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Charming Cairo

He first stayed for 10 days at a luxury hotel. On his second visit, much longer and very different, he lived in a tiny flat in a noisy suburb. There is no doubt that KEN DAVENPORT cherished both experiences ... in Egypt

Cairo is a traffic-clogged metropolis, totally dependent on the Nile for its survival. Here the busy Tahrir Bridge crosses one arm of the river, linking the Downtown area with Gezira Island. The slender Cairo Tower (the tallest building) makes a vain attempt to dwarf the grandeur of the river.

I MUST admit I was excited. This was to be my first trip to Africa, and I would be staying in a unique city — Cairo, the capital of Egypt. Ten days at a five-star international hotel, viewing the Nile and visiting legendary places — this would surely be unforgettable.

So it turned out to be. I remember the first glimpse of the Giza pyramids, gleaming under a dazzling winter sky; the treasures of Tutankhamen, focal point of the Egyptian Museum; the great domed alabaster mosque of Mohammed Ali; even the scramble for the ancient buses or the gleaming new underground railway system, where passengers of nervous disposition take pains to avoid the new-fangled escalators and youths duck under ticket barriers to dodge the fare.

My visit to the old souq of Khan el-Khalili, paradise for the tourist and the shopkeeper alike, too was memorable.

I arrived just as a freak winter downpour turned the dusty alleyways to chocolate mud, sending tradesmen and visitors scurrying in confusion. My holiday happened to fall during Ramadan. That in itself was unforgettable. From dawn till dusk during this month, every Muslim is meant to fast — and, in Cairo, the rule is for the most part scrupulously observed. Most Egyptians will refuse even a drop of water during daylight hours.

Fasting, I am told, makes a man more compassionate. Outside some of the city mosques, just before sunset, I notice rows of trestle tables set up on the street to provide food for the poor and elderly. Compassion in action!

One day I am on an underground train just as the day's fast ends. A man — quite a poor man — strides down the carriage with a large bag of dates, carefully counting out the fruit for each fellow passenger so that all can partake. Another day, in a fast-food restaurant just around sundown, the first few customers have ordered and received their burgers and French fries a little too soon. Without any prompting, even the youngest sit at their tables, talking quietly and ignoring the food in front of them until they know it is the proper time to break their fast.

For all their piety, I learn that Egyptians are also sociable, exuberant folk. Few are rich and for most life is a struggle, but they relish what they have — the company of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Once the sun goes down on Ramadan, they begin to celebrate, gathering together to eat and enjoy the hours of darkness.

As night descends, Cairo buzzes with life. People pour onto the streets from all directions. I glance at my watch one night while drinking tea at a busy pavement café and discover it is 1 a.m.. Shops, cafes and restaurants everywhere remain open until the early hours of the morning. Even in the back alleys in the remoter suburbs, there is activity for half the night.

Some folk stay at home, of course, but often only because they are entertaining guests. Egyptians must surely be the most hospitable people in the world. And by 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., when they have eaten and talked and laughed their fill, most are ready for sleep. But they are careful to be up again, well before dawn, to take a final snack and a last glass of water or sweet, black tea before the fast begins again.

It is soon time for me to leave Cairo, but even my departure brings one last treat. As the Egyptair jet rises above the desert, we circle and all the city landmarks become clearly visible — the Citadel on its hilltop, the Nile beneath us like a grey ribbon with the two islands of Roda and Gezira in its midst, and there in the distance the pyramids. Then like a mirage it is gone and there is just the desert below ...

I do not know then that within six months I will be setting off here on a second visit, much longer and very different. It will be in the heat of summer and this time I will be staying in a tiny flat in the midst of a crowded, noisy suburb among ordinary Egyptian families. This will be a very far cry from the sanitised isolation of the hotel.

Summer duly arrives and I am back in Cairo. I remember my first night in that little flat so well. All windows are open to air the rooms and with only shutters to keep out little intruders the level of noise is unbearable. Human noise, mechanical noise, animal noise, traffic noise, it just doesn't stop and I lie wide awake all night. Yet, for the next month, I will sleep like a baby every night and never hear a sound.

