After a small helping of foul, sopped up on bits of baladi bread, I’m drinking a cup of café au lait to change things. Next, my usual bread, butter, and confiture. I wonder what Egyptian marmalade tastes like? Probably sweeter than the Brit recipe.

            “I guess that leaves us on our own?” René has edged his chair back from the table and crossed his legs. “Any ideas?” Yes, I do have one idea, and one that I was hoping I could manage by ducking out from the group at some point. I’d like to explore Garden City, which I really don’t know that well, and then go nosing around the old European Cairo in search of architectural wonders that are probably half-falling down but interesting. He perks up and uncrosses his legs: “Wow! That sounds super cool. Can I come along?”

            After my surprise at the warmth of Cairo in December – twenty centigrade – I wasn’t prepared for how radically a pedestrian, let alone a car, goes from winding, tree-shaded mansions and modern apartment buildings to the roar of traffic and the sandy dust of downtown Cairo. “What happened?” I think I know what happened; Arab Socialism happened. I cryptically give that as a reply to René. I see immediately that he has no idea what I’m talking about.

            I of course couldn’t say no when he asked to come along. I like René. But now I realize that I don’t have the desire or patience to give him a short history of so-called Modern Egypt. I try to think of a parallel to Antwerp that I know. Historically, there really is none, but the juxtaposition of neighborhoods sort of works. So, I offered the contrast between the Meir and the Sint-Andries quarter. He smiles. I can see he doesn’t really get the comparison, and it is pretty poor.

            The name of this broad, straight street is Al Wosta. I’m noticing that the streets are in better shape than my last visit decades ago. I’m unabashedly using Google Maps; I don’t know Garden City and the ways in and out of it, and I’m not pretending to René that I do. Ahead, there’s more greenery on either side. Ah, the American University. I point that out; I bet René thinks I’m being chauvinistic. And then we’re approaching the roar of traffic that is Tahrir Square. There are people everywhere, with garb going from jeans and tee-shirts to full burqa, black-shrouded figures that furtively move like omens of death with a slit through which eyes peer. Oh, I know that the women in these burkas mean no harm; I see them as terrified of Allah and maybe their husbands, victims, but I know that I don’t even begin to understand what makes them tick. Well, that’s it René. This is Cairo. “I get it.” The city has hit him, knocked the wind out of him. The noise, the cacophony of it: Where’s the music coming from, shops? It’s like Times Square on steroids, I quip. “I’m glad I’m with you.” I’m quick to let him know that this is no Bushwick. He’s totally safe here. Just watch out for the traffic as you cross the street, because there are no zebrapaden, no Walk lights. “I’m seeing that. Whoa!” His laughter is effervescent; I laugh too. I’d forgotten. Well, forgotten? Because I don’t remember this much traffic, this amount of people, and I do know the area, because this is where the famed Egyptian Museum sits.

            I blurt out that: You know, René, I have a love-hate relationship with Cairo. He just smiles at me. We are standing still, which is almost impossible from where we are, at the edge of Tahrir Square, because rivers of people are moving around us from all directions; we are an obstruction. And yet we do just stand there as he continues smiling at me. He pulls out his iPhone and takes a picture; I suppose it’s of me and the newly restored apartment building façades behind me. I add: You’re probably thinking that you can see what I hate. “I’m not sure. I love where we’re staying. It’s like a movie, an old movie. Hany’s mother is some silver-screen actress. The old guy with the turban seems like a bit actor.” “Silver screen”: René’s command of English never ceases to amaze me. I correct him: Ahmed is very real, and most Egyptians are either like Ahmed or have relatives like Ahmed. Ahmed is from the countryside. He’s from Upper Egypt where Luxor is. If you look around as we walk, you’ll see lots of Ahmeds. “I don’t see any yet, but I believe you. So, what do you love about Cairo?” I’m going to show you, if we can get across or around this square.

            I want Talaat Harb Street. There’s a tricky bit, a kind of crossroads with El Tahrir Street. René is not disturbing my communing with Google Maps; he seems content to let me lead the way. I’m not so sure where I’m going. Tahrir Street should lead to the old Belle-Époque era that I’m curious to explore. I just know it exists; downtown Cairo was built in that era. It was meant to look modern, luxurious, and European, a cross between Paris and Vienna. With neglect and Cairo’s dust, plus signs of all kinds, neon and painted, plastered everywhere, architectural detail is obstructed. It takes a sharp eye to see through the chaos and ugliness, while negotiating the crowds on the sidewalk and disregarding the constant honking of cars. And then there’s music everywhere: Egyptian pop. I ask René what he thinks of it: “I think it’s kinda cool. I’ve heard Arab music before. It’s a soundtrack for our walk. Are we going anywhere special?” I was waiting for this. I start explaining my curiosity about the old European architecture and that I’m looking for this old place that’s in a circular square surrounded by streets and traffic, an island. I show him a picture on my iPhone: El-Sakakini Palace. I hand him my phone so he can look at it more easily. “Yeah, it looks amazing. But…” and then he starts thumbing my phone. And then he looks at me: “You know, you do the Distance thing? And it’s an hour’s walk from here.” What? I take my phone back and look. He’s right, of course. And yet I’m seeing what I’m looking for in the buildings on either side of this street. “We could just keep walking in that direction?” I smile. Yes, we could. Let’s do that. And then I can try out my Uber App and see if it really does work here. He grins: “That sounds great!” I’m glad René is with me; his perkiness is keeping me from giving up. I’m feeling tired. I ask him how he slept. “The mattress was a bit hard, but, yeah, okay. Bill maybe didn’t sleep so good.” Ah, no surprise that Bill and I share old bones and ligaments. “He did some snoring, too. I got used to it. It wasn’t too loud.” He’s grinning at me again. I’m feeling embarrassed, like I’m intruding in their life together, a fly-on-the-wall in their bedroom. I feel queasy, but then it passes as we keep walking.

            We pass a bank. I see a cash machine. I stop. René sees what I see. “Do you think we need Egyptian money? When are we going to need to pay for things?” A very valid question. I know, though, that Egypt is not debit or credit card country; it’s cash country. And then he adds: “You’re right. We need some Egyptian money on us. What if we split it? Fifty euros in Egyptian between the two of us. I read up. Seems the Egyptian pound is very weak. Don’t you think fifty euros will be enough? We can always get more.” I don’t have to think a minute before I agree with him. And then he just goes for the machine, pulls out his wallet, and sticks in his bank card. I watch. He glances around at me and then holds up two fingers crossed. Suddenly, we hear noise, shuffling, and the cash drawer opens. There sits a think pile of Egyptian pound notes. René pulls them out. He opts for a receipt and grabs it, and then he turns to me. “These are all hundreds. Let me count.” The bills look mostly new. “Whoa! There’s a thousand seven hundred and some smaller bills!” He bursts out laughing. “Here.” He counts out five hundred and forty Egyptian pounds for me. That’s more than half, I note. “You’re worth it!” We stand there, laughing. And then it strikes me that this does not look good. I also see that someone is approaching who may also want to use the machine. I stuff the bills in my pocket and take a few steps forward. René gets the hint and follows. We stop. He’s been clutching what’s left of the bills in his hand in his pocket, I see. He pulls them out along with his wallet, and he stuffs the money inside. It almost doesn’t want to fit.

