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After a long and painful day of recovering from a party down on Falaky Street, Rumi and I decided to go out and live the dream and find Cairo’s last remaining Turkish bath.

Steam dreams of luxurious relaxation

Turkish baths once dotted the medieval city aplenty: an Ottoman take on what was a Greco-Roman practice that has been described as “the wet version of a sauna.” Bathers move from progressively hotter rooms together, sweating out the dirt from their pores before being scrubbed down violently with a loofah, massaged, and then rinsed with cold water. In the past, every neighborhood in Cairo had a hammaam (please note the double m) and the fires that were used to heat the baths also cooked the neighborhood fuul in giant tin pots. Steam baths were a social activity that was completely gender segregated, and as a consequence, social taboos were generally removed. People spoke freely, and the women’s bath was an oft-discussed subject of orientalists’ speculations.

Presently, however, the hammaam has fallen into disrepute. Rendered unnecessary by modern plumbing, the steam bath has become the whispered haunt of (gasp!) homosexuals, who are supposed to meet in dark liasons to rub each other with various oils. This, not too long ago, was actually kind of true, as Flaubert writes:

It’s at the baths that such things take place. You reserve a bath for yourself (five francs including masseurs, pipe, coffee, sheet and towel) and you skewer your lad in one of the rooms…

Thought I doubt that Egyptians stay away from the last bath in Egypt because of Flaubert (what a reason that would be!), I suppose the reputation has stuck. Friends have had some rather rude encounters with gay men who were more than a little too pushy in a couple of places, and as a result, the bathhouse is something to be a little cautious of (besides, who knows what would happen to your wallet while you soaked up the steam). Either way, Rumi and I were determined not to face the bath alone (just in case things turned out seedier and more unpleasant than we were expecting); always good to have a friend around when you find yourself in unknown environs wearing only a thin cotton towel.

To get to the last operating bathhouse in Cairo (known as 7ammaam al-Malatili), walk down al-Mu3izz Street on the northern side on the way to the mosque of al-Hakim, past Bayn al-Qasrayn, until Amir al-Gyushi Street, which opens up on the left. About a hundred yards down on the left side is the bath, which is not much more than a hole in the wall about several steps down from the street level. All the locals know where it is, though, and it’s not difficult to find.

But it’s a dump.

Brightly painted on the inside, with light coming in dimly from glass-laminated holes in the roof, the reception room is manned by the hunched Muhammad Ali, who gives you a winding sheet and a pair of plastic slippers, points you to the changing room, and guards your phones, wallets, and watches. Once you strip and wrap yourself up in the sheet, you shuffle down a cracked, soggy corridor to a waiting room on a dais, presumably for the steam room to be vacated, and watch the cockroaches scuttle. Not for the faint of heart.

The floors are cracked, mildewy marble that has clearly seen better days, and there’s a faint sucking sound like that of a drain as water, dripping everywhere, seems to flow down to the narrow slots in the floor.

The steam room is a tiny compartment, filled mainly by a little pool of scalding water. You attempt to sit beside it in a modest fashion, and soon give up. It’s heady and the air is thick, though certainly not fragrant, and you begin to soon sweat profusely. Flaubert goes on:

I was alone in the hot room, watching the daylight fade through the great circles of glass in the dome. Hot water was flowing everywhere; stretched out indolently I though of a quantity of things as my pores tranquilly dilated. It is very voluptuous and sweetly melancholy to take a bath quite alone, lost in those dim rooms where the slightest noise reverberates like a cannon shot, while the naked kellaks call out to one another as they massage you, turning you over like embalmers preparing you for the tomb. (From The Letters of Gustave Flaubert)

After about twenty minutes, your eyes start to get heavy.

At that point, a crooked-jawed man in ratty pants and a wet flannel shirt motioned us out one at a time with his loofah to the central room with an octagonal fountain in the center (not running, and black), motioned for me to lie on my stomach, and proceeded to rough me up with a smelly loofah mitt and soap. He flips you over. Repeat. He flicks his cigarette against the wall, and motions toward the cold shower in the corner. I rinse. Rumi goes next. Soaking wet, and wrapped in wet sheets, we return to the dressing rooms, where Muhammad Ali tosses us giant, rough towels, and we dry off. We pay, collect our things, and are off.

