Helwa ya baladi

“What is your name?”
The dark, friendly eyes of the bus driver studied me curiously. The plane just landed on the old airport of Cairo. It was around three in the morning and the air smelled of gas and summer heath.

“Sammia”, I answered tired, but polite.

“You’re Egyptian?” was the slightly surprised response. With my general Mediterranean look people often don’t see the Arab in me. Or the Dutch.

“Half, my father is from Egypt.”
“What is your father’s name?”


“So you are Sammia Magdy.” He said pensively, the corners of his mouth curling upwards.

“Welcome to Egypt!” He exclaimed with broad smile, and just for that I gave him a little extra baksheesh (tip).

I booked a five week vacation to Egypt and arrived just after President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown. Even though Cairo as a city felt familiar to me, I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest I was scared shitless. Would I get stuck in demonstrations? Is it total anarchy over there? What’s going on exactly? My mother was scared I’d end up dead. My father was scared I’d end up dying of boredom. Where my mother was in denial of my going to Egypt until I was through passport control, my father just tried to grasp why I wanted to go to Cairo, alone, in the summer, during Ramadan no less. Yes it was above forty degrees (Celcius) every day, and yes the whole country was stuck on Ramadan schedule, and yes the Rabaa alAdawiya tragedy happened, and I haven’t seen a pyramid or any other spectacular tourist attraction, but the truth is that it was one of the best vacations of my life so far.
I saw my grandmother, my uncles, my aunt, cousins, second cousins, family of family and so on. I ate iftar (first meal in Ramadan) alone in our apartment, with some friends in Zamalek, or in a three room apartment with thirty two people. In the Netherlands I’d spend a warm summer night in the garden, lightening a bonfire, opening a bottle of wine, and share it quietly with some friends. In Egypt I trade that garden for the noisy Fishawy café in the Khan el Khalili bazar. My wine gets traded for fresh and cold mango juice with a shisha on the side. My friends are my cousins and the quiet becomes the buzz of a city with a population of so-many-million people.

The Cairo Tower provides a magnificent view of the city by day. You can clearly see how the river Nile separates Cairo from Giza and how tall the pyramids stand in the distance. By night, you can see how the city comes to life and keeps it up until the break of dawn. You can catch a ride on one of the felucca boats on the river and dance the night away on sha’bi music, eat roasted corn on the boulevard, or air out on the Mokattam hill on the edge of the city. The Sufi Bookstore in Zamalek provides a quiet place to catch your breath and while you’re at it, slip across the hall to take a look in the Lofi art gallery where it feels like you’ve stepped back in time for a century or two. Watch the tannoura dancers in the Hussein area and visit the old Islamic market. The traffic jams can get real bad and if you feel the need to escape for a little while, there are some beautiful beach areas.
For Eid alFitr - the holiday at the end of the Ramadan month - me and some cousins packed our bags and bought bustickets to Marsa Matrouh. As I was suffering from the curse of the pharaoh, the six hour bus ride was excruciating, but after the sun started to rise the view made up for it. With the Mediterranean Sea on the right and the desert on the left we drove the last leg of the trip under the early morning sky. Marsa Matrouh turned out to be ikhwaan-territory (Muslimbrotherhood), and everyday around seven o’clock they marched through the streets, shouting for shari’a law and the return of Mohammed Morsi. In the end it was all bark, no bite. Demonstrations turned out to be mostly peaceful, even if they were from the opposite parties. The only times when demonstrations get out of hand is when there are different groups involved or if the army is close by. (This is also what unfortunately happened on the 14th of August on the Rabaa alAdawiya square in Medinat Nasr.) When in Marsa Matrouh ‘agiba is a place you must visit. It is said that the sea has seven colors there. Honestly, it’s so blue it hurt my eyes and I stopped trying to count after four. The place is beautiful though, and when you’ve had your fill of the postcard view you can descend down to the beach and walk alongside the rock formations. Over time the erosive force of the sea carved out delicate lines and patterns in the stone of the natural caves. It’s the perfect place to relax and get away from the noise of the city. Too soon it was time to pack our bags again. Tired but content we spent our last night on the boulevard, counting stars, cold juice at our fingertips, and Fairouz crooning in the background. All though I was stuck in the bathroom for half of our three-day getaway, I still enjoyed myself greatly.

Egypt’s rich history, landscape and heritage are part of what makes it a beautiful country to visit, though what really makes it beautiful are the people living in it. The men who rush to the mosques for their morning prayers. The baker boys who cycle the street carrying bread on their heads. The butcher who chops his meat all day, and the cat that steals all that falls on the floor. The lady selling vegetables on the side of the road, and the other one that sells tissues to tourists. The cheeky camel boys, and the giggling schoolgirls. The ‘welcome to Egypt’s even though you’ve been there for a few weeks already. The friendly smiles, and the genuine curiosity. If you forget the occasional bad apple or the political turbulence, (the culture shock, the different approach to life in general) it’s the kind, generous, and humorous souls of the Egyptian people that makes you feel welcome in the end. As for Cairo: the city of millions only starts to feel crowded when you start counting.

Sammia Elbakry

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