At times Cairo feels like it has curled in on itself, as there is no point from which you can’t see literally every element of the city: touristy, poverty-stricken, opulent, historic, mundane. From inside the Aberdeen Palace, the ritualistic home to many former Egyptian leaders, I wandered through mock-British gardens and rooms filled with ceremonial weaponry to look up and see decrepit apartment buildings just outside the walls, laundry hanging out of their windows. Hypermodern shoe-stores with hundreds of items displayed in blindingly bright windows sit on the ground floor of imposing British colonial architecture, their neon lighting indistinguishable from the glow of mosque minarets nearby.
Sounds are no less of a barrage. The melodies that cut through ceaseless honks of traffic could just as readily be the sacred call to prayer or the secular news report from an unseen radio or television. Silence becomes a truly relative term as traffic noise recedes to a rumble but never entirely goes away.
Through all of this overload, tourists seem caught between competing images of Egypt. The countless souvenir shops hawking pharoanic statues and papyrus wall hangings sit uncomfortably beneath clashing Islamic and Western architecture, which symbolize competing and intermingling forces in the contemporary city that are far from the facade of ancient glory.
As a result, my first 48 hours in Cairo have been punctuated by very brief moments where a single surrounding dominates. These moments of escape have been both relaxing in their pause and unnerving in their uniqueness. The first was in the Shar Hashamayim Synagogue, a few blocks from my hotel, which is one of the only remnants of Cairo’s Jewish community left. After negotiating my way through a group of intimidating, well-armed Egyptian guards (who clearly realize the delicacy of the political situation right now), I walked into the quiet space to be greeted by an old woman and young man. Between the two of them, they could cobble together enough simple Arabic, French, and English such that I could basically understand that their job is to receive visitors. I quickly got the feeling that there were more guards outside than daily visitors inside and that the beautifully ornate interior functioned more as a hidden shrine than a public symbol.
The guarding of this synagoge was my only clue to popular political sentiments in Cairo, a subject almost everyone I talked to before leaving made sure to mention or inquire about. Indeed, it was hard not to entertain the dramatic image of massive, CNN-worthy rallies greeting me as I boarded the airplane. These were, of course, just fantasies, and it is hard to imagine how anything would be different were Gaza not only a few hours away. At the end of the day, people usually just go about their business everywhere, no matter the mediatized political situations nearby.
The same feeling (or to be more exact, lack of feeling) was present in Israel, where I spent two days on the way here. Walking through Tel Aviv, the usual throngs of American tourists and endless variety of Israelis gave one no sense that, even with the Gaza situation, anything is terribly different for the average Israeli, Egyptian, or American.