Before moving to Cairo in early 2015 I asked my colleague Max Rodenbeck, who literally wrote the book on the city, what to expect. Specifically, I was wondering if I should be concerned about the little bombs that disgruntled Islamists were setting off around the city. No, he said, “you are much more likely to be hit by a car.” In the weeks before I left I repeated this line to family and friends concerned about my safety.
Now I see that my colleague was not offering reassurance. It was a warning. For while I once felt the shock wave of a bomb in Cairo, the real danger comes as I walk to work. The pavement is invariably broken or blocked – by cars, cats or coffee shops – so I am forced to share the road with Egypt’s snarling traffic. It seems like everyday I am brushed by a reckless driver.
This is especially troubling for me, as I am a devoted urban rambler. I learn cities by wandering around them, miles at a time. And Cairo appeared to me like a city made for meandering, given its size and rich history, which often hides down unmarked alleys. It is not, but the intrepid walker can still have some fun.
Not long after I arrived in Cairo, I set out from my apartment in the leafy Zamalek neighbourhood with the goal of walking to Islamic Cairo, some 6km away. I launched my expedition with a successful crossing of the Nile (via a heavily congested bridge). But I was stopped short on the other side. In front of me lay the Corniche, the waterfront promenade, and the prospect of becoming roadkill. There were no traffic lights or zebra crossings, just a free-for-all of speeding cars. Had Victorian explorers faced such peril, Africa might still be unmapped.
I stood there for minutes, contemplating my next move and watching Egyptians assertively wade through the torrent of vehicles. I thought it best to wait downstream and follow their lead. (Doing as the Egyptians do is no guarantee of safety. I once saw a local man walk into the road with one arm raised, as if to stop traffic. Shockingly, he succeeded – causing a three-car pile-up.) At least I will not die alone, I thought, as trucks hurtled past me and my local sherpas. Crossing the road had never been so thrilling.
Arriving in Cairo’s downtown area, with its relatively long stretches of unbroken pavement, was a relief. But as I entered the Mosky market, new obstacles emerged. The pavement is packed with vendors, who often hawk their wares by megaphone. The ear-splitting cacophony adds to a general sense of chaos. As the road narrows, cars and people tussle for space, forming a dense mass of flesh and steel (and, sometimes, donkeys). The risk here is not of being hit by a car, but of being slowly crushed by one.
I squeezed my way through the crowds for one more kilometre, before arriving in the part of the city known as Islamic Cairo, where the medieval architecture is stunning and, more importantly, traffic is restricted. The neighbourhood’s winding roads and alleys – which date back to the Fatimid caliphate in the tenth century – look like an unsolvable maze on a map, but they are suited for rambling. The locals gawked as I walked up and down the streets, no doubt reinforcing their perception that I was a spy.
The city has sprawled over the course of centuries and is now home to nearly a quarter of Egypt’s population. Little planning went into its modern development, which helps to explain its poor walkability – along with more pressing problems, such as a lack of reliable services. Walking and running in public, for pleasure or exercise, is uncommon, save for nighttime strolls along the Nile.
As I wander Cairo, I am often approached by taxi drivers who are confused by my resistance. Other times it is state security. In the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh I tried to walk to the airport, some 5km from my hotel. Bad idea. The president was in town. Men in cheap suits popped up to interrogate me at every turn. To allay their suspicions, I played the khawaga (clueless foreigner).
In truth, walking in Egypt has made me less of a khawaga. I now instinctively shun the pavement, as the locals do, in favour of busy roads and even highways. There is a flight of stairs near my apartment leading to a bridge over the Nile. But I just take the ramp used by cars. Even when returning home to America, I find myself walking in the street at inappropriate times. When a car comes too close I shout a well-practiced epithet in Arabic. People stare.
Back in Egypt I recently received a great, if unofficial, honour. When crossing the Corniche, a group of locals used me as their sherpa. With a new sense of pride, I dodged the traffic and made my way across this fascinating city.