Not exactly Flaubert (NOT what I was hoping for, either), but you couldn’t help but want to ask, “Serious? That’s it?” A pleasant massage. A room filled with gossiping men and incense. Perhaps tea. Music. An oud player, even? Orientalist, yes; but perhaps that’s my soft spot for the occasional indulgence taking over. Instead, it was all rather matter-of-fact.

Despite the smelly loofah, we both felt quite clean.

Afterward, we trotted off to the Arabic Oud House behind the Hussein Mosque for a concert. Free.

These towers can be seen built on top of apartment buildings, offices, and slums alike: all to house the Egyptian country squire's delicacy: the noble and tasty pigeon.

Later, in the spirit of the Arabic jathr, or trilateral root, we decided to have hamaam (please note the single m) for dinner. Supposedly a pharaonic dish, pigeon is considered one of the finer Egyptian foods. My assessment: frustrating. Pigeons have remarkably little meat and are destroyed in the process of eating them (forget the knife and fork). The Gad restaurant by al-Azhar serves up a ma7shi variety, stuffed with cinnamon-spiced buckwheat rice and the head of the humble bird still attached. It’s a little disconcerting, but once over the initial shock, not entirely unpleasant.

Hammaam (a bath) and hamaam (pigeon). Quite a night.

Last night in Egyptland tonight.

 

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After an incredibly relaxing day in Rumi and Andrea’s flat — interestingly labeled “el-Faradaws,” the word for Paradise — I decided by Day 2 in Cairo that it was time to get out.

The goal was to walk down south from Bab Zwayla, the southern gates of the 11th century Fatimid city, through the quarter known as Darb al-A7mar, or “the Red Road.”

By now you know I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and here’s one of the many reasons I love Cairo: the city is still marked and known by these same elements of nostalgia. Going to the camel market? Good luck: nine-tenths of all cab drivers will bring you to Shaar3a sou5 al-gamal, on the way to Imbaba, where the camel market has been for centuries (and before the present government relocated it to the tiny village of Birqash some time ago) or Shaar3a Sudani, where camels were driven up from the south from the Sudan. Much of the city is marked in very much the same manner, and the names alone are rather evocative, even if the markets have changed: the area between the complexes of al-Azhar and al-Ghuriyya (called Butneya), is pocketed with what are still called “stitches” (ghorza in Arabic), tiny blind pockets where hashish was smoked and illegal business transacted. Nowadays, it’s where the men retreat for their sheeshas.

The word darb is actually a pretty neat one, I think, and I always get excited when I see it on a street sign. There are a couple names for roads in Arabic, and all of them have specific connotations, the most commonplace one being  the word for street, shaar3a, (which incidentally, linguists, carries the same root as the word for Islamic law, shar3ia). Darb, however, is a path cut specifically across desert — a camel road — and you almost exclusively hear it out in the desert when locals are describing unpaved paths that connect oasis towns with one another. The Darb al-A7mar was one such road, leading from the southern gates of the old Fatimid city past the southern City of the Dead to join up with trade routes to the south. Though not entirely devoid of tourists, the quarter is enough of a network of labyrinthine alleyways and medieval staircases that you usually lose the aganib with the cameras and big hats sometime around Bab Zwayla.

It’s been blazing hot in Cairo, and yesterday was dusty in particular. I caught a cab to the Ghuriyya complex, which has a stunning, high covered entrance and is about a couple hundred yards before al-Azhar. Most of the complex is original and currently rented out to local artists as studios (but God: it’s hot in there). Ghuriyya lies in the exact center of Shaar3a al Muizz,one of the central points of interest in downtown Cairo. Most of the really spectacular stuff is more towards the Coppersmiths’ Bazaar (see what I mean about names? How evocative is that!). It runs about half a mile from the Northern Gates (or the “Open Gate”) near the mosque of al-Hakim (more on him later) and continues until the Tentmakers’ Market.

Entrance to the Ghuriyya caravanseri and palace: formerly, the whole street behind was covered and was the haunt of cloth merchants and thieves.

You turn left from Bab Zwayla onto Darb al-Ahmar, which has three names, depending on what part of the quarter you’re in: Tabbana Street, Bab al-Wazir, and the so-named Darb.

I’ve come to regard mosque-hopping as something of a hobby — back in the States, I’d stop into Catholic churches on long drives just to get out and stretch and have myself a little prayer, look at the statues. I kind of find mosques a nice place to relax: invariably, they are beautiful, cozy, and no one really bothers you if you look like you’re just there to take a load off.

