Thursday, December 27, 2007

Presidents and Supermodels, oh my

French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided to take his new girlfriend and nine of their "closest friends and family" to Luxor this Christmas.

Friends had told us Luxor and Aswan would be teaming with tourists at this time and next to impossible to see the sites. So we decided to put a Nile cruise on hold.

Turns out that we made the right decision.

It has been the perfect time to play tourist in Cairo. The city is uncharacteristically quiet and many tourist attractions are virtually empty. All eyes are on the hourly newscasts showing Sarkozy and his girlfriend canoodling on the banks of the River Nile. Their 26-car motorcade visited the temples of Karnak the other day.

Boy, am I glad we dodged that circus.

After a tiring day of site seeing around Cairo, it's been fun coming back to our beautiful flat in Zamalek to watch eurotrash, heads of state and celebrities alike flying into our backyard on the evening news. I think after Sarkozy leaves, Tony Blair is flying in. Wonder who is going to be next?

The photo to is courtesy of the Luxor Information Office and AFP. Click here for the Yahoo story and more photos.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Al Fustat 640-868 AD

Just as I knew little or nothing about Jesus in Egypt, I knew even less about how Islam came to the region. Amr Ibn Al'As was a companion of the Prophet and the leader who conquered Egypt. Al-Fustat was the name of the new capital, located in an area now referred to as Old Cairo. Considering how much history occurred there well before Christianity or Islam arrived... it was probably referred to as Old Somewhere back then as well.

He built a mosque, of course. The first in Egypt, and by extension, Africa. It is an elegant structure that has been destroyed, rebuilt, restored, extended and ultimately functions as a busy place of worship, thousands of years after its first stones were laid.

We stumbled upon the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-'As as we were leaving Coptic Cairo. We arrived just after Isha (the final prayer of the day) and I think they were preparing for a wedding, so we didn't go in. I did sneak a peak at the ladies all dolled up in the reception hall and a few men (also dolled up) smoking cigarettes outside, waiting for the wedding procession to arrive.

The grounds surrounding the mosque are extensive, so we took a stroll. The lighting showed off the beautiful carving, lattice work and lamps. And unlike some of the other mosques we've visited, this one - though beautiful - was obviously very functional, buzzing with activity and not only for show.

All the guide books say that Cairo is the city of a thousand minarets. I can testify that you are never more than a few footsteps away from a mosque. Some are humble holes in the wall, while others are grand beyond imagination.

Praying is just a normal part of life here. While breezing by in crazy mid-afternoon traffic, I have often seen spontaneous lines of worshipers on the grassy traffic median or sidewalk, praying for a few minutes and then carrying on to their destination or resuming their work. Because there are mosques everywhere (literally), I have often wondered: is there a spiritual difference between praying in a cool, clean, airy mosque rather than chewing the exhaust and pollution of the hard Cairo street? Part of me really likes the grittiness of the latter. (having said that, you are not likely to catch me kneeling on broken cardboard on the main drag at rush hour any time soon...)

Just a few days ago, we visited the mosque of Ibn Tulun (the oldest existing mosque in Egypt - you can check out Yasir's blog for fabulous photos and more info. Archive: August or early September). Not the least bit gritty -- Ibn Tulun was peaceful and beautiful. Stepping through the giant front doors and into the main courtyard, it was hard to believe that we were still in Cairo. The stillness felt more like the middle of the desert. We arrived in the late afternoon, just as the sun was setting. The light was spectacular. Hanging alabaster lamps, perfect symmetry and the most extraordinary minaret with a spiral staircase. The mimber (pulpit) was decorated in ornate wooden carvings and gold tiles. I only wish I had remembered to bring a camera. Our friends Greg and Anna promised us copies of their photos, so I'll post them as soon as I get them.
All photos and text copyright Sufia Lodhi 2007

'Twas the night before Christmas

And even though we know that Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas in January and that the real birthdate of Christ is up for debate....we decided to take a Christmas eve trip to Coptic Cairo. Rather than sitting on Santa's knee at the Diwan Bookstore in Zamalek (honestly, I was tempted...) wouldn't it be more meaningful to walk where Jesus had walked and see where he had been while he was in Cairo?

We had a late start to our day and the ferry we had planned to take down the Nile had already made it's last run. So we opted for the Metro. The first time I took Cairo's subway, I went alone. That meant I had the priviledge of sitting in the orderly and spacious women's car. Today, I was with Yasir. And I was about to get my first taste of co-ed Metro travel. I had braced myself for the worst. I am happy to report that our journey passed without incident. It was a little crowded and hot but people were respectful and there was minimal shoving. In fact, when Yasir piped up with a loud "excuse me/ lao samaht" as we approached our station, numerous men tsk-tsked and gave him looks of: "Ok buddy, keep your pants on. We'll get out of your way in a moment." I was reminded of Jon Lovitz from Saturday Night Live: "You don't have to yell...."

