Exploring the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities and feeling the part of Brendan Fraser in The Mummy film franchise, Hanging out at some groovy streets with new found fellow vagabonds from around the globe smoking shisha and enjoying my favourite ottoman empire beverage Saalab, Thrown into a sea of colours at the famous Khan el-Khalili Cairo's giant Souq (market) and just wandering the very westernized streets of downtown Cairo taking in every possible aspect of this brilliant Metropolis.
One thing was missing...I wanted to feel what it was like to be back in time, not just looking at sculptures and ancient treasures of past civilization's (even though it is amazing!) but actually being thrown backwards when the West hadn't left the growing claw marks of modernization over the city. Alas I would stumble upon it in due course..
I was told by some local pals that I should take a venture up to Al-Azhar Park which had being built on a garbage dump with breathtaking views overlooking the Citadel and the district I would fall in love with Darb al-Ahmar.
After saying cheerio to my pals I left the bustling markets and started to wind my way through the streets in a direction that was ever sloping upwards. The weather forecast for the last few days was meant to be heavy rain but no dark clouds had appeared. I was on the final stretch to my destination when the sky gathered in darkness and released its build-up and by god it was heavy rain! I absolutely loved it! It was a nice change from the warm humidity of the city confines and it washed away all the lovely manly sweat I was producing by the gallons! On the opposite side of the street a elderly man was enjoying it as much as I, pressing his palms skyward and speaking something I could not hear over the torrential downpour.
Minutes later I came upon the grand entrance of Al-Azhar Park, the first thing I noticed and it stung my eyes was the GREEN! so much green! and a lovely colored green at that! living in walls of browns, greys and other earthy colours for the last week or so it was definitely a much needed change!
The Park is 30 hectares of Islamic style gardens, multi-coloured stonework, waterways & fountains, orchard spaces and plenty of shaded sitting areas and a scattering of historic styled buildings dotted around the green sea. Thanks to the rain it had made all the tourists and locals scurry for cover or the motorcade of taxis hungrily waiting to snap them up. The mass of water had made everything from the architecture to the new born leaves stand out in vivid colour and contrast, it was all so beautiful..
One of the Domed buildings was having some kind of performance underneath its protective shell with a bunch of locals clapping and applauding, it was a dancing troupe of school children. I guessed it was a child/parent day outing with one of the nearby schools. I stood to the side and watched with a smile on my face as one of the boys started a series of moves that reminded me of Brittany Spears in "...Baby One More Time" Don't ask me how I remembered that...
As I was focused on the entertainment I hadn't realized someone was whistling at me trying to get my attention, I swivelled around and noticed three Egyptian gents waving me over. I glided on over keen to speak with more of the locals, our conversation ranged from Cairo's history to tattoos and even on to the subject of Egyptian women and the women from my country(New Zealand) it was all so interesting and amusing!
During our chat I mentioned that I wanted to see some "real" Egyptian culture when one of the lads told me I should 'Head on down that small path over there it will take you to a pretty wall which leads somewhere' I said a fond farewell to the trio and obeyed by taking the route.
The steps leading down got bigger and wider the further I went. The greenery parted and I knew what I saw was exactly where I wanted to be, the place that I pictured in the back of my mind since I got off that plane..
The rain had ceased by the time I hit the bottom of the cascading staircase and was met with a site that send a thrill through my being, I was looking up at The Ayyubid City Fortifications. Back in the late 1170s Saladin had one single solid city wall built to protect the whole metropolis from Crusaders. Of course over the centuries Cairo's residents moved beyond the wall and so on. The eastern part where I was standing ended up becoming the dumping grounds for the city's rubbish.
Finally in 1996 this part of the wall was rediscovered during the Al-Azhar Park Project. So two brilliant things came out of it! the groovy park and this beautiful wall and trust me it is beautiful!(personally I think so!) The contrast between its sandy colour and the myriad of greens towering in front of it...Beautiful.
As I was dawdling along with my hand sweeping over the ancient walls brick blocks I started to hear all the sounds coming from the interior. If only I could take a peek into the "world" on the other side!
Thanks to the rain beforehand and the heavy dark clouds hanging over the city it kept most people indoors or undercover so I literally had almost the whole eastern wall walkway to myself with the occasional lonely soul like my self moving on by. A group of local teenagers burst from a hidden path through the greenery, laughing and carrying on and spilling their soft drink all over the show, when suddenly they veered straight for the wall and disappeared!? I quickened my pace and noticed one of the curved towers had two policemen? or some kind of local authority, standing around eating dates and smoking cigarettes. The last lad of the teenage posse went on through a opening with a casual backhand wave to the "keepers of the wall" and vanished. Well there's my ticket in! but as I approached I noticed some rifles casually leaning with their masters, so I decided I would try elsewhere...
