After midnight, the city is transformed. One of the world’s most nocturnal metropolises, late night Cairo bears little resemblance to its daytime counterpart. On an August night, I visited this city with A., my oldest friend in Egypt whose love for nighttime Cairo is matched only by his affinity for epic walks.
We set out from A.’s apartment near the Ministry of Interior at 2am. The ministry complex, a light pink fortress surrounded by tanks, barbed wire and black-uniformed police, was the site of some of the worst violence during Egypt’s 18-day revolution and subsequent street clashes. Usually buzzing with the deployment of foot soldiers across the city in blue cage-like trucks, the area is mercifully still as we walk away from it down a narrow alley.
Most shops and restaurants are closed at this time, but on nearly every block a kiosk is still open to sell packaged snacks and drinks. A recent shortage of bottled water has led to price gouging, so I pay almost double for a small bottle. Hours after sunset and despite the occasional breeze, Cairo is still hotter than I care for. Bits of ice floating in the water soothe my dry throat.
There are a few other shops open as well. Barbers in Cairo often keep late hours, so when we pass a storefront window, I’m not surprised to find fluorescent light illuminating a couple of middle-aged men getting shaves. At one corner, a young storeowner sits in his eyewear shop; it’s not clear whether he expects to do business at this time or is just taking refuge here from his parents’ home.
A half hour into our walk, we turn down a wide boulevard lined with shuttered shops. Blissfully quiet in the middle of the night, A. reminds me that this is Cairo’s main market for used electronics. A few hours earlier, vendors were hawking goods that were stacked on tables spilling from the sidewalks into the road. Now it is so desolate that A. recommends we not linger; people don’t come here to take walks, so someone might think we were trying to steal something.
We walk down the middle of the road, cars passing occasionally until we reach Opera Square. Cairo’s opera house was built here by Khedive Ismail in 1869 but burned down a century later. An ugly parking garage stands in its place. This square is the intersection of several busy downtown streets and neighborhoods, and I’ve never seen it this empty. Groups of people spot the square, some sitting by a statue in the middle, others walking across to the far side. Without the burgeoning crowds, this place I’ve been dozens of time seems enormous. I snap a few pictures, pleased to do so without attracting the standard overdose of attention.
A. and I walk through the side streets. Though we pass people nearly every block—a shop owner tending to his bodega, a pair of security guards dozing off in plastic chairs, groups of men at an outdoor café—it’s the quietest I’ve ever seen Cairo. A motorcycle carrying three young men—a common appearance in Cairo—whizzes by us and the driver asks us directions to a 24-hour fast food restaurant without stopping. An ambulance passes in the other direction; unnervingly, its driver also asks for directions.
Eventually, we wind back towards the Nile. Before the river comes into view, we notice the neon lights on its bank and the electronic music pulsing from boats docked there. The crowd is smaller than usual, but horse-drawn carriages are still parked in the gutter and the sidewalk is full of young people: vendors of roasted corn on the cob, juice and popcorn; night revelers who take refuge from Cairo’s strict social norms on floating rule-free parties; and curious onlookers. A. and I strain our necks to catch a glimpse of the female dancers employed on the boats to attract customers, but every time we look we see only men dancing with each other.
Passing by dozens of nearly identical boats, we climb to the top of a bridge, passing two street children sleeping on the stairs despite the clamor of music, honking and yelling. From up here, the boats’ lights reflect on the river’s dark surface. The sun is not yet visible, but its proximity brightens the sky slightly, highlighting the layer of smog that hangs over this city, both day and night.