Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

Sorry, people. It’s been an odd couple of weeks.

I confess, I feel a little odd writing this in American environs. A blog about an amateur orientalist’s adventures in Egypt – and misadventures teaching – should best be written by the one in the field. Otherwise, it ends up becoming a mirror for memory, and though I’m all about that, I’m not sure this blog should be about that.

Fear not, gentle readers, I do have a number of things to share with you, however. And this duck’s not about to stop writing anytime soon.

Zabaleen. Wow.

It’s not for the faint of heart. After reading a few articles online, I made up my mind to go, if only for the reason that I’d regret it enormously afterwards.

Interesting cab ride

I’ve written on-and-off about Medinat al-Zabaliyya for the past few months – it’s been a source of continuous fascination for me since I arrived, and it’s perhaps a little appropriate that it should be the last thing I visit.

I left around noon from Midan Falaky, catching a white cab that had AC, and about halfway through the ride, the driver (a large-ish man named Abdul-Rahman)  started up with the usual friendly chit-chat (You speak Arabic well, what’s your name, etc. etc.). I’ve gotten particularly evasive with the nationality question and usually duck it with shopowners by telling them to guess where they think I’m from. Most common answer: Germany. It’s obviously the blonde hair, but that usually gives me a chance to tell them that my grandmother would get mad (she’s of Polish stock).

I explain this because I usually find this kind of banter back-and forth usually quite useful. I’ve found that Egyptians tend to bristle or become less receptive  to conversation (or bargaining) when approached in a no-nonsense manner. They clam up, and if you attempt levity, pleasantries work wonders. I suppose the same is pretty much true stateside, but in Egypt, it’s triply so. It’s not uncommon to be offered tea, no frills, no strings attached. It’s just the hospitality gene kicking in.

In fact, Tammam once made a few suggestions for bargaining in the souk that I’ve taken to particular heart: among them, the recommendation to smile and laugh and try to joke has been the most helpful. Once you get someone joking, things tend to move a little quicker, a little smoother than you would expect. Ask about their family, their children – you’ll get pictures and they’ll want to see yours. People want to know where you’re going, where you’re coming from, and although I’ve found this occasionally annoying, I’ve used it far too much myself to get to know people better. It doesn’t really pay to get irritated at these things; rather, if you work with it, I think the culture has its own rewards.

I digress.

The point of bantering really relaxes things and allows the car ride to go a little faster – even knock down the fare a bit (in a black cab), or at least avoid the shouting match at the end of the ride. Things were going rather well until we got to the part where I actually say, “No, my name is Michael, and I’m a teacher, and American.”

“I hate Americans.”

No joke. Guy really said it. Expression changed, face fell, the works. Smile turned to dust.


Yep. He hated them.

Actually, what my recent acquaintance really hated were the Zionist establishments that America perpetuated (his words, not mine). Abdul-Rahman proceeded to lecture me for the next twenty minutes about how Americans had a corrupt government that was (obviously) headed by the Jews and an international Jewish conspiracy, and by they way, you’re not Jewish, are you?

Anti-Semitism lives, people.

At the end of this, I pointed out something.

“Do you like Hosni Mubarak?”


“I mean, do you think Mubarak is a good president? That there’s no corruption in the present government?”

“Of course there’s corruption.”

“So is it fair if I assume that you’re a thief if your president is ibn siteen kalb (the son of sixty dogs, but for colloquial purposes, let’s say son of a bitch)?

He laughed.

“No, of course not. There’s a big difference between governments and people.”

“Well, Mister Abdul-Rahman, a suggestion: don’t think that I’m a bastard just because you think my government’s a7a (absolute shit).”

He laughed, and the matter was closed. He even knocked down the fare on the meter at the end.

I’ll have more to say on Zionism, soon: I’ve been working on a post about it at the behest of my students.

A view of the city from the gates of the monastery

The City of Garbage

The district of Zabaliyya is just at the foot of Muqattam: you ask for awal Mu5attam to get there. You wind your way around the old Ayyubid and Fatimid walls, get a pretty sweeping view of the southern City of the Dead, and plunge headlong into the blistering heat of the highway, above which hovers the giant magnifying glass of dust that turns the sky into the gray of hot metal.

You smell it before you see it.

It’s that sickeningly sweet smell: the acrid stench of burning garbage, smoky and dry , yet soaked with organic matter and decay. It feels hot and cool, and it’s worst in the streets you wind through, which haven’t yet dried on account of the alleyway shadows keeping the sun out and the roads still wet.

