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Posts Tagged ‘Cairo’

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.

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Most people don’t think of alcohol when they think of Egypt; after all, it’s an Islamic country, more or less. Yet, strangely, there is a fantastic, if sometimes disconcerting and strange, drinking culture pervasive throughout Egypt. The clientele is anything but homogenous — walk into a bar in Cairo and you’re just as likely to see Sa’idis puffing of sheesha in between sips of their brandy and Stella as you are to see local expats boozing their troubles away. A significant portion of men in the smaller places wore galabiyyas, which I suppose is surprising.

The local stuff. Think of it as a sub-par Corona.

In honor of Andrea’s brother coming to town, Rumi planned a bar crawl. Inspired by the Baladi Bar website, we braved the cold night air and ventured out into the great unknown of Cairo’s seediest locales, ducking into green-glassed doors and chatting with amiable bartenders. Bar food was excellent, in true Cairo fashion: carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and salty tirmes (lupini beans with lemon a red spice called shata), and by 5 AM, we managed to crawl through a total of nine places without getting into too much trouble — and by that, I mean none. It was awesome. Souvenirs of the night include not one, but TWO Stella bottle openers, one of which was presented to Rumi as a belated b-day gift.

Months ago (!) I’ve posted a link to disappearing Cairo bars, and I have an article forthcoming on dive bars in Alex. Here it is again, though based on what we saw, the good old fashioned tavern is thriving: you just need to know where to find it.

In other news, Tom broke my no-sheesha streak by taking me to the most atmospheric (yet, cheap) place for tea in Cairo; the courtyard in front of the Arabic Oud School near al-Azhar. The tea comes with a tray of sage, cardamom, clove, and mint to spice your own tea in a tiny little teapot, and the hookah is choice — perhaps one of the best places I’ve ever sat.

Serious awesomeness

Also: I’m a little terrified to give the major discovery of the weekend away, but it’s so awesome that I have to toss caution to the wind; al-Khatoun, in the same courtyard, which sells the most wonderful objects I’ve ever seen in my life, all of which are relatively inexpensive (not quite Egyptian prices, not quite American prices). I brought home an incredible chess set (pictures to follow eventually). We managed to also find a place that sold old survey maps of the desert and Cairo itself — all with Arabic script scribbled over everything and all. Currently hanging in my room making me feel a little more like Lazlo de Almasy.

The internet to the flat has been cut off; bastard of an internet man was doing nothing but making excuses for about two weeks of nonexistent access (while also maintaining that we should be able to connect; no, really! It works, I swear. Liar.) I had a go at him in the street after he basically treated me like a moron and called him…a not good person. In such situations I’m very tempted to swear, but instead I just shout, considering that’s what I see most Egyptians doing. The result: less frequent posts as I use my cafe time in the job search.

Oy.

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Melissa arrived on Christmas Eve about an hour and a half late into Cairo airport, disembarking what she describes as the worst flight of her life. We immediately jumped on board the Superjet bus from the airport station bound for Alexandria, hoping to exchange time for money, considering how it’s really impossible to catch a cab from Maza to the center of town without getting robbed blind. Question to other expats: how much do you pay — I’ve heard LE 70 is a good price, but who knows some days.

Anyhow, the ride was hellish: Thursday night coming out of Cairo almost invariably is. We spent six hours trying to get out of Bulaq, at which point the driver thought it might be a good idea to take Shar3a al-Ahram, parking us in the middle of the budding night scene. Melissa was a good sport about it, though, considering it was a crash-course in Cairo craziness (traffic, time, and the smell of this bus was particularly foul). We arrived in Alex around 12, missing midnight Mass, but still on our feet. I had most of the things ready for dinner beforehand, so we stayed up only a little later and made a chicken parmesan that, I must say, had quite a superior sauce of my own devising. Around this time, Melissa discovered that the very pretty silver Christmas ornaments on the tree were actually three sets of very pretty earrings that were her Christmas gift, and all was well on the silent night.

We’ve just come back yesterday morning from a three-day sabbatical to Siwa Oasis, where we stayed at the Desert Rose. I’m kind of sad to report that the place has gone downhill as of late: they’ve whitewashed a lot of the awesome decorations, and the staff isn’t quite as a helpful as they once were. Everyone seems kind of worn down by the influx of tourists (and there were quite a few– meaning hordes) rolling into town for New Year’s Eve. We met up with Andrea (who deserves a blog post of his own, including pictures of the almost-finished but definitely liveable house on the side of Shali), and even made some more Italian friends.

