Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Guest post by Draper student Rick Halmo

Note: Rick has so much to tell about his trip that we'll be posting in two parts: Cairo today and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after the break. Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone.

My Travels To Cairo, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: The Story of the Ancient City, the Holy City, and Sin City

I recently returned from a Middle East excursion to the cities of Cairo, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Reflecting upon my experiences, I find that only now am I able to appreciate just how different these cities were. The trip added a new dimension to my studies in global history and urban modernities; it put our theoretical studies in the classroom into the practical, and thus supplemented what I had been studying all semester.

Cairo: The Ancient City

A majority of my time during the trip was spent in Cairo, a very dense city (just shy of 82,000 people/sq. mile) that seamlessly blends together its ancient history with modern aspects of a global city. The pyramids of Giza, a town right on the outskirts of Cairo, can be easily seen from the Nile River, which is lined with rows of high-rise buildings, expensive hotels, and lavish riverboat cruises. The riverboat cruises in and of themselves represent the duality of this city; on a boat that makes the Titanic look modest, the entertainment for the night consisted of belly dancing and a whirling dervish. For tourists, this city is open for business, and there is no greater proof of this than the Khan El Khalili marketplace in downtown Cairo.

The Khan El Khalili is a famous marketplace frequented by visitors because of its abundance of (relatively) cheap goods, as well as great coffee shops and eateries. It embodies the density of the city – very tight alleys lined with merchants looking to sell you everything they have – and it was a lot of fun to negotiate prices with the merchants to see how low they would go. There were so many tourists that our ability to negotiate prices to what they should actually cost was compromised (because the merchant could easily go find someone who would pay four times what we would pay) but it was still a vibrant atmosphere and it can be quite fun if you enjoy arguing with a stranger. The exchange rate is roughly 5 Egyptian pounds : 1 American dollar, but the real exchange rate (i.e. the purchasing power of 1 American dollar) is about 8 or 9 Egyptian pounds : 1 American dollar. I think this is important for any person who wishes to go to Cairo to know, because the merchants in Khan El Khalili can be tough, and it’s nice to know how far your money can go. Nonetheless, the bargaining is part of the culture, so that particular marketplace is not just for buying souvenirs to bring home but rather is a Cairo experience worth having.

There seemed to be a part of Cairo that was reserved for tourists, and a part reserved for Egyptians. The separation that took place between tourists and the locals reminded me somewhat of Times Square in a way; the locals could go to the tourist destinations (especially the Khan El Khalili marketplace) but why would they do that when it is cheaper to go to a less tourist-populated area (Islamic Cairo or the Village in NYC)? In this comparison I wish to show that the separation of locals and tourists was not that of force, but rather of choice.

I decided to venture off of the tourist path and go see what the more “real” Cairo was like. I was rewarded well for my choice. Once off the beaten trail in Cairo, I found the people to be incredibly nice and open to Americans. I did not know until I arrived in Cairo that I looked Egyptian, but my blonde-haired, blue-eyed girlfriend gave us away as non-locals. Though initially nervous of this fact, the people we met in Islamic Cairo – a part of the city that is no more “Islamic” than any other part, but where very few tourists go for some reason – were so kind and welcoming that I quickly put my guard down.

We ended up meeting a gentleman named Ayman who asked us to join him in his quilt and bag shop for tea. “Conversation and laughter is free,” he said, obviously aware of the people in the tourist areas known as “touts” who offer to lead you around town and then afterwards ask you for money. Ayman was one of the nicest people I have ever met. We ended up sitting with him and talking for two hours until I informed him I had promised a merchant in Khan El Khalili that I would watch the Egypt/Algerian soccer match with him. “Watch it with us!” Ayman said glowingly. I wondered initially who “us” was exactly, and then quickly realized that he was referring to the entire street of people! We were escorted down the street and found roughly 100 chairs, a large sheet and a projector that was broadcasting the game for the neighborhood. Once the chairs were full, the crowd ended up just standing wherever they could see the match. What a sense of community and national pride one could feel amidst this block in the middle of Cairo! It was almost overwhelming, but as a sports fan I was right in the middle of it.

We watched the match (and celebrated the victory, as if we were the reason they won) with Ayman and company, and after the match he invited us to a local cafĂ© for food and drinks. He was so kind to us, and he did it in exchange for only our friendship. There was such a stark contrast between the Egyptians we had met in the tourist areas – aggressive to make a sale and belligerent at times – and the Egyptians we had met in Islamic Cairo and other less touristy places. We made it a point to avoid tourist places the rest of the time there. The city on the whole was a fantastic experience I would love to go back, equipped now with lessons learned from my first time there.

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