Entrance is through a large gate that proclaims the area name and the “company” that runs it, and the district itself has very much the feel of a village. Streets are narrow, not from the buildings being close together, but the garbage being stacked up in giant piles, compressed and bundled together in large plastic sheets. Trucks are coming and going, and there are people everywhere.

Men in tattoos go sleeveless, shirtless, some dressed normally, but with a single sleeve up. They show sometimes remarkable ink art – but mainly crude executions of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, or crosses. Graffiti, like everywhere in Egypt, abounds – but it takes you a moment to understand why it’s strange: because there are no spray painted “No god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger,” no stylized “Allahs” written in all manner of calligraphy, no “BismilLah ma sha5 Allah” (In the Name of God, What God Wills, a common phrase written above doorposts against the Evil Eye). Instead, you have Biblical injunctions, often with well-translated equivalents in English or French, but mainly just the Arabic for:

I can do anything through Him who strengthens me.

Have mercy on Your Children, oh Lord!

Pray for us, Blessed Virgin Mother.

Christ is Risen!

Abdul-Rahman takes the third alley to the right, which is a way down, and the monastery of St. Simon the Tanner announces itself through a large, colorful sign on the corner. We work our way up the hill. The cab stalls, and we rollick backwards, almost into a house, but start up again. Abdul-Rahman is a glob of curses as we inch up the hill, which is a little steep.

And suddenly, green.

Trees and gardens and the clean desert walls of sandstone. We are against the hills of the outer city. We climb up, stop at the gates, and the guard takes one look at me, and waves us on.

Stadium seats for Jesus! A view from the largest church at altar-level. Seats thirty thousand. Masses every week.

A Short Catechism

I don't buy this story: while excavating the present-day church, workers uncovered the "miraculous" carving of the Blessed Mother and Jesus. Adl (and apparently the monks) claim it has never been touched by human hands except to clean it. I'm not biting, but mainly because I like my miracles approved by Papal investigations and Vatican councils -- it's the Catholic in me.

The monastery isn’t as nearly as old as you want it to be, but the legends surrounding it date back years.

Meet the saint. According to Adl, he was entirely decomposed -- except for the face, which was perfectly intact.

Named for St. Simon the Tanner (or the Shoemaker, which tends to be the more affectionate name) the site of the current construction dates back to the original saint himself, who lived in and around Muqattam as a hermit, fixing shoes for support himself. Local lore has it that when a not unattractive young Copt came to have her shoes fixed, she hiked up her skirts a little too high (Adl said it was up to her thighs) in the process of removing her sandals. Naturally, the saint was scandalized, and (like any good monk), promptly went and plucked his right eye out. (Recall, if you will, the scriptural injunction of Matthew 5:29 that “If thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell”). A bit much.

Simon the Shoemaker and the woman who would lead him astray. Note the captions carved in English as well. It struck me as a little pandering to the wandering aganab.

The most neatly organized garbage you've ever seen. I swear, it's more organized (though not necessarily cleaner!) than most places in Egypt.

I was shown around by a gallabiyya-clad, portly fellow named Adl, who spoke incredibly clearly for using so many religious terms. He also liked to exclaim “Hallelujah!” at random points in his story, and cross himself rather excessively. But he made for a good story-teller.

The main church of Simon the Tanner is enormous: it has claims to being the largest church in the Middle East (hard to believe) and regularly seats over twenty thousand. The relics of the saint are placed just to the right of the altar-screen, and rock carvings (actually quite tasteful) abound above and below and everywhere of the miracles of the Mountain and the story of the Resurrection of Christ.

Visit the well-written website (!) here: http://cavechurch.com/home/index.asp

No, seriously, visit it.

There’s a great section about how Muqattam (which translates roughly as “cut up” or “broken”) got its name: the Copts claim it was due to a tenth-century miracle worked out by the dynamic duo of the Coptic Pope and the ancient saint at the challenge of the then-current wacky caliph. Copts believe that Simon the Tanner literally “moved the mountain” from the center of the city, dribbled it (like, bounced it up and down so that the sun was visible from underneath it), and dropped it where it is presently. No joke.

One of the awesomely-underground cave-churches in the side of the mountain. No shoes, and odd seating.

Thanks to a growing congregation, additional side-churches have been carved into the rock surrounding, totaling in five churches and a few monastic little chapels. Some are completely underground.

