After spending every day in taxis or trains for over the past week, I wanted to spend my last few days in Egypt a little closer to home, or that is to say the little nest of dusty/sandy clothing and discarded tami’yah wrappers. Obviously, the fact that you’re reading these entries a month later means I certainly wasn’t typing up blog articles; I was basically sightseeing and sleeping – and that’s about it!

Islamic Cairo, as the tour book calls it, was only a 10 minute taxi ride from the hostel. The driver, seeing that I was a foreigner who spoke some Arabic, started gesticulating wildly and speaking in guttural accented classical Arabic about how the war in Iraq was a sign of Western arrogance, as I stared at him helpless and attempted to point out to him that I only spoke street Arabic. Needless to say, he was helpful in pointing me in the right direction to Khan al-Khalili, the famous market that Haitham and I had passed through briefly last week at night.

Fishawi Coffeehouse in the Khan is one of the few places where you can actually find twice as many white people than Arabs

Fishawi Coffeehouse in the Khan is one of the few places where you can actually find twice as many white people than Arabs

After seeing these semi-enclosed markets, packed with tourists, both in Jerusalem and Damascus, there wasn’t really much new to see in Khan al-Khalil, unless you really like arguing and haggling over prices and bumping into people. I winced at the coffee prices, then chuckled to myself when I realized that it was “merely” the price of a cup of coffee in America, as opposed to the dirt-cheap prices I’ve come to expect throughout the Arab world. It was one of those moments when I wondered, yet again, how I will eventually cope and readjust to returning to America…someday.

This master smith on Muezz al-deen street makes the steel, bronze, and iron tops for church steeples and mosque minarets. A few were sitting outside his door that were taller than I am!

This master smith on Muezz al-deen street makes the steel, bronze, and iron tops for church steeples and mosque minarets. A few were sitting outside his door that were taller than I am!

It was only after I found my way out of the narrow streets of the market and back onto a road that things quieted down and I was able to walk without being jostled. Muizz al-Deen street must have one of the highest mosque-per-square-meter densities in the world; it seemed that every few steps would have me passing by another ancient stone building with robed doorkeepers inviting me to step inside and take a look around. As with all religious sites I’ve ever seen in the Middle East, there are no charges to enter ancient mosques and churches, but of course they wouldn’t mind being tipped a bit if they show you around.

The simply-adorned tomb of the sheikh Qalaun, in the mosque/madrassa that now bears his name

The simply-adorned tomb of the sheikh Qalaun, in the mosque/madrassa that now bears his name

I stopped by the huge Mosque of al-Hakim at the end of Muizz al-Deen street, and was treated to a tour by the “caller,” or mu’ezzin who makes the Call to Prayer five times a day from the minaret. I was tempted to ask him and the imam (a large man who sat by the door smoking argeilleh and grunting at tourists) whether the stories about al-Hakim were true, that he was a bloodthirsty ruler of Cairo during the Fatmid era and killed at a whim, but decided against it. Mahmoud the mu’ezzin was happy to lead me around, and I explained to him that I’d tip him more if I was a real American tourist as opposed to a teacher visiting from Jordan. “How much did he give?” grunted the imam as we came back to the door. “Only ten pounds,” muttered Mahmoud. The imam clicked his tongue, snorted dismissively and went back to his argeilleh. I should have mentioned to Mahmoud earlier that I could understand Arabic.

Mahmoud proudly told me that his mosque had held as many as 4,000 worshippers during the Ramadan season, and looking down its huge carpeted expanse, I could believe it

Mahmoud proudly told me that his mosque had held as many as 4,000 worshippers during the Ramadan season, and looking down its huge carpeted expanse, I could believe it

As I turned back to retrace my steps, I could see the ancient wall separating the old city from new Cairo only a hundred meters away. My book said that sometimes, if you were lucky, you’d find someone’s palms to grease and they’d let you up onto the top of the wall to look out over the city. Sure enough, a few guys were smoking argeilleh conveniently closed to the large door in the gate, held shut with a padlock that just begged to be opened. One winked at me and asked me how I was doing, to which I responded in Arabic and told them that I was a “recently arrived student in Cairo.” I know what you want to see, that man laughed, and after I slipped him a five, he unlocked the door and led me upstairs to photograph from the rooftops as much as I wanted. When I accidentally included him in a video, he got all nervous and said something rapidly that sounded on part with, “what, you work for the intelligence or something?” He vanished soon afterward and left me to find my own way out of the twisting tower. The Americans on the train a few nights ago were right – bakhsheesh bribes really do work, if you know how to apply them in just the right way!

As the sun started to go down, I returned to central Cairo to visit the towering Al-Jezeera tower. “Jezeera,” besides being a relatively well-known Arabic news channel, means “island” in Arabic. Sure enough, the shimmering lattice-like structure is located on the well-to-do central island of Cairo, surrounded by a beautiful tropical jungle. Wikipedia can do a better job of showing night pictures of this lovely tower, which Haitham had decried a week earlier for its rapid price inflation. “It used to be 5 pounds to go up to the top of the tower…now it’s 70 pounds!” I had to admit that it was rather steep, but then I remember how much the Empire State Building costs to go up, and I decided not to complain too much.

The eagle on it looks like it would be better suited for the Federal Reserve building or something

The eagle on it looks like it would be better suited for the Federal Reserve building or something

The views were great (though predictably polluted and cloudy), especially to watch the sun go down and the city’s lights snap to life, but I wish that the young men wearing ridiculous pharaonic headdresses would realize that no, we do not need to pay someone to take our picture on the top of a tower. A man took my camera from me gently, photographed me several times, and then handed it back to me. He then stood and waited expectantly. I told him, “We’re surrounded by tourists, my friend; any one of them will take a picture of me for free. Sorry, but you’re not getting any bakhsheesh from me.” A few young American college tourists asked me questions about the Middle East and whether all the countries demanded constant tips. “Not my Jordan,” I said proudly. “The taxis have meters, the buildings are sparkling white, and you can breath the air.”

"But surely this picture is worth 10 pounds, sir!"

"But surely this picture is worth 10 pounds, sir!"

I glanced at my watch and realized that it was 7 o’clock, and I was about to miss the evening Easter service at the Coptic church I had visited a few days earlier. I raced back to the metro station and got to Mar Girgis as quickly as possible. When I entered, there were surprisingly few congregants. I took a seat at the back of the church and smelled the familiar eye-stinging incense. After chanting in original Coptic for a bit, a few young men at the front of the church got out some bells and chimes and began to rhythmically beat them together. It sounded nice though, and because I wasn’t sure what was considered appropriate for a church service, I risked only a few seconds of video.

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I saw Monica, the girl I had met when I visited before, seated a few rows ahead of me. She, like most of the other women in the church, were wearing long shawls covering their hair. I’ve noticed at Arabic churches in Jordan, Arab women do the same, highlighting the ancient religious sense of propriety regardless of which Abrahamic faith you choose. It reminds me yet again of the utter hypocrisy of the French government’s decree to ban the hijab when I’m sure they would never think of doing the same to a bunch of nuns in their habits or Arab Christian women going to church…or at least, none that I’ve read about.

I stayed for about half an hour to listen to the songs, which merged fluidly between somewhat-recognizable Arabic Christian hymns and completely-unintelligible Coptic chants. I asked a boy near the gate why there were so few people there, and he said that since the service went until midnight, people almost never stay for the entire thing but instead come and go throughout the evening.

Back at the hostel now, I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do tomorrow for my last day in Cairo, but hopefully I’ll make the most of it!