Fathom's favorite DJ, Justin Carter (of Mister Saturday Night), recently landed in Cairo and had the good sense to spend a few days casing the city. He relays his pre-party adventures and updates us on the local state of affairs.
CAIRO — A couple weeks ago, I got to DJ in Cairo. When I got the offer to play in Egypt, my mind went to the past few years of tumult there. I wondered if it was safe to go now or if I should turn down the gig. Turned out I had a couple friends who'd recently been booked at Vent (6 Kasr El Nil Street, Downtown), the club I'd been invited to play at, and they had good things to say. I also read the State Department's advisories and this piece on Fathom, and decided to go for it. I'm very happy I did.
Before I get into the day-by-day recap of my trip, a suggestion: If you're going to Cairo, ask around to see if you know someone who knows someone there. That's always a good move for traveling, but I feel like this trip in particular would've been totally different without good connections on the ground. I found the city to be pretty chaotic, and I could see it being easy to get overwhelmed and steered in the wrong direction.
My connection was distant — a person I met on an email list where I mostly lurk, scouring the music, film, and food suggestions of a crew of very smart and well-traveled people. I asked the list for Cairo recommendations, and said person summarily gave me a ton of tips and introduced me to her aunt, who, it turns out, lives two blocks from the hotel where I stayed.
Without knowing much about me, these nice strangers took me in like family, invited me for dinner at their home on my first night in town, and invited me over again the next morning for breakfast. They also arranged a driver for me one day, and helped me plan my itinerary for the week. Cairo hospitality, man. It was unbelievable.
If you don't have even a loose connection to Cairo, the next best contact is Backpacker Concierge. (Honestly, even if you have a contact on the ground, you should still get in touch with them.) They were immensely helpful over email, especially considering I didn't start talking to them until my ride from the airport to the hotel. By the next day, I had a list of places to dig for vinyl and an appointment to meet a renowned Egyptologist to guide me through the Giza pyramids and Egyptian Museum.
Anyway, on with the show. Here's my day-by-day trip to Cairo.
Day One: Islamic Cairo and Zabbaleen Village
As I mentioned above, my first morning started with a great breakfast at my e-friend's family's home. Hassan, the man of the house, made scrambled eggs with basterma, which is the Egyptian equivalent of pastrami. If you find this dish in a restaurant somewhere, order it!
I then wandered out on my own into Zamalek, the neighborhood my hotel was in. Zamalek is an island in the middle of the Nile. It's considered to be the safest neighborhood in town. It also proved pretty central and walkable. On my walk, I hit most of the items on this guide that the Backpacker Concierge guys did for Fathom. One of the highlights was Siwa (17 Ahmed Hishmat Road, Zamalek), a shop with some beautiful women's clothes and home design items like large, translucent candleholders made of salt and intricately carved, decorative wood panels.
Near Siwa, and not on the list, there are three outposts of a store called Caravanserai (Multiple locations, among them 15 Ahmed Hishmat Street, Zamalek). Each outpost was the kind of place that I imagine ABC Carpet and Home buyers go to purchase everything, ship it back home on a palette and mark up by 1000 percent. If I had more room in my bags, I would've bought at least one of the beautiful bowls with painted Arabic script — definitely handcrafted and hand-painted and only $20.
After my wandering, I landed at Zooba (26th of July Street, Zamalek), a colorful eatery serving a slightly modernized version of classic Egyptian food like koushary, fool, ta'amiya (Egyptian falafel) and hawawshy. It's a good respite from the dusty streets.
I then took a taxi up to the Zabbaleen village at the Mokattam Cliffs. Zabbaleen means "garbage people," and quite literally, the inhabitants of the village are the garbage collectors of Cairo. They're mostly Coptic Christians who, after being forcibly removed from their homes in the '70s, built a settlement in abandoned rock quarries. There's a massive Coptic church built into a cave there, which was impressive enough, but because it was Tuesday, there wasn't much happening. Apparently there's a weekly service on Thursdays, which would probably be the best day to go so you can see the church in use. I also heard that there are sometimes exorcisms there, and you can attend those.
From the Zabbaleen village I went to Islamic Cairo and just wandered the streets. It's the most vibrant and busy area of the city that I visited throughout the trip, and it seemed to me the best slice of "real life" that I caught — tea shops, mosques, and markets everywhere; live chickens, ducks, and rabbits for sale alongside fresh produce; bakeries with cooling racks right on the street.
To cap off the night, I went to Makan (1 Saad Zaghloul St. El Dawaween). On most Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, they host traditional music performances. The night I was there, there was a group of beautifully dressed and wonderfully talented Nubian musicians. The room itself is also amazing — a perfect patina on the stone walls, carpets all over the floors, an old metal samovar for tea in the corner. I heard that it's important to get there when the doors open, as performances sometime sell out. The night I was there, though, there was plenty of room.
Day Two: Ancient Relics and Modern Realities
This was my big cultural excursion day. Backpacker Concierge arranged a trip with an Egyptologist who knew the answer to about every question I had.
