In order to get to my reading in Cairo, my two colleagues and I had to negotiate with a stoned cab driver, whose body for most of the harrowing ride was half
out the taxi chatting with a man stuck on the bus next to us, and a donkey who refused to budge off the sidewalk, and when we tried to walk to the right of him, as we couldn’t pass the triple parked cars on his left, he was joined by his friend the goat. There were several other negotiations as well, including at the bookstore, but that’s Cairo. Yes, that’s Cairo. That and incredible history and architecture that have survived several natural disasters and wars, including a troubling war with pollution and overpopulation today.
The night before I left for Cairo, there was coincidently a lecture at NYU Abu Dhabi about downtown Cairo’s architecture. The lecturer said that even in their damaged states, Cairo’s old buildings and mosques put to shame what he called Disneyland architecture, in which the glory of these buildings is imitated by others, but the result is only façade deep. He didn’t mention the Luxor in Vegas because that is an imitation with no pretensions other than being fun and camp. Nor did he mention the new American University of Cairo campus, which would fit his definition, but rather took aim at the Gulf’s spurt of new Islamic-themed buildings.
However, the most bizarre Disneylandification I experienced was in Cairo. It wasn’t at Misr Studios, Cairo’s impressive film studio, where there is a permanent set that is a very convincing recreation of the Sphinx, and which will probably become a tourist attraction itself. Rather it was at the restaurant my friends and I went to after my reading at Diwan in the upscale Zamalak neighborhood. In addition to some colleagues, I had in tow with me some very dear Egyptian friends that I’ve known for years. One of them, Ashraf, suggested we go to a hip spot set in an old Cairo building. Any restaurant should have been happy to see such a big group walk in on slow night, but the manager quickly took Ashraf aside and pointed to one of my friends, saying that either she had to leave or we all had to leave. The friend in question is a very educated woman who has worked in the media for most of career. She also wears a hijab. As do at least 75 % of the women in Cairo, as far as I could tell. But the manager explained that it wasn’t okay in this chic spot, a spot many foreigners come to—I guess he didn’t want to make them, or any of the Egyptians who might have some complex about being there, uncomfortable with reality. Outraged, we all decided that we would leave, but my friend refused, saying she would leave, as she didn’t know where we could all go as a group otherwise. We all argued with her until I could see that perhaps she was going to cry if we continued on with our protestations, and so we let her go home and stayed. The next day, she told me not to apologize. She said that’s Cairo: Even if most women in Cairo wear the hijab, she has been relegated to radio work, as the national television stations don’t allow women in hijabs to presenters. Now that’s creating make-believe on TV. That’s Disneylandification.