But talk about contrast.

crazy/beautiful just inside the gates

You walk out of the monastery gates, and the clean, but dusty environs of the well-funded cloister contrasts sharply with the mess of Zabaliyya. It’s dirty, but not disorganized. Remarkably. And there are strange aspects: like walls build out of crates, streets made not out of gravel, but crushed green glass, and people going barefoot. Actually, I was also surprised to see all the gold: I mean there was bling like whoa. Women had giant medals of Jesus (big, gaudy, gansta-type medals) from thick chains, and men wore big gold rings (I should point out that the wearing of jewelry by men — for the most part – especially of gold jewelry, is largely considered haram by most Muslims). And there were quite a few dolled-up girls, hair hanging out everywhere. But largely, the amount of gold was shocking, even on the people that looked like they were working.

And man, I have never been more self-conscious about having a camera in my life. How do you take pictures of that? Do we go to garbage dumps in the US and take pictures? Who would want a picture of that?

Part of me is outraged by my own tourist-ness. It’s deliberately making poverty into a kind of bohemian Disneyland. These people are obviously struggling, and if I were in their position, I would have dashed my camera to pieces and slapped my ass. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that, from the outside, the picture and place is still fascinating. It’s the same kind of argument that was posed against the producers of Slumdog Millionaire: you can’t just use poverty to your own artistic or cultural ends. But how do you raise awareness, combat poverty, make other people feel for it? They should already feel for it, but they don’t.


I’m a little disgusted at the end of the day, but not necessarily by the quarter. It’s not the stink of the district that makes me more than a little nauseous. It’s the realization that wanted to see something like what I’ve seen, and now that I’ve seen it, I’m walking out. I can’t really describe it as guilt, it’s not pity even: it’s more like heartbreak..

Heartbreak. Even now, weeks later, the cracks are still there.


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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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According to Tammam, I look Turkish.

Well, that’s what we’re telling the police, anyway.

I’m a Turk whose family lives in the Kafr Susa district of Damascus, here in Egypt studying Arabic and teaching English. At least, that’s what Tammam came up with when we visited the castle of Qait Bey yesterday.

Why Turkish, Tammam?

“Because that explains your funny accent, and then no one will ask questions.”

When you go to any “touristic monuments” in Egypt, there’s a sign for the prices, usually above the ticket window. It looks innocent enough.

In English it says something like:
Adults: LE 50
Students: LE 25

On the opposite side, written in Arabic, is presumably the translation. At least, that’s what people who don’t read Arabic end up thinking. In reality, it says this:

Egyptians and Arab Nationals: LE 2
Egyptian and Arab Students:    LE 1

The numbers are written in the Eastern-Arabic numerical system, thus rendering the deception hidden to the eye of the foreigner with no knowledge of Arabic.

Interestingly, if there is no sign, you get asked where you’re from for the same reason.

I’ve told  a number of Egyptians that I think this is pretty racist; I’ve gotten into some pretty heated arguments over the cost of a ticket with vendors.

The response is one usually of entitlement: either foreigners should pay more (we have more money, I suppose), or that the Egyptian government has “paid” for Egyptians to see their own monuments. I honestly don’t understand that one: that the government “subsidizes” the cost of entrance fees to national monuments for Egyptian citizens? Also: what about the whole “Arab national” thing?

If we put a sign in front of the Statue of Liberty or the Lincoln Memorial saying, “Native-born Americans $1; Naturalized Citizens $2; Resident Aliens $5; Foreign Tourists $10,” there would be an absolute outcry. Nobody would go. It’s absolutely, totally, one-hundred percent ridiculous.

And thank you, very much, I don’t get paid in dollars, so I’m pretty much at your income level, dude.

I was telling this to Ahmed and Oliver the other day in Younani, and they were telling me that out in Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada (resort towns) the opposite is often true. You can see signs that read “Welcome Foreigners!” in English, but “Egyptian Entrance Fee LE 20” in Arabic


The press puts forward a lot of effort into projecting the image of Egypt as being a welcoming place for foreigners. My theory is a little different. Never once have I felt unwelcome, but as a resident khawaga, I have never felt entirely part of the country itself. As a foreigner, you are treated as a guest in the fullest meaning of the word — everywhere. No matter where you go. No matter how long you’ve lived here. You’re the foreigner, and oh? You speak Arabic? How nice! When are you leaving? When are you going back? It is nearly impossible to pay for dinner when you go out with Egyptian friends (which, I confess, is kind of nice, but annoying in a way that really gets to my pride). I almost feel like it’s a bit of a condescension; they won’t let you in on the secret: there is a different way of acting, and different price, and a different place for you because you are not, in fact, Egyptian.

