Visiting Cairo Now (Useful Tips for Unstable Countries)

What is it like to visit Cairo this year, after all that has happened in Egypt during the last few years? During these times, should one avoid independent travel and choose to travel either with a group or with an official guide? Are the wonderful musical performances and the dinner cruises still happening? What’s different about just walking around on the streets? What about the infamous Cairo traffic?  What about public demonstrations and visible unrest? Do people feel less free to comment on the government? How is the economy doing?

Leyla and I sitting in sidewalk cafe, watching the action on Husseyn Square

Leyla and I sitting in sidewalk cafe, watching the action on Husseyn Square

My dear friend Lois White, whose performance name is “Leyla Lanty”, goes to Cairo every summer. She attends the Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly-dance festival, and even teaches a class there, in “zills” (the finger cymbals which dancers use).   She usually extends her stay after the festival, renting an apartment that her long-time guide Ahmed arranges for her.

So I asked her to fill me in on what was like to visit Cairo this year, when so many changes have been happening. Good news! Leyla reports that she always felt quite safe wherever she went, and found things to be normal everywhere she went.

However, it is important to remember that she is almost always accompanied by her guide Ahmed and his son Karim. And it is true that she does recommend,  in these changing times, that foreign visitors to Cairo either use a guide or travel with a group.

Ahmed (r.) hires an oud player to come to our table and serenade us

Ahmed (r.) hires an oud player to come to our table and serenade us

The guide she always hires is Ahmed, whose professional name is Ahmed ‘el gentil’, (“Ahmed the Gentleman”). It is true that Ahmed charges a little more than most guides in Cairo, but I have always felt that he was more than worth it.

Leyla has hired him for so many years that he’s almost like family. In addition to all of the usual sites and experiences, Leyla and I have been treated to experiences that most people never see. We’ve been to a wedding of the daughter one of the Khan el Khalili merchants, (a “local” wedding, not a “class wedding”, an experience that most non-Cairenes have seen) we’ve visited family friends such as a young woman who owns a photography studio. Leyla has attended family parties and danced in a back room with female members of Ahmed’s family. Her recent visit coincided with Ramadan, and she was invited to several “iftar” evenings (the nightly breaking of the Ramadan fast) with Ahmed’s family. New clients of Ahmed’s would not, of course, end up sharing these family occasions.

Of course, new clients of Ahmed’s would not, of course, end up sharing such family occasions, but I do feel that in these troubled times, it is all the more important to hire someone who comes personally recommended and who does a really professional job.  I feel strongly that  it is worth it, for the extra security and peace of mind, and let’s be frank, one’s physical safety. I definitely recommend Ahmed, whose contact information I list below.

During some of my past visits to Cairo, I have stayed with Leyla in the apartment she rents while she is there. The apartment is in Giza, the neighborhood of Cairo which is close to the Pyramids.  I found that staying in the apartment let me find out so much more about what Cairo culture and life is like, than staying in a hotel.  I used to love to sit and look out the window  with my coffee, for hours, and just watch the street.

There are also wonderful hotels to stay in while in Cairo.  My favorite, because it has that small, cozy antique atmosphere about it, (and because this is a travel website for those who prefer non-luxury travel) is the Hotel Victoria, which has been there since the 1920’s and is located near the Khan el Khalili Souq.

Sitting at our café, we watch the lighted towers of El Azhar Mosque as darkness falls

Sitting at our café, we watch the lighted towers of El Azhar Mosque as darkness falls

One difference this summer was that Leyla was advised by Ahmed to be careful what she wrote online about the Egyptian government and any of its actions. He told her that “everyone is being more careful about open criticism.”

