I am in Cairo, Egypt, for the next weeks. Egypt was also part of the Ottoman Empire, at least nominally, until 1798, when Napoleon invaded and defeated the Mamluks, who held power but who were officially subservient to Istanbul. The French withdrew under British pressure, but their influence lasted under Muhammad Ali, the leader of Egypt from 1807 to 1848, when the country was still nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, but under the control of Muhammad Ali, who enlisted French aid to modernize many of its institutions. The British financed the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, and were bankers to the spendthrift ruler, the Khedive Ismail, but had to step in to protect the canal lest it fell into bad hands… Egypt was then an unofficial British Protectorate, until 1956, when Nasser nationalized the Canal. The Tory Government threatened intervention but didn’t intervene, and Sir Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister, fell. It was the beginning of the end of the British Empire.
Delapidated splendour, old theatres and opera houses, mosques and churches, not only Egyptian Coptic churches, a branch of the Orthodox Church, but also Catholic churches; art nouveau ironwork in run-down buildings, once magnificent art deco stores is now Omar effendi’s domestic appliances shop: “Raoul Brandon. Architecte: Paris – Caire”. And Caire was to be another Paris, with its wide Haussman avenues, its fancy stores, its chic, its wealth, and its bon goût. The influence in education still seems to be there. I pass Collège St. Joseph de l’Apparition, and the Couvent des Pères Dominicains is right opposite the Al-Aziz Islamic University. And mock Louis XV furniture seems all the rage: “Meubles, Tapiceries, Decoration”. Nearby, next to the government ministry buildings: “Institut d’Egypte, fonde 1798” by Napoléon. In Downtown Cairo I stare at a well-polished small sign “Socrate Signeros. Cirugien Dentaire” and wonder how long the sign has been there, who the sign in French is meant to attract, whether indeed M. Signeros actually exists.
And am then rudely interrupted. “Hello. Where you from?” “England”. “England number one country. I friend. Want you for friend. No baksheesh. Me rich. Come with me.” I had read time and time again about the hasslers and hustlers but let’s see… I am led to “Alybaba Perfume Palace” with an impressive set of vials with multi-coloured liquids, reds, oranges, lemons, purples, around the walls. “Please sit down. Coffee or tea? No, sit down”. I am shown photos of Muhammad Ali (not the 19th century ruler of Egypt but the boxer) together with someone who is apparently the grandfather of the young man who has just become my friend. The brother then comes and explains that the perfumes are made from herbs cultivated on the family estate in the Nile Delta. “What you want? Perfume for man or for woman? All the woman go crazy when you have this on you. What you want more? Jasmine or rose? Rose?” I am no expert on perfumes, but the jasmine reminded me of an eau de cologne sprayed on me on a bus ride from Istanbul to Cappadoccia in 2001. (It is the custom there). Brother begins to talk about prices. My original friend by this time has disappeared. He starts talking about one pound a gram, but which pound, Egyptian or English? I get up and find the courage to escape.
Much hassle, but Cairo is virtually crime free. Get off the main roads, walk through the scruffy dark alleyways away from the tourist haunts. I buy bread and am given as much as I buy just to try. Three teenage girls practice their English with me. And old man disapproves and tells them not to talk to the foreigner.
But at another level not such an ideal society. Journalists are protesting outside the International Press Association building. Nobody seems to be able to tell me exactly why. The police seem a little heavy handed and drag a screaming protester into one of the many waiting paddy-wagons. I find nothing in the English-language daily.
In the Midan Hussein the tourist buses come and go, dropping off passengers to shop in the Khan al-Khalli Bazaar. I tuck into my stuffed roast pigeon, or at least into the rice stuffing. The Tourist Police try to prevent the riff-raff from entering the square to beg or hawk. They are not very successful. On my left the mosque of Sayidna el-Hussein, where I have just taken a pleasant rest and where the devout chant to Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, whose death cemented the rift between the Shiite and Sunni factions of Islam. On my right, the Al-Azar Mosque, with a huge courtyard and minarets from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The madrassa was set up in 988 CE, and grew into the university which may be the second oldest in the world.