Cairo, Egypt Saturday, February 4, l995
It's 4 PM Cairo time and I'm having a difficult time getting through to the Arabesque Restaurant. Some problem with the phone number. On the other hand, the view through the window and past the terrace is of the Nile and the ghosted images of two of the great Giza pyramids glimpsed between apartment buildings across the river. Not bad.
Our flight was blessedly uneventful, even OK since we were able to get two seats apiece and they ran three movies. Susan has a cold so she had a bit of an ear decompression problem but is doing alright.
We're met by Khaled (pronounced Chay/led with a guttural 'Ch') whom we immediately dub a 'New Yorker' as he puts us in the shorter Egyptian citizen passport line and positions himself at the start of the baggage carrousel. We ride into town in a black jeep-like vehicle. It's cool and raining lightly and traffic slows for several fender benders.
We drive through Heliopolis, a toney suburb which is home to Mubarak. As we close in on town the city reveals itself to be buff colored with scattered palm trees. It's hard to say exactly why but I like it. We see occasional outsized statues of Ramses (not original), then a huge white mosque with blue and green accents and two towering minarets. As we pass by, Khaled tells us that it cost LE 72 million (that's Egyptian pounds) to build.
We check into the Semiramis Hotel with its extensive marble lobby. They take our passports at the desk, we bid temporary farewell to Khaled and head up to our very nice, king-sized bed Nile view room. We're tired but also hungry. Because it's Ramadan the Felucca Brasserie is closed, but down in the lobby the Night and Day is open 24 hours.
Our first Egyptian meal is not bad. Susan and I both had the local lentil soup. Susan followed with smoked salmon and eggs and I had mixed grill kabobs. We order a bottle of water which came nicely presented in a form-fitting wicker holder. We also had a bottle of Stella local, our first Egyptian beer (I think 'only Egyptian beer' may turn out to be the more correct term).
Back in the room, we can't get through to the Arabesque so we make a reservation at the Mogul Room, an Indian restaurant at the Mena House, instead. We also make preliminary contact with Dr. Nabil Swelim, the Egyptologist who Janet Cohn recommended. We're to call him tomorrow to see if he'll agree to be our guide for a day before the group gets here. Now to sleep.
When we wake up, Susan decides she wants Arabesqe after all, so we track down the correct number from the hotel operator and make a reservation. It seems close enough to walk but to play it safe, we decide to take a taxi there and walk home. It seems like a good call because the ride provides a look at lively Talat Harb Street full of stores, signs and people. It reminds Susan of the Nathan Road in Hong Kong. The ride also helps me get my bearings which, and as we know, finding my way around a strange city is one of my favorite things to do. What wasn't a good idea was getting in a cab without agreeing the price first and not having exact change. When we arrived at the restaurant I handed the driver a LE 20 to which he nodded and drove off. I won't make that mistake again.
The Arabesque is down a tiled corridor at #6 Kasr el Nil Street. It's a pleasant multi-leveled space with a raised bar room and a nice wooden screened wall at the front. But except for a few tables of Americans and Brits, it's empty. Still, the service is friendly and the food is good. Susan has a delicious lamb shank with tomato and lemon seasoning and something called fatta (kind of rice and onions and very tasty). I have grilled pigeon, a local specialty along with a lentil soup, another Stella and another wicker water. The pigeon is pressed flat and there isn't really much to eat but what there is is quite tasty. For dessert we discover Om Aly-a kind of sweet warm milk custard with trail mix on top. Very good. We finish with Turkish coffee for a total of LE 96.
Khaled had discussed Cairo's notorious traffic situation, a kind of kamikaze anything goes affair where red lights were ignored and drivers never used the brakes when they could use their horns. Crossing the street was often impossible. He also maintained that there were few accidents because everybody knew the game. Of course the party line was somewhat at odds with a recent New York Times article. Still, we held to our resolve to walk home.
We say goodbye to the Arabesqe and head down toward the chaos of Tahrir Square. This is where the Egyptian Museum is located as well as a major bus stop. The multi-storied buildings and neon signs that define the downtown area are like a sudden cliff rising from the square. On the far side is the Arab League building, the Foreign Ministry, then the Nile and high up in the night sky, the blue sign of the Semiramis. We shadow the street crossing maneuvers of savvy natives and manage to cross to the center of the square where we encounter cripples on rolling platforms, street merchants, a roasted nut vendor with a smoking make-shift chimney plus soldier/army guys with guns.
We briefly walk along the corniche in front of the Semiramis then return to the hotel through its metal detectors. A kiosk in the lobby features a cage with rabbits and pigeons. The disco is cooking up on the second floor but we opt for our room although Susan, cold and all, kind of wants to party. Maybe tomorrow night.
So far we like Cairo. Susan gives it her ultimate accolade. She says 'Palermo.'