From the bridge over the River Nile at about one p.m. I watch the courting couples in the garden flanking the Nile, two Egyptian Pounds (US$0.40) to enter. The guys are trendy looking, jeans, jacket and greased back hair. The girls without exception are covered, wearing a colourful hijab. Most have taken considerable care over their appearance. Mauves and blacks predominate, including one slinky black sequined get-up that glitters and glistens in the early afternoon sun. On the metro hijabbed girls fiddle on their mobile phone and adjust their often heavy makeup, the eye shadow frequently matching the colour of their scarf. Last year in Istanbul I saw on TV a volleyball game between Turkey and Egypt in which most of the Egyptian team played in their headscarves. The majority of girls here wear headscarves. Coptic Christians, some ten percent of the population, do not, and neither do a lot of middle-class girls. But unlike in Turkey, where scarves are still not allowed at universities, they have never been a bone of contention between secularists and religious groups. For the types of Muslim headscarves see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/05/europe_muslim_veils/html/1.stm
But no headscarves in the nearby Royal Mummy Room of the Egyptian Museum. I meet Hatstepsut, the great female Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, queen from 1479 to 1478 BCE, “an obese female who died between the ages of 45 and 60”; Tuthmosis IV, also from the 18th Dynasty, who “died at the age of about 30 perhaps due to a wasting disease that is yet to be identified. The fingernails that are well-maintained show that the king was well cared for”. Amenhotep II, warrior and sportsman; Tuthmosis III, who ruled for 60 years; Merenptah, from the 19th Dynasty, 1213-1203 BCE, who died afflicted with severe dental problems, arthritis and artisclerosis; Ramses III, from the 20th Dynasty, king from 1183-1153 BCE, who may have been poisoned by a conspiracy in the harem; and not to forget Queen Moutkare, who was buried with her pet baboon, long thought to be a child. On to the enormous hermaphroditic statues of Aktenaten, the mother and father of the world. And then the glories of the tomb of Tutenkamun, the multiple sarcophagi, fitting into each other like Russian dolls, the golden mask with its engravings of the vulture of the Upper Nile and the cobra of the Lower Nile to protect him, and the layers of golden necklaces and jewels.
Into Old Cairo, now very much a tourist enclave. The Greek Orthodox church of Saint George (Mar Girgis in Arabic), the quiet cemetery with inscriptions in Greek and Arabic, the Coptic Church of St Sergius, with pillars from the 3rd and 4th centuries, said to be built over a cave where Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus sheltered after fleeing persecution from King Herod of Judea, the Coptic 9th century hanging church, suspended over the top of Roman Babylon. The 9th century Ben-Ezra Synagogue. And nearby the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, the first mosque to be built in Egypt in 642 BCE.
Out of the sanctuary and back into the fray. The traffic of Cairo is the stuff of legends. Choc-a-bloc, noisy, hooting and honking continually, highly polluting, with so many old bangers around, it seems to have an anarchic life of its own. A few ineffectual policemen try to control it at the few traffic lights, which are either broken or ignored by motorists. But even they often have to jump out of the way as it sweeps and surges forward. And how does one cross the road? With one’s heart in one’s mouth, praying to Allah, one just crosses, and the traffic slows down and lets you pass. Sometimes you will cross a major road and stand in the middle or between lanes where a car or bus or truck behind or in front of you just a few inches away may be doing 60 or 70km an hour. I then think of my German colleague who told me he was once fined for jaywalking. Sometimes you may gesture to the traffic to stop and slow down. I have taken to crossing at the same time as a local.
A taxi driver put it to me: “The government does not touch people”. I think I got his gist: the government does not seriously attempt to enforce traffic rules and regulations. And apparently this has been a characteristic of many areas of Egyptian society in the last years. A kind of general laissez-faire in the economy, education, health as many of the social institutions based on the Soviet model set up by Nasser have virtually failed. Nasser’s plan for a pan-Arabic secular socialist state hit a dead end, and his successors Sadat and Mubarak have had no alternative visions. Egypt may still be a dominant cultural force in the Arab world, but the Gulf countries are now vastly wealthier.
London and the Thames; Paris and the Seine; and Cairo and the Nile. I expected a certain grandiosity I failed to find. The Nile here in Cairo is no wider that the Thames in London. It is no Amazon. And other than a few tourist boats no river traffic. Of course, the city traditionally kept well away from the Nile and its floods, but now the Nile is lined by the Hyatt, Hilton, Four Seasons and Sofitel, while feluccas, the traditional sailing boats, can be rented for a spin on the river. On the other bank of the Nile groups of young Egyptians are renting cheaper feluccas from which comes the sound of Arab pop to which both the guys and the hijabbed girls are clicking their fingers and wiggling their hips.