As the taxi crawls through a slow-moving current of continually honking cars, we can’t stop gazing out our windows at the vast, rolling megalopolis, eerily lit up even at night. Cairo looks both the same and not the same to me. Some cars appear to be new, but a surprising number are just as beat-up as the ones I remember, with rusty Egyptian plates. Some of the billboards look Western and even have words in English (many, many cell phone ads), but down on the streets, the buildings and storefronts that were sooty and antiquated in 1969 appear still to be sooty and antiquated. We see hundreds and hundreds of apartment buildings that are either going up or being torn down. It’s impossible to tell.
But the smell of the place is the same, a musky aroma that I can describe only as a combination of green oranges, roasted pistachios, rotting trash and diesel. It speaks of night markets and food vendors and hookah smokers playing checkers under hanging kerosene lamps.
For the next few days, though, that Cairo smell is one of the rare familiar experiences I encounter. I can’t seem to find my footing in this city. Instead of being nestled in the suburb of Maadi, as in our childhood (we decided to save our old home for our last day), we are in the mini fortress of a Marriott protected by bomb-sniffing dogs and enclosing not just the Omar Khayyam Casino but also an American steakhouse, a Tuscan ristorante, a British pub and, weirdest of all, a “Roy’s Country Kitchen.” Buzzing around the casino’s slot machines are Egyptian women dressed more gaudily than I’ve seen patrons in Vegas dressed: We’re talking off-the-shoulder minidresses, six-inch heels. Now floats by a woman in a burka—that’s a full black burka, with only a slit for the eyes—but even she is sporting painted orange toenails and a sparkly Gucci purse.
We try to walk to the Cairo Museum. It’s not far, technically, but the city doesn’t exactly cater to pedestrians. Sidewalks suddenly disappear into traffic lanes, and overpasses, when they occur, are like Escher staircases that spill you out onto the wrong side of a cacophonous eight-lane thoroughfare. I also have to confess that this city, to my eyes, is not a beautiful one. It is so destroyed in parts (some buildings burned in earlier protests have not been repaired, their windows still blackened) and so not verdant that I face each foray into its streets with a bit of dread. And yet, because I hate to blame a city, I blame myself for being a person who has somehow lost the capacity for joy, pleasure and adventure.
To get to the old bazaars at Khan El-Khalili that my mom used to love, we take a 30-minute taxi ride. The old Coptic part of the city features churches and entire blocks that appear carved out of mud. The bazaar provides a welcome sea of color: alleyway after alleyway of ornately decorated bags and dresses and rugs fluttering pennant-like above cunning Pharaonic and animal figures of alabaster and brass and lapis lazuli (or at least a substance that looks like lapis lazuli). Taking comfort in the fact that they are selling exactly the same souvenirs, I buy a mother-of-pearl chessboard, toy camels and gilt hassocks that duplicate the 40-year-old ones we have at home. But the continual haggling in a country where few price lists are ever posted is challenging, as is our quest for familiar landmarks and people. The maestros and ballet mistresses we knew have either died or moved away—to Paris, Berlin, New York. The Cairo Opera House, built of wood, burned down in 1971. “That’s where it was!” my sister says, throwing her arm out toward an apartment building covered with advertisements. “Cool!” I say, with more enthusiasm than I feel. Preliminary quizzing of drivers suggests that back in once-idyllic Maadi, our childhood school has moved to a new location, there is a soccer club instead of a tennis club, and no one can confirm that even the street our house used to be on still exists.