Stairway to Heaven

Two weekends ago I had what may be my most productive day of sightseeing yet. It was not until then that I had fully realized a sentiment that I have had ever since: there are many Cairos. There is the Cairo that I occupy most often – a bourgie and privileged segment of the population in which people are well educated, speak English more prevalently than Arabic, women typically don’t wear their veil, many young people go out to clubs or bars and drink (or even smoke hash) despite their religious view (or not), dress well or at least liberally, and in general have money to do whatever they desire. It feels weird for me to come from the middle-class in the Midwest of the United States and be immediately thrown into the most upper-class sector of Egypt just because of my university and to be frank my skin color. Hidden away in our walled-off city of the American University in Cairo (AUC), it is easy to forget about the other Cairos that exist. A Cairo where people with no means to a better life sit on the edge of the street all day to pedal fruit or tissues and are ignored by the middle and upper class civilians that drive past and try as hard as possible to avoid eye contact. A Cairo where your breakfast of ta3maya can cost you only 1 1/2 pounds (18 cents). A Cairo where people are forced to wear their same old and dirty clothing – the possibility of upgrading their wardrobe is almost as impossible as upward mobility. My productive day of sightseeing included seeing two disparate sectors of Cairene life.

I never thought that when I got to Cairo my best friend would be an Iranian-American from Oakland who studies on the East Coast. Somehow, though, Bahar Ostadan became the sidekick superhero to most of my adventures in this diverse city. She’s smart, and funny, and – all of the internationals agree – a sweetheart. All of these reasons and more make it more than worth putting up with her chronic cough and various health problems she has developed in this smoggy, smoky city.

After I was bummed about waking up too late to join AUC’s Egyptology Department’s visit to the National Museum, with one of the world’s best Egyptologist, Bahar cheered me up by offering an alternative adventure. We met up at Bab Zuweila, a gate to the Old City of Cairo that was built in 1092. We spent the first portion of the day walking around the old city. We tried sugarcane juice, had street food, and purchased fresh bread for less than about 50 cents apiece. After walking around and seeing the many vendors, we paid an inexpensive fee to climb the steep steps to the top of the minarets of Bab Zuweila. The views were breathtaking.


We continued our travels by tuk-tuk (rickshaw) up the hill to the Cairo Citadel, Saladin’s famous medieval fortress. It is perhaps most well-known for the Muhammad Ali Mosque within its compounds, which we spend much time exploring and photographing. The visit to the Citadel was interesting from an architectural standpoint, but even more interesting from a people watching one. I am fairly certain that Bahar and I were in a minority because we were not wearing cheap cowboy hats sold in and around the Citadel. Someone asked me, for the first time, to take a picture with him. I asked where he thought I was from. After saying he didn’t know he continued to guess I was either from Costa Rica or Spain. Either way, he wanted the picture. Further along our travels, a boy asked an Asian man his name. When he said “call me Paul”, the boy laughed and turned to Bahar and me as if we were some sort of “Egyptian” insiders to his joke. Finally, when the time came to leave, Bahar realized that we were being followed for a long period of time. After stopping on a wall to see what the man would do, he looked around, looked at us, and then continued to keep walking. Up until the point he turned a corner far down a street he keep turning back and looking at us. After waiting a while we decided to keep moving and leave the complex, but not before a group of Egyptian boys yelled “Kansas!!!” at us.


Continuing our day (it was somehow only 4pm by this point) we headed over to a small island on the Nile in Giza owned by the Royal Muhammad Ali Club. The event? Funk and Pop, a popular event for AUCans to head to every other Friday. It is most likely the most bourgie and hip place I have ever been in my life. Its downsides… the price. Entrance – 150/200pounds ($19.60/$25.50), glass of wine – 50pounds ($6.39), bottle of wine 250pounds ($31.94), gyro – 45pounds ($5.75). Ghali owi (very expensive).While I don’t have any pictures to convey the bourge exuded by this island, Bahar and I put together a list of our favorite Funk and Pop experiences:

  • Bathroom attendants mop the “porta-potties” after every use.
  • There is, at least we are 90% sure of it, a corner occupied by only gay men.
  • The grassed area is filled with bean bags, spread out hip blankets, Ping-Pong tables, and fireplaces that make you feel like you are really just an attendee at Project X.
  • “We gave our phones to a random employee and he charged them for us for 2-hours. It’s a literally a utopia.” – Bahar
  • Egyptians we had just met through mutual friends offered us absinthe. A separate group we met later proceeded to offer us Absolute Peach shots.
  • On the opposite side of the dj’s and dancefloor on the island, a drum circle emerges from nowhere every time.
  • Each of us have always seen at least one classmate who is less excited to see us than we are to see them.
  • “Sometimes you just need to nap.” – Bahar
  • There is never a taxi to leave. When I went to leave there was a 43-minute wait on Uber for a driver.

We thought we would finish our night up with a late dinner and some shisha (hooka), as the proper Egyptians do, so we headed to Zooba, a restaurant well known for offering gentrified versions of street food. After finishing at Zooba and skipping the shisha for tea instead, we thought the extremely long day would be finished. We were wrong. A friend, Robin, invited us to a house party. Because the Uber surge was around 1.6x we both decided to comply to his request. Next thing we knew we were on the rooftop of a Zamalek apartment surrounded by mostly international students and workers we had never met (except for Robin). We spent our time talking to an interesting group of people, including a large group of friends from University of Edenborough. One of the people we chatted with, Maddi, was from Texas and continually talked about how she longed for bacon, until it was confirmed that bacon was indeed sold on the black-market and in the back of a Christian liquor store in Zamalek.

Finally, we headed home and I reached my bed a little after 4am. A successful day indeed, but one filled with the immense diversity that exist in the huge yet crowded city I now call home.


P.S. If you are interested in Bahar’s blog including a recent post of her experiences in Cairo, check out the link here:



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