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In Cairo, A Father-Daughter Bond Deepens

In Cairo, A Father-Daughter Bond Deepens

A life-changing journey through one of the world’s most storied travel destinations.

I van Ferrette dreams of distant places. As a longtime worker in the airline industry, he has helped strangers and their families journey to six continents. But Ivan himself has never ventured beyond the United States.

Ivan raised his daughter, Tiffany, with a kind of wanderlust—a deep curiosity about how other people live, and have lived. “My dad encouraged me to become a student of the world,” Tiffany says. Wherever she goes—Amsterdam, Bogotá, Yamoussoukro—Tiffany phones him to share her experiences, and Ivan’s questions animate their discussion. What do you eat for breakfast there? he’ll ask. What does the city smell like when it’s raining? The conversations bring them even closer together. “Not a lot of children say this about their parents,” she says, “but he is actually my best friend.”

These precious phone calls from his daughter have taken Ivan around the globe. “I love hearing about all the things Tiffany sees when she travels, and learning about the cultures she experiences,” he says. But for Tiffany, this hasn’t been nearly enough—and she knows it hasn’t been for Ivan, either. She has longed to adventure side by side with her father. Ivan’s own particular fascination, as Tiffany knows well, is with the ancient civilization of a country that is 6,000 miles from his North Carolina home: Egypt.

Tiffany makes the arrangements. She hasn’t been to Egypt before either, and she doesn’t just want to see the pyramids. She wants to see her father see them.

One morning this February, father and daughter emerge from a jetliner into the vibrancy and color of a centuries-old megacity: Cairo. “It’s going to be life changing for us,” Tiffany says.

Photos by Salva Lopez
The following sites were visited by Tiffany and Ivan during their five day trip in Egypt:

The Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza

Tiffany and Ivan in front of the Great Sphinx.

Not long after sunrise, cars, buses, and horse-drawn carriages begin disgorging their thousands of passengers onto the sands of Giza. In the distance rises the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing: the Great Pyramid. In person, it’s almost unfathomably colossal, all but blotting out the sun—a 4,500-year-old skyscraper.

Ivan and Tiffany duck out of the light and into a passageway inside the pyramid. Thousands of years ago, the pharaoh’s body was borne through this passageway to its final resting place. To navigate it, father and daughter must crouch while squeezing themselves between narrow walls. They emerge into a dim, square chamber that is one of the world’s most storied tombs.


Recollections from Tiffany

Memories of The Pyramids

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The Great Pyramid is the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing. Ivan: “Can you imagine the time it took to build this? The man hours, the commitment? It’s just astounding.”

Tiffany and Ivan ascend the staircase leading to the pharaoh’s chamber.

Ivan scrutinizes the walls of the king’s chamber. “How did they breathe when they worked in this room?” he whispers. The chamber holds about 20 visitors. Some stand quiet and motionless, in awe. Others illuminate every crevice in the ancient stones with flashlights.

A guide describes aspects of pharaonic society—its royal harems, its political traditions. He says a few words about the Nubian pharaohs. “I’ve always been very curious about the impact of the Nubian community on Egyptian culture and history,” says Tiffany. Great admirers of ancient Egyptian civilization, Nubian rulers oversaw the revival of its art, religion, and architecture during the 25th Dynasty, between about 744 B.C. and 656 B.C.

The Pyramids and The Sphinx of Giza

Studying the ancient walls, Tiffany is astonished—not only by the human handiwork dating back thousands of years but also by the fact that she’s sharing this experience with her father. “It feels very surreal to be here,” she says.

Ivan’s curiosity ignites his daughter’s, as it has always done. “I don’t think I would have touched the walls if I were by myself,” Tiffany says. “But my dad reached out to touch everything. He notices all the little things that I don’t.”

The Ferrettes walk through the valley temple, where the pharaohs’ bodies were prepared—and mummified—prior to burial.

Some time later, crossing a stretch of the Sahara, Tiffany reflects on what they’ve just seen. “You imagine what you’re going to feel when you stand in front of something so majestic,” she says. “You prepare to feel the weight and heaviness of the experience.” To her surprise and delight, she feels buoyant instead. “I just feel light,” she says.

The Pyramids and The Sphinx of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza were a family project, the work of a father, Pharaoh Khufu, his child, Pharaoh Khafre, and his grandson, Pharaoh Menkaure.

The Great Sphinx of Giza guards both the city and the royal tombs of the pyramids. According to some historians, its builders gave the Sphinx Pharaoh Khafre’s features.

Stone and sky anchored by the Sahara.

Marriott Mena House

It’s only five minutes by car from the Pyramids of Giza to the Marriott Mena House, where Tiffany and Ivan are staying. The property is quite literally an oasis, its towering palm trees encircling crystal-blue pools. Its stillness and quiet offer a refuge from the hubbub of the city.

