Random Acts of Kindness in Cairo

Something changed during the last day in Cairo. After putting on the tough skin yesterday, and melting down the day before, the lotus flowers of Egyptian hospitality opened up a bit. I can’t quite grasp the reason why the nice Cairenes started showing up all at once, but I was finally glad that I got to be myself and share small moments with nice strangers.

Yesterday the cracks of a smile began to appear on the faces of the people we met, and today, Laura and I had many chances to smile, joke with, and generally say thank you to the generous bits of help we received.

This morning, Muhammed, Hotel Luna’s morning desk person, felt bad that he had forgotten about our ordering an Egyptian breakfast (fuul beans and pita). After some negotiations, we got one Egyptian breakfast along with a continental one, and as we checked out a few hours later, Muhammed kept apologizing. We left the hotel with smiles and a good feeling.

Back and the souq (bazar), a boy helped us navigate through the pedestrian underpass after Laura and I came upon a closed gate. A gentleman told us it was closed as well, adding “I’m not selling you anything!” The boy wasn’t either. He wandered off after walking up the steps with us.

A bit later, another man told us that the police wouldn’t let us walk past a checkpoint near the university, and then walked away after we thanked him. After that, we bought postcards from a man near the Cafe Mahfouz with no hassle. He spoke good English, knew about California, and finally told us where to find out about music in Cairo (too late!).

While walking though the souq with my minidisc recorder on (LegumeCast coming soon), Laura and I found ourselves lost in the maze of small shopping alleys. A shopkeeper saw our distress, told us the way out through his shop, and instead of giving us the hard sell, he asked if we had a Canadian flag patch for his collection (When asked “Where you from?” we have given many answers, including Canada). While buying skullcaps for my friend Jeff, an Arabic couple whispered their price to Laura as they left with a pile of their own skullcaps. We got the Egyptian price on our own!

This helpful kindness continued as we walked to the North Cemetary/City of the Dead for a last walk in Cairo. We ended up in a group of school boys who kept asking the same question.

“Where you from?”
“Pepsi Cola,” I answered. Whenever I said Canada, touts usually called me Canada Dry [Ginger Ale].
“Pepsi Cola?” the boys would ask back.
“Where you from,” he asked Laura.
“Canada Dry,” she answered.
Finally getting the joke, the boy told us, “I 7-Up!”

“Where you from?” another boy asked.
“California. USA.”
“George W. Bush!” He replied, practicing his English.
I stick my tongue out and gave him a thumbs down.
“No George W. Bush!” I told him.
Laughing, the boy made a thumbs down gesture, and then we touched fists in agreement.

At the cemetery, we get turned around again. A Cairene with good English skills approached us and points us to the right direction of the Mosque of Sultan Qaitbay, which is also the Sultan’s Tomb. He walked with us for a while, and told us that he attended university in Kansas four years ago. He’s on the way to buy a tomb for his family.

“That must be weird for you to hear in Cairo.”
“No. My father buries people,” I reply.
“A gravedigger?”
“No. A funeral director.”

This nice man also told us that things are hard for Egyptians, but not for tourists. The police we saw where for our protection, not Egyptians. If an Egyptian has a run-in with the police, it meant beatings, jail, or worse.

We walked along the main road that winds into the Norther Cemetery neighborhood. Piles of rubble from the 1992 earthquake still stand in some areas, grave stones in tomb complexes in others. People live all along these tombs, while other enclosed areas have big locks on the gates. Walking a bit further, a man offered us a ride on his moped and doesn’t protest when we politely decline. Another Cairene pulled over and asked if we need help, and drives away OK when we say no.

While walking deeper into the cemetery where the mosque stands, we saw extremely poor people living among the graves. Stores, shops, and delivery trucks go along like every other part of the city. Some buildings looked like new apartment buildings, with the unfinished tops for future generations. Some experts estimate that at least a million people live in this cemetery, and it held the same characteristics as the other poorer parts of Cairo.

At one point, during a shady rest, a little girl came over to us and began cursing us in Arabic. A soldier made her leave and we shared a laugh at her anger. I’m not sure what she said, but we got a few other angry looks while there. Laura gave away her thrift store jacket to an appreciative mother, and we also gave away a few pens to the children who politely followed us as we left. At one point, a man in a new BMW full of people stopped to ask us if we where lost. He also drove away when we said no.

Back near the el Hussein mosque, we saw a funeral procession walk by, heading towards the Northern Cemetery, and blocking traffic. At first, I stopped Laura and told her to stay out of the way. Seeing a group of men, loud and emotional, walking out of a street near the Islamic University, I wasn’t sure what was going on until I saw some of them carrying the wooden coffin. The women walked behind the men up the hill towards the cemetery.

We went down to the souq for mezze (appetizers) and sheesha, before getting a taxi to the hotel. The cabbie gave us a fair price. We have to catch another taxi to the Giza Railroad Station, so the afternoon desk clerk wrote this down on paper in Arabic and tells us how much to pay for the trip. In front of the hotel, we’re having problems hailing a taxi. A man on the sidewalk stepped up to help us hail one when we finally see one stop for us. The driver gave us a fair price.

So I left Cairo tonight wanting to spend a few more days there, wishing that I could continue to find more of the kind deeds that we experienced today. Tough from the first few days of feeling like a sucker, the sweetness was beginning to show in that huge, crazy city.