            We continue walking and start looking at the prices of anything we see in a shop window. We probably do have too much money, mainly because we’re not staying in a hotel, but we may eat out. If we do, though, Bill will just pay. Anyway, it’s good to have local cash on me. I’m glad we did it. I now owe René twenty-five euros. “Relax. I’ll survive.” No, I need to pay him back. I am so used to paying for everything with my bank card that I forgot to even take some euros with me. I tell him this. “Let me treat you!” He stops and laughs at me. I stop. I don’t laugh, but I suddenly feel sick of walking, dodging people, scooters.

            I’ve had enough. I fish my phone out of my pocket. “What?” I just shake my head at him; I’m not going to explain. I click on the Uber App. Yes, it does seem to work. Amazing. I type in my destination. Good grief, it recognizes it. “You getting an Uber?” Yes, I am, René. I’ve given up. He chuckles. “And? Is it working?” Yup, it seems to, and there’ll be a car along in five minutes. We just have to stay put. “We can do that!” He’s laughing at me.

            And then a car pulls up and stops. I guess we’re quite recognizable. The driver jumps out and circles around the hood to open the backdoor for us. “Marhaba!” Welcome. I say: Salaam aleikum. He grins back. Maybe that was a mistake. I need to speak to him in English. I repeat the name of the destination. “No problem.” Great, he speaks TV English. And then we’re in the car and going, hopefully, to the Palace. I notice again that the streets seem in good shape and that some of the old buildings have been restored, painted, at least from the outside. Looks like there is a new appreciation of this old legacy. Our man is a good driver, and he knows how to honk at intersections just like the others do. “Crazy that there aren’t any traffic lights and stuff.” Yes, René, but that’s Cairo for you. He grins once again; for René, it’s this great adventure. And then, unlike his experience in Bushwick, he feels safe with me. Nice feeling.

            “You like go in Sakakini?” Our driver has half turned. He should be looking at the traffic, and then he glances back. It’s hard to tell his age, but I think he’s probably in his twenties. And I think he’s married. He’s a bit hefty. Of course, that could be from sitting in a car all day, but I think it’s from his wife feeding him. Egyptians are always asking single men if they’re married, but I’m not alone now. Ordinarily, he would have asked and, in turn, I’d know about his wife and kids already. I don’t. “Sakakini not open.” What? He laughs. “Inshallah, you will go inside.” How? Kam? Some Egyptian pops out. “Ah, because I live in the neighborhood. I know the bawab.” I glance over at René, because he’s staring and grinning at me, again. I know: He thinks I’m funny.

            “You have the magic touch.” René says this quietly so the driver can’t hear.

            We emerge into a square, a rotary, with the Sakakini Palace planted right in the middle, the proverbial wedding-cake in tan and the palest of blue frosting, a three- or four-story mansion in a late nineteenth-century mix of Sacre-Coeur turrets, balconies, Corinthian columns, and verandahs. Our driver circles it and stops at a tall piked iron gate, filigreed with wrought-iron vines. One side of the gate is partially open, I see. Our driver jumps out and opens the backdoor for us. Heavy traffic is circling the roundabout, but he doesn’t care, is fearless. We get out quickly. “Wait!” he commands us. We watch as he runs up the stairs and pounds on the door. It opens. We see our man conversing with an elderly man in a black uniform. The man peers out and down. He does not look pleased to see us. We smile up at him. Our driver is still talking to him. Slowly, the bawab seems to melt, and a smile begins to form on his face. He nods at us. Our driver runs down the stairs. “Kuwayis! It is done. But only a half hour? Good? Kuwayis?” I repeat kuwayis. It means good, fine; I remember that, because it’s ubiquitous in Egypt. Everything is always kuwayis. And, while we’ve been waiting, staring up at the transaction being played out for our benefit, I’ve gotten my wallet out and removed three bills. I’ll give our driver three hundred Egyptian pounds. I think that’s less than ten euros. But who cares? I hand our driver the three banknotes. He blinks and fingers the three bills. It’s not enough? And then a great smile spreads across his generous round face. “Shukrun. Shukrun, ya rais. Alf-shokr.” He bows slightly nods. His grin becomes even more expansive until he suddenly becomes aware of his car. “Ma’a salama! Peace. Nice day.” He rounds around, jumps in the driver’s seat, and he’s off.

            We turn and look back up, hoping the bawab is still there and smiling at us. He is. The tall dark-honey-colored double doors have each a single glass pane from top to bottom, framed in an Art Nouveau curve and backed with iron filigree. They stand ajar. As we mount the stairs, he calls down: “Marhaba. Welcome to Egypt.” I’ll need to remember to give him a hundred-pound note on the way out. Or maybe two hundred? Or should I give him a hundred now and another on the way out? This visit is not going to come cheap, but we will have the palace to ourselves.

            He leads us into a soaring vestibule. Where the baroque outside of the palace was a grayish tan, with some panels of a faint turquoise blue, the inside is a riot of color and design from Venetian incrustations of paneling to marble Corinthian columns with gold escutcheons banding them to the ceilings painted with oval pictures of nymphs gamboling in meadows under pale blue skies. The floor is black and white marble, laid in a harlequin pattern.  Our bawab pulls out a flashlight and closes the front door. Windows in rooms off the vestibule throw light into the vestibule, but it is the flashlight the shows us detail. Not one centimeter of surface is left undecorated, plaster encrusted, or embedded with every stone imaginable from agate to malachite to lapis lazuli. These words for semiprecious stone aren’t an inventory; they’re words that run through my mind helter-skelter. We follow where the bawab shines the flashlight. He is toying with us with his light show. René takes pics. And this is just the vestibule, I say to René. El-Sakakini was Syrian, Christian, and began his fortune by ridding the Suez Canal of mice simply by letting loose hungry alley cats. “Bill should see this. This is billionaire bling from a hundred years ago. It’s just insane.” And I’m beginning to feel that it’s making me dizzy. We need to move on through other rooms with more space and windows. I make a move to the room on our right. So, the bawab will just follow us? I had been afraid he was going to give us a tour; on the other hand, why not? This room now is so literally palatial that the no-surface-left-undecorated theme is less overpowering. It is a room of great proportions, a ballroom, a grand dining hall. Anything that can be gilded is gilded, though certainly nowhere near as blindingly as originally. Dust and time have subdued the effect, making it almost tasteful.

