Downtown: the juice vendor who blends 1.5 L bottles of fresh pomegranate juice laced with ginger while you wait. Sara’s seafood where you can pick out your fish and have it sent up to Auberge where shisha smoke swirls with the conversation of philosophy professors and the songs of football fans and the occasional shout of a bar fight with a butter knife. Stars of Egyptian cinema gaze on from the walls, unmoved. Nearby there is a second-story barber shop with a glass-encased room jutting out into the street so that its clients are on display, fishbowl style, and the masses may gauge the halaq’s work for themselves.
The post office, with its gentle nicotine-fueled waltz of stamps and paperwork and small talk, where I was almost married off once while picking up a package containing nothing but jellybeans. Hashem’s, which has the best atmosphere and the best tea, but not the best falafel (the best falafel is steps away, a well-hidden secret). The Roman Amphitheater, still impressive. The Amman Pasha hotel where if you’re lucky you’ll catch an evening of tabla and Arabic music that at some undetectable signal transforms into a dabkeh party in the blink of an eye.
Those two juice stand guys who shout at you in attempts to persuade you to sit down at their shop – an impossible choice, considering that they are five feet from one another and identical. Habiba’s, where you take guests for the best kunafeh this side of the River Jordan. Jafra, where you take guests for atmosphere and the balcony. Winding alleys where you can buy anything you need or don’t need, from tinsel to tawabul (the latter from, we are told, the best ʿattar in the world). Whether the Balad, the heart of the city, succeeds more in concealing or revealing its secrets is a question yet unanswered (as is the case with so many hearts). But as a place of both relief and bustle, it certainly stays with you, even after you’ve climbed the stairs that lead you away.