Al-Ghaitani’s Cairo

Al-Ghaitani’s Cairo

Photos by Rida Salem

When a great author writes about his city, he takes us on three tours at the same time: a tour in the spirit of the place, a parallel tour in the lanes of its spirit, and then we find ourselves, through all the anxieties and arts he has awoken in us, touring in the depths of our own spirits, as if we are getting to know the place, the author and ourselves in a new light. The subject of this journey is Cairo, and the author is one of those who knows the secrets of its spirit. It is an invitation to great Arab authors to take us to the lanes of the spirit in their cities, and in their creative personalities, and from there into the lanes of our spirits.

How many sunrises have succeeded each other above the world since the planet Earth completed its revolution and became established in its orbit around the sun?

How many sunrises have succeeded each other above that Earth which was the first thing that I saw, the oldest thing that my memory preserves? That Cairo skyline. How many sunrises have succeeded each other above it since it was a rugged wilderness, until the Nile began to flow to it, and there were forests, and animals crawling, the striving of all creatures, and the struggle of humanity?

How many sunrises have succeeded each other above me?

It is difficult to determine that, although the answer seems to be simple, because I am coming from a time span that is difficult to determine to eternity which is hard to specify, and what is between them is anything that I could refer to, that I could name. But what makes the matter easy for me is that its place is connected with it, indeed my time is meaningless without this place. Every moment requires a place for itself, and every place is contained in a moment. In the olden days it used to be said that time is a fluid place, and that a place is frozen time. My permanent place, my starting-point, is that place called Cairo, old Cairo to be precise, Cairo in which successive ages became old. I do not know how many times the sunrise passed successively over it, but I am aware of the first sunrise in my memory, it is associated with the skyline of the city. From there was my starting point, my first leap and my departure. Just as the sun departs, the light departs, and we depart with it.

We used to live on the top floor, the fifth, which was regarded as high up by the standards of the 1940s and 1950s. From this point I began my relationship with time Cairo. To the east the rocky Muqattam hills, which were flooded with the waters of the sea in ancient times, before the waters retreated to the north, leaving behind in the rocks fishes, shellfish and marine creatures which became unified with the stones.

To the west are the pyramids of Giza. By staring hard one could see the older chain of pyramids, one after the other on the western horizon in the direction of the sunset, Saqqara, Dahshour, Abu Sair. In the time of my childhood the Cairo skyline used to be open. It was not crowded with the high towers that exist now.

It is difficult for me to remember the reason which made me go out in the company of my father God rest his soul onto the roof at dawn, but I am fully aware that I stood gazing at that red color that comes from the darkness of the night, pushing the stars away. A light redness, but strong, preparing the way for a stronger degree of dark red, a redness that flowed out, continuously, indicating a hidden source. Its degrees followed in succession, so that it was difficult to monitor or count them. At a certain moment the light poured forth, as if it were exploding, and this is the origin of the Arabic word for dawn, fajar (infajara means to explode).

From behind the rocks of Muqattam the sunrise begins, just a thin line which becomes circular and appears little by little. As soon as it has emerged completely, the disc rises up quickly. That was a moment that I never forget, and it never leaves my mind. I compare it with any sunrise that I see. I have recalled it in all sorts of situations, and in distant places, I recall my breathless gazing and my childhood astonishment, which may resemble the astonishment of ancient man when he could not find an explanation or justification. He imagined that it was crossing the sky in a hidden boat, that arms extended from the disc of the sun, lines of rays that ended in hands. I miss that breathless, deep gazing now, not because I do not see the sunrise owing to the density of the buildings or my being at a different location, but because phenomena and events follow each other in succession, and all kinds of things have become clear through knowledge, knowledge which sometimes limits the outburst of the sunrise. But the first sunrise which my memory has retained continues to prevail, as an authoritative reference. It reinforces the minarets, the domes, the dovecots, the ancient city and its people, those whom time passes by, and who pass by it also.

