I’ve been back in Cairo for four days now. It turns out that it’s not easy to get to know a city when there are no street signs, no visible landmarks, and you don’t speak the language. To counter that I had maps without street names, an unerring ability to go in the direction contrary to what I had intended compounded by a propensity to walk in circles. So, in effect, even my circles were backwards.

All in all I’d say that I’ve just about got this city nailed.

Days 1 and 2 were spent attempting to follow the historic trail through Islamic Cairo –getting a sense of the mosques and madrassas that have provided the nexus for the city’s social interactions for the last 12 centuries. While I can’t say that I found the heart of Cairo (and held it still beating in my hands) I was able to witness a city with that breathed with the daily flows of an intensely urban communal experience. Life is carried on in the streets and awhas (coffee and sheesha houses) as the cramped living quarters spill people onto the wide, typically stone or dirt avenues of its historic areas.

That said, I can’t say that I particularly care for what 2nd world Cairo represents. The clothiers, technology shops and commercial dross that fuels middle-class lifestyles had the same inanity it has everywhere else but it takes on a special poignancy when intricately carved 9th century minarets are visibly crumbling to dust within a remote control click of a brand new plate glass, tile floored, halogen lit storefront.

However hard I might try to find the timeless charm of an ancient city, in Cairo at least, I have found for the most part the charmless product of a quasi-socialist state. I do, however, think I have gotten some exposure to a modern Islam, something I had very little exposure to prior to my arrival nearly a month ago. It has been an interesting peep at a highly religious society charting its path through the modern world. What has been most surprising is the near absence of incongruity between religion, traditional lifestyles, and contemporary accoutrements. In my ongoing naiveté I had expected at experience at the very least a visceral recognition that there was something amiss due to this forced marriage of globalized commerce and culture.

However, despite my qualms (which most directly stem from the fact that I do not even know the basics of the language), Cairo truly is an amazing modern city at least several million people larger than New York. And the rare moments wandering down an old-world street when I have found myself confronted by a soaring minaret above the satellite dishes and concrete apartment buildings have been truly special. Other delights have included a city park converted to a nursery that offered sorely needed respite from the roar of the city and a street festooned with colorful cloth canopies and Christmas lights rising above the muck of overflowing sewer systems.

Yesterday I managed to make it to the 2nd largest book fair in the world. The sheer acreage covered in books was more astounding than the book themselves. Apparently, the fair, held over 2 weeks each January/February attracts 3 million visitors. Not knowing even the basics of the Arabic alphabet it became miles of artistic squiggles.

Today, I decided to treat myself to the Egyptian agricultural museum. A sprawling Nasser era relic with massive neoclassical buildings dedicated to enlightening the masses on the minutiae of agricultural practices from the pharaonic era to the present. From millet to maize to egg production to animal husbandry to community processions the museums had no more focus than a small child after a kilo of sugar. Bizarre and wonderful the museums (there were 5 or so total) showed me what can happen when you put a pineapple in formaldehyde for half a century (it melts) when you leave a stuffed bird hanging from a rope for too long (it is denuded and looks silly), when you have more stuffed birds than cabinet space (you squeeze them in – any way you can) and when you build a museum campus and fail to provide even a modicum of funds for maintenance and repair (it becomes the Egyptian Agricultural Museum or something akin to it).

Injera and wat is starting to sound pretty good right about now…