Cairo and Beirut, these are two great Arab cities that have stayed with me. When I compare the two it is not for the purpose of choosing one over the other, but to highlight the qualities that make them special.
I spent around ten days each in these two places. I was in Cairo in March 2013 and I was in Beirut in September 2014.
Here are the differences I observed:
1. Historical vs Modern
Downtown Cairo has characterful 19th century buildings designed by French architects. Some of them still have old style lifts with gates. Walk into the shops and you will find ancient cash registers and smartly dressed elderly shop owners, straight out of a novel. The Khamaseen wind blowing from the desert covers the city in dust, making it look even older and wiser. Further to the east is Midan Al-Hussein, home to 1000 year old mosques.
Beirut is modern and its people hedonist. Apartments are bright, neighbourhoods are hilly and relaxed, overlooking the Mediterranean. There is Mar Mikhael for instance where there are bars as cool and alternative as those in East London. You would not know this is a 5,000 year old city.
Of course in Cairo there is Zamalek which is just as modern but the soul of Cairo is the old neihgbourhoods.
2. Alone vs With People
In Cairo even if you’re alone you would not be bored. You could walk in downtown, taking in the atmospheric buildings. Go to Islamic Cairo, visit the great mosques such as Al Azhar, see sexy underwear sold in bazaars next to mosques, or stumble upon a shop where they make coloured light bulbs. You could go to the neighbourhood of garbage collectors, an impressive environmental project and the sight of the Middle East’s largest church, carved into the face of a rocky hill. You could check out Tahrir Square where the 2011 protests took place. You could contemplate in front of the burnt down headquarters of ousted president Mubarak’s party. Or you could go to the Giza pyramids. There is a lot to do.
Beirut has its attractions too such as the Armenian neighbourhood, the buildings damaged during the wars, the Pigeon Rocks, the Hezbollah suburb, but ultimately you need people to enjoy Beirut. And when you have people you are bound to have fun in Beirut, whether it is in Mar Mikhael or at a house party or at a restaurant-bar like this.
3. Travellers vs UN & NGO workers
At the hostel in Cairo I mainly met travellers, who were there either to go down south along the Nile, or to the Red Sea to dive, or to the desert to contemplate. I also met journalists. One night at the Jazz festival at the Al Azhar park (where no alcohol was allowed) I met Italians and Germans working as teachers.
In Beirut the foreigners I met mainly were there for reasons other than travel, such as work or study. UN & NGO workers (Lebanon has around 2 million refugees from Syria and Palestine, so these workers are there to support them), exchange students, journalists. There were few who were just travelling.
— Beirut is more diverse than Cairo. In Egypt almost 90% of the population is Muslim (vast majority are Sunni), the remaining mainly Coptic Christian. Whereas in Lebanon a little more than 50% are Muslim (split evenly between Shia and Sunni), 40% Christian (various denominations).
— Cairo is a giant city of 8 million people (18 million if surrounding areas are included). Traffic, pollution, chaos is as bad as it can get. Life can be tough and tiring in Cairo. Beirut is a city of 400,000 (greater area around 1 million). True, traffic can still be an issue in some parts, but in general life is pleasant and it is large enough to offer enough activities.
— While not a positive attribute, I cannot skip this when comparing the two cities. I have heard and read of many ladies being harassed in Cairo. Even in downtown Cairo, whether it’s a foreign or an Egyptian lady, whether Christian or Muslim, doesn’t matter. Women get harassed in Cairo. This is not to say it doesn’t happen in Beirut, but at least it’s not as widespread and so far I haven’t heard of any incidents.
— Cairo is cheap, Beirut expensive. A night at a hostel in Cairo cost me $6-8, in Beirut $20.
Putting aside all these differences, the common feature of these two places is the artistry. Artistry that touches every aspect of Arab life. That makes everything golden and elegant and arabesque. From coffee cups to handshakes, from architecture to language to food to music to people.