As evening falls, the thick brown smog floating above the river Nile slowly drifts away. Along the embankment, white party boats, their hulls wrapped in a flashing rainbow of LED lights, blast Arabic pop music across the water. Dozens of these small craft line the riverbank behind the Egyptian Museum. Their amiable owners calling out to the couples and packs of youths teaming along the crowded sidewalk, inviting them to take a ride.
Directly adjacent, the six-lane boulevard is a crush of gridlocked cars, many dating from the time of Sadat, belching out plumes of black smoke. The carefree nighthawks of Cairo remain oblivious to the choking air as they wander along the cooling pavement—the open air cafes spill out into the streets with nagili smoking men who debate until dawn. Along the side streets, crowds stream in and out of clothing shops, a blinding flood of fluorescent light bathing their faces.
The city awakens at night, shaking off its cloak of polluted heat as the religiously minded retreat indoors to sleep, leaving the streets open to secular pursuits of social pleasure.
Distant remnants of the revolution are scattered around corners. Police remain few in this military state of sparse crime and censored dissent. Yet, walking alongside the river, the passing faces are animated with life, the strain of the present pushed aside for an evening. Many eyes meet mine, all with a questioning intrigue. My clothes are cut too tight, my skin too fair. I draw unexpected attention.
I catch the eye of a late twenty-something near the 15 May Bridge, which connects Cairo to Gezira Island. His black Adidas tracksuit seems a heavy choice in the heat. We cruise each other for a few moments; our heads turn and eyes lock. My pace slackens; he stops. I smile at the beautiful universality of a pick-up and walk towards him.
“Hello. How are you?” I ask.
He stares at me for a moment, a bit uncertain of my intentions.
“I am well,” he starts, his large brown eyes staring deeply into mine, “where are you from?”
I tell him I’m American and am visiting alone.
“Alone? You are with no one? Are you not scared?” he asks.
“What is there to be afraid of? The revolution is over. There is more violence in America than here,” I reply
We walk to the railing overlooking the river and share a cigarette.
“Would you like to get some coffee?” he asks.
“Yes. What is your name?”
“Jilal. Come with me.”
We cross by the Hilton and walk along Ramses street, the raised highway leading to the 6th of October Bridge is suspended above us. The neighborhood is a crumbling patchwork of dusty buildings without age, straining under the weight of history.
Jilal leads me to a small café where a few dozen tables are scattered in the street, all packed with groups of men sipping coffee from small red paper cups. We find an empty table against the building and order two espressos.
Across the street, under a cluster of withering dust-laden trees, a sinewy shirtless man is surrounded by a group of onlookers. He turns around in a flourish, brandishing a large saber in his hand. I glance at Jilal who smiles nervously. The performer raises the sword above his head, then slowly inches it down his throat, deeper and deeper until it nearly disappears into his mouth. The crowd bursts out into applause as the man extracts the sword from the depths of his body. He repeats this a few more times as we look on with delight and discomfort. Finally, he bows gracefully, collects the money tossed at his feet, then walks down the street.
“Is that common to see?” I ask Jilal.
He shrugs his shoulders, “No, I haven’t seen before, but I don’t think it is unusual. In New York would it be?”
I pause, “No, there would be the same reaction.”
An hour later I am in Jilal’s ramshackle hotel room that he shares with three others; the shuttered window does little to drown out the noise of the crowded street. I wonder how he can sleep here, but he seems content. We are alone in the room, but must keep the door ajar so as not to arouse the suspicions of the desk attendant in the hall. He switches on a portable DVD player, turns up the volume, and leads me behind the open door.
“You must be quiet, okay?” He says.
I nod my head yes.
I don’t get back to my hotel until past midnight; a small quiet establishment on the top floor of an apartment building in the affluent Zamalek district on Gezira Island. The hotel manager, a friendly and rather eccentric women in her late-forties, berates me for staying out so late and cautions me to be careful at night. I promise I will heed her warnings, but an hour later, unable to sleep, I wander out into the dark streets.
Zamalek is home to many foreign countries’ embassies; sprawling protectorate-era mansions tucked away on narrow tree-lined streets. Outside the gates of each house are small guard shacks where two or three Kalashnikov-toting soldiers pass away the hours. These young men, all in their early-twenties, are the only people I encounter along the deserted streets. Algeria, Oman, China, Hungary and dozens of other residences are clustered together, all employing the same squadron of gatekeepers.
I pass one of the guard booths and gaze inside the open window, two soldiers rest against each other sharing a pair of headphones. Another soldier stands outside leaning against the wall. We lock eyes, my face feels hot. I continue walking. Someone whistles, I slow and turn. Two heads look out through the window at me as the third soldier approaches.
He says something I don’t understand. I say something he doesn’t understand. We stand there looking at each other for a moment, then he grabs my wrist and leads me across the street to a building under construction. Threading his way through an alley, he takes me to a garage filled with bags of sand and a concrete mixer. The ancient Kalashnikov, probably last used in the 1950s, is slung across his back. I don’t arrive at my hotel until sunrise.
Later that day I drive an hour south to the pyramid of Djoser. Two men dressed in jellabiyas motion me towards the entrance. The site is nearly empty save the workers shuttling across the scaffolding that runs up the side of the pyramid—their hammering echoing across the wide expanse of sand to the Necropolis, then drifting out into the endless hazy expanse beyond. The towering pyramid, the oldest in Egypt, is composed of six staggered levels, mastabas.
A vast void of time separates the present from this monumental feat of human civilization. Modern Cairo, and much of the modern world, will not last even half as long as this totem of engineering achievement. Its stepped edges worn down by two millennia of sand-whipped winds, yet it remains—a regal temple, in honor of one man, and a civilization of millions.