            I can see an affiliation between our Garden City mansion and this room, but this room is far more florid. I see René looking around, gawking. “There’s some of this craziness in Antwerp. Well, maybe a lot of it. I guess it’s the same period in history. But it’s crazy that it’s here in Cairo.” Yup, and that’s just why I’m so interested in scoping these places out, because, since they sent Farouk packing, the revolutionary regime that replaced him has been happy to see these signs of the past disintegrate. These neighborhoods were cosmopolitan with lots of Europeans living here, which is why the architecture and the European architects behind it built buildings like this. This world is totally gone now. These people left and even fled Cairo in the late fifties and early sixties. Egyptians from the countryside moved to Cairo. I think the population maybe doubled. “My parents tell me Antwerp, the Meir, used to be rundown like this.” I smile, because I remember very well when it was rundown. René of course doesn’t.

            I’m startled by first a vibration and then a tone: It’s my iPhone. It’s come alive again, well, as a mode of communication. I’ve been using it like a computer, googling things. René hears it: “It’s Bill, right?” I nod. It’s a WhatsApp. He wants to know where we are. I text him back. I give him the address. He replies that he and Hany will meet us here. Bill will call an Uber in ten minutes. I look at René. “What? They’re joining us?” His face lights up like he’s been invited to a party. There’s another message. We should be outside in twenty minutes. They’ll pick us up, and we’ll go somewhere for lunch. I read this to René. “Perfect. I’m starving!”

            And then we continue exploring. Our bawab disappears. True, we don’t need his flashlight anymore. All the rooms are well lit from towering windows. René is going crazy with his iPhone camera. I keep an eye on my watch. The second floor is less interesting than the first, or perhaps I just can’t absorb anymore. Fireplaces change design, but all are outlandishly rococo. Some rooms have colonnades; all have gorgeously painted ceilings, some with mythological creatures, while others are just of open sky with clouds.

            We are touring the rooms in silence. These spaces are beginning to feel haunted. Much is on the verge of collapse. The present, present-day Cairo, has more or less abandoned this palace and probably all the others. I have a short list. There is Farouk’s Abdeen Palace on that list with its vast gardens in the heart of the city. It houses two museums, military stuff, I think, which doesn’t interest me, but I’d like to see the rooms of state, the galleries of honor, and then get a sense of royal Egypt, the one where cosmopolitan populations flourished, especially in Alexandria, which was more a Mediterranean city than an Egyptian one. I should reread the Alexandria Quartet. “Antwerp has buildings, stuff on this scale. It’s from the time when you said Anvers and not Antwerpen, when French was spoken.” We stop walking. I say that I think he has something there; there’s a connection. “That’s what I’ve been thinking. I think there was, like, this revolution?” He’s grinning. I grin back. But look at the mess it made, I say. He looks thoughtful. “That’s not been the case in Antwerp. Antwerp is back.” I nod; I definitely agree. So much for comparisons. Except. I ask him whether he doesn’t like seeing that old stuff from the Francophone city that was Anvers? “I do. My parents? Not so much. But I don’t care about that language shit. I like the idea that Belgium is bilingual, even trilingual. You know there’s that funny little German-speaking corner.” I do. We chuckle. I think it’s the size of Manhattan.

            We head down the grandiose marble staircase with its great balustrades. Careful. It’s dusty and slippery. The bawab is standing at the foot of the stairs. “Farouk. Kuwayis!” He is one big smile. Yes, Farouk is nice; so, I guess there’s no hard feelings and revolutionary fervor is long gone. I fish my wallet out of my pocket and give him two hundred pounds. “Shukrun, ya effendi. Alf shokr!” He opens one wing of the double doors, and we step out into the light of midday. I raise my hand to my eyes. “Whoa!” says René. At the foot of the stairs is a car. “Oh shit, they’re here already.” Bill gets out.

            “Hey, gentlemen. How was it? What a fucking wedding cake of a building. I see everything from Hindu temples to Sacre Coeur to Florence and the Renaissance.”

            “You should see the inside. Sorry. Too late.” René turns around and looks up. The double doors are shut. He turns back to Bill. “I hear we’re going to get some lunch. I’m starving.” The Uber pulls out brazenly into the circling traffic. I’m wondering where Hany is taking us for lunch

            “Café Naguib Mahfouz. Khan El-Khalili,” he answers me. “It’s owned by the Oberoi Group, so your digestive systems will be safe.” He laughs. I tell him I’m not worried about my innards; I’ve survived Egyptian food and drink without the blessings of Oberoi. I could add that I’ve had the “traditional” bout of diarrhea but survived it easily and felt that it was like a flu shot. I could, but I don’t. “What’s nice, I see from the website, is that it’s been nicely refurbished. Quite beautiful. And, before you ask, no, I’ve never been there.” Nice. Well, I’m looking out the window. I’m curious as to how the car is going to get there. You can’t drive through the Khan el-Khali except on a moped. Ah, now I see. He’s literally circling the area. I’ll be able to point out the City of the Dead to René. Maybe. I pull out my iPhone and bring up Google Maps. No. We’re circling through a part of Cairo I don’t know at all, and far to the north of the City of the Dead. Time to cede my guide duties to Hany. We’re in his hands.

            Bill is being unusually quiet, maybe because he’s upfront with the driver. I assume he made the switch while they were waiting for me. Which also means that Hany really is our guide. Hany will be showing us his Cairo, starting by taking us to a restaurant that he doesn’t know.

            And then it hits: What is going on with our cruise down the Nile, our boat that couldn’t dock?

            After skirting a roundabout, we have an old cemetery on our right, not the famous City of the Dead, which is further south. I take it this route is just practical. There’s nothing to see, really, just the drabbest of Cairo street life, dull buildings. I see, though, that René is observing. I say: Not very interesting. “This is the only route by car.” I’ve annoyed Hany. I say: Sorry. I understand. But it is quick. Already we’re down at the main cross street that separates the two parts of this part of Old Cairo. The maze of Khan El-Khali and the grand street with all the ancient mosques and caravansaries, El-Gamalaya, is now on our right. From this taxi, moving dexterously through traffic without stoplights, it’s not hard to read the streets signs in Arabic and Latin letters.

