Arrivals, Departures, Revolutionaries, and Smoking in a Non-Smoking Zone

The End
The sound of horns honking, the roar of engines and shouting drifted
through the window. The heat in Cairo was stifling. Smog hung in the
air like a morning fog. From the fifth-floor balcony of the Tulip
Hotel, I could casually observe the madness of Talaat Harb Square below.
At midnight, Zach O’Neil, a history major from the University of
Massachusetts, passed in and out of sleep inside room 41 of the hotel.

Arab Hospitality

We braved the square and nearby streets in search of a bank to exchange
money, choking down exhaust fumes and pushing through the bustling
crowds. Within minutes of leaving the hotel, our small group of
American students was approached by Hassam, who offered a helping hand.

Editor’s Note:

David Harvey, a transfer student at UCSD, is visiting several spots in the Middle East as part of his study-abroad program. He will be a student correspondent throughout fall quarter, chronicling his experiences at locations spanning from Cairo to the Sphinx.

Zach and I quicky found ourselves sitting on the couches of Hassam’s
scented-oil shop with Lisa Markman and Mariela Goett, both UCSD
“We need to find a bank,” Lisa said loudly, for the third time.
“No money,” Hassam repeated as he showed us photos of himself in his
shop with Dustin Hoffman, Muhammad Ali and other celebrities dragged in
off the streets over the years. “Only Arab hospitality.”
Nevertheless, the price of each bottle was proudly displayed.
“Rose,” he said, uncapping the potent fluid. “Please smell. Only two pounds.”
“Orange. Please smell. Only two pounds,” he said, wafting an oil-soaked wand under each of our noses.
“Lilac, you like lilac?” he asked. “Please smell. Only two pounds.”
The streets outside the shop crawled with people. Shopkeepers and
shoppers, street vendors and beggars, touts and tourists, residents —
they all hustled through the city. The streets were lined with cars,
honking, swerving and ignoring traffic signals, with the concentrated
purpose of avoiding any sign of organization.

Lost Baggage
At midnight, from the Tulip’s balcony, it was clear the bustle would
continue throughout the night. The honking of horns was still
persistent and the shop’s lights below emitted an industrial white
glow. The soft yellow street lights of the square barely illuminated
the upper stories of the faded yellow buildings­ — each with green
window shutters speckling the Art Nouveau facade.
Cars still dipped through the square with near-disregard for their
surroundings, a pattern spreading across the city and along Al-Orouba
Street, which connects the airport to downtown.
Having spent nearly three hours filing a lost-baggage claim, I missed
my airport pickup and had to hitch a ride with Farah Stern, a political
science major at UC Santa Cruz. Her Elvis Costello glasses, black
fingernails and hot-pink toenails made her stand out immediately in the
airport. Chatting nervously over the soft lulling Arabic song of our
driver, we made our way to the Tulip. It was just before 4 p.m.
“This is my first time abroad,” she said, bracing as the driver made
his own lane to squeeze past slower moving traffic. “I am the only one
here from UCSC.”
The grime-covered statue of Talaat Harb, prominent lawyer and founder
of the national bank, now faces a rival: the National Bank of Abu
Dhabi. Directly behind the statue towers Chark Assurances, where our
taxi driver left us, pointing east toward the Tulip before speeding

Landscapes, Cafes for Radicals

One of the few lights above ground level around midnight was the
billboard above the Chark building. At seven stories, Chark Assurances
is the tallest building in the square. Even with a story-high Arabic
billboard, the rooftops of the Nile Hilton (a white and blue modern
monstrosity) and several other downtown buildings can be seen spreading
out into the distance.
A towering clock on the second-story deck of the Chark building read
12:17 a.m. as a woman in a bright­-red burka took a seat on a
street-side bench. Three children with her carried pink heart-shaped
balloons and played in an open sidewalk beneath a small tree as cars
raced past, horns blaring. A block down the street, three men pushed a
black-and-white taxi around the corner of El-Bustan. With the hood
still up, they gently rolled the cab along the sidewalk in front of
Cafe Riche.
The cafe, known to reject tourists at the door, is rumored to have
hosted Abdul Gamal Nasser’s Free Officers while they plotted to
overthrow King Farouk in 1952. The cafe is also known to have often
served Saddam Hussein in his youth, and has remained open almost
continuously since 1908.
Rebuilt to look authentic, the cafe’s polished wooden exterior and lush
pottery elevates it just a bit too much from the run-down grime of the
surrounding area.
Two blocks up, Talaat Harb pours into Tahrir Square where Kentucky
Fried Chicken, on the right of the street above the Sadat Metro
Station, is sometimes packed with customers as late as 12:45 a.m. KFC’s
full-windowed front faces the Mugamma, a Soviet gift of the 1960s,
which houses within its droll exterior the bureaucracy of the Interior,
Health and Education Ministries, as well as the Cairo Governate.
Next door, a fairly new-looking cafe hosted a few locals smoking
sheesha and drinking tea. The fruit-flavored smoke poured out onto the
sidewalk, mixing with the gray fog of burning petrol.
Known as the Wadi el-Nil, this cafe was remodeled in 1993 after being
bombed by Islamic radicals, apparently in reaction to Sudanese cannabis
dealers who frequented the establishment. The red and white tiles
lining the shop sparkle. The wooden seats are decorated with
carefully-carved helms.
Just north of the Wadi el-Nil, two women in black burkas begged for
change or food. Despite their spot beneath an imposing tree, the Nile
Hilton was in plain view. At 1:20 a.m. in the morning the streets were
still crowded with shoppers, the cars still honked incessantly.

The Beginning
Twelve hours earlier, at the Cairo International Airport I had waited,
a weary American tourist among a crowd of angry and distraught Air
Italia passengers. Frustrated Arabic shouts passed through the crowd.
“Where can I smoke a cigarette?” I asked an airport security guard dressed in white.
“Here,” he said.
“Here?” I questioned.
Standing under a “no smoking” sign, I fingered the lit cigarette nervously. Other guards in white passed, eyeing me curiously.
“Don’t be worried,” he laughed in heavily-accented English. “You are in Egypt.”