It must have been somewhere along the airport road heading downtown that I became aware I had fallen madly in love. The spell the city had put on me had been hypnotic and swift and as I opened the car window sighing and inhaling the dusty dawn air I knew I was done for.
This city seemed like a mysterious man dressed like a Saharan Tuareg warrior. Standing on the edge of the vast desert he seemed to speak to me in a tongue I couldn’t quite understand and knowing this his eyes danced playfully as he beckoned me to gaze towards the dowry chest that he was opening. Picking up the glittering gems my eyes fell upon all the things I had ever wanted … the pink light from a reflected moon caught on an ocean of the purest sand, ornate Fatamid doors handcrafted by a man who had turned to dust centuries ago, faded pages written over in Kufic script, the dusk light seeping through the arches of an Abyassid mosque while, above, crenellations seemed to dance like the way the people on paper doll chains do, crumbling Belle Epoque apartment buildings on carbon monoxide boulevards, the calm, balmy air above the Nile at dusk, the scent of earth and the cold touch of stone along serpentine alleyways and above them all a million voices proclaiming the greatness of God. The realisation that there could exist a place so beautifully aligned to my soul made me fall silent. I realised the Magical City really did exist and it was called Cairo.
I don’t know why I was so different as a child and why now I was being drawn to Cairo instead of London and all the other “usuals.” Around the age of four I had almost died of meningitis and maybe at that time somewhere in my psyche I had decided to really live, to explore, to live life to the fullest. In a way I guess I could never quite forget that I had been granted a second chance at life. While others were playing with toy soldiers and dolls I, in my mind, was travelling amongst the stars. I wanted to see everything, to know everything, to feel everything. During my childhood adventures in dusty attics and along tree branches I knew I had already found treasure. It was the cover of one of my grandmother’s old records and on it a photo of the dome of a mosque. How I would look at it for hours, mesmerized by the ornate patterns and hints of the exotic. Later at around eight years old I was awestruck by a photo of the Taj Mahal and would draw it over and over. I already knew back then I would see them all one day. I was aware of Islam even before I knew the name of the language I spoke or the street I lived in.
My journey towards love, towards Cairo, had been a long one. Over the years I had wandered across many cities and some of them had even charmed me. I had been in search of something I couldn’t quite explain, a driving force you could say, and like a tiny fish in a vast ocean I knew I had to persevere, to continue. Like lovers those cities had stood before me holding bronze scales in their hands balancing their treasures which, in the end, could never quite match mine.
There had been Manhattan, it’s vibrant lights and optimism matching the energetic bursts of my teenage years. Then there had been Isfahan and how on one starry night I had noticed the moonlight caught in the azure tiles of the dome of it’s vast mosque and how to console myself when leaving I had carried off it’s heart, a broken piece of glazed tile which I still treasure today. Then there had been my great love which had reigned over me for nine years, the city of Delhi and it’s old ramshackle Muslim quarter of Shahjahanabad. It was the way the gingerbread sandstone of the Mughal architecture and the red cloth of women’s saris had made me feel, the way stranger’s faces had peered out to me from behind the wooden latice screens of ancient havelis. On top of that there had been the frenetic streetscapes of Delhi itself, a Dickensian underworld full of street urchins and the dreams they held, renewed in their eyes by the sunlight of every dawn and how at night, dejected, those same eyes seemed to soften and resign themselves to what life had so cruelly thrown at them. Delhi though, in hindsight, had been the kind of lover that had been quite brutal. The kind of lover who could reduce you to tears with the flick of an eye and who would try to kiss you better at night.
Cairo on the other hand released an optimism within me without question. Since that first day I have returned to the city a number of times and walked it’s streets for many hours to try and pinpoint, to try and understand, but each time I seem to move further towards oblivion. It’s hard to say what it is that draws me there. It could be it’s traffic clogged boulevards and abandoned artdeco cinemas, or timewarped Café American where men in suits seem to work for the CIA or Mossad, or it’s busy sidewalks where you still see old waiters standing outside Café Riche in tattered tuxedos where, inside, amongst rickety chairs and tables hang faded photographs of old Egyptian writers and filmstars of long ago, maybe it’s when drinking Qahwa Arabiya I stare out towards the streets and notice an old type of glamour, where at times the call to prayer seems repeated through every radio in every shop. The Islamic Paris and yet so much more than Paris could ever be.
As I have grown older I think one of the most important things I have learned is that life is not so much about what you say or do but more about the energy that you project towards others. Humans seem to like bright, shiny things and seeing as that is how I feel in Cairo it’s inhabitants seem to be drawn to me in the most incredible ways. One fine afternoon I remember walking through a poor neighbourhood at the foot of the Citadel where I went around with a gang of teenage girls and how they told me about their lives, how they had never heard of the country I had been born in, how they loved the color of my hair and shade of lipstick, how they admired me because my hotel was near the Nile and I was lucky enough to look at it’s waters everyday, how I became aware that luck to those girls was nothing more than to simply be able to look at a river.