Yesterday was spent recovering from the Siwa night bus and desperately trying to finish my last essay for Ann Arbor; last dinner of the year was a good singaal at Abou Ashraf in Anfushi (which Melissa loved), followed by relatively low-key festivities at the Spitfire. No clock in the bar, and everyone argued over the time (all our watches were different), until someone just started the countdown from ten — at which point we all joined in and raised our loving cups high. Melissa pushed me forward to sing Auld ang Syne, and I got to the end of the first verse before I realize that I was the only one singing.

Sigh.

Happy New Year, everyone! Kul sena wentum tayyibin!

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So, I’ll cave.

It’s 4:35 PM on 14 November, and Egypt faces Algieria later tonight (7:30) in what amounts to one of the year’s most significant matches; Egypt needs to beat her rival North African counterpart by at least two goals in order to qualify for next year’s World Cup. Campaigns have been everywhere; I can scarcely talk to anyone without the subject of the match coming up, and tonight, doubtless, will be eventful one way or another.

Cairo Warden sent out riot warnings to Egyptian expats, telling them to avoid Nasr City and large crowds of people.

I was here a year and a half ago when Egypt won the Africa Cup — the chaos that following the victory was absolutely insane. I mean really, truly, horrifyingly insane. People were using cans of Raid as makeshift blowtorches, setting steel wool on fire and twirling it about so that the sparks flew everywhere. Others did doughnuts on the Corniche, and mobs of people stopped whatever traffic was left altogether. Plates and crockery flew out of houses and onto the streets. It was crazy. It was insane. And everyone there (I remember remarking on this to Mohammad Sharnubi at the time) was stone cold sober.

Tonight — a repeat, perhaps?

Sharnubi told me that if (and I paraphrase) the gods decide on a defeat for Masr, silence generally follows; people spill out of cafes silent as the grave, as if at a funeral.

Only time will tell, gentle readers. Tell you what happens this time tomorrow.

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Recently from Pete Willows, a writer at BikyaMasr — a wonderful article diving to the ins and outs and intricacies of the Zabaleen, “the Garbage People” living in the shadow of Muqattam in Cairo:

Read the awesome article

This harkens back to my own post some time ago.

Real post later on today: fun stuff on teaching. Stay tuned, Egypt.

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24 October deserves another post, if late.

My birthday morning consisted of taking the GREs out in Dokki at 8:30, which proved to be a trying experience. An old wrinkled woman in hijab with the grumpiest American accent I’ve ever heard (kind of impressive) was Gestapo about putting your pencils down at the exact moment she called time. I barely finished the essays and the math sections I was at least five questions shy in. Vocab and reading was a cinch. It’s rather annoying to have to take these things, though. We’ll see if it warrants re-testing. I’m almost certain it will.

Caught the afternoon bus back to Alex, and met up with folks (Tom and Andrea came out for the weekend) at the Spitfire and proceeded to merrymake. A blur of cigarettes and Stellas and sparkling conversation. Discovered a German girl that can roll cigarettes like the real thing. I mean an absolute artist.

Nothing really to say, except quite the night, which ended in the traditional McDonald’s pig-out at 2 in the morning on the Corniche.

I love this city.

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John and I pulled into the Bulaq district of Cairo in a mashru3a around 11, and after finding a room for him (I would be staying with Tom and Andrea), we made our way down Talaat Harb Street and found the speakeasyish hole-in-the-wall known as the Stella Cafeteria, where its Thursday night patrons packed the place shoulder to shoulder. Glasses were raised, memories and experiences were exchanged, and salted cucumbers were nibbled on. Among the surprises were the presence of Claire from TAFL days past and Naya from Midd; it seems that everyone is heading back to Egypt for lack of job prospects back home. One must do what one must, I suppose.

We stayed out at Bourse a little longer afterwards, smoking what amounts to one of the best hookahs I’ve ever tasted (a cocktail of fig, grape, and mint), though it saw us home around 4ish — not the best plan for our excursion on Friday, but accepted that we’d be getting little sleep as-is. Stumbled back to Bab al-Luq, said my goodnights, and fell asleep on the heavenly mattress in Tom and Andrea’s guest room.

