Two summers ago I went to Egypt on vacation with my wife and two daughters. We stayed in Giza, the city across the Nile from and contiguous with Cairo. Cairo was a sprawl, a city hemmed in by a vast necropolis, the tombs of the dead, the placement of which has added to the density of the city. Every twenty feet or so in the city are bony and well-uniformed paramilitary police armed with high-powered American-made rifles. Military service is mandatory for Egyptian males and checkpoints manned by armed soldiers are frequent. My younger daughter who left Cairo to go scuba diving in Mar al Salam, 24 hours by bus south of Cairo on the Red Sea, told me that a lot of the boys and young men she met took one college course a year so that they could avoid being conscripted into the army.
Cairo was about the craziest, most hectic city I've ever visited. It was filthy--the Nile seemed over-flowing with plastic bottles and garbage, and your eyes burned from the ever-present smog. City services, the likes of which we take for granted, traffic laws, trash removal, even pollution controls, seemed non-existent. That said, to a man, the people were friendly and warm, even when I revealed that we were Jewish. Still, even to a life-long New Yorker, the presence of heavily-armed soldiers, of having to go through metal detectors to enter your hotel, is off-putting and more than a little frightening.
The final thing that struck me is that a lot of people hadn't much to do. In New York everyone seems to be rushing somewhere. In Cairo on every corner there are clumps of men smoking cigarettes and talking. And of course being watched by the ever-present police.