Conflict & Justice

Away from the APCs: A walk in Islamic Cairo


GlobalPost / Open Hands Initiative "Covering a Revolution" fellow Mai Shams El-Din at Khan El-Khalili in Cairo, October 2011.


Ben Brody

CAIRO — For an Egyptian journalist like myself, completely consumed with the adventurous yet painful daily routine of reporting the hard-hitting news here over the past 10 months, a walk in Islamic Cairo with a group of reporting fellows is definitely a blessing.

Away from armored personnel carriers (APCs) running over people in Maspero, live shots fired at protesters, scenes of dead bodies, funerals, press conferences of different political parties condemning the violence, and statements by the military and the protesters throwing accusations at each other, a walk on the lovely unpaved roads of old Cairo —my first time — was a necessary change on Friday.

Navigating the rocky, sliding, narrow streets to Khan El-Khalili, Egypt's centuries-old market in the heart of Islamic Cairo, I was pleased to speak with Jay Snyder, founder of Open Hands Initiative.

Wondering about the aspirations of people in impoverished districts like Islamic Cairo, Snyder asked about the possibilities of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power and potential scenarios for Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections.

The walk continued until we reached Bab Zuweila, one of Cairo's medieval gates, built in 1092 AD. Due to acrophobia, I could not climb the stairs to see a wider view of Cairo from the minaret. Instead I spoke with GlobalPost executive editor and co-founder Charles Sennott, who was curious about my story, an Egyptian walking in Islamic Cairo for the first time in her life.

Having lived in Cairo for more than seven years as a student and then as a working journalist in Cairo, it seems like a long time to stay in the city without visiting this beautiful part of it. But my very simple answer was: “This is our culture.”

Egyptians have always considered historical places like old Cairo, monuments, and Pharaonic tombs in Luxor and Aswan — my hometown — as touristic destinations. They were not not for us to explore and learn more about our ancient history, even though people from all over the world travel thousands of miles to visit this cradle of civilizations.

We discussed the possible reasons behind this cultural barrier between our people and our history, primarily blaming Egypt's educational system. It isolated us from our historical identity, forcing us to read history in books, though it was only meters away from us all the while.

Waiting for our bus to take us back to the hotel, a very passionate old Egyptian man started expounding about Egypt. He urged me to tell my American colleagues about the country as a safe haven for all people.

He asked the fellows not to believe rumors of insecurity in Egypt, reminding them to "always visit Egypt" and "tell your people about how beautiful Egypt is."

As loud and shaky as his voice was, for many of us this was the "crazy man." But for me, he was not only the face of Egypt with its intuitively kind and warmly welcoming people, but also carrying the fears resting inside each and every person living in this country, experiencing history in the making. It is combination of hope for a better country and fear of what the future holds for us.