The train spit us out at Mar Girgis (the Coptic Cairo Metro stop) in under 15 minutes. A few steps from the station, we passed through the huge and heavy door into Coptic Cairo. It was almost 4.00 pm and everyone was closing up shop. Still, we were free to wander the old walled city and thrilled that the streets were deserted.

We turned a corner and the air was filled with the scent of fresh oranges. A little girl ran out of a doorway, looked at us and said: "Orange." Not offering it to us, just showing us that she knew how to say orange, I guess. Thanks kid.

Women and children were gathered in a square, eating oranges, talking and mingling. No one said anything to us but we felt like we were intruding so we quietly turned around and left.

I don't know if the oranges were part of some pre-Christmas ritual or not but I do know that oranges from Sinai are in season and we've developed a bit of a habit. I must confess: we've been eating a kilo (or two) of them every couple of days...mmmm mmm. They are like the little oranges we call "kinn-oos" in Pakistan. The skins peel off without any effort and they are tart and fresh. But I digress...

One of the highlights of the visit was seeing the place where baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph took shelter when they fled Palestine. I realised I knew next to nothing about the early life of Jesus. My knowledge skipped from his birth to adult life. But nothing in between. I wanted to know more. So I googled it and here's an interesting article tracing his family's journey through the region:

All photos copyright Sufia Lodhi 2007

Our second wonder of the world, together

On the third day of Eid, we decided to head to the Pyramids. Cairo is quiet and mellow over the holidays so our timing couldn't have been better. The streets were quiet (it is still the largest city in Africa so "quiet" is a fairly relative assessment) and getting a taxi was a breeze.

We zoomed through the city. As we hit the main drag in Giza, the driver pointed out the window: the top of a pyramid peeked through the tall buildings and played hide and seek through the sprawl of Cairo's endless apts and office towers. I wondered what the Pharaohs would think about the competition their monuments now fought with the modern skyline.

When we got close, numerous checkpoints dotted the way to the entrance. Guns, policemen and demands for our passports (they don't even look inside, flashing Canada was enough to earn us a smile and a gracious "welcome") prevented us from seeing the pyramids. This turned out to be just as well: bars and barriers were everywhere, ruining any possibility of a clear view. As we reached our drop off point, the hustle of the hustlers hit a fever pitch. So much so that I don't remember what my first impressions were.

"hello -- need a guide?"
"welcome in egypt -- need a camel?"
"I give you two horses -- want to know how much? I give you best price."

Yasir talked his way around them and somehow we made it to the ticket office where he negotiated the Egyptian resident ticket price. It was much like our visit to the Taj Mahal a few years ago -- the advantage back then was that I at least spoke the language.
However, I have learned that Egyptians are friendly and helpful and they won't steal from you or watch idly as you get ripped off. Our taxi driver had given us safety tips the whole ride and advised us "as your driver, it is my duty" how to bargain and gave us a guage of fair prices. Here, a man approached us and from behind him we could see the Tourist Police shaking his head and wagging his finger, warning us not to get conned. With a quick nod of thanks to the Policeman, we ducked around this latest tout and slid past the barriers into the grounds of the pyramids.

Only then did we have a moment to look up and absorb the first pyramid.
I tried to imagine what it would look like without vendors selling wooden Anubis statues and plastic pyramid snow globes and tourists crawling all over the base taking photos: "hey frank! take a picture of me holding up the pyramid" was hard.

Suddenly, we heard the friday call to prayer -- the cacophony of sounds drew us to the edge of the landing that overlooks the city. We stood there, listening to the mingling voices floating up like a cloud. After a moment, we turned to look back at the Pyramid. Only then, at a distance, far from the circus at the base, were we given a better vantage point. They were magnificent.
Many of the entrances to the tombs were closed so we walked into the ones we could and marvelled at the perfectly preserved artifacts in the Solar Boat Museum (4000 year old straw and rope that looked like it was just woven).

The desert sand and the colours of the Pyramids against the bright blue winter sky were the elements that impressed me most. I tried to imagine how breathtaking it must have been to trek through the vast desert and have stumbled upon this for the first time.

