On Aug 30th, my adventure began,I boarded my Emirates flight to Cairo via Dubai and arrived the next morning to what was one of the cleanest airports I have ever seen. As I walked by the gates in a bit of a fog, not only was the international terminal impeccably clean, but it was nearly silent, and I thought for a moment how can this be? Cairo has a population of nearly 10million people, yet there was no one here. Then, I remembered the devaluation of the currency and the floating of the Egyptian pound.
International travel had become almost cost prohibitive. I continued my journey toward customs after receiving my luggage in record time and I passed through a door of what I thought was supposed to be security and baggage screening only to realize I had in fact exited the terminal. Much to my dismay my international cell phone plan was not functioning so I had no means by which to contact my friends who were to meet me and take me to the hotel. Fortunately, I met a very friendly Egyptian woman while I was in the visa line who saw that I was a bit lost and offered to let me use her phone to reach my friends. Problem solved! Contact had been made and I thought I was off to a great start.
Within 10 mins, I was greeted by one of the students I had helped via the internet where he whisked me off in his car which had seen better days. It was Eid so I was in for a real treat when I arrived at the Concorde El Salam Hotel in Heliopolis. The hotel was incredibly secure starting with the mile-long security gate that led you into the compound, I had never experienced car checks and trunk checks performed by armed guards and a trained German Shepard, I felt unusually secure, while at the same time not knowing what was to come behind the gates.
My friend and I arrived at the hotel and were greeted with a Sparkling Apple beverage to toast our stay, a far cry from the champagne that one would be served in the states or Europe, but nevertheless very refreshing. After checking into my room, the real fun was about to begin that night when I met in person, for the first time, many of the young men I had only known through Skype and Facebook chats, we met in the lounge of the hotel where we greeted each other American style with hugs, cementing in earthen reality the connection of kindness that had already been established across the electronic cables that had relayed our joys and sorrows during the previous months.
At 10:30pm on the first night of Eid, the gang of 7 young men ranging in age from 16-24 decided we were going out to celebrate my arrival and Eid in a happening place called Korba. Sleep was not on the agenda! We departed in Hassan’s car clown style, piling five big guys in the backseat of a subcompact vehicle while Hassan and I drove comfortably in the front, Cairo-kee music blared from the stereo and there was much laughter as each one of them narrated the sites as we passed by.
The streets were insane with people and glowing lights. Food vendors wandered with their carts and couples walked arm in arm enjoying the night air. Although the streets were incredibly alive they were not the modern high fashion scene you would find in American cities like New York or Miami, but rather a paradox of old and new. In the background, you had the pothole ridden streets, the piles of rock blocking driveways, and the crumbling buildings from centuries past reminiscent of British Colonial rule, interspersed with new glass high rise buildings which fronted the pedestrian scene of a comical blend of donkey driven carts, trashed out cars from the 1980s, alongside brand-new Mercedes Benzes. Rich and poor roamed the same streets celebrating this glorious first night of Eid.
After a brief tour of the local café flavor, we landed at a Shawarma restaurant which was open all night. The meat, hummus, and falafel were full of flavor, as was the conversation, I had been transported to another world in both space and time, as these young men brought me back to my youth through music and their passion to change the world both through their social enterprises and by living as the Quran had taught them: “Worship God and join none with Him in worship, and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, the poor, the neighbor who is near of kin, the neighbor who is a stranger, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet)… (Quran 4:36)