Marriott Mena House

A cool expanse of water and lush green terraces welcomes Tiffany and Ivan to the Mena House.

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The stately balconies of the Marriott Mena House offer a box seat overlooking one of the world’s oldest and most astonishing vistas—the Pyramids of Giza. Hour to hour, the sun plays across their faces, from morning mist to day’s end. “It’s unbelievable to wake up right next to things I’ve only read about,” says Tiffany. “It’s just so close.”

Many of the country’s heritage sites have had multiple lives. The Marriott Mena House was originally constructed as a hunting lodge for Egypt’s royal families. Today it’s one of the oldest hotels in North Africa. It offers both a connection to the past and modern comforts to the many travelers who pass through its doors annually.

Exploring the property, Tiffany admires the golden chandeliers, marble floors, and meticulously-crafted lattice windows framing arched doorways. “I feel like a princess,” she says to Ivan. In that moment, she’s a little girl again, gazing up at her dad.


Recollections from Tiffany

Staying at the Marriott Mena House

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Nearly every vantage point at the Marriott Mena House—the pool, the three restaurants, the courtyard—offers a unique view on the sprawling, centuries-old city.

In a city of millions, the Marriott Mena House offers rest to the body and the senses.

Beneath stately vaulted ceilings fit for royalty, Tiffany and Ivan approach the hotel’s ballroom.

The Mena House’s central location grants guests easy access to some of the city’s most beloved ancient sites.

For Tiffany and Ivan, sitting down at one of the hotel’s restaurants is an opportunity to savor not only its food—fragrant stews accented with saffron, cardamom, and cumin—but also the joy of their shared adventure.

Marriott Mena House

Having shared countless family meals together over the years, this is one of the first Tiffany and Ivan have shared in Egypt.

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As the lengthening shadows of the pyramids stretch across the distant desert, Ivan and Tiffany relax outdoors in the hotel’s sunken lounge. Tiffany pulls her shawl close against the evening air and wonders aloud what Cairo will reveal to them next. “There’s just so much to see,” she says. Ivan breathes deeply before sipping his whiskey on the rocks. “It’s amazing how the universe works,” he says softly. “I never thought a trip like this would happen.”

“This is the dream life," Ivan declares.

Zamalek and The Nile

In the morning, Ivan and Tiffany tour Zamalek, an upscale, man-made island off the Nile’s west bank. In a serendipitous moment—great travel is flush with such moments—they happen upon a restaurant that serves a familiar dish: bamia. A Nubian staple, bamia is known as “okra stew” in West African homes across Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. “This shows the dialogue that has existed among African countries for centuries,” Tiffany says. “Some years back, my mom did a DNA test and learned that our roots are in West Africa.” Finding this dish on a menu in Cairo means that Egypt’s past also encompasses Tiffany’s.

Zamalek and The Nile

At the imposing doors of Abou El Sid, an essential Cairo restaurant.

Abou El Sid’s lush interiors faithfully reproduce those of a typical 1930s Cairo home.

Sitting in a warmly lit corner of the Abou El Sid restaurant, beneath portraits of celebrated Egyptian artists, Tiffany and Ivan use pieces of aish baladi, an Egyptian flatbread, to scoop beef and okra onto their plates. “This stew reminds me of gumbo!” Tiffany exclaims, referring to the classic Southern dish her father used to make for her when she was growing up, and which she now prepares at home for herself and her friends.

Zamalek and The Nile

A mixture of vegetables and various cuts of meat, bamia is a popular Nubian stew served in restaurants across Cairo. Typically prepared in a clay pot, its main ingredient is okra. It’s similar to gumbo, a popular dish in the American South.

In the flavors of Egyptian cuisine, Tiffany tastes her own childhood. "My dad making gumbo for us is such a core memory,” she says.

After their meal, Tiffany and Ivan walk to The Loft Gallery, a nearby vintage shop. As she browses Syrian ceramics and turn-of-the-century daybeds, Tiffany comes upon several depictions of Nubian civic life. She recalls what she learned at the pyramids about the Nubian Pharaohs’ veneration of early Egyptian culture and art. In these images, she glimpses ordinary citizens—the pharaohs’ subjects—engaged in the everyday cultural and commercial activities of their time. They congregate and debate, journey across the desert by camel, and navigate the Nile.


Recollections from Tiffany

Tiffany’s Nubian Paintings

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Tiffany browses a series of paintings of contemporary and historical Nubian life.

Ivan leafs through The Loft Gallery’s wares.

