Two weeks before the Egyptian Revolution broke out, I spent about 2 weeks going around Egypt. My first and last stop of the trip was Cairo, and though I have a love-hate relationship with the city, we have nothing but love and admiration for the kind, friendly, occasionally skeevy, yet still charming Cairenes we met. I spent majority of our free time at a cafe right on Midan Tahrir, where the revolution that will forever change the Middle East and the Arab world was to play out in front of the whole world over the next several weeks. At this point though, Midan Tahrir was just like any other square in a big city. It was loud, chaotic, crowded, intense and very overwhelming, yet there were pockets of peace and quiet. Mostly in the teahouses that surround the square. Majority of the patrons of these teahouses are local men, those middle-aged and over. The younger and cooler crowd of Cairo prefer the more Westernized confines of McDonalds, KFC, and Hardees.
Sitting at any of these cafes for an extended period of time, you get to see the gamut of Egyptian society. I see young women wearing the latest Western trends with a Muslim twist, a common example of which is wearing a tight and sheer long sleeved shirt underneath a bright tank or a shirt with a lower slightly risqué neckline. I see young men with Bluetooth headsets permanently attached to one ear and a mobile phone on one hand. I see the old babushkas from Upper Egypt in town to sell their wares or perhaps see their more urbane kinsmen. I see the street urchins alternating between being adorable and begging for money, to being nefarious and picking the pockets of unsuspecting tourists. I see families both young and old out for an early evening stroll and enjoying all the wonderful confections being offered by the myriad of street vendors.
Inside the café itself is another world. Traditionally the confine of men, they feel free to relax here and while their days away. The cafes are usually hazy from the smoke of the dozens of hookah lit at the same time. The smell of sweet tobacco interlaced with the slightly bitter notes of black tea and the smoky pungency of grilled meat permeate the air and blankets the city. This also becomes the most lingering memory you have of the city. The regulars at these cafes abide by an invisible seating arrangement tacitly agreed upon by everyone. Pity the hapless foreigner who unwittingly seats themselves at one of the regular’s tables for the looks of utmost disdain and contempt thrust upon you will very much compel you to leave.
However if a foreigner, man or woman, comes in and expresses genuine interest and appreciation for the art of drinking tea and doing nothing, he or she will be rewarded with some of the best conversations they will have in their life. The naturally curious Egyptian will inquire not only about your name and where you came from, but will also draw out your opinions about different matters ranging from Clinton’s libido and American politics, to whether or not Chicagoans actually worship Al Capone. Surprisingly, despite Michael Jordan’s worldwide fame and all of the Bulls’ great accomplishments in the 90s, Egyptians seem to think that Al Capone was the only Chicagoan of note. Every other Egyptian I met either called me Al Capone or asked me about him like he was a family member waiting back home.
In the week I spent sitting at the teahouse, I’ve met a lot of people and became good friends with a few. The guy selling chicken kababs next door never fails to crack a joke every time I walk by. The perfume guy is still trying to get me to buy something from his shop even though I’ve declined everyday at least twice a day for the last week or so I’ve been in town. The young guy serving tea already knows that the hookah and guava juice are for me. i’ve come to recognize some of the regulars as well. There’s the older man who sidles up to the owner every time he comes in, and they will spend the rest of the day reading newspapers together and occasionally discussing what they read. There’s the National Geographic magazine salesman who seems to be more interested in napping than drinking his tea or selling his magazines for that matter. There is the group of 4 men who always reminds me of “those” girls in high school. The pretty, cliquey ones who always think they are better than everybody else. There is the quintessential hen-picked husband whose only refuge and source of respite from his nagging wife is the café. There’s the pair of theology students who sit towards the back, doesn’t interact with anybody and just looks at everybody with such mistrust.
And of course, I can never forget the “boy band” boys, a bit of an anomaly in the US and most Western countries, however quite rampant and in vogue in the Middle East. These are the groups of five to eight young men in their late teens to their early thirties, reasonably handsome for the most part, always kitted in their standard uniform of black leather jacket, tight t-shirt, and dark jeans which leave nothing to the imagination, and doused in enough perfume that will make even the most hardy Macy’s perfume saleslady choke. Let’s not even talk about the identical hairstyles. Heaven forbid a poor lizard falls on their perfectly coiffed heads, poor thing will starve trying to get out of that overly gelled jungle.
In all my interactions with these vastly different set of individuals, I have never felt or experienced any animosity from them despite the painfully obvious fact that I am an American tourist. Granted they hated both Bush Junior and Senior, and all the evil they represent to them, but they knew to separate them, the American government, from me, the American nobody. Nothing which Fox News and friends have tried to make us believe is closer from the truth that we were seeing and experiencing. If Bill O’Reilly and his cohorts have their way, they would have us believe that Arabs and Muslims in general, hate us so much that would pretty much shoot us on sight. The simple truth is, everybody we met were the same people as us. They had families to support, children to raise, lives to live, bills to pay, in-laws to deal with, and holidays to take. They really couldn’t care less that we believed in different gods or practiced different traditions from them. They are more interested in knowing how we approach the same problems they were having. Questions such as, “Do you think feeding my child fast food makes me a bad parent?” or “Should I let my in-laws live with us?” are discussed more often than religion or politics. At the end of the day, you realize that we are one and the same. Same people, same problems, but with different clothes and different food. Though quite frankly, I think their food is way better.