On a small side street in Cairo's city centre, after a hearty iftar of home-made Egyptian food, a large group of foreigners and Egyptians sip mint tea outside a local cafe.
They are about to embark on an art walking tour, but first, seasoned local guide Samia El Khodary tells everyone to Google “Egyptian art”. Images of Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, papyrus and the Pyramids of Giza pop up.
“Today my aim is to prove Google wrong,” says El Khodary, 31, founder of tour company Qahrawya.
“When I say Egypt, when I say Cairo, what comes to mind is ancient Egypt. With all respect to the pharaohs, we have evolved big time in terms of contemporary art, Egyptian art, cinema and other art forms.”
El Khodary started Qahrawya, which means Cairene, in July 2018, to help people discover and connect with the city’s contemporary art and cultural spaces.
Qahrawya organises several tours per month around the districts of Cairo. These include the Cosmos Cinema tour, Studio Photography tour and Gudran art tour in the city centre, as well as the Lamba art tour in Garden City, El Gezira art tour in Zamalek, the Wrapped in Silk tour in Giza, the Droob Heritage tour and the Parav Aleikom Armenian tour.
Last Ramadan, she decided to try something different, combining the art tour that takes place in the upscale island district of Zamalek with an iftar. The resulting “iftours” offer an authentic, off-the-beaten-track cultural experience for locals and tourists alike.
This year, Qahrawya offered two iftours, one in Zamalek and another in the city centre. The 17 people on the city centre iftour included a group of 10 MBA students from the University of Oxford with some of their partners; two German friends, one studying Arabic in Cairo and another doing an internship; and a handful of Egyptians.
The group of students had flown to Sharm El Sheikh from the UK, visiting places such as Dahab and Upper Egypt before making their way to the capital.
Catherine Hendren, a financial analyst for a development bank, says she heard about Qahrawya from her former Georgetown University undergraduate professor.
Qahrawya also organises customised tours and recently hosted cultural development students from the American university.
Hendren recommended Qahrawya to the group, keen to see something beyond the major tourist sites.
“I just really have an interest in art, alternative history and architecture in the city,” Hendren says.
“Because we were coming during Ramadan, we [also] wanted to experience it and know a little more about it.”
As everyone sits on plastic chairs and tables outside Porto Cafe waiting for sunset at 6.20pm, chef Wafaa comes down from her nearby apartment with her young son, carrying large dishes laden with authentic Egyptian food, fresh out of the oven.
Wafaa used to own Ornina Kitchen in the city centre with her late Syrian husband. The restaurant was featured on CBC’s El Akeel show and is known for authentic local dishes, such as courgette stuffed with ground beef and yoghurt.
However, business was badly affected by forced closures during the Covid-19 pandemic, and Wafaa now cooks food out of her home and offers takeaway.
For the Qahrawya iftour, tables are filled with trays of grilled chicken, roasted vegetables with yellow rice, yoghurt with cucumbers, hummus, stuffed vine leaves and macarona bechamel.
“It’s like you’re visiting someone in their home,” says Egyptian Nancy Ibrahim, a freelance podcast producer. “And in Egypt, food is important. To start the tour by sharing food with everyone brings people together.”
After an icebreaker game, El Khodary presents an overview of modern Egyptian art and its historical context, explaining key figures in the city's development, such as Khedive Ismail.
Although her undergraduate degree from the American University in Cairo is in business and economics, she earned a postgraduate degree in cultural development from Cairo University. Having worked in graphic design, advertising and marketing, she considers herself “an art receiver”.
The evening proceeds at a leisurely pace, with the art tour starting shortly after 8pm. The walk begins on Mohamed Mahmoud street near AUC, where clashes took place during the 2011 uprising, and some revolution graffiti still remains.
On the way to Om El Donia handicrafts shop, El Khodary stops to speak about local landmarks, such as Talaat Harb square, the Automobile Club and Groppi. This part of the tour is similar to the city centre tour offered by Walk Like an Egyptian, which was founded in 2015 and is a source of inspiration for Qahrawya.
Finally, after some shopping at Om El Donia, it was on to the art. The iftour includes two gallery stops with three artists, who are on hand to talk about their work and answer questions.
At Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art, Spanish artist Xavier Puigmarti presented his solo exhibition, Timeline. The 71-year-old artist came to Egypt in 1981 from Barcelona and now lives in Fayoum, an oasis 100 kilometres south-west of Cairo.
Some of his pieces are a retrospective timeline of his life, representing a “visual biography of sorts”.
At Access gallery, Egyptian artist Fatma Abodoma and Polish artist Agnes Michalczyk present their third exhibition together, Working Title. Their artwork focuses on the role of women at work and home, and the emotions around that.
“Our approaches are very different, but they have a lot of common threads,” Michalczyk says.
Feedback to the tour is largely positive, with both locals and tourists appreciating the opportunity to see Cairo from a different perspective.
MBA student Jordan Zele, 31, says: “As a tourist, it’s sometimes hard to feel embedded in the community. So I think this was a good way to get a bit closer to what’s going on, rather than seeing everything from a tour bus.”
Fellow student Paley Sweet, 28, adds: “It was such a welcoming opportunity. Breaking the fast, being able to do that, and also being able to see the more modern contemporary art scene — it was an incredible experience.”
Qahrawya tours last between five and six hours and range in price from $9.70 to $24.30. All are walking tours, except for the Wrapped in Silk tour, which includes transport by bus.