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At sunset, Tiffany and Ivan venture onto the Nile on a riverboat crewed by a man and his nephew. “I couldn’t wait to get here,” says Ivan as the boat glides away from the riverbank. From Moses’s bulrushes to Cleopatra’s barge, the Nile has been an iconic wellspring of world myth and history.

Looking out over the boat’s railing, Ivan ponders the way water can enter the spiritual lives of the communities that surround it. A mystical relationship with water shaped his own early life. “I grew up on the coast,” he says, “and people who live near the ocean, lakes, or rivers, are one with them.”

Zamalek and The Nile

The longest river in Africa, the Nile flows through 11 countries. Since ancient times, it has inspired artists across the globe—among them storytellers, painters, singers, and filmmakers.

Tiffany and Ivan board a boat anchored on a Nile riverbank.

Tiffany recalls the portrait from the vintage shop of Nubians on the Nile at dusk. The river must have carried their boat just as it’s carrying mine, she thinks to herself; they must have felt the same breezes. Although these ancient Egyptians may be distant, she feels they’re very close to her right now.


Recollections from Ivan

Experiencing the Nile

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The Nile is like no other river in the world—a living connection to the ancient past.

From the 13th to the 19th century, Cairo was a commercial hub for traders from Nigeria and Ghana. Many lived and gathered on the banks of the Nile.

A Nile boatman at the tiller.

Wikala di Al-Ghouri

Famed for its intricately carved ledges, window frames, and doorways, Cairo’s city center was largely constructed during the Mamluk period, between the mid-13th and early-16th centuries. At another time in its history, the venue was a marketplace.

At nightfall, father and daughter take in a concert in Cairo’s bustling historic center. Music, like food and travel, has always brought them closer. They encounter a sound that has been preserved in amber, one that, like the pyramids, has survived through the ages: the rebab. Human beings have played and listened to this early stringed instrument since circa 1000 A.D. In tonight’s concert, the plucked strings of the rebab are joined with the much younger voices of trumpets and saxophones. It’s what a visitor finds in so many places in this city: a thrilling fusion of Cairo’s ancient past and its modern present.

A group of older musicians lead the performance, accompanied by an energetic youth orchestra. Together, the two generations play operatic Egyptian ballads and contemporary hits like “Crazy in Love”. The Egyptians in the audience respond to the music as ardently as Ivan and Tiffany do, providing cheerful harmonies.


Recollections from Ivan

Feeling the Music

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The concert’s fusion of old and new musical traditions excites Tiffany. "All I wanted to do was get up and dance," she says.

A father and son thrill the crowd with a performance of the Sama (literally “listening”) ceremony. This dance’s whirling, breathtaking choreography is rooted in meditation and prayer.

This performance—on unfamiliar instruments, in a foreign language and place—somehow evokes something familiar for Ivan. During the concert, he watches the children and grandchildren of the musicians run up to the stage, reaching for hugs and high-fives. Music was formative in his early life, Ivan says; growing up, he played the guitar, saxophone, and the French horn.

When the concert ends, he elaborates: “My brothers and I were all in a band and practiced together,” he says. “This performance took me back to those moments of camaraderie.”

Periodically, musicians—drummers, saxophonists—split off from the group to engage in a head-to-head play-off. It’s a showcase for their virtuosity. “I called it ‘the battle of the bands,’” Tiffany says.

Khan El-Khalili Market

The Khan El-Khalili market, one of the world’s most renowned, began in the 14th century as a trading post for gold merchants, spice vendors, and coppersmiths. On day four, the Ferrettes explore some of its roughly 1,500 stalls, most of them family-run. The market excites all of the senses at once, from the vivid colors of its textiles to the inviting fragrances of its spices and coffees to the distinctive music, unchanged through the centuries, of artisans hammering metal.


Recollections from Tiffany

Markets on the continent

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“The atmosphere in the street reminds me of markets I’ve visited in West Africa,” says Tiffany. “The colors, the energy, the pace.”

A local artisan occupies one of the market’s ornate stalls.

From the balcony of a nearby store, Tiffany and Ivan are absorbed in another Cairo view that spans past and present—the Khan El-Khalili market.

Occupying the burial site of Fatimid Caliphs—ancient rulers who founded Cairo—the market has steadily expanded over the centuries to encompass two city streets, including Al-Muizz, one of Cairo’s longest thoroughfares. Not unlike an archeological site itself, Al-Muizz reveals the layers of the city’s past in its wares: hand-woven rugs in striking patterns, stacks of vintage televisions, glowing lamps of every size and color. In this part of the city, dining is alfresco and cyclists snake through the crowds bearing sacks of vegetables.

As the Ferrettes stroll through the market, textures, aromas, and colors compete for their attention.