In such moments, I am grateful for Americana. Anyone who is anyone who wants to be an American can become an American. And no one can debate that with him. He/She doesn’t have to be X religion or eat X or even live in X — it’s almost as if he/she just has o agree that you can just as easily build your identity as you can claim it.

Maybe freedom of identity is the greatest freedom of all. The freedom to be adopt a town, to live wherever, to travel and let your life story be different from the background you grew up in. I get shocked looks from some of my students sometimes when I tell them that I went through a roller coaster of religious development — from idea to philosophy to religion to idea, and so on. The Quest as a narrative seems almost entirely different here; instead, its the idea of acceptance, dealing with one’s Fate — a submission which sometimes to me seems far too much like the resignation I’ve tried to avoid in my own life.

These are my observations: a person here is defined by where they are from, what religion they practice, their job. Yet all these things are determined by the chaotic arrangement of one’s birth: if you are born poor, you can’t work yourself up into the university system because you can’t afford tutors; you can’t get a good job because you don’t have a wasta (middleman-intercessor); even your religion is dictated for you because the community and your family will not tolerate the change and your freedom to do so. You will be born poor, remain the religion you are born, do a job very close to your father’s, and bear children into the space you will vacate. If you are born into a better standing, you use the resources that are available to you in that standing, but nothing can push you up. You can only go down. And this, ladies and gentleman, is qadarak: your fate. Accept it as the will of God, and do what you can with it.

A number of chapters in the books we use at the Center talk about travel and a (somewhat flawed) idea of the gap year. Kids running off to college to maybe succeed, maybe fail out, maybe learn how to live quasi-independently. The vast majority of students are baffled. It seems like such a waste of money to them; and if not, like an incredibly dangerous situation (if you look at if from a religious perspective, college was indeed a veritable cauldron of sin to sing around your ears). But it imprints the value of independence and (ideally) self-reliance. You must not be a burden to anyone else.

It’s not entirely the opposite in Egyptian society, but I think it’s a little more focused on the idea of interdependence. Everyone has their noses in everyone’s business, and no one has to be entirely independent — in fact, it’s nearly impossible. Nearly every Egyptian shab I know makes only about LE 500/month at the most, and at that salary, no one can afford to live alone, except in the most dire of hovels on the outskirts of Kubri Namoos. You have to live with your family, and forget the idea of moving away to go to college. Almost no one can do that. The cost of living alone is insane. Even the quest of one’s life is posed as one which combats solitude: marriage itself is an institution that is opposed to celibacy. Most (Muslim) Egyptians are absolutely shocked when I tell them that at one point I wanted to be a Catholic priest; “Didn’t you want to marry?” is always the reply. There is a hadith about “Marriage being half one’s religion,” that is oft-quoted. It doesn’t surprise me, then, to expect that the society values interdependence over solitude.

As a consequence, though, I think that the result is one of exclusion of outsiders, hence the upped entrance fee outside national monuments. Naturally, you are not of us, so you should pay more. Not to any xenophobic extent, but one in which lifelong membership is something you are born into and leave by dying. Neighborhoods are tight, churches and mosque communities tighter; families almost impenetrable, except by marriage. You can’t earn admission except by becoming a part of the family. Adoption here is illegal, and the way that Muslim conversion to Christianity was described to me by Fr. Andrea almost sounded more like it was regarded as a kind of adultery more than it was a betrayal of personal belief. Americans come from a country in which adoption, revision, self-invention are part of the territory. Here, I would almost call them foreign novelties. Americans change their religious beliefs, their political beliefs, their personal beliefs almost routinely sometimes. Here, they are a product of who you are. Change your religious beliefs in your own personal quest, you are betraying the community. You have committed adultery and must be purged from the community.

It is interesting, however, to note that foreigners do not apply to this category. No one would dream of trying to convert my Coptic students to Islam (this is too personal an issue); I, however, am a prime target. Perhaps they haven’t thought that that, too, would be a betrayal of my own community?

Even if you lived here for years on years on years, people you met in the street would still treat you like the next foreigner tourist here on holiday, clicking pictures of the Pyramids away for Shutterfly. You can never, ever, ever be Egyptian — or even Egyptianized. In some ways, I’m glad.

But the next time someone asks, I’m a Turco-Syrian. I’m from the Kafr Susa district of Damascus, here in Egypt to study Arabic and teach English. At least, that’s what Tammam and I are telling the tourist police these days.

Because I sure as hell ain’t payin’ no LE 50 to get into anywhere.

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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?


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?



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

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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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