24 HOURS IN CAIRO (an Ask the Pilot video from Patrick Smith)
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Uploaded on Feb 1, 2011
A melange of sights and sounds from one of the world's great cities. Shot during a layover in Cairo, Egypt, in May, 2010.
This video accompanies a column I wrote for Salon.com in February, 2011:
As a rule I'm not much of a cities person -- I'll take the jungles, the mountains, the countryside villages -- but this is a special case.
Cairo, the de facto capital of the Islamic world, with its countless grand mosques, teeming bazaars and ancient ruins. I estimate that I have taken more pictures in Cairo than anywhere else; at every turn I'm digging out my camera. I would never call the city "picturesque" -- it's far too hectic and overwhelming for a word like that -- but it's a palette of endless texture and detail, color and commotion. Even without riots and revolution, there is simply so much of EVERYTHING. The imagery doesn't stop: the spectacular detailing of a thousand year-old minaret; the ramshackle clutter of the souqs and storefronts; a donkey cart piled with strawberries; women in full cover walking along some back-alley road at sunset.
And lest we forget the Giza Plateau. Sure there are tour buses everywhere, and the spectacle of Ukrainian women tottering through the sand in six-inch heels and miniskirts. But it's the Pyramids! Sure there's a Pizza Hut only a few hundred yards from the paws of the Sphinx. But it's the Sphinx!
To be fair, Cairo is also massively overcrowded, filthy, and draped in heavy smog. Traffic is unmanageable beyond words. There is little sanitation. The volume of roadside trash can be staggering; I once saw an impromptu traffic circle constructed entirely of garbage. Even the Pyramids are strewn with litter. In summer, with temperatures poking into the triple digits, the noise and fumes become unbearable -- the air above the city seems to condense into a superheated, tea-colored broth.
There are nearly twenty million people in greater Cairo. That sounds impossible until you find yourself looking out at the city from the walls of the Citadel or from atop the minaret at Ibn Tulun. Suddenly it is very believable. There is Cairo in every direction -- a mammoth, horizon-wide sprawl of concrete and dust and humanity. It's so densely, suffocatingly packed as to seem almost a single continuous structure -- hundreds of thousands of buildings scorch-fused together by the sun.
What to do when it's all too much? Simple, just head for the world's greatest restaurant, the inimitable Abou Tarek. Everybody in Cairo, if not in all of Egypt, is familiar with Abou Tarek, a four-story building on a grimy street of tire and muffler shops, just off the eastern end of 6 October Bridge, a few blocks in from the Nile. It's been there since 1950, founded and (still) owned by Youssef Zaki. Zaki is maybe Cairo's closest thing to a celebrity chef -- a sort of Colonel Sanders of Egyptian fast food, whose portrait stares down at you from the walls. On my last visit, Zaki himself was on the premises, shaking hands.
Walk in, take a seat, and within thirty seconds you're dining on the restaurant's sole entree, that most delectable of Egyptian treasures: a steaming bowl of koshary. Koshary is a mixture of noodles, lentils, chickpeas and fried onions, topped with a spicy tomato sauce and however much chili sauce you can handle.
All for the equivalent of about $1.50.
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