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Posts Tagged ‘ahwa’

Alexandria’s Corniche is a bit of two-edged sword slicing the rind off of Africa just as it dips into the Mediterranean. Parts of it are unsightly, awful places that rise about ten feet off the beach and are littered with enormous concrete breakwater blocks. The beaches themselves look not unlike ashtrays and always seem to leave a gray powder on your shoes — and I’m a little afraid to go barefoot. The best description, by far, is given by the Rough Guide, who says that Shatby’s beach looks “fit enough to spawn the Swamp Thing.” Shabab lurk everywhere at night, and the distinct scent of urine seems to haunt the tunnels that you descend down in order to cross the larger passes of traffic. Pretty much the whole Sporting-to-Shatby area (a fair walk of about twenty minutes) is like that. The other day on my nightly jog down that way, I managed to smell hashish in the air and glimpse a couple of seedy gentlemen with brown-bagged Sakara Kings (10% nasty, nasty pints) watching the waves. I ran on.

That said, there is nothing that can compare to some parts of the Corniche, which are pretty phenomenal. Case in point, the relatively new Cilantro next to the library, which has a clutch view of the Eastern Harbor. It’s a sparkling day. Sparkling. The Med’s as blue as a charm against the evil eye, and I’ve put on my best linen and put aside my pride to come sit in one of the devil-spawned chain cafes of the modern period. Alas.

I don’t say that Cilantro’s the devil for any light reason. I don’t attack Starbucks or really think it’s the devil on any point (just a wee bit impractical, perhaps? And their lattes suck, I think). But it’s a pretty big intrusion into traditional ahwa culture.

Is it quaint? Am I lamenting the past again?

Probably.

But the ahwa is just as much a part of Egyptian traditions as the galabiyya, tea, and crazy traffic. This are old-world symbols, I know, and I’m not saying that they should be dominant as they once were — that galabiyyas should come back hard-core or anything — but they should at least be around. They shouldn’t be stigmatized. They should at the very least, available.

One of the arguments that’s usually touted by gap-year tragedies (what I’ve learned from the Brits is a disparaging term for a student on a year off who goes an builds orphanages in Honduras or “voluntours” in Africa; sandal-wearing, carbetbag-carrying hippy-types) is that the “old Egypt” is “disappearing.” Isn’t this also what Said says about Orientalist literature — that the Orient is always in danger of vanishing.

I’m not saying that. Egypt ain’t going anywhere, people. What I’m worried about is that stage of postcolonial development referred to as the mimic-man stage. What I’m struck by is the subordination of things Egyptian to things Western. Fashion seems to be a bizarrely contorted version of Italian street wear, only with pointier shoes, tighter shirts, and more glitter. Suits are cut boxy, in shiny fabrics, and men seem to get their hair cut in Spanish tragedies of slickness and tapes. And these cafes….which seem to be a marriage of Starbuck’s and a TGIF, sans alcohol. Even the magazine “Cilantro Central” seems to cater to a crowd that I wonder exists. “How to Create you Dream Wedding…on a Tight Budget” is the cover title. Though a couple of my girls tell me that splitting the cost of a wedding is becoming increasingly more common, I’m still skeptical, as most of the boys I talk to seem to say quite the opposite. Maybe it’s exaggeration — certainly possible — but they insist that the cost for everything falls on the man. Are they aspiring to being “manly” by doing so? I don’t know.

This also brings up another question: why do certain aspects of the society accept Westernization, while others resist it? (This is a tangent for another blog post).

Cilantro seems to be selling a lifestyle, but considering the dearth of disposable income, I’m wondering who they’re selling the lifestyle to. Rich Egyptians, perhaps? The middle class is few and far between, and I seem to find it in my students, a few of the guys on the street and with Ahmed, but I have to constantly remind myself that that is not the majority of Egyptians.

There are upsides: for instance, it gives women a place to go. The ahwa is traditionally a man’s place, and I’m actually quite shocked to even see women selling something or even begging their way through them.

Another upside? No cigarette smoke leaching into your clothing.

But 15 LE for a cup of coffee?! Highway robbery!

At least there’s reliable wireless. Something you will never, ever, ever find in an ahwa.

And to be frank, an ahwa will never have this view.

Does that mean I’m coming back?

::sigh::

Yes.

Look out for a postcolonial post sometime in the near future. I’ve mused enough for today.

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Ahmed Shukri was a sailor with the oil companies for about thirty-five years. He hunches over, but is actually quite tall and, in contrast to most Egyptians, who tend to be olive-skinned, he is pale and soft — his face never seems to have a bristle of hair on it, which atop his head is a kind of pompadour of waxy whiteness. He wears striped polo shirts and bowling shifts, and his fingers are permanently knurled around a cigarette: when he walks, when he sits, when he laughs, and he never ashes it — as if the force of his shaking hands automatically does so. He is extremely eager to speak English. He is even more eager to speak German, which I tell him I can’t speak, but this never seems to stop him.

Ahmed Shukri must pass the ahwa on the corner of Delta Street near the tram station about fifteen times a day, and each time he does, he ducks his head into the shadows, squinting behind his giant black sunglasses. He looks for people he knows, and hollers, waves with both hands in the air, and walks on. I’ve noticed that he also looks in the corner that I sit the most often, and when he sees me (and other random people), he walks over and says hello. It’s not just a Hello-How-are-you? gig, but usually one consists of the following programmatical formula:

Hello! Michael! (English) How are you?

(Arabic) Good, Ahmed. How are you?

(English) You are good? Yes? You are good?

(Arabic) Yes, Ahmed. I’m excellent. How are you?

(He says something in German. I laugh. He laughs).

Okay, Michael. I call you later, no? Goodbye.

If Ahmed’s conversational skills strike you as a bit one-sided, you’re not alone. This represents about half of my conversations in Arabic; especially when your deal with hot-shot shop owners who think they can put a sentence together and insist on using English when you are clearly trying to speak to them in Arabic. OR you clearly speak Arabic better than their English. I’ve decided that when someone makes up their mind to not understand you (i.e., because you are a foreigner), they will not.

Much as in life at large.

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