Naps, therefore, are a big thing on such excursions. Because everyone takes off their shoes, the carpets are prime targets for a snooze, and most of the locals oblige themselves in the afternoon.

Inside the mosque of al-Maridani

Old men with the right idea.

I also like mosques in particular for their facilities: in contrast to most lavatories in Cairo, bathrooms are at a premium in Islamic Cairo, at least for men. Not only can you find yourself a clean toilet, but practically take a bath for free due to the ablutions fountains everywhere. And truth be told, there’s something to the practice of wudu5, which is incredibly refreshing after a jaunt through the dustiest of quarters.

“Have you prayed the 3asr?”

No, sorry, I’m not Muslim.

Ah! You are American?

I said I wasn’t Muslim. Not that I didn’t speak Arabic.

This was how I met Gamal, who is the supervisor for three of the local mosques in Darb al-A7mar. Not only did he get me up into minarets, but the man opened the door to the still-being-renovated Qasr al-Azraq, the Blue Palace of Sultain Qait Bey.

Inside, stained glass windows and mashrabiyya inserts.

Tunnel that led to the Citadel; sultans flee underground, Da Vinci style!

The palace formerly known as Blue.

Courtyard, funded by American grants. In background, the crumbling ruins of the third wife's wing, and what it used to look like. From the roof.

Inside Qajmas al-Ishaqi, first mosque on the Darb al-A7mar.

A follow-up.

I always think of this poem when I think of leaving a place.

****

Before he makes each one
of us, God speaks.

Then, without speaking,
he takes each one
out of the darkness.

And these are the cloudy
words God speaks
before each of us begins:

“You have been sent out
by your senses. Go
to the farthest edge
of desire, and give me
clothing: burn like a great
fire so that the stretched-out
shadows of the things
of the world cover
me completely.
Let everything happen
to you: beauty and terror.
No feeling is the farthest out.

Don’t let
yourself be separated
from me.

Nearby is the country
called Life;
you will know it by
its seriousness.

Give me your hand.”

Last Alexandria post.

I’ve been thinking in this manner since two days ago:

Last time I will buy vegetables from Ali.

Last Mass at San Katrine.

Last time Marwan at the Basha will harass me about fitting into my suitcase to go to “Amrika.”

Last subiyya at Mekka Juices.

Last time one of the clerks will hand over a pound change for my fiver, and legerdemain it away somehow before I pick it up. Last time I’ll fall for it.

Last ride on the little tin tram.

Last time I’ll buy a newspaper from Hassan on the corner.

Last day of work.

Last Dahab.

Last walk home with Ahmed.

Last banana that Ayman will give me on my way to work.

Last coffee I’ll drink on my balcony.

Last sheesha on the Mediterranean.

Last walk on the Corniche.

Last time Abu Ahmed will act grumpy and respond “Mish dawa3” (Something like: “It’s not your business!” or “Who asked you?”) when I ask him how much eggs are today.

Last trip to the Spitfire.

Last mashru3a ride from Manshaya. Last time I’ll shout “Al-nafa5 li’gay, usta!” (Next underpass, driver!)

I had actually anticipated leaving yesterday, but I got so depressed thinking like this that I couldn’t really take it anymore: I had to have one more day in Alex. And then I was no longer depressed. Until these became the second-to-last times I would do these things.

How do you talk about memory?

This has been one of the things I’ve been running over in my mind since I’ve gotten here. In college, it’s easy, but you realize it altogether too late: the place is yours for a few years — you are the owners, the veterans — until you pass through it, move on, and the place is possessed by someone else. Is it any less yours? No: memory has rooted there, somehow.

And I’ve been wondering the same about my Alexandria. Was it ever really mine? My feet know the city, and the difference between most foreigners and me is that I came back. I returned. Of all the cities, I chose her to come back to when I needed a time to think, to write, to practice. You could have been Cairo, Amman, Adan, Marrakech; instead, you were Alexandria.

My colleagues (and occasionally I) have expressed a kind of scorn for the often overdone Egyptian sentiment of “Never forget me!” People you just meet or might have a light, passing acquaintance with will often charge you “to remember me always,” and the effect on someone who is used to change and separation is often one of severe annoyance. Our entire lives in America are accustomed to separation, to change; our schools are divided into elementary, middle, and high — graduations mark the passages and the changes and the need to move on beyond the old friends and into the new opportunities. The student that goes back to his old high school, that talks to his old teachers, that writes letters to old friends and tries to rekindle old friendships is looked on as too nostalgic, too backward thinking.