I turned around and ended up going to another tower further back to see if my lady luck was on my side, but alas the bent gate entrances(Its a passage which is narrow and turns sharply. Purpose was to slow down the enemy attempting to rush the gate and using other tools etc. the Battering Ram) and had been barred over with metal. I felt like I was behind prison bars looking at the world I could never get to!
As I was peering intently through the bars hoping I would dematerialize I noticed a couple of heads popping out of a doorway here and there. I started to yell out 'marhaban!' Hello! the response I received was lots of giggles, I guess my foreign tongue wasn't doing the job right!? here I was saying it for a whole week and not one of my friends and acquaintances corrected me. Kids will tell you how it is I guess.
We ended up playing a sort of Hide & Seek which was fun and I managed to film some of it on my camera. The young lads grew tired of the game, said farewell to me and ran off laughing down the alley. I love how a simple game of hide and seek can up your spirits and spread a smile across your dial.
Thanking the children in my head for the positivity explosion they gave me, I decided to head on over to the guardians of the gate and try my hand at getting through. As soon as I made contact with one of the guards a smile spread from ear to ear across his sun drenched face. 'As-salamu alaykum!' Peace be upon you! the gentleman yelled, 'Aleikum as-salam' I responded and thrust out my hand which was eagerly met. They offered me a cigarette which I politely declined and instead accepted a pocketful of dates( The dates in Egypt are delightful and you can just wander around picking them off the ground in most parts of the country) we had a good ole chat about everything as usual, one had a obsession with rap music and would bust out a few rhymes now and then, while the other kept asking about the weather down under.
'Go on through enjoy.. enjoy!' said the aspiring rapper, my face probably told exactly what I was thinking plus my eyes kept sneaking glances through the hole in the wall during our conversation. We said our farewells, I thanked them for the chat and the dates but now the time had arrived when I would be able to get lost through the maze of back alleys and side streets all but forgotten...
On the other side of the tower was a stairwell leading up to the ramparts, so to the top of the wall I went and the 360 degree view was a stark contrast! the view behind me, a 500 year old hill of rubbish covered in a mosaic of natural green beauty and ahead of me a sea of dilapidated buildings that was my destination the Al Darb al-Ahmar area. The suburb is one of the poorest in Cairo and was always looked over in the past being next door to a massive garbage pit! but since that had a massive makeover and was turned into a grand park it shed light on its neighbour next door. So over the years it has had a rehabilitation program happening, helping out the locals with jobs etc. and also the ancient landmarks which were almost about to join history's dead.
Looking over the ramparts I heard a long low howling, someone was missing their master. Peering up onto one of the shanty roofs was a lovely white canine doing exactly what I was, staring out over the city but he was not as free as I, thanks to a bunch of telephone cables and other wires wrapped around to make a makeshift leash holding him in place. I wished I could have him join me on my adventure.
With no idea where I was going I skipped down the staircase and meandered off into the region to immerse myself in whatever would come my way.
The alleys were very narrow and darkened by clouds above and the old buildings rising up on either side of me. Looking up I hadn't realized I almost bumped into a couple of goats who trotted on by me. As I looked back so did they with a look that was most likely telling me 'TOURIST!'
Then the noises began as I rounded a bend and came to a wider avenue and to my delight locals were bustling around without a foreign face in site, I was getting somewhere! the sounds of hammers and saws and the aromatic smell of freshly cut wood assailed my senses. peeking into the gloomy doors and windows I saw elderly men using there carpentry skills making tables, chairs and other wooden miscellanea made from scratch....old school! Men and women huddled around stringing palm leaves and grass and other flaxen materials to create groovy baskets and such, In the quieter corners other craftsmen worked silently with needles sewing and stretching making beautiful geometric patterns from brightly colored cloth and other materials. I learnt that these gentleman are the Tentmakers this tradition has gone on for hundreds of years, creators of the huge tent pavilions past on down from father to son. Its a real shame its a dying breed the work really is exquisite!
While looking in on what's going on in the background I forgot it was raining a hour ago and the ground had turned into a minefield of mud puddles! it didn't bother me in the slightest it actually was refreshing getting a good squelch of mud through my Jandal's and toes, Plus left some neat designs all up my black jeans...