With the sunrise effort begins, from the dawn movement flows. Carts which are pushed by hand or pulled by animals emerge from their resting places. The first to appear are the carts on which food is served, especially ful mudammas (stewed beans). These are placed in a round cooking pot. In the recent past this used to be of earthenware or copper, before aluminum predominated. A long-handled ladle is inserted into it, and brought out filled with beans which have been cooked on a gentle fire, until they become as soft and tender as butter. The cooking pot is placed all through the night in the furnace, where the fuel is slow-burning and the water for the public baths is heated. This is piped through earthenware pipes and poured into a bath tub full of hot water, from which steam rises in a limited space where men sit at night and women in the daytime. With the disappearance of public baths, of which there used to be 3,000 in the nineteenth century of which only about twenty are now left, ful sellers have begun to use direct methods. But in any case, the fire must be gentle in order to cook the beans slowly, so that the hard, dry grains mature and become soft so that they are worthy of the description which the sellers used to call out their wares, Oh almonds! Cairo vendors have a long heritage in calling out their wares in melodious voices, to the point of giving pet names to them. Thus tomatoes are as red as a bride s cheek, and figs are incomparable. I remember in my childhood four massively built men who used to push a small cart in front of them on which were different kinds of pastries, some of them round and others square, of all different types. They used to come to our quarter twice a day, the first time at sunrise and the second at sunset. What aroused my interest was their strong voices which rose up in song.

Ful is served on handcarts. The carts are ornamented, decorated in contrasting colors, red with green, blue with yellow. Comforting expressions reassure both the seller and the buyer.

God provides livelihoods

I depend on God

Eat from the good things that We have provided for your sustenance .

Most of the customers who eat their breakfast standing up are junior employees and professionals. They eat food in the street, and then drink tea or coffee and smoke a hubble bubble in the morning, crossing the separate stages between home and work. A kind of step by step progression, and a necessity also, as most men wake up when their children are still sound asleep, and they do not want to disturb them. The task of a ful vendor is to ladle out the beans and sauce into small plates, and to prepare the meal by adding salt, cumin and hot pepper if the customer wants. Then his assistant washes the plates in a bucket full of water.

The vendor moves quickly and skillfully. He stands on a wooden box, which puts him on a higher level than the cart. He does not ask any customer how many loaves or how many onions he has eaten. The meal has its price, and if a customer eats more than one loaf, he says so. One cannot cheat over bread. This respect for bread may come from the age of ancient Egypt. Was the body of Osiris not portrayed on the walls of temples and cemeteries buried under the ground with ears of wheat growing out of him?

Ful is not the only Cairo breakfast food. We shall see other carts at the entrances to some quarters, but they serve couscous as food for breakfast. The Cairenes eat it sweetened, with white granulated sugar and milk added. But they do not eat it with vegetables and meat added to it, as in North Africa.

Other carts serve pastries fried in oil or ghee, delicious small pastries. We see a number of them displayed, piled on top of each other. The vendor takes one on the edge of his triangular knife, and turns it over in the air to catch it skillfully, then he puts it in the container which is kept hot by a low flame from a small burner under it.

The skill in the vendors movements is a common factor: lightness, skill, the ability to meet everybody s orders simultaneously. But it does not aim only at that, it also means the vendor s skill and cunning.

Speed and skill, lightness and proficiency are essential conditions for a true Cairene, or as the Egyptians call him, a son of the country , to do his job.

A Son of the Country

By working in Cairo, old or new, he gives it a special character. The most important thing about cities is their people, particularly those who live there, who combine within themselves the time that has elapsed and the place where they live.

We see him in the streets, the quarters, the lanes, the alleys, of course in the markets, the inns and the cafés. He is always there in Egyptian films and plays.

We see him wearing his traditional clothes, the wide-sleeved robe open at the chest, beneath which is a cotton waistcoat, and its many buttons in a regular line, a shawl of wool around his neck in winter and of hand-woven cotton in summer. His head covering is a skullcap around which he wraps a silk or cotton shawl. His body is agile, his chest is prominent, he declares his ability in every step and gesture, particularly if he is the owner of a business or has status in the market as one of those known by the title of muallim (master). This is a tile that people give to someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time selling, buying and being honest in contracts, who gives indications of courage, helps the weak and defies authority sometimes. Muallim is general, not confined to any particular branch of activity, but embraces all activities. It means that the possessor of the title knows his profession, relations between people, and knows the fundamental principles. The fundamental principles, in the everyday language of the Egyptians, means a set of values and customs inherited within this ancient society. The word for them, usul, may have meant or been equivalent to the Pharaonic expression ma it. A son of the country who knows the fundamental principles establishes what is right and supports it. He stands on the side of the weak and he has courage, he is strong, and that means he gives intelligent, courageous and generous advice. A son of the country is a true Cairene. The city knows many classes: merchants, religious scholars, effendis (intellectuals), the rich, but the son of the country is the true Cairene who lives in the old areas and is linked to the place and the customs of its people. I have known some of them who have never left the street of the quarter where they lived for most of the years of their lives.