We woke up at five. I took a cold shower, and Tom and I met up with John at Midan Tahrir, where we hailed down the rare cabs that passed by (barely any traffic by the museum). Four cabs later, we found a driver who vaguely had an idea about a Camel Market Street, but not of a camel market itself. After a few minutes of arguing, he said that he would find it, no problem, but how much would we pay? I said seventy. Strangely, he accepted right off the bat. We got in, and the adventure began.

Halfway to Giza, the driver started asking questions. Sa’id was a small, swarthy man that resembled a short cross between Jack Sparrow and Quevedo (round, thick black glasses) in a striped polo. It became apparent he had no idea where he was going. He started hailing down other cabs to slow down and asked them, stopping at corners, asking where to find Sudan Street or Camel Market Street, either one — neither of which is anywhere near Birqash, where the current government camel market is held. No one knew. We ended up near the site of the old one, in Imbaba, an hour later, by some rickety railroad ties and a lot of sheep. Garbage everywhere, more than is usual for Cairo; most of it burning. Acrid smells everywhere rising up from the ditches.

Roads become worse and we start into the countryside, and eventually, of the dozens of people we hailed down asking where to go, the cab driver asks an old man on an ancient bicycle with two milk cans astride the seat like saddlebags:

Driver: Can you tell me where Camel Souk Street is?
Man: Not here. That’s in Imbaba.
Driver: Thank you.
Man: (turns and look at us) Yes. But there is a camel market in Birqash. Right?

I could have hit him. The entire time we were in the cab he kept insisting that we foreigners were out of our minds and that there wasn’t anything called Birqash and what did we know? I could have killed him. The old man pointed the way after debating it with fat man in a galabiyya that came to see what was going on. We were off.

We didn’t get there for another hour. The countryside opened up into clean, bright greens coming out of the mist, silhouettes of giant date palms, and the cool, crisp air of morning. Something, Tom noted, felt cleaner. Rows and rows of cabbage, canals and reed huts. Old women cutting down weeds on the canal banks. Fallen sycamores on the banks with bright white blossoms that, as we got closer, revealed themselves to be sleeping egrets. It was idyllic.

We did pass our share of garbage. We pulled through half-finished villages and rotting bridges, hills of smoking waste, and rivers of green sludge. At one point we passed a wrecked minibus and car, totalled on the side of the road. A man with his head wrapped in a white cloth and in a green galabiyya sat perched cross-legged on the truck of the car, a rifle across his lap. He pointed toward the village of Birqash, and we bumped along.

Finally, we arrived.

Entrance to the market is a cool twenty pounds; the men at the gate were nice enough not to charge us for the cameras (everything is a money making enterprise here, it seems).P1012064_2

According to a number of drovers (seems to be the appropriate word), there are anywhere between four to seven thousand camels on any given day in the market; most come up from the Sudan and Somalia, where they’re held in quarantine for three days, before being put on trucks in Aswan and driven north to Birqash. Specific herds are marked with a series of symbols and numbers and colors to indicate their owners, and once in the market, drovers tie one on their front legs to the back leg of another camel to keep them from running, though they still manage to elude their owners with a sometimes surprising grace.

What does a good camel cost? What is a good camel, anyway?

Good camels, according to one man, are defined by their teeth; the prevailing mentality (as I asked a few random men) being that teeth are one of the only thing that you can’t change — big teeth indicate a big camel. Most of the beasts here are rather emaciated from their journey, and once bought, their new owners nurse them back to health. Aesthetics are not a part of the decision.

P1012056I should also point out the remarkable amount of cruelty that goes down in the market. Camels are beaten with cane poles by their drovers to stay in their circles and keep them in line. When a camel is brought up for auction, its cheeks are hit with the same poles so it will growl and reveal its teeth. Some have blood in their eyes. Not for the faint of heart.

Most of the “ships” (Exupery’s term) bought here are used for conventional purposes; no Orientalists mounting desert expeditions. The first remark out of anyone’s mouth as to their uses is simple: “For the butcher.” Camel is a relatively inexpensive, if chewy meat (imagine a buttery version of horse). However, most of the exchange is similar to real estate: drovers swapping bargains off one another, fixing them up, and re-selling them to others.

A bargain goes down. They were shouting at each other like no one's business.

A bargain goes down. They were shouting at each other like no one's business.

Not only have I never seen so many camels, but I’ve never seen so many galabiyyas. De rigeur, really.

Ride back was considerably shorter (driver actually knew where he was going). John and I grabbed a tamiyya, and all parties went back to bed, where we collapsed from joy and exhaustion both.

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