Almost all Cairene homes, I discover, are flats. The older ones of brick (sometimes mudbrick) sand in blocks just a few storeys high with plain brick balconies where the residents live out the cool of the evening almost within touching distance of their neighbours across the narrow dirt road. The newer ones may be concrete and 15 or 20 stories high — gaunt, ugly buildings on an inhuman scale. But, low-rise or high-rise, the people remain very much the same.

Where traffic is infrequent, the men from the lower flats may sit out on the street late into the night, smoking their sheesha or sipping glasses of tea, hibiscus or tamarind. Some watch evening TV in the open air too. One shopkeeper in my neighbourhood brings a portable set into the little street, places it by his shop window and sets his chair by the wall to watch. This way, he attracts passers-by and keeps a vigilant eye for late business. When there is a football match, a small crowd gathers. On these occasions, my neighbour Mahmoud and his son Mohammed set up their satellite receiver at roof level to watch the football undisturbed — except, perhaps, by the chicken next door.

Yes, in the older suburbs, the flat roof-space is used to keep livestock — pigeons, poultry, turkeys, even goats. Farmyard sounds and smells reach down to the road below, while tradesmen pass along the street calling out their wares — bottled gas, watermelons, bread, eggs, prickly pears — and the tenants on the upper floors secure their purchasers by lowering wicker baskets on ropes.

Sometimes I find a knife-grinder at work on the street corner or a tailor busy with his sewing machine on the road outside. Once, returning home by taxi, we turn a corner to find the whole roadway filled with a salesman's display of carpets. My taxi driver merely shrugs his shoulders and takes another route. A couple of times, after dark, I find an entire street taken over by a wedding party, with bride and groom serenaded by solo singer, keyboard accompanist, rhythmic drums and perhaps the shrill ululating chorus of female guests. Time seems to stand still as one imagines a similar scene here, perhaps 4,000 years ago, in that other Egypt of the pyramids and the pharaohs.

The lifestyle of this neighbourhood works well in the heat of Cairo's summer. The narrow streets and the high buildings ensure there is usually a little shade, and much of the business is considered in the cooler hours long after sunset. I buy milk at 2.15 a.m. from an eight-year-old lad serving at his father's tiny shop. The more modern suburbs may have broader streets, some with trees, the shops are bigger and the higher buildings often have lifts. But bigger buildings cast longer shadows and the cool balconies and the wicker baskets have survived intact.

My lasting impression of this city is of its people — hardy folk, long suffering, warm-hearted and good-natured, who love their families and are famed for their hospitality and humour. I think of the children I came to know, of seven-year-old Rana, the sensible little mother who can always be trusted to take care of the babies, Dudu, the little charmer, three years old and with the most beguiling smile, and Dudu's tiny sister, Aya, who looks so frail. Of Biskout, the lad who lives for football and dreams of playing for Real Madrid, and of the five-year old urchin from the flat downstairs (I never did learn his name) who greeted me every day with a toothy grin, a hearty handshake and a military salute.

Since I left Egypt sometime ago he has repeatedly asked after me and I'm told he swears he saw me in the market just the other day! Then I think of my dear friends, Ahmed and Noha (Mahmoud's daughter), who married a year ago and now have a little baby girl, Sara, born four days before I arrived. Sara is now doing fine and is her parents' pride and joy.

Cairo in summer is a hot and thirsty place, with afternoon temperatures that often soar way above 40°C. Those who have a chance slip away for a holiday on the sandy beaches of Alexandria, Egypt's second city, cooler in the Mediterranean breezes. Today a few workplaces — the better hotels, the most modern offices, the smarter Downtown stores and shopping malls — are air-conditioned. But 90 per cent of the population must simply cope, seeking a place in the afternoon shade or perhaps an electric fan. Like other cities, Cairo too has many problems: poverty, overcrowding, serious pollution, a fragile infrastructure, a sky-high birth-rate. By the time the Nile, the world's longest river, finally reaches the city it has flowed across desert for almost half its length. The land is parched and rain falls sparsely for just three months of the year.

With a teeming population of some 15 million today, Cairo is both the largest Arab city and the largest city in Africa. If God wills, I'll go back some day soon to see all my friends there again — of this I have no doubt.

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