Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Real City that Never Sleeps

CAIRO - Certain people - mainly Americans and especially New Yorkers - are given to calling New York "the city that never sleeps.'' To which I say: Fuggitaboutit. You want to know the real city that never sleeps? This one, Egypt's capital and largest city.

With a population variously estimated at 15 to 20 million, Cairo has at least two times as many people as New York, almost three times as many. But that's not the reason it never sleeps. Cairo is up at night in part because it is very hot most of the year, and people like to do things after sunset when the temperature drops. Add to that the habit of taking a nap after work, and the codification of that habit, and you have a metropolis that's ready to go when the moon is high.

Mahmoud Abdelsattar, the witty, worldy concierge at the Fairmont Nile City Hotel, where I spent three of my four nights in town, knows the line about New York. "People say New York is the city that never sleeps. New York sleeps. Cairo doesn't. The best way to see Cairo is at night. That's when it is at its best, when local people are out. I tell visitors "Don't go to Khan El-Khalil (the 600-year-old bazaar) in the morning, go at night.' That's when it's really alive.''

Another reason Cairo is best at night: You see the glimmering city lights and not the air pollution that turns the sky beige in the daylight hours.

On my first visit to Cairo, last summer, I was returning to my hotel in a shuttle bus from a nocturnal show and party Star Alliance and Egyptair put on at the pyramids. It was about 1:30 a.m. The shuttle was slowly making its way through rush hour-like traffic on a roundabout. As we crawled forward, I glanced at the big dirt field inside the roundabout, rimmed by traffic. There, I observed entire families, wide awake, doing normal things: eating, talking, laughing. A group of boys were kicking a soccer ball around. Locals tell me that's perfectly normal. And these folks are not wraith-thin young clubbers, mind you; they are a cross-section of society.

When I got back to my hotel well south of midnight, I thought back not only on the people in the roundabout but how thick the traffic is nearly round the clock, and how unmindful locals are about walking right through traffic jams or even dodging speeding cars. People walk along busy elevated freeways at night; they cross downtown streets anywhere, hopping over concrete lane dividers. Wait for the light to change? I saw very few traffic lights in Cairo. (Just as well, because where they do exist, they seem more like a wink than a command to Cairo drivers.) Some places have sidewalks, of course, but many don't. Thus, the nocturnal highway ramblers and jaywalkers.

I tell you, for nighthawks, it just doesn't get any more all-encompassing than Cairo.

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