My father has often rebuked me for such things. I can understand why; attachment is a dangerous thing, and there is only so much of your soul to spread around. We can only have so many friends before we end up being a bad friend ourselves.

As for me, though, I’ve had a year to think about it, and I disagree. We do not preserve memory: memory preserves us. There is a simple wisdom in the knowledge that someone knows you, halfway around the world, and likes you for who you are, and how you laugh. There is a kind of purity in keeping the image of a love-long past, long-mourned, long done with preserved from its moments, not because you are the secret kept, but they are. Perhaps that is why the greatest commandment of Christ is to love, to forgive; because love knows and keeps the good memory of others.

I’m waxing a little bit mushy.

Is it real? Is the city real? Durrell said it was, but so many have disagreed with him, and said that what he wrote never existed. I’m not sure I ever will be able to write it “real” for the page, but memory is what makes it real to me. Leaving and returning. Remembering and forgetting. On the eve of the departure, I suppose I’m committing that unforgivable sin of sheer and utter colonialism: I’m calling it my Alexandria. I — an outsider — am saying I know her (and yes, postcolonialists, this is a her. Linguistically.) I know her secrets — the secrets even Egyptians have forgotten, that Egyptians don’t know — and declare that she is a city of secrets. I wish I had someone to pass them on to — and I wonder if I will ever meet someone who knows the same secrets I do, one day.

Maybe.

I’m just sad to leave her.

Good-bye, Alexandria. City of Memory.

Last day of all classes for me today.

I went out with the boys from Proficient 6 yesterday, and it was absolutely awesome. We met up at the Sporting Station and jumped into a mashru3a to Bahari, where we walked about twenty minutes inland to Sawareekh, which apparently has the absolute best fuul bi sugu5 (beans and sausage, which is actually better than it sounds, Westerners) in Iskanderiyya. The boys were pretty keen on feeding me mukhkh (brain) and 7alali (penis), and I have to confess that everything was simply delicious. It actually kind of reminded me of Mexican food.

We walked through Bahari until we got to Ras al-Tin and walked along the Anfushi beaches until we got to Makram, which has incredible ice cream somewhere in between genuine gelato and icees (if you can imagine that). Afterwards, it was another masru3a to Chatby and sitting in an ahwa telling dirty jokes and talking sex over tea and dominoes. It was pretty amazing. They handed me a watch at the end of the night, and Bassem and Amr and I trotted across the Corniche and talked about Zionism — or rather, I tried to dispell the idea from Amr’s mind that the Jews controlled the American media. Sigh.

Today had an altogether different character, which I’m not willing to write about yet, but I want to share the pictures.

I’ll let them do the talking until tomorrow, when I muse a little longer.

I’m going to miss everybody like crazy.

"The Boys": from left, Amr, Moustafa, (me), Marwan, and Bassem the Ladies' Man

The die-hards of Prof. 4: from left, Yasser, Ahmed Khamis, me, May, Ahmed Hassan, Rrrrradwa, Rasmiyya, May, Manar

Me and Ahmed. I am going to miss the crazy walks home with this guy a lot.

Usama the Tea Man and Me

"My girls" of Proficienit 6 in Clay Cafe, minus Yosra, who did NOT SHOW UP on the last day. From left: Shahenda, Vildan, Ingy, and Dalia

Can’t believe I forgot this one.

The other night, John suggested going out to the movies to see a good, old-fashioned Egyptian film.

Perhaps not old-fashioned.

We had heard quite a bit in the past few months about Ahasees (“Feelings”) and the controversy that its caused post-release. Ahmed declared that when he went to see it on the Eid al-Adha break that it was like watching a pornography in the middle of a crowded theater.

From what I gathered, apparently the main heroine had an affair with a man seven years prior and, after marrying and having two children, feels shame but also longing for her old lover, and is unable to resolve her guilt. This is exacerbated by her other friends relationships, who also seem to be cheating or have cheating husbands in some form or another. For subject matter and several scenes, it was stamped “Adults Only” by the censors.

Good lord; this was probably the worst film I’ve ever seen.

