That was probably the best way to handle it. Most of our tour group had arrived from Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday. But there was another group, smaller in size but just as important, coming from The States, scheduled to arrive early afternoon on Monday. So what should the early birds be doing Monday morning? If we started the scheduled activities without our State-side colleagues, they probably would be collectively mad as a wet hen that they were being left out. On the other hand, our super-antsy crew would not have wanted to spend precious hours loitering in the lobby of the Ramses Hilton. So what did Cindy Kline, together with the folks at Shai Bar Ilan Geographical Tours decide? FREE TIME! Your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore the streets of Cairo on a self-guided tour. What fun! Our intrepid travelers bought into this idea and set out in groups of twos, three, and fours to see what they could see. Barbara and I were one of the groups of twos that wandered forth, having only a very foggy notion of where we should be heading. We made a left turn from the hotel entrance, walked through a tiny shuk, and made a circle around the block. Welcome to Cairo!
What city is this?
Wait a minute. Are we in Cairo, or are we in Mumbai? We had seen them in abundance in India, mid-size tan dogs with no visible means of support, hanging out in the noon-day sun. Except in Egypt, these critters were not limited to the sidewalks of the city. They were everywhere we went, even places where they outnumber the humans, where you couldn’t imagine how they could keep body and soul together, where they could find a morsel to fill their hungry bellies.
(While we did see plenty of poor people, we didn’t see the unimaginable human misery we had experienced in Mumbai, with men, women, and children living in groups on the street, more like the homelessness you’d find in Jerusalem and NYC.)
What reminded me most of the cities in India we visited was the traffic. Oh, the traffic! Trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, motorbikes, horse-drawn wagons, donkey carts, you name it, all bullying their way onto an already overcrowded thoroughfare, blaring their horns – as if that would do any good. Here’s a little ditty for them to sing:
We’re Third World and couldn’t be prouder.
Third World, let’s honk a little louder.
To be fair, there are residential area where the streets and the traffic seem normal, but not where we were. No traffic lights, no stop signs, no crosswalks, traffic cops only in the most dire situations, no bus stops – meaning people get on and off the ancient buses at random spots in the middle of the street – the obvious question being, how does a foot soldier get from one side to the other?
In Mumbai, we figured out what to do to cross a busy street and survive the experience. Wait a minute and look around; you’re sure to see a phalanx of folks preparing to venture forth. Join them, and when they make the move, go with them. There is always safety in numbers. No such luck in this ancient city by the Nile. People would dart into the midst of traffic one by one, seemingly oblivious to the risk they were taking.
The first street Barbara wanted to cross, I went with her, although I thought twice about doing it. The second street, with even more traffic, made me think twice, three times, four times, and then I said to myself, I’m not doing this. In addition to children and grandchildren who would miss me, we have three cats that I’m not going to leave to fend for themselves. There I was, on one side of the street, peering across a wide expanse at Barbara on the other side. Then I lost sight of her, and I was by my lonesome. I could have gone back to the hotel, but she had the one swipe card (our room key) that we were given. She was also carrying my passport, so I was, in a way, naked and bare.
If you didn’t know where she was, why didn’t you call her? We had decided that it wasn’t worth it to get a SIM-card for Egypt. Whom did we need to call? You each had your phone; why didn’t you just WhatsApp each other? Good question. It seems that the Egyptian government has found a way to block phone access on the app. You can do your text messaging, but that’s about it. The only thing for me to do, after waiting awhile for my wife to reappear, was to go back by myself to the hotel and wait. I ordered a coffee from the stand in the lobby, turned around, and there was Barbara sitting in a chair, in the process of sending me a text message, Where are you? We ate our pre-prepared lunch in our room and waited for the word that the newcomers had arrived, whereupon we, the ‘veterans’ were invited to join them on the bus. Our Shai Bar Ilan Geographical tour of Egypt was now officially about to start, and off we went.
The Gates of Heaven open – belatedly!
When we had been on previous tours with Cindy Kline, first to Morocco (see “The Road to Morocco, whose eight episodes began Dec. 12, 2018)) and then to Tanzania (chronicled in eight episodes of “Jambo, Jambo,” starting March 5, 2020), she did a lot of the actual guiding. But this time, she was going to let Migo and R. Berman do most of the explaining, while she worked behind the scenes to make certain our tour ran like clockwork. But old habits die hard. Here she was, center stage (literally) in the Shaarei Shamayim synagogue, trying to give us a little background about Jewish life in Egypt in the first half of the 20th century. (Like bringing in the young Ovadia Yosef to deal with the ritual slaughterer who was suspected of dealing in camel meat.)
Would it surprise anyone to learn that by 1950 the Jewish population in Egypt had swelled to 80,000, with half of that number in Cairo? (Forty thousand, that’s the size of Ma’ale Adumim.) There were – no surprise – lots of shuls, some large, some small, but, no doubt, this one was one of the most impressive and, therefore, a candidate for restoration – with some of the money kicked in by the Egyptian government. It would have been better if the bulk of the Jewish population hadn’t been forced out in 1956, so that the Gates of Heaven wouldn’t have been closed without warning. It would have been better if the Egyptian government had protected this synagogue back then when there were actual worshippers inside, not just tourists wandering through, but such is life.
The original plan was for us to daven mincha elsewhere later in the afternoon, but no, the least we could do was recite the afternoon prayers here, the first minyan in how many years? And then we left, carefully stepping over the scaffolding and the netting, placed there to keep us out of the area under renovation. Like a lot of other synagogues being restored all over the world, it will make a nice museum someday. We got back on the bus and headed to a real museum with stuff a lot older than what we had seen here. That’s the next episode.