Oh, nope. The street I was thinking of was El-Mu’iz el-Din Allah; this is not it but goes through the non-tourist part of the bazaar. Here, I remember pots and pans, hardware.

El-Mu’iz El-Din Allah is such an ancient name it was engraved in my memory at first encounter. Meaning something, in my scruffy Arabic, like Muezzin of the Religion Allah? This could also be completely in my imagination; I’ve never wanted to find out what it truly meant. There is something Arabian Nights about the name for me. I pull out my iPhone.

            I give up. It’s been years since I’ve been here. I google: It’s the name of a Fatimid Caliph. Do I feel enlightened? I feel oddly let down. A street named after a caliph is like Rue Fuad, Farouk’s father. Now, I actually find that a bit more stimulating, summoning up that cosmopolitan era that always casts a spell over me.

            I slip my phone back in my pocket. No one has asked what I’m doing. Right. People check their phones all the time. And for no good reason. Something to do. Boredom.

            I’m getting seriously hungry.

            Bill turns around: “Does Cairo look a lot cleaner than you remembered, everything in better shape? It does me.” I nod agreement.

            “But the last time you two were here was a hundred years ago. We have Uber now. Hello.” Hany is half joking and half annoyed.

            “You’re right, Hany. Sorry.”

            “Oh, don’t get me wrong. Cairo is still falling apart. Sisi seems to have given up and has had this New Cairo built out in the desert. I was given a tour. Impressive. Of course, it’s half empty. Most people can’t afford to live there. It’s not Dubai either, but that’s the idea. It has a mammoth Coptic cathedral. The Sisi people are trying to steer Egypt away from the Brotherhood and that nasty kind of Islam. And the idea is also to reinforce that Egypt is more than Islamic, that it is ancient, that it was Coptic, and that Egyptians should include the Pharaohs in their picture of themselves.”

            “Good luck with that.” Did Bill have to fire that back? A bit rude.

            Hany laughs: “Yup.”

            And then the car stops. Seems we’re there.

            But I don’t see a restaurant. I do see an alleyway leading into the Khan El-Khalili. I’m out of the car first. I squint: Rbaa Al Selhdar. It’s a typical looking alleyway into the bazaar. “It’s a short walk up to the end of this street.” Hany is speaking into my ear, a good thing, since there’s so much racket: honking traffic, male voices hawking wares. I’m tempted to ask whether he’s sure: He’s never been to the restaurant, but already he’s leading the way. René has jumped out and shut the door. Bill seems to have slipped the driver some cash and is now up and out of the front passenger seat. Bill stretches: “Well, here we are. You recognize all of this? I do. The streets look like they’re in better repair than the last time I was here. There’s been an effort. Some cleaning up. Some restoration maybe?” René is listening to Bill with the rapt respect of pupil to guru. I have been replaced. I have mixed emotions, which as I consider them makes me smile to myself. It isn’t just René’s perky good looks that has captured Bill, but also René’s reverence for the experience in life that Bill undeniably has. I’m also interested in Bill’s take on this Cairo we are now in. He has been here more often and more recently than I have.

            Without another word, Bill turns and moves to catch up with Hany. René and I follow Bill and are soon right behind him moving up the alleyway. It’s full of people moving up and down the length of it. We to have maneuver around tourists gawking at the fake antiquities, souvenirs, just as shoddy and comically poorly executed as I remembered. They’re almost worth buying just for their schlock value: They are a kind of art unto themselves, much like the Roman tomb paintings in Alexandria, which I visited once decades ago. These were Roman devotees’ attempts at reproducing ancient Egyptian wall painting that ended up caricaturing the grandeur of the original ancient tomb paintings with their figures of gods parading in stark, ceremonial profile and pictured that way for their magical properties rather than as likenesses in the Greco-Roman tradition. They ended up looking crude, comical, and sadly decadent.

These souvenir shops are stuffed, piled high in orderly panoplies meant to catch the tourist eye. Tutankhamun masks are a favorite. Randomly a honking moped motors through the crowds just fast enough to make you dodge out of their way, but not fast enough to run you down. And the hawking: incessant hawking coming from middle-aged men and boys aimed at us passersby. A respite as we pass the windows of a jewelers displaying gold in the form of earrings, necklaces, pendants, bracelets. I remember the first time here being highly suspicious of the quality of this jewelry only to learn later that the gold was mostly of high karat purity, serving as investments in the Arab tradition where Bedouin women are bedecked with the wealth of the family.

Hany is quite aways ahead of us but visible. We are sticking close behind Bill. Looking beyond Bill, I see that the Rbaa Al Selhdar ends abruptly when it meets a slightly wider street. I look up and around; I gape: The medieval carved façade in all its geometric splendor, a similarly carved archway, embedded with twin black-and-white marble panels, jewels of Islamic architecture serves as the entrance to a covered bazaar and the street. Bill is looking up and around in amazement: “They’ve actually done it, restored at least this part.” There has always been talk about saving and restoring these magnificent buildings of medieval Cairo, but who ever thought it would really happen. My experience is that Egypt has these fanciful plans that never materialize, all shrugged away by a sigh of “maalesh” as life burbles on.

            I look back to find Hany standing next to a blue plaque with Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop in large gold letters and its twin in Arabic on the other side of a door embossed with shiny engraved brass plate from top to bottom. René has taken pics of what Bill and I are staring at, and then he switches to get Hany standing by the entrance to the restaurant. “So, this is it.” Hany grins at us. He has the look of pride of someone who is showing you a favorite haunt, even though – reminding myself again – he has never been here before. He pushes the door open and leads the way in.

            I want to laugh out loud. I’m stepping into Aladdin’s cave. Arched ceilings painted in myriad geometries of red, green, and white, and filigree. Perforated punched-brass lanterns and globes like golden treasure troves. Egyptian carpeted divans in rich reds and greens. There are straight-backed chairs inlaid with bits of mother-of-pearl set around gilded tabletops. The décor changes from room to room as we are led to our dining alcove by the host. Waiters wear tarbooshes. I see Farouk everywhere and nowhere. I think his royal highness would have found this opulence uproariously funny, he who preferred Anglo-understatement.

            We are seated. We are not given menus. Hany has preordered our lunch feast. As the service begins, I see that we will have a taste of every Egyptian kebab and stew in the repertoire. Bill smiles. “Where’s the Stella?”

            “Ah, Bill, there is no Stella. There are virgin cocktails…” Hany grins.

            “No beer?”


            “Karkade? Rose-hip tea?” Bill opens his mouth comically aghast.”

            “After our lunch I will walk you down the street to one of the oldest cafés in the European quarter where we will drink Stella, Bill. Have no fear.”

