Saturday, September 20, 2008

Arabian Nights

502-day journey, Day 1.

It’s my first visit to the Arab Muslim world, and I landed in the middle of the Holy Month of Ramadan, stepping out of the airport just in time to hear the Call to Prayer boom across the city from the mosque speakers.

From our hotel in downtown Cairo, we catch a birds-eye view of hundreds men outside the neighborhood mosque, kneeling in prayer along the sidewalks in neat little rows that stretch into the busy street. Above them, three stories above ground, five men unfurl a rug on a rooftop and break fast at sunset.

The streets are devoid of women during the day, but at night they come out in droves, crowding into markets and shops that pound with energy at midnight but fall asleep during the hot, hungry days.

The women are high-fashion, wearing cute designer tops over long-sleeved shirts and tailored, couture ankle-length skirts. They carefully coordinate their headscarves to compliment their shirt to compliment their handbag. A surprising number of stores showcase risqué lingerie. Burqa-clad women, covered head-to-toe with only a tiny slit exposing their eyes, will rifle through racks of fur-and-fishnet lingerie in the downtown shops. (Women in burqas, by the way, have incredibly expressive eyes. Making eye contact with them on the street can give you chills. They tell you a story in a single glance.)

In spite of its seeming conservatism, Cairo has a Burning Man Festival quality to it: the city is a sandcastle, built precariously on harsh desert land, and it comes alive at night, with bright flashy lights and loud music raging from sunset to sunrise. Party boats that resemble Burning Man art cars cruise up-and-down the Nile, and young ladies in sequin-lined headscarves hang out on the riverbanks, chatting (and occasionally holding hands) with their male counterparts. Egypt is “dry” in every sense of the word, and it is fascinating to watch a thriving alcohol-free nightlife in the city that never sleeps.