One muallim son of the country was the owner of a famous bakery in Gamaliya. He lived in the Tablawi Lane Quarter, and his house was a few yards away from the bakery. Then a crack developed in the old house which compelled him to move, to be precise to Mugharbalin less than a kilometre. He used to walk the distance every day on foot. His sadness and depression began to show. He used to speak to me sorrowfully about the homesickness he suffered there.

But Muallim, you don t go far. And the people there are nice.

He shook his head. That is true, but through every stage of his life he was used to waking up at dawn, going outside the quarter with his neighbors to pray in Al-Hussein Mosque, and then return to the bakery to exchange good mornings with so-and-so, and chat with somebody else. He knew every one of the inhabitants of the quarter individually. He saw with his own eyes the little girls growing up in time and getting married, and then coming with their children. He only calmed down when he found a suitable reason and returned to the quarter. He always kept repeating that his spirit had come back to him the day he returned to the country , by which he meant his entire homeland. In just the same way, people in the countryside in both coastal and inland areas use the name Egypt to refer to Cairo. If one of them intends to go to the capital, he says I m going to Egypt .

The Cafés

The sight of the cafés at the moment of sunrise, or before it or after it, or at the beginning of the evening, delights me and arouses my anticipation and my intimate desire for relationship. It is the beginning. Even in those cafés which remain open round the clock, there are now several cafés in Cairo which work non-stop. A quarter of a century before the beginning of the third millenium, Al-Qishawi s old café was the only one permitted to stay open the whole night until the morning. So the night people actors, journalists and poets and retired people, who were waiting for Sidna Al-Hussein Mosque to open its doors for the dawn prayer, used to head for it. People of different types and nationalities, sane and insane, would pass by it or it would pass by them. The place was they and they were the place.

At the beginning of the day the café is swept, hosed with water, and sawdust is sprinkled on its floor so that it is easy to sweep and remove the rubbish. The café and the employees in it have their own axioms and rules. Everything must be clean and the place attractive, with nothing that puts people off or repels them. Before the sun has risen the equipment must be ready. The equipment includes glasses, cups, spoons, hot water and burning embers of charcoal in the brazier for hubble bubble pipes, and also the drinks: tea, coffee, cinnamon, fenugreek, ginger, cocoa and milk.

The café prepares to receive customers from the early morning, before sunrise. Movement flows slowly, the day is just beginning, and everything must be done to avoid irascibility, to prevent anything that causes unpleasantness or bad luck.

Cafés may resemble each other or be different in their outward appearance, but their content is similar. They are meeting places for friends whose houses cannot accommodate their noise and clamor, or to conclude deals and conduct business. Many small contractors and businessmen do not have offices or headquarters, and come in the morning to allocate jobs, and in the evening to review what has been done and arrange matters for the following day. In cafés near law courts and police stations we notice public clerks, a surviving version of ancient Egyptian scribes. They are specialists in writing petitions and complaints which must be presented in specific wording to the various levels of administration. A public clerk can write personal letters too, which are dictated to them by people who do not read and write well, in return for a fixed fee. These people have their seats at the front of the café.

Most early morning customers are passing through: professionals, junior employees or merchants. Here the café is a way station, in the middle of the journey between home and workplace. Each one of them has come for an istibaha, a word derived from sabah meaning morning, that is, they drink a glass of tea, or sip a cup of coffee, and maybe eat breakfast.

However, here in the old city are cafés which are not for passers-by, they are launching-stations for work. Large numbers of workers and professionals who do not have a regular job, known by the colloquial expression arzaqiya (casual employees), go out at sunrise every day not knowing whether they will work that day or not.