The first stop was the Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza. The facts about these structures are incredible. The oldest one is over 4500 years old. That's old, obviously, but think about this: when the Colosseum was built, the Great Pyramid was older than the Colosseum is now. The Great Pyramid was also the tallest building in the world for 3800 years. All these facts are interesting in and of themselves, but when you're there, and you see the PERFECT construction of stones that are so tightly placed you can't fit a knife blade between them, it's astonishing. How did they do it without modern technology? Who knows, but it turns out it didn't involve slaves.
I also went to the Solar Boat Museum, which I couldn't recommend more highly. About sixty years ago, when a team was doing some maintenance at the Great Pyramid, they uncovered a hole in the ground containing all of the pieces of a massive boat which had been sealed in the ground since the construction of the pyramid. Over the course of fifteen years, an Egyptian boat maker and carpenter figured out how to put the boat back together, and there's now a museum built specifically for the reconstructed boat, formed entirely of its original pieces (save one oar). To me, it was as incredible as the pyramids. It costs extra to go into the museum, but it is absolutely worth it. (On the other hand, I was told that going into the pyramids themselves is pretty underwhelming.)
A side note: At one point, my guide took me up to a ledge where you could get a great picture of the three main pyramids at Giza — it's a pretty famous shot. When we got out of the car, he pointed out how few tourists there were. Not too long ago there would be a fifteen-minute wait just to get to this prime picture-taking spot. The ledge could've probably fit a couple thousand people in it, and there were probably two dozen, only about half of whom were actual tourists. All that is to say, if you like traveling to world famous tourist destinations without dealing with crowds, go soon. The folks in Cairo could certainly use the support.
After the pyramid excursion, we went to a lunch spot nearby called Andrea El Mariouteya (59-60 Mariouteya Canal Road). It's famous for its roasted chicken, which you'll see spinning on outdoor spits when you walk toward the back courtyard. Beyond the chicken, though, the sides they serve are great — pickled vegetables, tahini, etc. During lunch I had a spirited conversation with a man about the Arab Spring, Hosni Mubarak's downfall, the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the current state of affairs. I tried to talk about these things with as many people as I could, and thankfully, everyone I engaged with seemed very open. Sadly, I came away with an impression that many people have lost hope. It seems to be a dark time in Egypt. I'd highly recommend getting as many opinions as you can, but do be careful about when and where you choose to talk about sensitive subjects. The police and military have recently been cracking down on dissenters. In January, a woman was gunned down by police as she carried flowers in a peaceful march.
While it seems strange to acknowledge such heavy things and then move on to the next item on the tourist itinerary, one of the things that's striking about Cairo, or probably anywhere that is going through troubled times, is that people get on with their lives. So after my intense lunch conversation, I headed on to the Egyptian Museum (Tahrir Square, Meret Basha, Qasr an Nile), which was incredible. The museum's claim to fame is the contents of King Tut's tomb. Believe the hype. It's as cool as everyone says. Also not to be missed are the collections related to Akhenaten, the first known monotheist in history, who represented himself androgynously in statues, was the father of Tutankhamen, and the husband of Nefertiti; and the collections related to Hatshepsut, one of very few female pharaohs. Two other must-see items are the wood statue called Sheikh el-Balad (it's an ancient sculpture, but it was given its modern name after the chief of the village where it was found) and the Narmer Pallette, which is the oldest known historical record (dating about 3300 BCE).
For all the museum's beauty inside, just outside the museum was another reminder of Cairo's troubled time. The museum itself is beautiful, a neoclassical structure from the early 1900s, but it sits in the shadow of the burned out office building that housed Hosni Mubarak's political party. About a hundred yards beyond that are rows of tanks and other military vehicles, all with balaclava-wearing police or soldiers manning machine guns. All the barrels are pointed into Tahrir Square, as if to dare protesters to come back.
To come down from my rather intense day of ancient wonders and heavy, modern realities, I did a little vinyl therapy. Up the block from my hotel was a place called ION Electronic Fields, which is mostly an audio equipment workshop, but they do have a few records. The scene there was funny. Two men brought me all the records in the place, bit by bit, and when I pulled some selections and asked to listen (assuming that because it was a shop full of audio equipment that they'd have a player at the ready), they slowly unwrapped a set of used speakers, then a used receiver, and then a used turntable. Once they had it all set up, they placed each record I pulled carefully on to the table and played them at full volume. The shop was tiny, and all three of the other customers got their ears blasted.
Day Three: Hunting for Vinyl
I decided to start my final full day in Cairo digging for records. I started in Downtown, where supposedly a record company called Sono Cairo used to have a retail outlet. Before heading there, though, I went to Felfela (15 Hoda Shaarawi Street, Downtown), a simple, fast, and good Egyptian restaurant that a few people recommended to me. Be aware that the ordering system can be a little overwhelming. You pay and order at the cash register; they give you a ticket; and you go to one of two stations in the restaurant and wave your ticket at the guy handing out food until he takes it. It took me about five minutes to get his attention among the dozen or so people also waving their tickets. When he actually fulfilled my order, I had no idea, because I don't speak Arabic. I had to go back to the cashier to get him to help me out in the back.