Meedan’s followed the controversy now for some months, and (expectedly) there have been denunciations of all sorts; the movie breaks Egyptian cultural taboos by depicting adultery or extramarital sex in a sympathetic light, that it talks about women’s sexuality in ways not previously discussed, even that it portrays Egypt and Egyptian morality in a negative light.

I’m left at a frustrated impasse. While I like things that generally do all of those things — and especially when they cause controversy — I’m irritated at the form and the presentation.

From the get-go you realize it’s going to be bad. It’s like an hour-and-a-half film school project, in which the director was required to use certain techniques, the most heinous of which:

1. Triple-takes, Dr. No, style. Opening scene is a woman in a bikini coming out of the water, but shot in black-and-white with colorized bits (her swimsuit) like those cheesy b&w photos of the kids with the red roses. Only it fades into a repetition of the same scene. God, it was awful.

2. Long, extended takes of the couple making out. Like, waaaay too long. Uncomfortable long.

3. Long, extended takes of the couple making out, but from the perspective of the ground they’re making out on. I think what they did was have the actors lie on top of a piece of plate glass, make out, and then shoot from under them. Ick.

4. The piece de resistance: a whole dialogue scene with a revolving camera — The Bodyguard-style. You know that scene where Whitney Houston is kissing Kevin Costner, and the camera spins around them? Imagine that for five minutes. I wanted to vomit.

This also says nothing of the reception of the audience, which was actually exclusively male, and nonstop with cries of “Ya ragl!” (“Oh, man!”) and similar exclamations. Oooo, sex! It’s so naughty. It would be one thing if sex were a taboo topic and taken seriously, but it was like watching the movie with eleven-year olds: ridiculous, unpleasant, and an exercise in human stupidity.

Clerics will point to the immodest dress of women as causing earthquakes, and how the West is decadent in its standards regarding women. Usually the argument for the headscarf goes one of two ways: it’s a command from God OR that a woman’s beauty is precious and should not be seen by all — the metaphor is usually that “she is like a pearl and must be guarded.”

Why then, is there rampant sexual harassment throughout Egypt?

I’m not saying that there isn’t sexual harassment in the West. There is. Quite a lot, actually. But the idea of a woman being groped on the street….and the man not arrested…man. There might be something to the whole “protection” thing that people argue, but I think for the wrong reasons. Here, it is almost more necessary; without it, you’ll get hassled more. Perhaps they’re mistaking the result for the cause. After all, women in the West aren’t hassled for exposing their upper arms and legs, but here they are. Perhaps they are forgetting the standard and assume that it’s the same elsewhere.

John’s mentioned one of his professors has looked into certain aspects of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) about the hijab and if it were permissible to remove it in countries where it isn’t required for a woman’s modesty. Isn’t modesty something culturally local, I wonder?

Something to think about a little more, I suppose.

The consoling part of the night was going across the street to the side room of the Assteria bar, which, unbeknown to us prior to that night, served alcohol. The salon looked a bit like a Soviet bus station, and the waiters were  mysteriously nonpresent most moments, but the company was good and the beer cold.

Sigh. Way too much sexual frustration pent up in this country sometimes.

I don’t think I’ll be seeing the other movie that’s been causing just as much controversy (Rasa’il al-Ba7r, “Letters from the Sea”) any time soon.

Well, it’s daylight savings time as of yesterday (two days ago?) in Egypt. This has really messed me up. I’m terrible at changing clocks and whatnot – usually on the day itself, I never change my watch. Don’t ask me why. It must be one of those boyish idiosyncrasies left over from when I insisted on setting my watch by the Atomic Clock in DC or Greenwich Mean Time  because I thought I should get used to it (I was going to be an astronaut, after all). Apparently it’s done nothing but give me a complex over clocks and watches being correct about their second hands, and I almost never change my watch when I set it.

Result: Heba calls you at 8:26 PM and says ever so mildly, “Michael, you are late. Why?”

That’s because my body and brain and everything else in me told me it was 7:26 PM, Heba.

Ah.

I also thought I was teaching yesterday (official day off) and tomorrow (only tutoring conversation). This is what happens when tacking down the last days in a city, I suppose.

Mr. Khamis promptly called me up and asked if I could come in anyway, without class.

Below is the reason why.

The box presented to me today by my Proficient 4 class.

How I am going to get this back to the States I have absolutely no idea.

Sand art! It reads: "Best Teacher Ever: Remember us always" and has the names of my students (and a camel).

And honestly, I almost cried.