A café is a suitable place to wait. As the years passed, there came to be a qualitative division, rather like specialization, south of the city. The most famous café for cooks is in the Zinham district. In the early morning we see the cooks, most of them from Nubia. The customers come, some of them on foot and others by car. Negotiations begin about the types required, how long it will take to prepare them and the price.

At the beginning of Muhammad Ali Street, which was designed by Ali Pasha Mubarak in the nineteenth century in the style of the famous Rue du Rivoli in Paris, is the Commerce Café. It is one of the oldest cafés in Cairo. Its regular customers are artists who specialize in wedding celebrations. Some of them play musical instruments, some write the words for songs, and others are singers. They include some who have made it into broadcasting, the cinema and television and become famous, like Abdulaziz Mahmoud in the 1940s and 1950s. I saw him several times in the café at the height of his fame. After his sun began to set artistically, the other singer who emerged from Muhammad Ali Street was Muharram Fuad.

In the Commerce Café are some artists who live on the edge of a dream and reality. One of them told me confidently that he is no less talented or knowledgeable than the most famous singers and musicians, but Muhammad Abdulwahab was standing in his way, using his powerful influence to prevent him from a major breakthrough.

Sunrise in the Commerce Café means sunset. Most of its regular customers begin to flock there at the end of the day, since they stay up all night at parties and weddings and sleep in the early hours of the day. In this café I came to know the most skilled chess player I ever met. He was a specialist in repairing stringed instruments, and playing chess was his hobby. He was famous, and skilled players would come from far away to challenge him. He was hoping that he could play the Russian Kasparov, and emphasized that he could defeat him, since he knew all his plans.

Near Bab Al-Shairiya Square is a spacious nineteenth century café, on whose mirrors there are still posters advertising brands of cigarettes which no longer exist. This café is the venue for bakery workers who specialize in bread for sandwiches. Close by is the upholsterers café. These special cafés for professions are meeting centers. From them one can find skilled workers and agree with them about doing a specific job. The mere fact that one of these workers belongs to a café means a degree of trust and guarantee.

The professionals cafés are well known, as are the intellectuals cafés in the city center, which were centers of activity for left-wing organizations, particularly in the 1950s. The most famous of these was the Reesh Café, which witnessed the birth of important artistic and cultural movements. It was a center that Nagib Mahfouz used to frequent. This café has an extensive history. The members of the clandestine structure of the 1919 revolution against the British occupation used to meet there, and from it was carried out the attempt to assassinate Egypt s Prime Minister in the 1920s Yusuf Wahbi Al-Qibli. The revolutionaries chose a young Copt, a medical student called Arian Saad, to try to kill him. I knew it in the 1960s as the café of Al-Qishawi, who was one of the adepts of Yoga in Egypt. When I met him he had given up political work for a long time. During the 1960s I was in the habit of smoking a hubble bubble in an elegant, clean café in Bab Al-Louq Square, which only offered good varieties of tobacco for the hubble bubble, as well as the normal drinks. It was not allowed to play dice, backgammon or chess there, unlike most cafés which allow their regular customers these games, indeed they were the rule and that café was an exception. A number of political refugees used to sit there, members of liberation movements in Africa and the Arab world, some of whom became senior officials in their countries. One of them became a President (Qahtan Al-Shaabi, President of the former republic of South Yemen). The leaders of the Eritrean liberation movements were members of two rival fronts, and used to sit far apart from each other in the same café. The proprietor was careful to separate them so that there would not be friction or an unpleasant fight.

In Tahrir Square, the Isayevic Café was one of the important centers where left-wing intellectuals used to meet in the 1960s. Its owner was a gentleman from Yugoslavia who had fled to Egypt after the victory of Tito and the establishment of the Communist regime. The strange thing is that the Mabahith Al-Amma (the political security police) used to close the café and place its owner under surveillance whenever Josip Tito came to visit Egypt, and he had a strong relationship with President Gamal Abdul Nasser.

