New York — Cairo first impresses a visitor as ancient and otherworldly. Can this really be part of our modern antiseptic, prepackaged, 20th century Earth? From a room at a downtown hotel, one can look out across a brown sea of city buildings, their edges blurred by haze and worn by the constant blowing of desert sand. Everything - sight, sound, smell - seems composed of, and subsumed by, desert dust.
Muezzins wail their assertions of Allah's singularity, and this mixes with car horns, goat bells, jackhammers, and the murmur of the millions upon Cairo's streets, and all is dulled and gentled by the atmospheric sand.
If that is the environment of Cairo, what of the Cairenes themselves - they of the burgeoning population, dwindling farmland, creaky economy, piasters for pay?
Amid the apparent poverty and anarchy, gentle smiles and ready humor seem to rule. One finds among Egyptians a great fondness and respect for one another and for strangers.
A scene from a dirt-rut street near Saladin's Citadel: An Egyptian peasant in a soiled, nightshirt-like galabayam walks along the sidewalk. Suddenly he stops and looks across the street with a delighted grin on his face. What does he see? Perhaps nothing that would impress you or me.
But in his unself-conscious smile, for a moment, one can fancy seeing complete earthly happiness.
Empires come and go. Egypt endures.
October 1981, 24 hours after Anwar Sadat was assassinated: The streets are deserted. Tanks, armored cars, and sandbag bunkers stand menacingly around government buildings. The Egyptian soldiers here are not the usual dollar-a-day sad sacks but solid, stern-faced commandos.
At the Nile Hilton, a security guard stands ready to search handbags. A foreign newspaper reporter walks up to him, smiles, and starts past, knowing that the perfunctory search is usually foregone.
''No, misterm,'' the guard says emphatically, rising to stop the reporter. '' Nom. I mustm look in your bag.''
He does. But no force - not even fear - can hold Egypt in its grip for long. The gentle spirit of the people wears away the edges of rigidity just as sand does the buildings. Two days later, despite the uncertainty of the times, the hotel guard is joking with his cronies as the reporter approaches.
''Just tell me, my friend,'' he says, ''do you have a bomb?''
They all find this hilarious, and the reporter is sent on his way.
Today, Cairo is very much more normal than during those tense days of transition from Sadat to Mubarak rule. Tourism is steady. The economy remains ponderous. Egypt endures.
One can walk anywhere in town most hours of the day or night, so safe are the streets. Deep within the labyrinthine walls of the Khan al-Khalili market one feels he is journeying further and further away from the 20th century.
Here are veiled women; stout sheikhs in flowing white robes; protesting donkeys; snorting camels; harried chickens; glistening urns of pomegranate juice , tamarind, sugar water; smells that alternately delight and repulse.
A space traveler happening on such a city would probably react the same way as an American reporter. He would wonder at the age and variety and texture of life on Earth.
He might discover in Cairo a repository for one of almost everything from terrestrial history: Over there a Pharaonic pyramid, a Roman temple, a Coptic cathedral, a Sunni mosque, a Napoleonic palace, a British cricket field, a Marriott Hotel. There, near Mustafa Kamal square, is Groppi's ice-cream parlor, and there, in Maadi, is Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Cairo is not of the 20th century. It is of all the centuries.