All photographs and text copyright Sufia Lodhi 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007

No one talks about downloading until it's too late

Sun, sea, palm trees and relaxation. That's what my friends promised when they invited me to join them at the Grand Rotana resort in Sharm el Sheikh. I was still getting over my jet lag and all my senses were assaulted by Cairo's pollution and chaos. The lure of sunny blue skies and pool side cabanas were just too much for me to resist.

I flew into Sharm (the bone rattling turbulence is par for the course in winter, reassured the kind man sitting in the seat next to me) and paid far too much for a super short taxi ride to the resort. I tried explaining (in english: my first mistake) that I lived in Cairo and that his prices were out of control. He looked at me, deadpan and said in equally perfect english: "You are in Sharm now."

The hotel was ridiculous (in a good way). Gorgeous, luxurious and filled with...Russians? Everywhere I looked, beautiful women with blue eyes and perfect figures were arm in arm with men whose figures weren't, shall we say, as perfect. While the women were sporting tasteful, if skimpy bikinis, all the men were kitted out in ill-fitting speedos. What must they have been thinking? Not one to ponder such deep mysteries while on vacation, I was content to enjoy the sea air, palm trees and hammocks.

Ah, the hammocks. There was a beautiful row of them, strung along a line of palm trees, their leaves creating a rustling green canopy. Equally beautiful during the day as they were by moonlight. I took pictures. On my phone. The phone I lost...the phone that had all my photos of the last three years. The birth of my nephew, my best friends kids, anniversaries, was a sickening loss. "Didn't you download them?!" everyone asks. Um, if I did, I wouldn't be so sad about losing my phone... So I bought a new one. Which explains the photo of my new phone on this post rather than pictures of sand and sea....

When we left Canada, good friends told us to plan escapes from Cairo often. They also told us to embrace the bubble of expat luxury. I felt a little guilty about running off to a 5-star resort so soon into my stay here -- but my guilt was soon washed away by a tall, cool glass of pomegranate juice and the fresh Red Sea breeze.

photo and text copyright sufia lodhi 2007

Eid Mubarak

All my life, Eid has been a joy-filled celebration. I wanted the same on my first Eid in Cairo.

We invited friends over the night before Eid for a "chand raat" party. And I wasn't going to have a chand raat without henna. Thankfully, our life here is blessed with the wonderful Mrs Khalifa. Her family transformed our Eid. From finding the Sudanese henna lady for our party to inviting us to their place in Imbaba for a traditional Egyptian Eid day lunch, they made this Eid-ul-Adha unforgettable.

When I was a kid, the night before Eid my mother would put henna on my hands and my father would confer with the community to spot the moon and then arrange the morning prayers. The day of Eid, my mom would be up at the crack of dawn (even tho she was the last to sleep) making sure our brand new Eid clothes were pressed and ready. She would shoo us down to a traditional sweet breakfast before heading out the door to Eid prayers. We'd go to prayers, meet everyone and spend the day visiting family and friends (stuffing our faces at every stop...) On Eid-ul-Adha, my father would go to a nearby farm (in sussex) and sort out the meat and it's distribution (split in equal thirds: charity/ friends and family/ personal use). All this in a small town in eastern Canada where I was the only Muslim kid in my school until my brother started grade one. I always knew the meaning of Eid and looked forward to it. I thought all these were traditions unique to my family -- but as I grew up and celebrated Eid in my various travels around the globe, I realised that what my parents had done for us was repeated in households across the Muslim world.
photo taken by yasir khan, composed by sufia lodhi :-) 2007

Time to learn Arabic

I've been procrastinating on arranging arabic lessons. I have been happily getting by on my very limited taxi-cab arabic (al-atool, shemel, yamine, hina kwais -- straight ahead, left, right, here is fine), my ability to buy simple items (wahad chocolate croissant, min fadlek) and acting like I can speak arabic when approached by vendors on the street (la, mish dilwati, shookrun). Until last week when we stopped for a mid-afternoon snack just across from the Khan-al-Khalili market.

"Lao samaht - feen al hammam?" I asked: where is the bathroom?

The waiter pointed me towards a set of wooden, swinging-saloon-type doors. I pushed open the doors to find a sink in the middle and two signs pointing left and right, indicating the mens and arabic. I was at a crossroads in more ways than one.

So, I took my chances, chose a door and resolved to call an arabic tutor as soon as I got home.

"The Khan" can be overwhelming in its clutter, noise, stray cats and ceaseless hawkers vying for your attention. But every time I visit, beauty flashes around a corner or is caught as you look up for a moment. Here are some of the lanterns that caught my eye on our last trip to Khan-al-Khalili.