Cafés travel with people, and people travel through them. They are the harbors of the city and the corners of its secrets. An inhabitant of Cairo considers the café the local establishment to which he belongs. He says, I m going to my café, and he speaks with pride of the group in the café, and his friends. The café for him is a society, and also a refuge. One of the strangest cafés I have known is the Café of the Dumb, which lies in the city center, a spacious, well-lit café, which is frequented only by the dumb. I used to go in there and feel embarrassed to speak, because most of its regular customers converse in sign language. They would all come from a long way to meet the others. One of them was fat, and always used to sit by himself, but there was always a smile on his face. He would look at one person, and raise his hand to greet another. He was in a state of contact and separation with what existed around him.

One of the oldest characters who for me is linked to cafés is Marshal Ali.

The mausoleum and mosque of Sidna Al-Hussein are regarded as the spiritual center not only of Cairo but also of the whole of Egypt. It is surrounded by cafés and working-class hotels. Among the old cafés are the lunatics cafés on the eastern side of the mosque. Most of their regular customers are dervishes who have given up their jobs and places of residence and settled in the neighborhood of the famous Cairo mausoleum of Al-Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, blessing and peace be upon him.

When I was a child of seven or eight and accompanied my father to visit Sidna Al-Hussein I would pass by the "lunatics' café . When I came near to it, terror would overcome me, and I would see Marshal Ali.

He was a white-faced man with a beard of red hair and antimony round his eyes. He was dressed in the uniform of a senior officer in an army that could not be identified. On his shoulders were two epaulettes of silk thread, as if he were a general in Napoleon Bonaparte s army, and his head covering looked Caucasian.

His chest was covered with old medals, some of them Egyptian, Ottoman or European. Besides the medals there were trade marks of cigarettes that were no longer produced and drinks from the beginning of the century, and obscure symbols. He used to wear leather gloves in summer and winter, and would sit on a raised seat like a throne.

I used to be frightened of him, but after I entered school and became bold enough to walk around with my friends after school hours, I started to go closer to him with them. We would stand at a close distance and raise our hands in a military salute. The he would stand up, return our salute with a better one, a marshal s one, as if he were reviewing his troops.

However, the situation did not continue like this, as one of the boys soon shouted out a very obscene word at him. At that point he drew his sword and growled threateningly. Of course we ran away as fast as we could, but Marshal Ali never left his place, until one day they found him with his eyes closed, having departed this life seated in the only way I had ever seen him. I even wonder now, where did he lie down? Where did he sleep?

Some people still mention Marshal Ali as a curiosity, as one of the strange characters who pass through Sidna Al-Hussein Square or live in it. But who was he? From where had he come? No one stands up to answer. So many people have passed through old Cairo, and every passing means an end, namely a death, nonexistence, even if it meant arrival at the same place. Many books have reached us through the fifteen centuries, which mention the life stories of characters who have passed through Cairo, beginning with the Sultans and Amirs, to the artisans, the merchants, professionals, artists, and the anonymous who dug the stones, carved the marble or wrote on the walls. Nothing remains of them but their unseen presence in the form of those ancient buildings. Endless columns of people pass through the city, take from it and add to it, columns which come from nothingness and pass on to nothingness.

What remains of Hajj Fahmi Al-Qishawi?

A café that bears his name. Most of its regular customers do not know its original owner. They look at an oil painting of him, painted in 1940, five years before I came into this world. However, what remains of him in my memory is the way he used to sit when I began to go frequently to the café with my father at the beginning of the 1950s. Hajj Fahmi Al-Qishawi, the owner of the café had his permanent place at the entrance, on a broad wooden bench which enabled him to sleep stretched out if he took a nap. When he was awake he would lean on a collection of pillows, gazing at passers-by and his ancient time, while the slim, beautiful hubble bubble never left his hand, the smoke of high-class tobacco emanating from it. On his right stood his thoroughbred Arab horse of which he took special care, stroking it, exchanging secret conversation with it and washing it with his hand. But I never saw him mount or ride it except in pictures or the canvas hanging on the wall of the café.

On the wall he hung a large cage containing rare varieties of pigeons. He used to spend long periods looking at them, and a silent dialogue would go on.