            “I suppose it’s because the imams of Al-Azhar are just a block away and could sniff a beer a mile away.”

            “Something like that. I was surprised myself. Oberoi is an Indian chain. This place was designed more for tourists than for Egyptians, though friends do come here for family celebrations. That’s how I know about it.”

            “With Maryse? You’ve been here with Maryse.”

            “Families of friends. Yes, we were feasted on arrival before our marriage party.”

            “I like that. I like it here. Where is Maryse?” says René. I am about to ask the same thing. Better from him.

            “Ah, Bill?” Hany is ceding the floor to Bill. Waiters are arriving with bowls and platters of food.

            “I have an announcement, gentlemen. We leave on our cruise down the Nile to Luxor tomorrow. We will celebrate Christmas or whatever on the magnificent dahabiya that Hany has arranged for us. Maryse is cajoling Maman as we speak. This has disrupted the plans. But most of the feast has been procured and now will be transferred to the boat where there is an ample kitchen. Hasan and Nadra will accompany us. Unlike Maman, they were deliriously happy. They have family in Luxor.”

            I am stunned. I’m not displeased. How long will it take the boat to reach Luxor? I ask Hany. I’m thinking I’ll see Luxor for a day with them, get a flight up to Cairo, and then a flight home, just in time for New Year’s Eve.

            “I think that will be doable, right, Hany?” says Bill. Hany has put on his best sphinx smile in reply.

            “It’s great that you’re sailing down the Nile with us. You can be our Agatha Christie.” René is grinning at me from across the table. A tureen of molokhia, that emerald green slippery, leafy soup, has been set down in the middle of the table between us. You never know what will come out of René’s mouth. I smirk. And then everyone else erupts in laughter. René beams like a standup comedian sensing the start of a roll. “My family’s gone to Almeria for the holidays.” Hany gives him an odd, serious look. I think Hany doesn’t know where Almeria is. René does too. “Spain. They’re going to welcome Sinterklaas back.” René’s eyes sparkle; he thinks he’s so clever. No one beside the two of us know about Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa who arrives in the Netherlands in early December, probably also in Flanders, which I’m not so sure of. I laugh; René grins thankfully at me. Are we going to explain who Sinterklaas is? No. But I feel I need to say something, with a grin: He’s the Dutch Santa Claus. The original. Isn’t Santa an American thing?

            “Who knows at this point. I think I saw him on a billboard as we came to pick you up. He was hawking Coke. Of course.” Now we all laugh.

            Hany sees me now staring at the tureen of molokhia. “You like molokhia?” I blurt out: Of course. I have my reputation as an omnivore to uphold. But in reality, I have mixed feelings about it. I think it’s how it’s prepared, seasoned. I decide to add that caveat to my hearty “of course.” “And you’d be right. But I had it here with the friends, that wedding-party thing. It was excellent. Almost as good as Nadra makes. We’ve always loved it in our family because of that, I suppose. But we only eat it in winter.”

            “I think we should start off with it then.” And Bill proceeds to serve himself. And then he looks at René. René nods, and so Bill serves him. The ladle is back in the tureen.

            “Let me serve you.” I sit back to give Hany room. He ladles three servings into my small soup bowl. He then adds a sprinkle of shredded chicken to the top and then a dollop of pickled onion. “This is the way we eat it at home.” I’ve never eaten it this way. It looks and, as I take a spoonful, tastes better than I’ve ever had it. I thank him. I’m amazed. Like okra, it has always been too slimy for my taste, but now I find myself spooning it in, along with the shreds of chicken and the pickled onion. My bowl is empty. I look up. Bill is staring at me.

            “Should I try some?” He, instead has been eating a kebab along with some aubergine and onion stew. I mechanically smile and nod. Has he ever had molokhia? On that first trip, certainly not. There were very few restaurants, if I remember correctly, in that Nasserian wartime Egypt. There was a famous kebab restaurant – was it called El Haty? – spared the wartime or socialist austerity. That infamous iron-curtain had clanged down on fine dining in Soviet-inspired societies, not to mention just dining, period. Restaurants were condemned as bourgeois, or so I suppose now. “You’re having more. That’s your answer.” Bill takes his bowl and serves himself. I can see that René is now looking at the tureen with new interest. I’m sure René has never eaten molokhia. It’s rarely found outside of the Middle-East. Maybe in Morocco. When Bill is finished serving himself, René takes his turn. I’ve had enough. I sit and watch Bill’s reaction. “Oh, this is better than I remembered.” I just smile. Next: René. René, being Flemish, would love soups. The Dutch love soups. The Germans love soups. I watch as he blows on his spoon and takes a first taste. His eyes betray shock. Yes, René, molokhia is maybe an acquired taste. I suggest he get some chicken and onion on his spoon at the same time. He does.

            “Okay. I get it. A funny kind of spinach soup? Gloppy.” I burst out laughing. Gloppy? Where does he get English words like that? Of course, from American TV shows. Still, hearing him come out with that word has all of us grinning.

            “I congratulate you all. You are now all honorary Egyptians.” Hany toasts us with his glass of karkade. René takes several pics of us all, toasting, of what we’re eating, and of the restaurant. He’s immortalizing us.

            We all toast. Bill takes a sip, his first. “I can’t believe they don’t serve Stella here.”

            “We’ll walk to Stella Bar.”

            Bill erupts in laughter, catching a spray of molokhia with his napkin just in time. “A bar named after the beer?”

            “Or we can go to Le Comte. Actually, Le Comte is closer on foot. And then after that, we’ll hit Stella.” I listen to Hany in amazement. There’s a bar scene in Cairo? “You’ll see. They’re old places from before the Revolution that never closed. Kept alive by Egyptians who like to drink, Copts who have no problem with alcohol, and now lots of expats. I’m not saying it’s a wild scene.” He’s giving me a comic look. “You’ll see.”

            “I can’t wait. I mean, I like karkade, but aside from the molokhia, this food could use a good beer.” I agree with Bill. René just listens and eats. He’s finished his molokhia (good boy!) and is now serving himself salads, houmous, kofta, kebab, and half of a spiced-rice-stuffed pigeon. He’s hungry, quietly the hungriest at the table: no talking, just eating and listening.

            I glance around. About half the tables are taken. Mostly foreigners, tourists, I’d say. I haven’t seen a menu. Hany arranged our feast ahead of time. I bet it’s more expensive than your average Cairo restaurant. The décor alone is lavish beyond belief. Was there ever a time in the history of the city where rooms were decorated like this? It’s Egyptian bling, I’d say, though in a good way. Good way? Well, what’s wrong with a little Thousand-One-Nights? Medieval Cairo was a wealthy city, a hub of trade.

