Tale of Two Cities
Text Chris Roper Photographs Jac de Villiers You know you’re in Egypt when your tour guide turns to you and says, dismissively, ‘That building is only 2 000 years old.’ History saturates this country like wine soaking into a sponge. It leaks out everywhere you look, and has a heady power that is almost impossible to describe. The pyramids are a good example of this. You’ve seen countless representations of them, so much so that you think you’ll have a feeling of déjà vu when you see them for yourself. Not so. My first glimpse is through the sand-coloured symmetry of the Cairo buildings, the pyramids a glaringly different shape rising up in the hazy distance. They’re so unlike anything else architectural that, for a moment, you can’t comprehend what they are. Actually standing before them is best described as an awe-inspiring experience despite itself. Grubby, swarming with tourists, staffed by surly, chain-smoking attendants with all the charisma of a dollop of camel spit, the pyramids still manage to be magical. Only they’re not magical – they were built by people, and that’s the most magnificent thing about them. But while they’re as emblematic of Egypt as the Nile, the pyramids are just one of Cairo’s many attractions. Roughly speaking, there are two ways to see a city. You either do the tourist thing, visiting the obvious sights, or you experience the lesser-known aspects, the bits frequented by the people who live there. In Cairo, I try to do both. So an evening trip on the Nile Maxim – a massive floating restaurant – is followed by a night visit to a shabby live music venue called After Eight. Cruising up the Nile is such a staple of the colonial traveller that it’s hard to take seriously. But as you pull away from the dock, and the hot night air envelops you, the usual Egyptian magic does its work. Other boats slip by you on either side, garishly festooned with colourful lights and dramatically kitsch decoration (such as a bow shaped like the Sphinx). Inside, you find yourself drinking a red wine called Omar Khayam and eating from a vast array of delicious food. Everyone is dressed in their finery, all gold and silk and fat-bottomed ties, there’s a band playing that wouldn’t have been out of place at an ’80s wedding reception in Pretoria, and to top it all off, the belly dancer is shaking her extraordinarily ample stuff. The music at the After Eight is of a different ilk. To get into the club, you have to enter through a café, then walk up a dark alley and finally be approved by two heavyweight doormen. A tight band plays Arabian-inflected jazz, and the crowd is young, edgy and immaculately beautiful. The place only fills up at around one in the morning – Cairo is a town that wakes up late. Actually, that’s wrong – Cairo is always awake. At four in the morning, lying in my hotel bed 12 stories above the streets, I can still hear that cacophony of hooting that is the city’s defining characteristic. Everyone who has been to Cairo will tell you that the drivers there are the worst in the world. Well, everyone is wrong. Two days later, I’m in a car in Beirut, on a single-lane blind curve, overtaking a truck that’s overtaking a bus, while hurtling towards me are three vehicles engaged in the same suicidal activity. In the Bad Driver Olympics, Lebanese kill Caireans every time. And often each other, I would imagine. Most foreigners still retain their image of Beirut from television footage from the civil war – a bombed city, a battlezone, hotels with bullet holes stitched across their facades. Many of those bullet holes are still there, but on buildings often incongruously sited alongside flagship fashion stores or stunningly outfitted restaurants. Beirut is an amazingly beautiful city, and Lebanon an intriguing country. For a land that’s only around 225km long and 46km wide, it has an enormous wealth of attractions. As with Cairo, history is everywhere, but to the casual traveller this history at first appears more immediate, more modern, and still acting itself out in the constant rehabilitation of buildings and communities. This impression is dispelled once you’ve visited some of the older historical attractions. The city of Baalbek, for instance, is the site of some of the most magnificent Roman ruins in the world, and the massive Temple of Jupiter rivals the pyramids in making you gape at its extraordinary size. And when you’re sated on history, you can walk the famous Corniche, the promenade along the coast that, for some, defines the Beirut lifestyle. It’s like an informal catwalk with a view, with the beautifully dressed vying for attention with dozens of Porsche Cayennes and other expensive cars that cruise the adjacent boulevard. You can’t do all this sightseeing without fuel, and Beirut is justly famed for its fantastic food. I gorged myself on thick,velvety baba ganoush (puréed aubergines with tahini and olive oil), chunky hummus, labneh (yoghurt cheese), and tiamma (a flatbread made with broad beans). One hardly needs the ubiquitous and often unappetising mixed grills that tend to follow the wonderful starters. Unlike those mixed grills, the hodgepodge of religions and cultural groups that are crammed into Lebanon won’t disappoint. It’s a fascinating place; one that will reward any traveller who wants to combine hedonism with history .If Cairo is the place to go to satisfy your yen for a familiar exoticism, Beirut is the city that dresses up the exotic in designer gear and makes it fresh again. This article was originally featured in the April 2005 issue of House and Leisure.