As they have been for centuries, the market’s wares are irresistible to its visitors—including Tiffany. “I packed light,” she confides, “just to prepare for all the things I’m going to buy.” She purchases jewelry boxes for her siblings and a turquoise ankh for herself. A national symbol evocative of the nation’s pharaonic past, the ankh is said to represent the promise of eternal life.

Khan El-Khalili Market

The lute-like oud is the quintessential Egyptian instrument.

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Down a narrow corridor amid the market’s medieval warren of stalls is El Fishawy cafe. More than two centuries after its founding, members of the Fishawy family still work there. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the sights of everyday life in the city—a family sitting down to yansoon tea, an elderly woman taking selfies with a stray kitten.

Savoring a Turkish coffee, Ivan reflects on the extraordinary sense of continuity and connection Cairo’s inhabitants have sustained over the city’s long existence. “Every day that I've been in Egypt, something has touched me,” he says. “Even in this market, the families carrying a business from generation to generation. I'm just learning beautiful lessons.”


Recollections from Ivan

The Market Community

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A communal gathering place since 1797, the cafe has served some of the capital city’s most eminent personages, from Nobel Prize-winning authors to celebrated poets to Egyptian royalty.

Tiffany and Ivan sip Turkish coffee outside El Fishawy cafe.

Like the spices that give bamia its unique flavor, each of the different nations that have ruled Egypt has contributed something to its rich, multilayered story. Built for a sultan’s granddaughter, the Zeinab Khatoon House is one of the city’s most striking examples of architecture from the Ottoman period, with its mosaic-tiled floors, wooden window screens, and multi-colored, glass-roofed gazebo. Ivan and Tiffany make it their final stop of the day.

Ivan and Tiffany end their day in the contemplative surroundings of the Zeinab Khatoon House, nestled in the middle of the Khan El-Khalili market.

The Cairo Citadel and Al-Azhar Park

The long-ago redoubt of Egyptian monarchs, the Cairo Citadel compound today houses historical edifices and museums. Its first stone was laid in 1176.

The next morning, at the Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque at the Cairo Citadel—the stronghold of Egypt’s rulers for six centuries—Ivan notices the mosque’s exterior wall: sunlight has washed the color of these uppermost stones from brown to pale rose.

Tiffany gazes up at the mosque’s two minarets, with their green, white, and blue tiles. “It’s like stepping back into a different era,” she says. The stillness of the mosque’s single chamber is broken by the laughter of schoolchildren, who pause to remove their shoes before running through the vast space.

The Cairo Citadel and Al-Azhar Park

As the Sphinx guards the dead, so the Cairo Citadel once protected the living.

A minaret soars above the Mosque of Muhammad Ali.

Inside the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, the ceiling, which is inlaid with gold filigree and bronze, is itself an object of meditation.

The Citadel’s highest point, visible from every corner of the city, is the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Inside, glass lamps hanging from the ornate ceiling illuminate the space. At the center of the mosque’s courtyard rises a white marble fountain, enclosed by bleached verandas—the sun’s work again, and a striking contrast to the lavish interior.

Ivan finds inspiration in the enduring coherence, amid so many foreign influences, of Egyptian culture. For the Ferrettes, this trip crystallizes a shared love of travel—and of each other.

Not far off is Al-Azhar Park, where Tiffany and Ivan engage in one of humanity’s oldest and most enduring pastimes: people watching. In the crowded park, groups of teenagers show off their dance moves. Elderly folks sit on stone benches lining a man-made lake. The hush and awe of its ancient past belies the vibrancy of public life in modern Cairo.

At a nearby gift store, Tiffany purchases a serving tray. It’s a symbol to her of the hospitality and community she’s found in Egypt. “The people here treat you with such care. They don’t rush you. You feel at peace,” she says.


Recollections from Tiffany

Al-Azhar oasis

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Castle in the sky: the Cairo Citadel, as seen from Studio Masr restaurant in Al-Azhar Park.

Ivan and Tiffany enjoy a respite in Al-Azhar Park. Cairo wears the weight of its long and rich past lightly. The contemporary city is sensual, animated, and inviting.

Another Cairo vista, as seen from the park.

In the park, the whole of Cairo laid out at his feet, Ivan reflects. After so many years, he is finally standing on the sandy ground of the country that has always captivated him. When Tiffany was a child, he sought to open the world up to her, to make her feel that it lay spread out for her to discover—like the Egyptian city at this very moment. Today, Tiffany has put Cairo at his feet. He turns to her. “I never thought I’d experience something like this with you,” he says softly. “This is just incredible.”

To visit Egypt is to situate ourselves on the long arc of humanity’s past. If we travel there to celebrate the great ancient monuments built by our predecessors, we return home cherishing the privilege of being alive, now, with those we love.

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