            “Yeah, I could use a beer right now.” I flash back to our table; it’s René.

            Hany is leading the way. We’re digesting our Om Ali, not exactly a light dessert: a bread pudding of puff pastry, condensed milk, almonds and other nuts, a dash of coconut flakes, raisins, all drenched in thick cream. We’re moving slowly, not just because we’re full of food but because the sidewalks are crowded and are not really traditional sidewalks in some sections: Often we’re walking in the street. We go around parked cars; scooters whizz by us. Cairo is a dusty, polluted city; there’s nothing to compare it with in Europe or the US, for that matter. But then Cairo often is submerged in brief sandstorms; it’s a desert city, kept alive by the Nile. We manage to stay in pairs, but it’s not easy. It’s obvious that with the crowds no one should be left straggling. We pass stores selling everything from pots-and-pans to tamiya-felafel, to vegetables and fruit set out into the street on wooden stands. And we’re still following the main Cairo street leading to Tahrir Square, eventually. Kobri Al-Azhar. This time I’m paired with Hany and so leading the pack.

            Suddenly we are walking alongside a large park. I recognize it: Azbakeya Garden. Our first trip, I remember, we stayed not far from here, the Hotel Windsor, that used to be a Brit officers club back in the days of Farouk, and this park was threadbare, run down, grass patchy: hardly what you’d call a garden. That seems greatly improved. I’m pleasantly surprised; actually, I’m shocked, because I do pay attention to Cairo in the news, and I’ve never been aware of much improving.

            “Do you find that Cairo has changed that much since you were here last?” Do I? Yes, I do. It’s a bit cleaner, I blurt out, before realizing Hany might be offended. I add that what I mean is that it looks like there have been renovations, restorations. “You’re right. There’s been an effort to clean up downtown, to fix up the façades, at least. Every building with apartments has a bawab, but you knew that, right? But that doesn’t mean they’re luxury doorman buildings.” He chuckles. I join in. The classic bawab isn’t far removed from the old-fashioned Paris concierge of our youth: a force of nature and often a spy for the cops. “Most of my old friends have moved out of Garden City and Downtown. Gated communities. You know, for the kids. But mostly their parents have stayed in their old flats, really these amazing large Levantine beaux-arts or Deco places, full of their old furniture. I should have arranged to visit so you could see. Maybe when we’re back from Luxor?” I remind him that I’ll fly home from Luxor. Again, I feel that neither Hany nor Bill is taking my New Year’s Eve plan seriously. I’m not joking; I’m saying this to myself. I’m giving myself one day in Luxor, and then it’s the first plane out.

            How long have we been walking? I’m not so much physically tired but mentally. The honking, the dodging in and out. I ask Hany how far we have to go now. “I know. We’re almost there. It’s more of a walk than I remembered.” I explain that it’s the chaos that’s tiring. “Right. You just have to relax and go with the flow,” he grins at me like some Beverly Hills teenager. That smile: No wonder he’s made a fortune in real estate. And with that smile comes his animal warmth, an attraction beyond charisma: pure sex. I echo: Right. He turns around to make sure we haven’t lost Bill and René.

            “We almost there?” barks Bill. I burst out laughing.

            Hany turns around and gestures like a carnival barker: “This way.” We’re to enter an alley.

            Le Comte is in a basement. I think: cave Parisienne of my youth, but not really. There’s no one there except a bartender. He looks at us in astonishment as we enter. “Marhaba!” Big grin. Hany says something elaborated and very gracious, which I suppose establishes his social class, because the bartender replies, “Ya, effendi.

            Hany turns to us. “They’ve just opened. I didn’t realize it only opens at four. Should we stay?” I look the place over. I like it. It’s full of souvenirs and funny corners and there’s a cat lazing on the bar. I suggest one drink. That’s enough for Hany. He leads us to a table in a corner. “How’s this?” I realize he hasn’t asked Bill whether the place is to his liking. Bill looks tired; I see he just wants to sit and have a beer. René is taking the place in. I’m thinking it’s not so much different from the bar where we met him in Antwerp. I like the fact that the place is dark and moody.

            Four large bottles of Stella beer, half-liter bottles, are set before us along with four glasses. The bartender is not that old, maybe in his forties, with an Egyptian husband’s paunch, signaling that his wife is a good cook. I wonder if he lives up in one of the apartments in the old buildings around here. I hope so. I like that idea. I bet he has at least four kids. He does not pour out our beers. Doesn’t this mean he’s a Muslim, so he’s not actually “serving” alcohol? I remember something like that was a sign the waiter wasn’t Copt.

            And then I pick up the smell: cigarette smoke. Can people still smoke in bars in Cairo? Hany smiles: “I smell it too. Blast from the past, right?” Big Hany grin. “In Egypt there are the usual non-smoking laws, but they’re not always strictly enforced, especially in bars. I mean, drinking alcohol is already haram, right?” The grin widens. I get it. Bill bursts out laughing. He’s already poured his Stella in a glass and drunk half of it down. He looks relieved and happier.

            “Tastes sort of like Belgian beer.” Ah, René is showing off his sharp tastebuds. I pour my glass. I take a sip. Yes, he’s right. But I think the beer was originally Belgian. Not sure, though. I say as much. “Funny.” René catches up with Bill; he tops off his glass from his bottle.

            There’s a noise coming down the stairs. Two young girls looking like backpackers explode in. They greet the bartender. They know each other. “So fucking thirsty,” the one with the blond dreadlocks says. And then she notices us in the corner. “Hey, dudes. Marhaba!” We instinctively raise our glasses to them. They haven’t chosen their table yet. I’m hoping they take another corner of the bar. René is grinning at them. Okay, they’re around his age. Maybe he’d like a break from us older gentlemen. The other girl, with short dark hair and a rolled bandana tied around her head eyes René with a look that says eye candy. Such are modern young women, think I. The blond has already picked a table, though, and it’s the one near the bar. She’ll talk to the bartender. They’re probably staying at one of the cheap hotels in the area and have scoped this place out already, making it their second home, it seems. And, yes, the cat comes over to her and jumps into her lap. The bartender has already placed two big bottles of Stella and two glasses on their table. And then the dark-haired one produces a packet of cigarettes, removes one, and lights up. I can’t help myself; I burst out laughing.

            “Oh, do you dudes mind? People don’t seem to care much here. It’s so, like, retro. I love it!” American girls. Well, hats off to them: They’re not afraid to backpack in Egypt. I’m thinking they must be “good people,” or whatever they say now. I laugh and say: Not at all. I haven’t checked with the others. Bill shoots me a disapproving eye, but it’s too late. The smoke has already reached us. “How did you find this place?”

