At night, Cairo's squalor gives way to its charm

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

August 04, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

CAIRO -- Necessary accessories for every tourist in Egypt:

* A money dispenser so the merchants who flock around you can help themselves. Why bother rooting through your wallet each time when they can do it for you?

* A baseball cap with two flashing signs that can be illuminated at the wearer's choice: "Tourist Open for Business" or "Tourist Closed Now, Try Again Later."

Every first-time tourist in Egypt must run the gamut of entrepreneurs with an outstretched hand. The requirement apparently is stamped in your passport in some invisible ink.

There is Ahmed, owner of the camel-of-a-thousand-pictures who will hoist you upon a humpy back for a souvenir photo in front of the Pyramids. There is Munir, who owns the perfume shop where you must stop for tea. ("No charge to smell," he assures, confident you will leave smellier and poorer than you had wanted).

There is Ali, who will show you how papyrus is made, wrapping you in the lore of this ancient paper until you are ready to trade some ugly greenbacks for a pretty papyrus painting. There are the jewelry merchants, and the trinket shops and the millions of taxi drivers who implore you to use their services.

Each one will welcome you politely to Egypt, ask where you are from, and claim to have a cousin in Los Angeles. Won't you step into my shop? says the spider to the fly. "Pay as you like," they assure, knowing you will be too embarrassed not to be generous.

It is courtesy to the point of bankruptcy. But persevere. Once you have finished the tourist boot-camp of the Pyramids inspection, Nile ride and Cairo Museum tour, and once you have bought your luggage-limit of perfumes and parchments and carved wooden camels, you can relax and enjoy Cairo.

It is unfortunate the city introduces herself with an outstretched hand, the snarl of traffic and the choke of exhaust fumes. A much more intriguing acquaintance awaits.

Cairo is now said to embrace about 13 million souls, only slightly fewer than greater New York City, but on one-tenth as much area. People here live in the cemeteries, on the roofs of other homes, on boats in the Nile, on shanties thrown up on construction sites every night when the workers go home.

Daybreak sends them all swarming to their chores of survival, and the result gives Cairo its reputation for being crowded, fast and bustling.

But at night, Cairo wears her prettiest guise. The darkness is a veil for the smog. The city's jewels are a subdued sprinkle of lights. They are soft and sparse lights, not the harsh flood lamps of U.S. cities so afraid of the dark.

The streets in Cairo are shadowy, respectful of the night. Drivers turn off their headlights away from the main road.

By day, Cairo can swelter in the summer and suffer in the winter, but evenings are bathed in a friendly warm breeze, an inviting wind from the vast desert. If the moon is full, the summons can be irresistible.

"Don't ever go to the Pyramids in a full moon with a girl unless you are absolutely serious," warns an American nurse sternly. She knows: She spurned the advances of an Egyptian suitor for nearly a year until he persuaded her to visit the Pyramids one evening. The moon was full. They were married a few weeks later.

Cairo shushes at night. The car horns become quiet, men retreat to the coffeehouses to turn over the day's rumors, the women gather over steaming pots to conjure alluring smells. Dinner will be followed by sweet tea, followed by orange juice, followed by sweet coffee.

Sometimes, an engagement party moves gaily down a street. A singer entertains the promised couple inside a tight circle of spectators. Shy young girls are nudged into the circle, where they erupt with an astonishingly sensual dance. Girls learn this skill from the days when nomadic clan celebrations were the only chance to demonstrate their charms.

The modern office buildings fade in the dark, and Cairo reclaims its Muslim heritage. The cityscape is punctured by the spires of mosques, each bathed in neon green light, and announced with the haunting call to prayer. In the soft arms of night, the charms of Cairo emerge.

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