Impressions from AFAR Experiences Cairo
Since launching AFAR magazine in 2009, we’ve wondered how we might create events that bring the spirit of experiential travel to life. Immediately after the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February, AFAR’s founders Greg Sullivan and Joe Diaz traveled to the country. In the midst of post-revolution euphoria, they realized that they wanted to bring together a group of travelers to experience this pivotal moment in the nation’s history.
And so AFAR Experiences, a series of immersive travel events, was born, with Cairo as the premier destination. In late October, 35 travelers converged at the Marriott Cairo for three days of conversations, neighborhood tours, home dinners, and lectures from some of Egypt’s most influential thinkers and doers. Travel outfitter Abercrombie & Kent helped with our on-the-ground planning and logistics. The A&K guides who showed us around were warm and enthusiastic, and thrilled to share their city and their perspectives with us. Our group of attendees consisted of a diverse mix of AFAR readers from across North America and AFAR staffers—all passionate about experiential travel. Only one person in our group had previously traveled to Egypt. AFAR Editor-in-Chief Julia Cosgrove shares her impressions.
Day One: Mummies, Secret Doors, and the January 25 Revolution
Our first day kicked off at 7 a.m. in the cavernous Egyptian Museum. For two hours, we had the place to ourselves, with knowledgeable Abercrombie & Kent Egyptologists leading us through the eerie mummy-filled rooms and King Tut’s gilded tomb. Afterwards, we walked through Tahrir Square, site of the January 25th Revolution. There were no protests taking place that morning, just salesmen hawking “I Love Egypt” T-shirts to the few passersby who stopped to look (namely members of our group). We haphazardly crossed Cairo’s busy streets as old Fiats and Peugeots honked at us.
At Café Riche, a historic restaurant and gathering place for such Egyptian luminaries as Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz, we listened as the political activist Jawad Nabulsi discussed his thoughts on the revolution and the country’s impending parliamentary elections. Downstairs, a longtime patron of the café showed us a secret exit that dissidents in the 1950s used when they needed to make a quick escape.
In the evening, the new Minister of Tourism, Mounir Fakhry Abd El Noor, spoke to our group about the need to encourage other Americans to return to Egypt, as tourism brings in $13 billion a year to the country.
We ended our day with dinner at the traditional restaurant Abou El Sid (above). Surrounded by tin lanterns and paintings of Egyptian movie stars from the 1960s, we sat at round tables with locals, tasting dishes like koshari—a mix of lentils, pasta, rice, and fried onions. Then we passed around the shisha pipe well into the wee hours. The Egyptians we met—many of whom worked in media, academia, and the non-profit world—all expressed gratitude to us for coming to their country, and they were unbelievably warm hosts. Discussions invariably turned to the revolution and the thorny questions about what comes next for the country, but there was one thing everyone agreed on: they were deeply relieved to be out from under Mubarak’s dictatorship. And they were hopeful about the long-term future of their country.
Cairo Day Two: Artist’s Collectives, A Modern Imam, and Conversations at the Kitchen Table
The second day of the AFAR Experiences event in Cairo started at Darb 1718, a sprawling cultural center in Old Cairo founded by Moataz Nasreldin, an artist who works in mixed media. He built Darb to offer studio and gallery space to craftspeople and artists in the city. Today, tile painters, paper makers, sculptors, and others work there. The AFAR Experiences group enjoyed walking around the compound, buying from local vendors, and watching two performances—one by a local mime troupe, the other from a Zar band, whose trancelike music made many of us leap to our feet and start dancing.
At our next stop, the historic Sultan Hassan Mosque, the modern-day imam Moez Masoud spoke to us about the place of Islam in the world at large. Masoud has a huge following in Egypt, thanks to his talk shows, which reach millions of Muslims through TV, radio, and online seminars. His progressive, compassionate perspective appeals to Egyptians who don’t want fundamentalists to be the face of their faith. During our stay, we didn’t run into any political or religious protests, nor did we see much in the way of religious fervor. We saw men going to mosque, some in Western clothing, others in more traditional caftans, tunics, and head coverings. Many Egyptian women we encountered wore the veil; many did not.
