Cairo is not a city that allows you to be indifferent to it. The Egyptian capital assaults all your senses, day and night. It is incredibly noisy, dirty and chaotic. Fabulous wealth exists side-by-side with abject poverty. During a recent visit to Cairo I found myself stuck in a traffic jam. My taxi, like the battered assembly of cars, minibuses and trucks packed around it, inched forward, and dark exhaust fumes wafted upwards with each touch of the accelerator. As we progressed slowly towards Cairo University I had plenty of time to study a large advertising board attached to a building at the end of the street. The advertisement was for one of the latest models from Mercedes-Benz. ‘Make It Yours Today’, said the slogan. Viewed from the chaos and paralysis of the Cairo street, that slogan, in English only, seemed to be addressing people on another planet.
Yet despite the contradictions, as many visitors end up loving Cairo as hating it. Hugh Miles falls squarely into the first category. Having visited briefly at the age of seventeen, he returned ten years later for a stay of a few weeks in Zamalek, the island in the Nile favoured