            Hany takes the stage: “I’m Egyptian. I was born here.”

            “Oh, wow!” And the blond joins her in admiration. Instantly, Hany becomes their eye candy. So, not averse to older men, are we, ladies? Of course, Hany is in another league: Movie star looks are ageless. Hany grins back at them.

            “Nice to see you young ladies here in Cairo. Actually, I’m a New Yorker these days.” He watches their admiration grow still further. I’m now face-to-face with Hany’s unbridled narcissism. It’s so large that it doesn’t embarrass me. And then he turns it off, leaving the girls confused, and turns to us. “We need to drink up. I like this place, but I want to show you Stella Bar. It’s my favorite from my college days.” So, he studied at the American University nearby? Of course. And he could walk to school. “We left Maryse with my mother. I told you that, but I didn’t tell you that she initially said no. She won’t go on the cruise. I’m not surprised. She hardly ever leaves the house. Of course, that’s out of the question, I mean, she has to come with us. I just said how excited Ahmed and Nadra are. You should have seen the fury in her eyes. I kissed her on both cheeks, and Bill and I got the hell out of there. Maryse already had her hand on Maman’s shoulder. She’ll close the deal.” Hany goes into a chuckle that is like a kid’s. He’s suddenly another person, much younger: Of course, he’s the crafty, spoiled son. There’s a smartphone sound. I look toward the girls, but they’re busy talking to the bartender. Hany pulls out his iPhone. It’s a text message; he’s reading. His face lights up as he glances up at, first, me and then takes in the others. “Women! She took Maman upstairs to her room and started going through her closet with her. And, wait, we have reservations at eight at the boat in Zamalek, Pacha!”

            “Pacha? There’s a Pacha here? Isn’t it this Turkish nightclub chain?”

            “I’m not sure. But friends talk about it. It’s very Zamalek. People dress up.” Very Zamalek: I take this on board. I knew about Zamalek, the neighborhood that shares Gezira Island in the middle of the Nile, but I’ve never been there. I’m learning new things about Cairo. Hany addresses Bill and me: “Zamalek is an old bourgeois neighborhood, but it’s never been more trendy. Lots of bars and clubs and restaurants. Garden City is boring.” He looks crestfallen but then bursts out laughing. The girls look over at our table. I refuse to make eye contact. I don’t want them joining us. Actually, I’m sparing them the disappointment of finding out that we are all gay, or mostly gay, as I reconsider Hany and his marriage to Maryse, which they intend will produce children.

            Bill’s beer is gone. René is close to it. Hany’s is also gone. I’m the one holding things up. I empty the rest of the bottle into my glass: bottoms up!

            “Okay!” Hany stands up. We follow. Already he’s at the bar and paying our tab. He’s standing at the door waiting for us as we head on out. “Bonne soirée,” Hany calls into the room. Do any of them speak French? I don’t look to see.

            Out on the street, Hany waits to gather us together. Looks like he’s going to pair with René this time. “It’s about ten-minutes’ walk from here.” The honking, the fading but still bright afternoon light, the dust, all come as a shock after the calm of Le Comte. Bill gives me a poke. Right. We get moving, otherwise we’ll lose them in the crowd. Bill and I close in and walk right behind Hany and René. We’re a phalanx.

            This is a main street with proper sidewalks and heavy traffic. We turn right. I read the sign: Kasr Al Nil. I know this is one of the main streets of downtown Cairo. It’s a wide thoroughfare with several lanes of traffic. I’ve never walked this street. It’s urban in a Western way that is out of sync with my memories and image of Cairo. And yet I can see that it’s been here probably since the 1900s. Six story, once glorious, apartment buildings are shabby on the outside. How does one begin to renovate all of Downtown? Money, a great influx of people with money who want to live here. I can’t see that happening. I note the beautiful architecture of this one building we’re passing. Hany hears me and turns: “I know. Who knows what the future will bring? Right now, it’s some bawab’s domain. Maybe it’s full of elegant old apartments. Mysteries are everywhere in Downtown. You’ve been to Cairo before and you’ve never noticed all this?” I admit that fact. “You’ll like Stella Bar. You’re the kind who likes atmosphere, right? I know it. And it’s not in a basement. You can see people passing on the street, well, alley.” Hany switches with Bill and reforms the phalanx by grabbing my elbow. I’m now upfront with Hany. “Let’s speed this up.” As if I’m the dawdler? Perhaps I am. Bill and René are now at my heels.

            And then we stop at a kiosk selling newspapers and sundries. Why? Ah, it’s to then duck into this alley. We have to pause for pedestrian traffic. And then we’re there. It proudly blazons its name, Stella Bar. It’s no speakeasy.

            And yet, isn’t it? Like Le Comte, it’s not out there on the main thoroughfare. In the international hotels, the bar and lounges are spectacular parts of the luxury on offer. That kind of tourist who stays in Hiltons wouldn’t realize how profoundly “dry” Cairo really is. I was shocked that we couldn’t get beer with our meal at Naguib Mahfouz. I don’t remember alcohol being an issue on my first visit decades ago. But I know that the Saudis have been busy “reconverting” the Muslim world, pouring money into mosques and funneling money directly or not into movements like the Muslim Brotherhood or worse. Women wearing hijabs are everywhere now; they’re the norm. Back on my first visit I don’t remember seeing any. Arab Socialism has crashed and burned.

            Hany holds the door open for me, and I step in. Atmosphere? The place is shabby with rickety-looking wooden tables and chairs. And then I see the framed photographs everywhere. I get it: the whole place is a statement. It’s historic. “You could hardly squeeze in here during those Tahrir Square days, so they tell me. The kids found it or were taken there by their elders. And so, it’s been saved. Reborn.” I hear Bill let out a chuckle behind me. “I only wish I’d flown over for it all, but I didn’t. Couldn’t. No time to spare. The Real Estate Gods are implacable.” Hany is grinning at me. Handsome devil. Yup, rake in those millions, Hany. That’s what New York City is all about.

            The light is low, but not so low as not to notice that each table had a gray-and-white lozenge-check tablecloth with the name, a copy of the label, Stella woven into or printed on it. Hany salutes the bartender. Do they know each other? Hany steers us toward a table near the back wall but from where we can see out the front windows. We each pull out a wooden chair and sit down, just in time as the bartender brings over four glasses and big bottle of Stella beer. Hany pours for us. Does that mean the bartender is Muslim? I remember that Copt waiters would gladly fill your glass but Muslim ones not so that they were not being sinful by literally serving alcohol. Or is all that just a Luxor thing on hotel verandahs? We toast, and then I take a sip. It is nice beer. It’s mildly malt flavor brings back old memories. It’s not like Dutch beer or Belgian, well, maybe Belgian, because wasn’t the original brewer Belgian? And then looking around the place again, I realize it’s much like those bruine cafés you can still find in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and probably in other old Dutch cities. The Dutch word for the atmosphere created is gezellig, often miserably translated as “cozy.”