Back at the Cairo Marriott, we enjoyed presentations by two Cairenes from very different industries: Mohamed Diab, a screenwriter and filmmaker, who discussed sexual harassment in Egypt. His new film, Cairo 6, 7, 8, addresses the topic head-on. Seif Fahmy, a politician and businessman who is heading up the Etihad (Unity) party. Fahmy expressed optimism for the future of his country, saying, “our people are our greatest asset.”
In the evening, local hosts all over the city welcomed AFAR Experiences attendees into their homes for dinner. I went to the home of a Coptic Christian who worked in architecture and design. He and his friends, all in their early thirties, came from varied backgrounds, and had different concerns about the various directions the country could go. Many conversations revolved around the revolution, but some spread to religion and work-life balance in the country. At one point, discussion turned to the legacy of Steve Jobs. The group rounded out the night at Sequoia, an open-air bar on the banks of the Nile.
Cairo Day Three: Egyptian Architecture 101, a Puppet Show by the Nile, and Camel Rides at Dusk
On our third and final day in Cairo, the AFAR Experiences group started the morning at La Bodega, a bistro in Zamalek. The eco-architect Tarek Labib spoke to our group about the history of building styles in Cairo. Afterwards we walked over to El Sawy Culturewheel, a community center built underneath the 15 May Bridge on the site of a former homeless encampment. Founder Mohamed El Sawy, an architect and engineer by training, has created a space that welcomes 500,000 visitors a year for classes, concerts, lectures, and performances.
El Sawy talked to our group about the importance of the arts in a society. He said, “Our nation needs a lot of light. What we are trying to do here is put light on issues by helping artists, and inspiring writers and painters of every kind. We offer space for anyone who wants to express himself.” El Sawy concluded by presenting a puppet show set to the music of Umm Kulthum, one of the most famous singers of the Arab world.
The women’s rights activist and professor Riham Bahi addressed the group on the state of feminism in the country, and comedian—and heart surgeon!—Bassem Youssef spoke to our group much like the host of popular TV show should: he asked each of us for our first impressions of Cairo, and a roundtable discussion ensued. Youssef, who has been described as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, drew out feedback from attendees: Some said Cairo was larger than they ever could have anticipated; others said the Egyptian people were incredibly welcoming, inclusive, and hospitable. Everyone agreed that Cairo redefines sensory overload. Traffic slugs along at a crawl, and the city sprawls as far as the eye can see. The air is muggy and hazy. Apartment buildings outside of the city center seem to have been built one brick at a time, and look like they could buckle at the slightest rumble.
AFAR Experiences Cairo culminated with a closing party at the Giza pyramids, where attendees and locals danced to live music in a vibrant carpeted tent, rode camels, and dined on traditional Egyptian cuisine. By the final night, our group had bonded and was anxious to find out the next destination of AFAR Experiences 2012.
But AFAR Experiences Cairo didn’t end after we returned home. While we were beginning to digest all that we had seen and experienced in Cairo, violent protests in Tahrir Square picked up again, in advance of the parliamentary elections. We communicated with our new friends via Facebook for updates: Speaker Seif Fahmy wrote, “We are fine and going through turmoil, which is natural following any revolution.”
Hearing the news, several attendees booked flights back to Egypt, mere weeks after the Experiences event. Many said the trip had given them a deep contextual dive into the culture and history of an amazing country—and access to people they wouldn’t have otherwise met. My favorite example of this happened the day before AFAR Experiences Cairo kicked off. Members of our group participated in several pre-event tours, and I went to an impoverished area of the city called Manshiyat Nasr, where 1.2 million people live with little access to health care or education. As our group was preparing to leave after a tour of the neighborhood, an older woman called for us to come up to her second-floor apartment. Several of us went, and inside met three generations of her family. The matriarch was illiterate, but she was planning on voting for the first time in this election. And she was scraping together what little she could to pay for tutors for her children, recognizing that an education was the most important thing she could give them.
It was moments like this, a simple conversation in a stranger’s home, that defined AFAR Experiences Cairo for me. And to have these interactions with a group of like-minded travelers, many of whom had fended off family members and friends who cautioned against going to Cairo at all, was truly unique.
Read about some of the speakers featured during the event in “Cairo Beyond the Headlines.” And learn more about AFAR Experiences—including the time and location of the next amazing destination—at afarexperiences.com.