In general conversations with Egyptians, Leyla doesn’t remember hearing anything negative about the current government and how it’s handling social and economic issues.  She told me, “I got the sense that everyone I talked with supports El Sissi in how he is approaching the problems caused by the Brotherhood, e.g. demonstrations that disrupt neighborhoods, traffic, etc. and how he is approaching making economic progress.  All who I talked with are optimistic about the future but expect it to be a long haul before Egypt prospers again.”

emceeAs true lovers of Egyptian music,  one of our favorite times in Cairo is going to the Cafe Darwiish on Friday evenings, to hear the fantastic musicians and singers there. I was so glad that Leyla reports that this experience was the same as always: the music “started right after the evening prayer as usual, same musicians and singers.  It went on until after 1 a.m.  Most of the usual crowd was in attendance.” She said that   Sa3id, the owner of the cafe, “was his usual micro-managing self.”

She said that walking around through the streets of Cairo with Ahmed, she saw no visible differences.

“In fact,” she said, “I saw quite a few younger women who were walking on the street with no veils or hijab (headscarves)”  There are still those who over their faces, but Ahmed said that is changing with more women showing their hair and faces.

A vendor, whom Leyla has known since he was a small boy, tries to charm her into buying a bracelet

A vendor, whom Leyla has known since he was a small boy, tries to charm her into buying a bracelet

Female tourists should be advised that “dresses are still worn long and pants are still not very tight.” Cairenes do not expect non-Muslim women to wear head-scarves (10% of Egyptians are Coptic Christians, and they do not always wear head scarves.)

(I would like to add that smiling at men you do not know, in Cairo, is just like saying, “I’m available”. It’s different if you are talking to a shopkeeper or someone you are doing business with, but it is not advised to be all friendly and smiley with men you pass on the street.)

Leyla went on to say that the Nile dinner cruises were operating pretty much as  usual, but with much smaller crowds. “Weddings and anniversaries are still being celebrated, most with dancers and live music, plus DJs.  During Ramadan, families still celebrated iftar (the breaking of the all-day fast) every night either with their own households or visiting other family members.  Those evenings probably were not as elaborate for many people, especially those who are unemployed because of the economy and the low level tourism.

After lunch at an outdoor restaurant on the road to Sakkara, Leyla rides a camel

After lunch at an outdoor restaurant on the road to Sakkara, Leyla rides a camel

She said that driving through the infamous Cairo traffic is “every bit as bad as it’s been, with a new addition in some areas, the “tuk-tuks”.  Leyla wrote me, “I think you remember the tuktuks that plied the narrow back streets near Ahmed’s building.  They were not allowed on the main streets like Faisal and Haram.  Now the tuktuk drivers have multiplied like rabbits and they are driving every which way on all the streets, including the busy ones like Faisal.  By every which way, I mean they drive in the direction they want to, not what most of the cars are doing – a REAL hazard!!!  they ignore the ‘rule’ that they don’t belong on the main streets.  As people are saying, many people think that having more freedom means they can do whatever they want to do regardless of how it might affect other people.”

View from the balcony of Leyla's Giza apartment, of the colorful vegetable shop below

View from the balcony of Leyla’s Giza apartment, of the colorful vegetable shop below

I asked Leyla if she saw demonstrations or other obvious signs of unrest.  She said that she did not see any demonstrations, but that was only because Ahmed and his son Karim found out where the demonstrations were that day, and made sure that they did not take her in that area.  This is one of the main reasons that she strongly recommends that foreign travelers, in these times, hire a guide or travel with a group.  The professional guides know the area and can make sure that the visitor does not inadvertently find themselves in an uncomfortable situation.

  I asked her if the police were acting differently than they did before the Arab spring and Morsi’s presidency. She told me, “My impression from both what I saw and what Egyptians told me, is that the police are getting more organized and getting more control of things like traffic and demonstrations, quickly preventing them or cordoning the areas off so people don’t inadvertently wander into them.  There are more police and they seem to be more effective these days.

       So, in conclusion, do go ahead and visit Egypt at this time!  But because of the current situation, hire a recommended guide, or go with an organized group.

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Still had planned to add Ahmed’s contact info, and also a list of my 10 favorite Cairo sites