We are five Americans, and we are lost in Islamic Cairo.
Before reading any further, answer me honestly: did your blood pressure tick upward after reading that sentence? Did you find yourself thinking "trouble" even for a brief moment? Here's my honest answer: if I'd read that sentence two weeks before arriving in Cairo, when Gaza had exploded and Arab anti-American protests were a staple on CNN, I may have thought 'troubled' would be too strong but 'concerned' would have been very appropriate.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Islamic Cairo is an old part of an ancient city, a walk through it's twisting tiny streets engages your senses. Beds of bright fresh produce sold from donkey carts are a treat for the eyes while your nose deals with the accompanying fresh manure. The sound of the cacophanic and haunting call to prayer can make you stop and take an unexpectedly deep breath. The beautiful mosques are a wonder but camera-toting tourists are few, and as much as our little party tried to dress appropriately (modest clothes, long sleeves) we stuck out, especially the women, since our covering the hair attempt was sincere but pathetic (we figured out, too late, that Egyptian women use pins to keep their scarves so perfectly in place). We didn't look as bad as the tourist we saw in Luxor, absurdly out of place in short-shorts and a halter top, but there was no denying what we were: an American family trying to find our way through a difficult to navigate section of one of the craziest chaotic cities in the world. And when we lost our main path we ended up on Furniture Row: some streets of Cairo resemble the aisles of a western department or hardware store, shops on one street sell light fixtures, another does lumber, our hotel was on electronics street. And there we were, passing shop after shop full of the plush, colorful to the point of gaudy furniture fit for a pasha and favored by contemporary Egyptians. For block after block we were the only non-Cairoans. For block after block here's what happened:
We passed a group of men talking outside a shop. They eyed us quietly but intensely before one stopped his conversation and said in English: "Welcome." We all looked up, startled, and responded in Arabic "Shukran" (thank you). He smiled, his companions nodded their heads, smiling broadly, without hesitation and with great sincerity. A few minutes later, still lost, we consulted the Cairo map to get our bearings. A young Egyptian hurried over and said, in English, "Where are you going?" We gave him our hotel's street and he gave expert directions. We expected the already familiar request for 'baksheesh' (a tip) but instead got a pumping handshake and the three-sentence greeting that became standard for us all over Egypt: "American? Welcome! Obama, very good!"
Over the last few years I've become accustomed to the mix of reactions bestowed on an American traveling outside of the United States: I was greeted and glared at, spoken to and willfully ignored. Over the last six years I often found that people took great pains to show their genuine affection for traveling Americans like myself while also making damn sure I was aware of their utter disdain for the president we'd elected. But in all my travels I have never received a welcome like the one I got in Egypt. From Alexandria on the Mediterranean to Abu Simbel near Sudan, Egyptians were eager to go out of their way to talk to us, smile at us, welcome us, always acknowledging we were Americans, and always, always adding something about our new president, usually just that simple three word refrain: "Obama very good." It was as if the collective country of Egypt wanted to shower our little group of Americans with genuine goodwill simply because our fellow countrymen and women had elected Barack Obama. Frankly we got more than our fair share because of one very startling fact: we were virtually the only American tourists around. It was astonishing: we visited some of the most famous and extraordinary tourist sights in the world but rarely did we find ourselves in a crowd of anyone, let alone Americans. There were some Japanese tour groups in Luxor and European tour groups in Aswan, but nowhere near the levels I had anticipated (I envisioned the Grand Canyon but it was more like Glen Canyon instead). In nine days across the country only once did we meet Americans, a small group of six at the Cairo train station.
To be honest, I hesitated in writing this piece. I have no hesitation in saying it did my heart good to see the stereotypes of fear and distrust sown by W and his minions evaporate before my eyes. But I also don't want to portray Egypt in terms simplistic or overly optimistic. It's a complicated country, and my experience was limited.
I can only tell you what happened to me. And it's been a long, long time since I've been greeted with such heart-felt enthusiasm, simply because I was an American.