In the winter of 1969 the Governor of Cairo issued a stupid decree to remove the famous café. The campaign organized by a large number of intellectuals did not succeed in stopping the decree. A day was fixed to begin the demolition.

Two days before the appointed date, Hajj Fahmi Al-Qishawi closed his eyes for ever. He could not bear to see pickaxes raised to destroy the café, his café, his place, his days, his life and his presence. However the strange thing is what happened to the horse and the pigeons. The inhabitants of the area, the people of Khan Al-Khalili who lived at that time remember what happened.

The horse died hours after its owner had passed away. The pigeons refused to eat or drink until they died.

Nothing remains of the café except a small corner which still bears the old name, Al-Qishawi. Only a name, no more. It is still able to attract visitors, most of them young people now, who only know the name of the place, and are unaware of the old glory that it once had.

Among those who passed through the café and who are sometimes talked about is Ibrahim the blind man, who sold books. He was a dwarf, very short, but fat, and used to carry a large number of old books. He would sway as he walked, and stand to call out, We have forbidden books.

He meant books whose circulation is forbidden, like ancient editions of The Thousand and One Nights, The Old Man s Return to His Boyhood, The Fruits and Social Life in the Account of the Adventures of Abu Nawas and The Perfumed Garden. These books were forbidden, and if a person was caught with a copy of one of them, it could cause problems of an unforeseeable extent. But Ibrahim the blind man was regarded as an exception, no one bothered him, not because he was a landmark of the place, but because he was a blessing . That is how some people are regarded in old Cairo: he made people feel optimistic, and if he were a dervish or ecstatic, people would believe in him.

At the end of the nineteenth century it happened that Khoshiyar Hanum, the mother of the King of Egypt at that time, decided to build a massive mosque opposite the greatest of all of Egypt s mosques, the Sultan Hasan Mosque which had been built in the twelfth century AD. She spent a large amount of her money, and it was designed in Ottoman style with strong Mamluk influence.

The Khedive Ismail died, and after him the Khedive Tawfiq, and were buried in it. After them Khoshiyar Hanum died and was buried in it. The mosque became a royal cemetery. Seven Egyptian kings now lie in it, the last of them King Farouq who was deposed by the army officers revolution in June 1952 led by Gamal Abdul Nasser. The last king to be buried in it was the king of kings, the Shahinshah of Iran, who was expelled from Iran after the Revolution, and was in dire straits. No country agreed to accept him until President Sadat decided to invite him. The Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlevi did not stay long, but died of cancer. He was buried beside the former kings of Egypt. His first wife had been Egyptian, King Farouq s sister Princess Faiza, but she was childless and so he divorced her. He married Farah Diba, who still visits his grave every year on the anniversary of his death. She comes to this remote corner of the mosque where lies the last king of Iran, who a few years before his overthrow celebrated the passage of three thousand years since the reign of Cyrus on the throne of the Khosrau kings. Did he ever imagine that he would lie for ever in this ancient street of Cairo near the kings and queens of Egypt? But most people do not know where their resting-place will be. The Egyptians do not celebrate the ruler s anniversary, nor do they commemorate their birthdays. The mosque is now known as Al-Rifai Mosque.

Who Was Al-Rifai?

In the first quarter of the last century, a mad dervish appeared, nobody knows from where he came. He lived beside the door of the massive mosque. He would sometimes talk deliriously in incomprehensible sentences, and sometimes he would fall unconscious, and people would think he had gone there, to where no specific location could be defined. People believed in him and regarded him as a blessing . When he died one cold morning, the people decided to bury him at the entrance to the mosque. His name was Ahmad Abu Shubbak Al-Rifai, that is, he belonged to the Rifaiya order, one of the most famous Sufi orders in the Islamic world. Its men are famous for their ability to expel and tame harmful snakes, walk on fire and swallow sharp weapons.

The whole mosque was called after this unknown dervish Al-Rifai, and came to be known by his name. His tomb lies at the towering entrance of the mosque, as if it had been built for him.

The Proliferation of Styles

What are rays formed from?

Is light uninterrupted or disjointed?

Does it come to us in extended uninterrupted lines from the source which is difficult to pinpoint to the destination which it is hard to specify?