I felt like I was thrown back a hundred years with all that was going on around me and loved taking it all in, I was on a massive high I felt in a perfect state which is a very rare thing for me. As I was watching a young woman carving a piece of wood into a bird of some kind, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder, 'Salam my friend!' 'Welcome to my home!' I turned and a man in his mid thirties with the grooviest monobrow and wrapped up in a jumper and scarf extended his hand 'My name is Medo Frank welcome!'
Greetings aside he shuffled me on down the road explaining the history of the area and what a magnificent carpenter he was and how he would soon teach his young son the tricks of the trade. From the first moment I met the humble man I knew that he was a genuine human being who only wanted to show this curious foreigner the "real" Cairo. At the end of the street away from the hammers and saws we came upon a orange and green door which stood out from everything in the brown and grey surrounds.
'This is my home.. WELCOME!'
Walking through the door a young boy ran up to me craning his neck to return the smile I gave him. 'This is my son Medi' but you can call him Frank if you like?' I had a good chuckle looking at this small Egyptian lad the name Frank just made me giggle even more! 'Medi is a groovy name buddy!' I told him and all I got was a confused look then the smile appeared as if nothing was spoken.
Medo Frank showed me his magnificent carpentry skills lining the walls of his home and they were good but I would say his hospitality was a lot more magnificent then his woodmanship!
That's when I noticed the computer it was a strange site seeing it amongst the surrounding scenery.
'sit sit! please!' as he offered me a cushion on his sons bed. 'I will show you how I sell my magnificent pieces!' He did sell a few bits here and there in the markets and on the sides of the street but he made some of his living off EBay! Clicking away he showed me his buyers in Britain and also the United States. He could see I was getting uncomfortable around the computer screen and knew exactly why I had wandered into this area . 'Would you like something to eat? come! I will show you the rest of the house while my wife cooks us goodness!' All of a sudden he starts yelling down the wee corridor and his son joins in!? a couple of minutes later a younger woman comes towards us and rubbing the sleep from her eyes, She was clearly not amused!
'This is my wife Eshe she will happily cook us meal!' I gave her a sheepish grin and waved my hands telling her its okay don't worry ( I was actually starving!) suddenly she gave a smile 'I cook for guest I like very much to' and twirled back into the bedroom which was also the kitchen.
Medo Frank led me up some old rungs of a ladder to the second floor which belonged to the neighbour! I guess everyone around here are family as Medo had told me earlier on. A final ladder and we were on the roof and WOW what a site to behold! They had a 360 view over the whole suburb with Ancient Minarets, The awe Inspiring Citadel looming above the ocean of grey and brown buildings, The wall holding back the green flood of flora but what I remember most is the smells and sounds of this neighbourhood frozen in time.
Medo Frank took great pride in his rooftop oasis, there was a dining area with table and chairs made by the man himself and plenty of flora scattered around to make it all that more welcoming, even though there where cracks going right through the middle of the roof. But it just added perfectly with the scene in front of me. I was actually tempted to ask if I could stay on the roof for a few nights and I would happily pay even more for what I was at my current abode. I noticed the clouds were scattering on the wind and Mr Sun was coming out to play, Thump! something hit the back of my leg, startled from my rooftop dreaming I whirled around to notice a old soccer ball which had died many seasons ago. 'Kick kick kick kick!' Medi was on repeat 'Kick kick kick! and so I did! and how the little guy lunged at it doing a ball routine which was rather impressive! after his little show he trailed it back to me, 'Buddy I cannot even begin to copy what you just did!' so I just gave it a good kick at the crumbling wall behind him expecting it to collapse on some poor passer-by. Medo Frank then joined in mentioning how Football is the favoured sport in Egypt, I in turn told him about Rugby Aka Footy! back in my home country of New Zealand.
After a good ole 20 minutes of smacking the ball around, Eshe appeared with a large tray full of edible goodies!(I don't know how she got up those ladders...Professional!)
She must have read my mind as she had made Koshari!! its a mixture of lentils, rice, pasta, and other ingredients it may not sound fancy but it is DEVINE!! also fried falafel, different kinds of dips and breads etc. Tahini, Hummus, Dakka. To finish off was some mouth watering Baklava. Fit for a king that meal was!
After another hour of yapping away, keeping Medi entertained with his soccer ball and gladly finishing off the scraps to Eshe Banquet, It was time to say Cheerio.
Medo Frank offered to walk me through the maze to one of the main roads where I could gather my bearings for the journey back downtown. I Gave Eshe and Medi a big hug and told them I hoped to pop into their neck of the woods again one day, 'No woods here all building??..' chuckling to myself I waved a fond farewell and disappeared through the muddy alleyways with Medo tight by my side..