Old Cairo

There is simply no way to objectively describe the traffic of Cairo.  The horn honking is non-stop and ever present and seemingly without any logic. I have asked my drivers why they honk their horns and most can’t say, exactly.  It is not frustration, usually, it is just as much a reaction as tapping the brake, sometimes it is INSTEAD of tapping the brake. Every two lane road is packed into a four lane road with motorbikes weaving in between, sometimes with as many as four or five people riding on one bike.  I saw one man with his son, daughter and burka-wearing wife and baby all strapped onto one scooter.

Old Cairo is from about 1400 A.D. or so. Some is older, some newer. The mosques tower above everything in size and importance.


Cairo July 2010


Five times a day, the speakers blare with the Muslim call to prayer–“God is great,”  “There is only one God.”


Cairo Mosque July 2010


Despite how many mosques there are, and given their enormity, the mosques are packed at prayer time.
Some workers who can’t get away from the office or the worksite,  pray at the workplace.  As it was explained to me by my friend Mona Askar, the most senior person at the workplace may lead the prayer.


Outside the mosque, the faithful shed their shoes and enter to pray.  I was so struck by the simplicity of some things here.  The sandals must be similar to those that people wore 6,000 years ago, a flat smooth piece of wood and a leather strap. No Air Jordans or $200 Nikes needed.


Cairo Mosque


Of every photo I captured here, I think the shoes picture is my favorite. It speaks to me about how we Americans get fixated on the material things. How many of us on the way to church, worry about wearing the right shoes. How many Christians would have the dedication to find our way to prayer five times a day, every day, to fast and live a sparse lifestyle.

Beautiful Middle Eastern Muslims need to tell their story and not let their story be told by the actions of radical nuts who share the same religious label.


Mosque in Cairo


I have had many conversations with women journalists here about living in a traditionally male-ruled/dominated culture. Many times I have seen taxi drivers refuse to take fares from unescorted women. Women cannot, of course, pray with men in the mosques.

Several Egyptian women have told me they like wearing the traditional dress, especially the headcoverings/scarves.  The women tell me they still “do their hair” get it cut and styled just as if they had no scarves. Several women have used the phrase “it makes me feel free” to wear the simple traditional clothing.  I don’t fully understand it except that it might be something like the argument that some schools make about children wearing uniforms.  They usually say the uniforms allow the kids to focus on something else, not clothing.

I will add that just as many women tell me they refuse to conform with the male-dominated expectations and wear clothing that you would see in New York or LA. Egyptian women, increasingly, are raising families alone, are influential in the workplace and own homes.   How far have they come? Look at the picture and caption below.


In the Old City, you will see a wooden covering over many windows called “mashrabeiah.” The covering allowed women to look outside without being seen.


There is a LOT more work to do here. According to government reports, “women’s illiteracy stood at an alarming 51 per cent in 2003.”

While women have had full constitutional rights, including the right to vote and to run for office since the 1950s, women are still rarely win seats in Parliament.

There have been legal changes, such as Family Court and Children Custody Law.  Men are often forced to pay child support after divorce and marriage laws require men to post a monetary amount to be paid to the woman if the man leaves the marriage.

Four of 10 births do NOT involve a medical attendant (doctor, nurse, midwife.) 25% of women get no prenatal care before giving birth.

Women, by the way, still outlive men.  About half of the men in Egypt smoke, a number that is rising.


ShiSha pipes are widely available -they are water pipes that Americans call “hookah” bongs



ShiShah water pipes are extremely popular here.


For a city so packed with people, poverty and noise, it might surprise you to know that crime is rare here. You don’t see much crime coverage in the papers. “That is just not Egyptian,” my friend Hanaa Gaffar explained to me as we rode through the congested streets as dusk fell.  Not long ago, Hanna visited us at Poynter and was surprised by how much crime there was even in sleepy St Pete, Florida.  The US State Department says, while crime is low, petty theft abounds.  An Egyptian would think a thousand times before committing a crime,” she said.  I don’t have the stats to back her up, but I can say that even elbowing our way through the Old Cairo market, many times, shopkeepers and old men greeted me, ‘Hello my friend.”  It was not a come-on to get me to buy something.  It was a genuine sounding greeting.  I deeply appreciated it.


One of these magical traditions are Ramadan lanterns called Fanoos,(also called Fawanees) which are frequently made from recycled tin cans or plastic lanterns. Lanterns have always been special to the Egyptians. The story goes that Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim Bi-Amr Illah wanted to light the streets of Cairo during Ramadan nights, so he ordered all the sheikhs of mosques to hang Fawanees lit by candles.




Old Cairo Market Cairo July 2010 Cairo Tower



Mona Asker from the Supreme Press Council



Hanaa Gafar Supreme Press Council



Marwa, the hardest working translator in the business. Eight hours of non-stop translation–no problem





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One Response to Old Cairo

  1. Beautiful photos, Al! I especially like the photo of the Ramadan lanterns.

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