It is scientifically certain that light, which for us is embodied as something comprehensive so that it surrounds and permeates us and we permeate it, is formed of very tiny particles. From the part, the whole is formed, from the atoms which our eyes are unable to see, shapes and bodies are formed.

From the part, the whole is formed.

A logic, a law which is in force in the city, in ornamentation, in conversation, in the arrangement of moments which photographers tried to establish through light and time from the lives of old Cairo, if we see them next to each other or successively to be complete. A picture gives birth to a picture, a canvas is derived from another, just like the stories in The Thousand and One Nights, like abstract decorations which pour out endlessly, whereas their formation could be complete at any point.

On that faraway day in February 969 AD, the military leader Jawhar of Sicilian origin, commander of the armies of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz li-Din Allah who had come from North Africa to invade Egypt, stood in the midst of his officers and men waiting for the right moment to lay the foundation of the city which was to be the capital of the Fatimid state ruling Egypt. Astrologers were watching the stars to choose the most propitious moment in order to give the signal to start building the city. They set up bells for that.

Before the sun had set it happened that a bird perched on the rope which connected the bells with each other. At that moment the astrologers thought that the signal had been given, and they looked at the sky. The planet Mars, one of whose names is Al-Qahir, was shining red in the sky and this was the origin of the name Cairo (Al-Qahira in Arabic). Thus the birth of the city was linked with astrology, with light, with the universe, with everything. It was the same ancient Egyptian meaning, when building was related to the stars, the four directions of the compass, and also the river, the source of life for the valley and the civilization growing up on both its banks.

The river flows from south to north, as do all the main streets in Cairo or other Egyptian cities, particularly the cities of the south where the link with the river is more intimate and direct. At the beginning the city contained only two palaces for the Caliph and his courtiers to live in, the large eastern one and the small western one. Between them was a street running from south to north opposite the river in the distance, with a square interposed for reviewing parades of troops and holding celebrations. The winding main road still divides old Cairo into two parts. It now extends from citadel Square to the suburb of Abbasiya in the east. The most famous of its sectors is what is called Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street, or the street between the two palaces, which inspired the title of the famous epic by the novelist Nagib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1988.

The street runs exactly like the river. It does not go in a straight line, but zigzags so that it looks as if it is closed every fifty or one hundred metres. If we arrive at an area which looks closed, then we find an opening that leads to the next part. There is always a promise of arrival. The distance looks short, but it leads to another. This automatic division of distance creates a feeling of restfulness among those who walk on foot or ride along the road on the back of a camel or a donkey, as was the case until the end of the nineteenth century when animals were the main means of transport in the city, as well as the means of providing it with water. On the other hand, this zigzagging leads to an exchange of shade between buildings, so there is no feeling of heat in summer, and the sharpness of the cold winds is broken in winter. The main road in ancient Cairo still contains the landmarks that Al-Maqrizi recorded in the fourteenth century AD in his huge book, Al-Wa iz wa'l-I'tibar bi Dhikr ma fi Misr min Khalt wa Athar. The main street was known as the Casbah of Cairo or the Greatest Street. It begins from Rumaila Square, which is now known as Citadel Square and ends at Al-Futuh Gate, one of the our remaining out of the seven gates of old Cairo.

From it branch out neighborhoods, and each neighborhood contains a number of Streets.

These include lanes which lead from one place to another, and also alleys which are interspersed along lanes or connect one lane with another. Alleys are narrower and shorter. There are also impasses, which are curves within lanes. And there are passageways which are tunnels through old houses that block people s passage. According to religious teachings, there is what is known as a right of way for everybody. If somebody builds a palace or even a mosque which blocks people s way, he has to build a passageway that enables people to pass through from one place to another. Hence vaulted tunnels came about, the most famous of which now are two: the first is the Qirmiz Lane Tunnel under the Amir Mithqal s Mosque, and the other is the Bushtak Tunnel under the famous Amir s Palace in Gamaliya.

Thus the design of the city came about as a result of social and climatic needs and inherited ancient Egyptian beliefs, which link the place with the stars, the sun, the wide universe, and the river, the Nile, the main source of life. There is another need, that of security. Troubles frequently used to occur during the Mamluk era. In order to avoid the misbehavior of the Mamluks and raids by thieves, every neighborhood came to have a gate that would be locked from sunset to dawn. When troubles occurred, the Shaikh of the neighborhood was responsible for opening it and locking it. He kept the keys, and was held responsible for the place by the Wali (governor) and the Muhtasib (security official).