After lunch I wandered over to Sono Cairo only to find that it is no longer called Sono Cairo and that the only vinyl they have is an English-language instruction 45 from the '70s. I already know how to speak English, so I did not get this record. They told me I could find records at Khan El Khalili, the large, famous bazaar/souk/market in Islamic Cairo. I hailed a cab and hit the road. (A note about cabs in Cairo: Get in the front seat, and make sure they start the meter. If they try to negotiate on price or tell you the meter is broken, politely ask them to start the meter a couple times, and if they don't relent, just get out and get into another cab. Taxis are everywhere, so don't worry about not being able to find one.)
I wandered around the souk for a couple hours before I finally found a few vendors that had records. Every collection I found was small, mostly beat up, and totally random — I saw everything from Grandmaster Flash to German classical music to records with cyrillic text on the labels. I also found records with Arabic text on them, obviously, and those are the ones I honed in on, buying solely based on a few label names that I'd learned and then trying to get the vendors to tell me what kind of music I had in my hands.
The best part, of course, was the negotiation. At one point, I walked into a man's cove, fresh off of a lengthy negotiation, and asked how much his records cost. He said, smiling, "Ah, don't worry about that! We will argue about it, of course!" We had some tea; he told me about his records; and I walked away with some good stuff.
My digging otherwise was mostly a bust. One vendor at the souk had written down an address where he thought I could get records, which I gave to a cab driver. It turned out to be the home of the Sono Cairo label. I imagine there was a warehouse somewhere with deadstock, but I had no joy with the guard at the front desk, so I went back to Felfela for some more food and met a friend to head to Coptic Cairo, an area of the city where there are old churches and a synagogue that's rumored to be the place where baby Moses was pulled from a basket floating down the Nile about 3,500 years ago.
By the time we got to Coptic Cairo, almost everything was closed, but we got to go into a few of the old churches. Most of them are unfortunately lit with halogen bulbs, but they still feature some beautiful, Byzantine-looking paintings of saints. No one lives in the area, so it's not the slice of life you'll get in Islamic Cairo, but it's still interesting to see a different take on an old church than what you can see in Florence or Mexico or New York.
After a little respite at my hotel, I met up with the promoter who brought me to town, and he took me to Cairo Kitchen (118 26th of July Street, Zamalek), another fresh take on traditional Egyptian food. I'd definitely recommend dinner there.
I ended the trip with my gig at Vent. It seems like a pretty standard club with a good sound system, but given the state of affairs in Egypt right now, it's a wonder the place exists. The resident DJs are making solid, contemporary dance music, and there's a healthy crew of locals that man nights there. I'd definitely recommend checking it out if you want to know what the cool kids in Cairo are doing.
Know Before You Go
Be prepared with lots and lots of five-pound notes for tipping. Five Egyptian pounds is less than a dollar, and it seemed to be the generally acceptable tip for just about anything — getting access to the roof of a mosque, taking a picture of a camel in front of a pyramid, having a security guard look after your car while you're parked illegally during dinner. The best was when I bought a couple Moroccan poofs. After I'd negotiated the price, the salesman tried to get me to give him a little something extra — because of the service of selling something to me (?!!) — crazy. You will be asked for tips bluntly and often, and people will act disappointed when they don't get them. It's okay to say no when you don't feel like tipping is appropriate.
Traveling Safe and Solo
I was on my own about half of the time I was in Cairo. I never felt unsafe at all, but I've heard that it's more difficult for Western women. If you are traveling solo, keep your wits about you and don't do anything that you think feels strange. Do know, though, that the vast majority of people are either indifferent to you or are happy you're there.
Personal Driver vs. Hailing a Taxi
I had a driver my first two days in Cairo, which was helpful when I wanted to go to places a bit outside of the city, like the Mokattam Cliffs and Giza, or when I wanted to go into Makam and know that there would be a ride waiting for me when I got out. On the day where I stayed within the more dense boundaries of the city, though, it was very easy to hail taxis. (I'm not sure what the situation with hailing taxis would be at night. I'd ask your hotel.)
How to Get There
I flew into Cairo on Aegean from Berlin through Athens, and I left on British Airways. There's a flight to London every morning.
Cairo International Airport (CAI) was the source of my only real stress on the trip. When you're departing, you'll be led through at least four x-ray machines and security checks (with people trying to help you load your bags onto the conveyor belts asking for tips). There were two x-ray machines before I got to the check-in desk, both within a hundred feet of each other. You also have to fill out a customs card to leave the country, but there are no pens around for you to fill out the cards. (Guess who will have a pen for you: someone who wants a tip.) Despite the dense security, I was only told on the final round of screenings that I wouldn't be able to bring the bungee cords that I use to keep my record box on its cart onto the plane, and by that time my checked bags had already been loaded. Anyway, I don't wanna bitch too much here, because the annoyance was certainly worth the pleasure of being in Cairo, and it compares in no way to the stress people live under when their government is threatening their freedoms on a daily basis. All that is to say, just be patient.