Egypt definitely qualifies as the most foreign place I've ever had the pleasure to visit. Most cities seem at least somewhat familiar; with a little effort I can usually imagine myself living most anywhere. But Cairo broke me of that conceit. Here is a city that lives by a wholly different set of rules. From the insane traffic that never lets up (you know you're crawling when you're passed by cattle!) to the high/low levels of security (metal detectors everywhere, but nobody seems to care when you set them off), it's pretty obvious that you're not in Kansas any more.
Only on the Nile does the city seem to
slow down and become almost serene. But eventually it's back on the
roads with the noise (Cairo drivers seem to think the horn is attached
to the accelerator) and the crowds (pedestrians cross everywhere and
anywhere; and I thought New Yorkers were aggressive!) and buildings
that were old long before America was young.
My visit was all too short, with one free evening and the following
morning before my next flight. I did get a quick look at the pyramids
at night. And my host took me to visit the Museum of Antiquities. It
was strange seeing artifacts from the time of Seti and Ramses and
having to imagine them as real people and not just characters from
bible stories. And then there's the King Tut collection, as
magnificent as I'd always heard. (I'm ashamed to admit that
Martin kept running through my head the whole time...) In one
respect the museum seemed familiar. Judging by all the students with
sketchpads, I'm guessing it was close to the due date for final
projects in art class. See, some things are universal.
After Cairo came my first visit to Istanbul. Before my visit my only images of Turkey were From Russia With Love: Kerim Bey running his Secret Service operation from the back of a rug shop, spying on the Soviets from rat-infested tunnels under the city, Gypsy camps and the catfights therein and Sean Connery urbanely ordering Turkish coffee, medium sweet. What I found was a fascinating city full of beautiful women (at least the Bond producers got that part right), one where I hope to spend a lot more time. After Cairo, Istanbul felt a lot more Western and familiar. But in truth it's a complex and not entirely stable mix of the West and the Middle East.
After battling with traffic for an hour or so we finally arrived at our hotel. The Ciragon (the C is pronounced more like a soft J) is a magnificent place in a magnificent location, a former Sultan's palace on the shore of the Bosphorus strait. The Sultan certainly picked a fine location for his home, and my colleagues a perfect place for our little seminar.
(I had a Social Studies teacher
in Junior High who tried desperately to impress on us the political
significance of the area as an exit for Russian ships into Europe. He
kept talking about the Dardenelles and the Bosphorus, repeating the
phrase like some kind of mantra. I think he'd be pleased that I
remember it so well.)
There is of course another side to Istanbul, a very old and very crowded side. Our visit to a video production company took us into that other city, where the streets are narrow and steep and finding an address involves lots of conversation with passersby and lots of waving of arms. (I think I overheard the Turkish equivalent of "you can't miss it" a few times.) Eventually we found our way to an unappealing door on a dark street, behind which was one of the most beautiful suites of offices it has been my pleasure to encounter. (You'd think I'd have learned by now not to judge a book by its cover.)
That other side of Istanbul showed itself again as we prepared to
leave. Our departure coincided with a major religious celebration,
which meant that the entire population of the country was also at the
airport. (Think O'Hare at Thanksgiving and you'll get the merest
hint.) My impression of the scene was no doubt affected by a lack of
sleep and certain lingering effects of alcohol poisoning. Our Turkish
colleagues are a very hospitable people.
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California