Time Travelling Postcards: Cairo, in the Mad Summer of 2006

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In the summer of 2006, I decided to take the train from Istanbul to Damascus, leaving from Haydarpasa station on the Asian side of the city and ending up in Aleppo some days later.

I was totally going to do it. All my friends were doing it. Syrians were lovely people. Aleppo was lovely. My friends who visited wanted to stay longer and missed it when they left. Damascus was poised to be the next best place to be to do interesting things- cafes and bookstores and small but interesting businesses and organizations were quietly popping up, waiting to flourish.

Yes, Syria was next!

Until it turned out to be not exactly so.

But in 2006, from the outside at least, it was. I somehow didn’t know any better.

I tentatively studied a few Arabic websites, trying to at least get the script and basics down, in between teaching wild Turkish university students and debating the pros and cons of leaving Turkey after 4 years. I was ready to go.

Then I took a trip to Selcuk, a spontaneous escape from Istanbul. And I met a girl. A woman, technically, but I’ll call her a girl for the sake of casualness.

She was one of those people that derails you in the best way possible. After only a few beers, we ended up down the coast of Turkey, taking the ferry to Bozcaada, where we swam and knocked over bar stools and ate whole grilled prawns while sitting on low stools in a cobbled alley. Then she ended up for a while in my flat in Harbiye, in Istanbul. Then she convinced me to come with her to Cairo the following week.

Okay. Sure.

So we went to Cairo for a few weeks. At the time, not realizing the extent of the events going on in the outside world (no smart phone, no laptop, nowt), Beirut was being bombed and there was much uproar around us but we didn’t know why. Posters were unfurled from balconies; groups of men shouted; loudspeakers blared. I thought nothing of it because, well, that’s what men do.

Years later, using old emails and diary posts, I wrote superficially about Cairo here and here. We had beers with prostitutes and met the guy who met Mohamed Ali. We repeatedly went for dinner at a very retro hotel that had the oldest elevator in Africa, which Michael Palin had the pleasure of riding in, and saw pyramids and mosques and museums and all the things you see in Cairo. We bought a lot of perfume oils, many of which I still have- somewhere. We had a great time.

Less superficially, we were harassed nearly constantly.  Even wearing reasonable hijab, men still hissed and whispered ‘slut’ as I passed. Everyone tried to sell us everything, all the time.

After she left to continue her travels around the world, I found myself with several days to fill on my own. I moved out of our tiny, pink room in the guest house in the back street that was mainly filled with men who were working in town and moved into the retro hotel with the really old lift. I was tired of the stares, the comments, the non-accidental shoves.  I used the gentle old place as a hideaway when I didn’t have the mental or emotional energy to deal with the outside world.

As for Syria, well, nope. I tried to go again in 2010, but just before I solidified my plans, the hell that is going on now erupted. I ended up in Myanmar instead, right before their elections.

I wish I had been there before to see what all my friends and students had raved about. The Aleppo bazaar, where I had planned to go after my train arrived from Istanbul, is pretty much rubble. I don’t even know if the Syrian students I had taught in Istanbul are still alive.

One of the trickier aspects of travelling so much is that you have way too many personal reference points when things go wrong. When women started getting raped in plain view during the uprisings (and continuing thereafter) in Cairo, I could totally feel the energy, the mood, the crap that led to it. I rode in the women only carriages for a reason. I heard the hissing and the mocking and the relentless coercion.

I also met many good men, sane men, non-awful men (see below), who were respectful and thoughtful and lovely and I really, really hope they are okay.

People, this was a bit of Cairo during the summer of 2006.

And, for the record, I ended up staying in Istanbul 2 more years, but only after quitting my job, selling most of my stuff and giving up my flat.

The usual.


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Directly opposite the pyramids at Giza, in case you were wondering.



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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.