Some years back, near the turn of the last century, my world-traveling friend Chris called me from South Africa with a most welcome request. Would I mind dropping whatever I'm doing and meet her in Cairo? She wanted to visit some Muslim countries and thought it prudent to purchase a scarf and obtain a non-threatening male escort. So what if my electronic publishing company was teetering on insolvency due to dotcom hysteria, so what if my most able employee was my secret girlfriend, and certainly Sarah would not mind watching the shop while I flew away to meet another woman? All signs said close your eyes and go, and I flew off the Schiphol, then Cairo.
The old bazaar fit my imagination, tiny alleys full of counter-flowing masses, door front booths with burlap sacks containing real treasures, frankincense, myrrh, then TVs, Walksmans, VCRs, every block or so a brilliant mound of indigo dye. We quickly lost our bearings without a care and let the foot traffic carry us about. Occasionally we emerged into an open square where food booths of fried meats on a stick and shaved ices abounded. We'd dive back into the alleys, looking for and at anything. Chris's caution to respect the traditions was both unnecessary and wise. There were many women in Western dress and exposed elbows, but the few tourists we saw were youthful, burdened with backpacks like mules and invariably wearing shorts and t-shirts. Our modest dress was distinct and met with smiles from worldwise Cairenes.
All the senses were satisfied by our wanderings and the confusion of the alley mazes made any deliberate attempt at finding Mahfouz's coffee shop pointless. Then Chris spied a small polished brass plate next to a wooden door, lo and behold, the name of the cafe we sought. The door was nicer than everything else in that alley, polished and lacquered, the windows clean with curtains. We wondered if we were dressed well enough as we stepped in.
Inside were a handful of small tables and cushioned bench lining two walls. There was room for perhaps a dozen customers, 20 or so would be very crowded. We cautiously sat in a corner separate from the 4 or so other patrons and looked at the menu. Sweets, teas and coffee were the main consumables, of course, along with a choice of flavored hookahs. I ordered a coffee, Chris a tea, looking best we could to not be looking like tourists on a literary pilgrimage. In that we were failing, but no matter, soon the front door opened and an Egyptian couple came in, then another, then the cafe was full of happy chatting people. A 40-something man, his wife and a woman friend were soon sharing our area and without the slightest hesitation addressed us in German, then a few words French before, with a little surprise, he successfully tried English. The big surprise to these people, and everyone else we met along Nile, was that we were Americans.
I had not realized before leaving the good old USA that recently Islamic radicals killed more than 50 tourists in Luxor. None of the victims were Americans, so the news was poorly reported here. As intended by the evil-doers, tourism to Egypt had suffered greatly in a country where tourism represents most of their revenue. The number of visitors was down 80%-90%, mostly Europeans stayed home and it seemed the only Americans in country either were ignorant (me) or on government business. Now properly identified at Mahfouz's cafe as the rare pink-skinned, yellow-headed Merican, we were profusely welcomed and invited to join in. A large hookah was ordered.
While I was learning from the man that he had studied engineering in Atlanta and had a brother in Florida, Chris and the women began smoking the strong tobacco, flavored with apple-scented charcoal. (I passed on the hookah, having a aversion to tobacco... but have since learned to enjoy the flavored smoke in small quantities). The women clearly enjoyed the freedom that cafe offered them, deep inside the most Islamic section of Cairo. We did confirm that this was indeed Mahfouz'z coffee shop, although I have suspected that several lay claim to Egypt's only literary Nobel prize winner.
In time we were invited to our new friend's house, we were given important advice on places to see and miss, roads to take and avoid, trains that might get bombed and generally treated like family. This was a pattern repeated over the next weeks along the banks of the Nile from Aswan to Luxor. We continued to be the rare and dearly missed visitor, we had daily demonstrations of generosity and sincere affection that any chamber of commerce would kill for. Learning the Arabic word "la" (no) was all one needed to keep the street urchins at bay. The worst I heard from a man was that American TV was decadent (I agreed), while his wife quietly told Chris that she thought President Clinton "sexy". As for our safety and perhaps more important, our ease of mind, Egypt was a delight. Chris never needed me for protection, but we needed each other to best experience the culture.
Mahfouz never came to the coffee shop that night. He sent his people.
Postscript: Chris continues to go places few people will even dream about. Sarah and I are very happily married now, but I have not gotten close to persuading her to travel with me to a Muslim country. Too much fear of the stereotype of a misogynistic culture of female repression.... not to mention that in the process of making America safe, GWB has stirred up so much hatred against us. As for the difference in culture, I know that immersion would go far to aid understanding and tolerance.... but our president has set about destroying any chance we have to build bridges. File that among his numerous war crimes.