I will never forget the moment one afternoon when, while waiting for a taxi, I glanced across the dusty dual carriageway to gaze upon the most beautiful skyline I have ever seen in my life, in that instant I wished a taxi would never arrive. Why I didn’t photograph that skyline I do not know. How to describe it? I can only say it was medieval, exotic, Aladdin, an oasis of minarets and palm trees. I suspect it was a group of tombs within the City of the Dead, a vast area where over a million people live amongst the corpses.
Cairo is a city of surprises too, where on my birthday while walking amongst the pyramids in Giza a group of men had followed me and whistled and called me “Hot Girl! Hot Girl!” over and over again, how it had taught me about myself. I could never have imagined in middle age being described as hot or even as a girl! The pyramids for me were just a footnote though. To me Cairo has little to do with Pharonic Egypt or Tutankhamun, to me the city is Al Qahira, the Islamic city named after the planet Mars which astronomers had noted was in ascend when they were attempting to name the city, Mars, the warrior, the victorious. An infinite exoticism so perfectly balanced, yet it’s beauty seemed to hold in it’s hand a trace of savage.
It was on my first day with jetlag and unable to sleep after a long flight from China that, half dazed, I had wandered into the old Fatamid city. Under a scorching sun I had sought refuge along darkened alleyways, touching cold marble and lost, dressed in a cocktail dress and high heels I remember I had stepped over dead cats and animal entrails, had peered into the eyes of terrified rabbits caged next to the butcher’s slab, through swarms of flies and clouds of snowy dust thrown up by men hammering names onto pearly white grave stones, and how I had felt burning sparks on my skin as I passed the blacksmith, how my eyes had gazed upon the glint of ornate goldleaf calligraphy above a half submerged doorway which was being devoured further by discarded newspapers and amongst it all lay a sleeping leper. Upon my magic carpet odyssey I had reached the foot of a gigantic, honeycomb gate which seemed to tower above me, topped off by two stunningly beautiful minarets.
Sometimes the stars align so perfectly and that is what happened as I reached the top of one of those minarets as, on cue, what seemed like a thousand muezzins called the faithful to pray as white birds flew in unison through a cobalt sky. I had been reminded of a day at the end of the 20th century when I had stood on a bridge in Luxembourg City and had watched a solar eclipse and, as the sun blackened I had, for a split second, forgot who I was. Lost in that celestial moment I had become aware I was wearing old clothes of crude, rough fabric as if I were back in the dark ages. I felt, possibly, I had viewed an eclipse back then too. It was a very strange feeling, something I have never been able to forget or to figure out. A conscious out of body experience I guess. Timeless. That moment above Cairo was almost the same, profound and majestic. The sensory overload one of the highlights of my life. I always return to those minarets now whenever I visit the city to coincide with the call to prayer and everytime I try to absorb the city below into my being, to make it a part of me for eternity. I have come to learn that the gate is called Bab Zuweila, a place steeped in history, most of it gory.
I have my favorite haunts in Cairo. One of them being a little nondescript teahouse which I had discovered that first day. It was after climbing that minaret I had walked further past plastic orange chairs and merchants frying food on the street that I had noticed the red petals of a tree and, captivated by the way it contrasted so deeply onto the walls of an ancient looking mosque, I had stood there for a few minutes. I sat down across the street from it at a sidewalk table of that very teahouse. It is in that teahouse I learned to love sugary jet black tea and also learned how to shoo away flies while at the same time enjoying the streetscapes. I find places like Milan and Zurich very boring now, very airbrushed. In those cities you wouldn’t see a family of six zoom past all balanced onto a single moped or a ricksaw passing it’s sole passenger a cow’s head or the indecipherable calls of merchants which go on from dawn till dusk. On that first day an elderly gentleman must have noticed me staring at that mosque and pulling out an Egyptian fifty pound note he showed me that the mosque printed on it was the very same mosque I was staring at, called Qogmas Al-Ishaqi. I love sitting in that teahouse now and have enjoyed the subtle changes of that tree in all seasons and watching the people and traffic go by. Sometimes I will go inside the mosque, like stepping inside a gigantic treasure box of stained glass.
To me Cairo is the most exciting city in the world right now and the only one I long to return to, the one I think about all of the time, the only one I gush about to my friends, the only one who can seduce me, the only one whose treasures can match mine, the place named after the stars, the place that lives up so perfectly to it’s nickname, The Mother of the Earth.