The neighborhood (hara) was the basic unit for the design of the city. It was a miniature image of the greater universe, of life with its variety of destinies and the interrelated nature of its courses and its interactions. And so I always say that the neighborhood is a small world, and the world is a large neighborhood.

Afternoon Breezes

I was born in Guhaina, in Sohag, surrounded by the palm trees, shade, high altitude and noble origin of Upper Egypt. But I grew up and spent my youth in the open air of Cairo, and from it I derive the oldest images of my life.

My family lived in house number one in Ba Gunaid Impasse which branches off Tablawi Lane. It was a house that may have been built in the nineteenth century. It was a five-storey house, and that was a prestigious height in the 1940s when my consciousness was beginning to take in the first manifestations of life. We were living on the top floor, and in front of us stretched out an expansive surface, or so it appeared to me in my childhood. The relativity of things changes with the advance of age. The skyline of Cairo was merciful to eyesight. An open space spread out, a clear history, the pyramids to the west, the minarets of Sultan Hasan, Al-Rifai, Muhammad Ali and Hammudiya, and the minaret of our master Sidna Al-Hussein, all towering high to the south. Muqattam, the highest mountain we knew, bordered the city on the east, and a tall modern building stood to the north, in the direction of Ghamra, bearing a circular advertisement for a fizzy drink that sparkled at night. The Cairo skyline was not bristling with concrete and towers as it looks now, and there was not such a degree of pollution that we see now, with a thick cloud crouching over the city throughout the day.

I used to stand up to my full height to look at the broad skyline, the roofs of the nearby houses and the landmarks. If I were to choose tender moments of my life, the first would be afternoon moments in the old city, particularly when the temperature abates if it is in summer, or the shadows become dark quickly as the night falls in winter. Since most months of the year are hot, I would feel a strong desire for a breeze, for fresh air in our country which comes from the north. One of the expressions that has been repeated frequently in my memory since childhood is "How wonderful is the afternoon breeze!"

The afternoon breezes were among the things that would dispel anxieties, give a feeling of restfulness and comfort spirits in old Cairo. For this reason architects in the past chose to ensure that buildings turned to the north, in order to receive the tender, moist breezes, like the strange formations which attracted my attention during boyhood, a pyramidal-shaped building of dark wood facing north with a wide aperture. It stirred my imagination, particularly since it was connected to the deserted old palace, a focus of memory and an axis of its framework. The Musafir Khana Palace: little by little I came to know that this formation was called a catcher and it was designed to take in the wind and propel it into the halls and rooms of the house. There were such catchers in the palace of Nab Amon of the nineteenth dynasty. The late Hasan Fathi in a beautiful study on the Cairo hall mentions that the houses of Tell Al-Amarna included halls surrounded by rooms, whose roof was higher than the level of the rest of the roof, containing apertures to let out the hot air, just like in the Arab hall, but without the catcher. Beginning from the nineteenth dynasty the catcher started to appear, and it continued to develop until it reached an advanced stage of perfection in Arab architecture.

Houses in Cairo preserved complete catchers. The most important of these was the Musafir Khana Palace and the hall of Muhibbuddin. The movement of the air inside buildings arises from difference in pressures. Pressure moves from above to below. During the process of rising and replacement, the hot air rises and the colder air settles, to find its way across the interior of the house, from the catcher to the upper floors and then the lower ones, to the furthest point in the building. The air coming from the north collects at the opening at the top of the catcher. Here pressure occurs to to enter through this well-planned trap. Little by little the breezes move from the depths of the world to inside people s chests. And there is nothing like our Cairo chests to breathe in fresh air in the afternoon. Some of my happiest situations have been those brief moments when I explored inside the halls or rooms of the Musafir Khana, listening to the rustling of the flowing breezes. I yearn for the beautiful age, and praise God for those breezes, and everything that destiny brings.


Gamal Al-Ghaitani


Gamal Al-Ghaitani

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