Student Travel Report: Tom O'Grady visits Cairo

Tom O'Grady is now a third year Natural Scientist at Sidney, and here he tells us about his trip to Cairo that was partly funded by the Sidney Sussex College Research and Professional Experience Grant.

"This year, I owe my thanks to Sidney Sussex College for helping to fund a trip to Cairo, Egypt, a city steeped in rich culture and history, and my former home from age seven to fourteen. When one is surrounded by a foreign culture growing up, there is no active indulgence in the culture as would be the aim of tourists; in fact, the opposite: an expat child would wish to hold onto what he/she then believes defines his/her identity. Instead, there is a passive bleed of idiosyncrasies, values, tastes - no whole understanding of the history of the society, art and music, the food and the language as would be achieved by study. This is what I aimed to gain a small amount of: rediscover and look to gain a more explicit understanding of Egyptian culture with which I grew up, and obtain some sense of where things are headed in the near future.

Preliminary research to track down music set me in the direction of the central Downtown and Zamalek areas, the latter my former neighbourhood which I know well. I was pleased to still find the Ramadan-time foul vendor outside Seoudi market, and Mandarine Koeider (the best and most famous confectionery shop in the city) similarly going strong. Record shops are few, as vinyl is not widely sought after in Egypt, and those that I found were rather more eager to plant me with shabby Elvis cuts than the late 20th-century Egyptian gold of Ammar El-Sherei - I nonetheless picked up a fair deal about the history of the record industry there, and a few minor gems.

A few days in, I went to the El-Sawy Culture Wheel, one of the most popular live music venues in the city. I was pleasantly surprised by the masses that turn out to support a local band - I saw Black Theama – and remember being quite impressed at how complicated the music was in comparison to Western pop, carrying forward elements of the local music tradition and several regional instruments. Egyptian crowds also unquestionably much better at clapping along in time.

The trip would not have been complete without a visit to Old Cairo: Al-Azhar park, the Citadel and Khan El Khalil souk remain largely as they were during my time. The Naguib Mahfouz café, named after Egypt’s greatest literary export, is just as it was, and a pleasant place to brush up on the history of the past century.

For the length of my stay, I occupied a flat to the West of the city, which has undergone recent Gulf-esque hyper-expansion into grids of compounds, catering for wealthier Egyptians and expats. Open desert a few hundred metres from our old house has sprouted innumerable glass office buildings. Careem (local Uber equivalent) drivers took me into the centre every day, and this provided me with the most insight into local affairs. Currently, though President Sisi is widely respected as leader, government macro-level policy efforts to raise money have been poorly thought through and shoddily implemented, such that there is no provision for the working class - a new VAT, rapidly hiking petrol prices and floating the pound, halving the purchasing power of the population overnight. On the first Thursday of my trip, petrol leapt from 3.5 to 5 EGP per litre; taxi metres were of course not provided with updates until several days later. There is great irony in the success of the capitalist property ventures.

Egypt is that unwatched saucepan - at any point, things could go very awry, although Egyptians are exceedingly proud of their homeland and I am optimistic for the future.

I would like to reiterate my thanks to Sidney, without whose funding I would not have been able to undertake the trip."

News item posted Monday, 14th May 2018

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  • In the Andalusian gardens, Zamalek.
  • In the Andalusian gardens, Zamalek.
  • By the Al-Hussayn mosque in Old Cairo.
  • By the Al-Hussayn mosque in Old Cairo.
  • In a cafe in the Shobra district.
  • In a cafe in the Shobra district.
  • The Nile from the Sawy centre.
  • The Nile from the Sawy centre.