more detail here, but it is a calm and beautiful space in a city where you need to get refreshment.
Back in Cambridge Cairo feels like a dream but bearing witness in narratives is as old as life itself – so thank you for listening and letting me bear witness to our trip through this medium. I realize that even as I write, the words are far too many and I don’t want to bore. So I’ll end with pictures and hope that you want more! I have said this before, and I’ll say it many more times – it is a privilege to share just a bit of this country. It is so much more than you will see on Fox news or CNN. It is so much more than the pyramids and old mosques. It is a people and a place that move into your heart and mind so that you beg to experience more.
“We had barely drifted out of Alexandria’s harbor when I heard my father cry ‘Ragaouna Misr!’ – Take us back to Cairo! It became his personal refrain, his anthem aboard the old cargo ship…from The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit“
Just as the Call to Prayer greeted us at midday on arrival a short 9 days ago, it woke us this morning to bid us goodbye as we rushed to pack our suitcases and get to the airport to board Egypt Air Flight 985 nonstop Cairo to New York. Carefully wrapped perfume bottles, colorful scarves and other treasures unavailable to us in the bazaars in the U.S (otherwise known as “malls”) were placed into our bags to greet us on the other side. The side where memories sometimes need tangible items to awake their wonder.
The cry of our hearts has often been that of the fathers’ in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. “Ragaouna Misr!” Take us back to Cairo! Our children could verify that this was our cry for 7 years after leaving in 1996. And leaving a piece of our heart in the form of our daughter gives us more reason to want to return, to be a more consistent part of her world .
But arriving in Cambridge, my heart is satisfied. We are indeed where we are supposed to be. Unlike when we uprooted our family, we now recognize that though the cry may be loud at times, we are given the occasional gift of a visit to rekindle our hearts and spirits. Though we may still cry out “Ragaouna Misr” – sometimes like the Israelites and other times in a far healthier way, sometimes audibly and other times silently – we are living where we are for a purpose. Even as the cry comes up to my lips, I walk in and put a kettle on for tea and smell the scent of home. Right now that home is Cambridge, Massachusetts surrounded by our memories, pictures and life thousands of miles removed.
All photographs taken by Cliff Gardner, who climbed to the farthest point on the minaret.