            “I’d forgotten how good this beer is. So thirsty after all that karkade in Naguib Mahfouz. Hany, why don’t they serve beer there? Have things gotten that bad?” Bill has downed half his glass already. And I’m following his lead. Thirsty, we’re both thirsty. Hany and René are just sipping.

            “Oberoi owns the place. It’s an Indian company. You should ask them. Maybe it’s to attract a local clientele. Maybe because Al-Azhar is not far off, you know, that school of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy.” Hany lifts his glass and catches up with us. “Maman has her Stella every evening with her dinner. We were brought up with wine at dinner. People tell me now that Sisi wants to steer Egyptians away from anything reminiscent of the Brotherhood and the late Mursi. There’s a big push to reunite Egyptians with their ancient pharaonic past. They organized that massive procession of statues of the gods and artifacts from the Old Egyptian Museum across town to the new museum. Big deal. Televised.” I’d read about it. I’d thought that Cecil B. DeMille would be happy.

            The bartender brings over another bottle of Stella and takes away the now empty first one. Two groups of men come in. Suddenly a TV perched in the opposite far back corner switches on: Oum Kaltsoum in concert begins playing. I am suddenly fascinated by images of this icon of Egyptian music in grainy black and white but now moving, gesturing as the ululations and lung-busting riffs fill the bar.

            René sees Bill, Hany, and myself transfixed by the TV. He listens. His mind and ears are open. “Who is that?” I reply and explain. “Like an Egyptian Maria Callas?” I grin and say, sort of. He toasts me with his beer and takes a long sip. He’s not drinking as fast as the rest of us. He’s listening to the singing intently.

            “Are we allowed to talk, Hany.” It’s Bill. René gives Bill a brief scowl. Hany chuckles and tops up Bill’s glass, and then he gives René an admirative glance. Right. But I’m not surprised. Kids René’s age are pretty open to new sounds, new music, and the phrases, trills, and soaring range of Oum Kaltsoum are easy to follow and be stunned by. A human voice can do this. But I don’t know of any other Egyptian singer with this power and range. This alone explains her “goddess” status. Her voice is younger. I’d say this concert was taped live back in the sixties. I know these tapes exist; I’ve found them myself on YouTube. When the camera is not focusing on Oum, it pans over the audience. None of the women are wearing hijabs. This is Nasser’s Arab Socialist Egypt. The women have the latest Parisian hairstyles. How liberated they are is another matter: I don’t know. Many of the men in the audience are smoking. You could smoke during a concert back in those days, even in Europe, even in the US. People smoked everywhere and all the time.

            “What’s she singing?” René is asking Hany.

            “Amal hayati. Hope of my life. High romance.” He speaks quickly, voice low. And the quavers of her voice transcend and fill the bar. No one is talking.

            And then it’s over. The four of us were the first customers. Now there are dozens. I suppose it’s the time. I try to read Bill’s watch, but it’s half hiding under his shirt cuff. I could pull out my smartphone and look, but I think that would be rude, as if I were bored and checking the time. I’d say it’s around four in the afternoon. In a couple of hours, as it does all year round, the sun will set. This is the beginning of a kind of happy hour. Half the new customers are non-Egyptian, young, some looking like backpackers. So, Stella Bar is trendy? A few tables applaud. René grins and starts applauding. We join in with him. Party. We’re feeling the beer.

            I hear a buzzing sound. Hany pulls his smartphone out of his pocket. “Maryse. Maman is having a nap. She’s picked out a dress that is classic but vintage. She says I’ll probably recognize it from when I was a kid.” Hany chuckles. “She’s made reservations in a riverboat in Zamalek. I know the place. The boat has several restaurants, but she reserved at the one with Egyptian and Lebanese food.” So not Pacha? He looks back at the WhatsApp. “Oh, and she says they have beer and wine. That’s a relief. Maman will like that and so will we.” Hany reads some more but adds nothing to what he’s told us. He slips the phone back in his pocket. “It’ll take us around a half hour to walk home.” He looks around. “The place is getting interesting. But I think we should be home before six. Maryse made reservations for eight.” The TV has gone dark, but there’s music, a female singer, probably contemporary Egyptian pop. The music has become background. People are talking, laughing. René is tapping his fingers to the rhythm of the song. Cute, I think. But that’s a bit condescending.

            “When I was a student at American University, I knew about this place, but it was a dive. Downtown got trashier every year, with crazy cheap signs over shops, vendors selling from carts. Before the Revolution, I’d say at least half if not more of the residents of these Parisian style buildings were foreign. Every year a percentage of them left. Lots of reasons. After Suez, Nasser started nationalizing anything that had a majority foreign ownership. Most of this happened before I was born. I just know about the practicalities of how Downtown got so rundown from my parents and their friends: some of them were foreign and held on, but if they had kids, the kids left Egypt. Sisi is going to turn some of this around.”

            My ears perk up. I am wondering where Hany’s political sympathies lay. From the mixed religious background of the family, I knew he couldn’t have had sympathies for the Muslim Brotherhood government. “Already the buildings around Talaat Harb have been restored, all the crappy signs removed, trees planted around the square.” I tell him that our Uber passed through there. He smiles. I don’t tell him that I really didn’t notice much of a change, except, yes, the crappy signs were gone. But I wasn’t paying attention, too busy playing tour guide to René. I ask him if new people with some money have moved in, middle-class Egyptians, if the apartments are refurbished. He grins at me.

            And then he stops grinning. His smartphone is buzzing again. “Oh, shit…” He looks up at us. “Maman has woken up from her nap and says she won’t go to Zamalek. But of course, she has to because Hasan and Nadra are busy getting things packed onto the dahabiya, food, a pot of foul, making up our beds.” He starts texting. He looks up again. “She’ll call me back in a bit. Maryse is going to work her charms. Let’s cross our fingers. Anyway, at least Maman hasn’t refused to come with us on the dahabiya.”

            Bill smiles, “I was thinking it was all a bit of a stretch. Does your mother ever really leave the house?”

            “Maybe a few times a year when there’s a grand occasion. And then Hasan gets out the Bentley.”

            “The Bentley?” Bill almost hoots.

“You’ll see it. Hasan will be back in time to drive us all to Zamalek in it.”