“I’m sorry. I don’t have 3 shekels in change,” the Israeli clerk for Air Sinai on the 15th floor of the Migdalor office building in Tel Aviv tells me, apologizing as she shows me that she has no cash. Air Sinai also has no official website and the only contact email address for the airline, a Hotmail address, can be found on stickers at various locations at the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv.
The airline also doesn’t accept credit cards. You have to go to its office and pay in cash. “When you come back [from Egypt], stop by the office and tell me how it was,” the Air Sinai clerk suggests. “And at the same time, I’ll give you your change.”
“Tell me,” I ask her. “Is it safe to fly there?”
“Of course. Don’t worry!” she replies nonchalantly.
“Have you been there?” I ask with suspicion.
“No,” she admits.
Almost under the radar, every day at 11 A.M., using the airlines code 4D, which reveals nothing of its real identity, Air Sinai flies from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Cairo International Airport. Air Sinai is an airline that only exists on paper. In practice, it’s run by its parent company, Egyptair, which for political reasons doesn’t officially operate a route between Israel and the Egyptian capital. It’s only on boarding on the plane that passengers find that the crew is wearing Egyptair uniforms.
“You’re not allowed to take pictures,” one of the other passengers, who is taking his son Nadav on a bar-mitzvah trip to the pyramids, told me.
There were 30 passengers on the plane, which seated 77. Among them, I spotted an organized group on the aircraft, an excited group of pilgrims on their way back from Bethlehem, and a small group of casual tourists.
The short flight of an hour and 5 minutes, not much more than the flight to Eilat, departed from Tel Aviv three hours late. Passport control at Cairo International is quick and courteous. We see a huge sign in front of us in English that reads: “Uber in Arabic is Uber,” conveying a rather Western feel. The fact that I couldn’t order an internet data package for Egypt in advance from Israel meant standing in line for more than an hour to buy an Egyptian SIM card.
Even before I reached my opulent hotel, the InterContinental Cairo Semiramis, on the banks of the Nile, overlooking Tahrir Square, I could sense the resounding intensity of this huge city of 25 million people. Business hours make no distinction between day and night. The city is constantly lit up. Businesses, workshops, banks, cafes, bakeries are open 24/7. The average Cairo wage earner holds down (at least) two jobs, just to make ends meet. Egyptians say that to stand up to such a pace, they drink the strongest coffee in Africa.
Traffic in Cairo is always heavy. Quickly it becomes clear that it is more efficient to go on foot in the center of the city than to travel by car. The honking of car horns is resounding even through the double-paned windows of my hotel room.
The trip to Giza, on the other side of the Nile, cost me just 20 Egyptian pounds (just over a dollar). My Uber driver explained in fluent English that a liter of gasoline cost 6 pounds [about 35 cents, compared with approximately $1.60 in Israel]. On the other hand, after I noticed that his headlights were off, he explained that he did it to extend the life of the car battery. From a casual glance at the road, I could see that he wasn’t alone in the practice.
Cairo is known for its jazz scene. Yet, at the Cairo Jazz Club, I discover to my surprise that the local DJ is actually playing house music. As I made my way to the bar, everything went dark. Forty minutes later, after the DJ was still unsuccessful in getting the electricity back on, I gave up and left.
At just that moment, at the site of the pyramids, nearby, there was a Danish couple climbing to the top of the Great Pyramid, the pyramid of King Khufu, where they undressed and posted a video of themselves on YouTube. Their conduct at the revered site broke every possible rule, shocking the public and becoming the talk of the town.
The following day, I visited the “scene of the crime,” in the company of Rafik, a local guide. It turns out that there are more than 18,500 licensed guides in the city, each of whom must study for nearly two years of training to become a guide.
In recent years, Egypt’s tourism sector has suffered critical damage following terrorist attacks in the country. Rafik says that he can’t take even a day off from work due to the stiff competition among guides. In some places, when I showed up as a tourist, I was a real attraction and was repeatedly asked by locals to photograph myself with them.
The endless information and pictures and stories I had encountered in the past were insufficient to prepare me for the powerful sight of the pyramids, almost abutting homes in Giza. The claustrophobic, sweaty and crowded climb inside the main pyramid, (the only one that tourists can enter), only makes the experience that much more powerful.
The Egyptian Antiquities Museum is the most impressive that I have ever seen. A visit there dwarfs what would be experienced at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin or even the British Museum. One can’t help but ponder the plunder of archaeological treasures by European countries over the years, but the famous mummy room at the museum in Cairo where the mummy of Ramses II (whom 90 percent of Egyptians identify as the pharaoh of the biblical story of the Exodus) left me simply spellbound. And the other pharaohs and kings are also there, in eternal rest, still with tufts of hair on their heads.
If in Berlin, London or Bangkok, it’s possible to find a quiet corner in bustling areas, in Cairo, that’s not an option. The lights, the car horns and the commotion penetrate every corner. The opulent Zamalek neighborhood on Gezira Island in the Nile, is full of bars with roofs or balconies with amazing views of the river, and the local food is outstanding. That goes too for the Abou El-Sid restaurant in the heart of the neighborhood.
Waiting for a table at that eatery, one can’t but help notice a gentle scent of incense in the air, along with that of water pipes and cigarettes. (In Cairo, people smoke everywhere). The restaurant’s star menu item is mulukhiyah – leafy green jute – with rabbit. To the delight of my waiter, I ordered the dish with chicken instead. It came with Egyptian-style falafel, eggplant salad and other flavors familiar to Israelis.
From the next table, a man who looked like a Japanese rock star yelled to me: “You and Egypt, you used to fight each other!” Before I went to Egypt, people in Israel had implored me not to make it too obvious that I am Israeli. Apparently, I didn’t try hard enough.
Despite the “diplomatic incident” at the restaurant, it’s important to note that during my entire stay in Cairo, while in the presence of my guide, but also when we were not together, I felt safe and relaxed everywhere. “But now it’s okay,” the diner from the next table added, offering me a piece of his pita.
In the market
On the subject of the Egyptian soccer player Mohamed Salah, who plays for Liverpool, a peddler in Cairo’s largest market, the Khan el-Khalili, told me he is greater than either the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser or singer Umm Kulthum. I had crowded around an 11-inch television with the peddler and his friends to see Salah score a historic hat trick. When it comes to Salah, there is no dispute in Egypt that he is the national star. I decided not to mix sports and politics and bought the star’s jersey for my son, along with a statue of Cleopatra and an antique Egyptian oil lamp.
From the market, I spotted a line forming outside a big black door. On closer examination, I saw that it was a restaurant named after the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. At the restaurant, I was served handmade puffed pita, labneh white cheese spread, and ful, the national fava bean dish, along with some of the best Arab-style coffee I have ever had.
Not feeling I had fulfilled my obligations as a tourist in in the market, that evening, I took a Nile cruise. The boat featured a buffet of baklawa pastries, a belly dancing show and a polished cover band that performed classics by Umm Kulthum and composer-singer Farid al-Atrash.
I missed out on going to one of Cairo’s most talked-about restaurants, Fasahet Somaya. The tiny restaurant is only open two hours a day. The female chef-proprietor, Somaya Hamed, serves a set menu of rotating traditional Egyptian dishes. The menu for the day is featured on its Facebook page, through which reservations can also be made. When I wrote to her just before arriving at the establishment, it turned out that she was not feeling well and the restaurant was closed.
The following day at 5 A.M., on the way to the airport, I stopped to buy Egyptian feta cheese to bring home. And I still intend to go back to the Tel Aviv offices of Air Sinai. After all, they owe me my change.
Or Tzelkovnik is the CEO of radio station FM 103.