Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Yesterday I had a lunch downtown at Taboula (deeelicious lebanese food. My fave is their luscious kibbeh nayar) in Garden City. By the time lunch wrapped up, it was about 3.00 (what can I say, I seem to lunch the same way no matter where I live..."rush? who's in a rush, lets have a coffee and stay a while") and the start of afternoon traffic hell. I walked to Tahrir Square and considered getting into a yellow cab. Black cabs are open, smell of gas -- both human and petrol related - and you can chew the air from the open windows as you sail along while your driver chain smokes. Yellow cabs are hermetically sealed and have lovely, non-smoking, air conditioning -- unless you get the driver we had the other day: "It is winter now. No air conditioning". They are also hard to get, notoriously unreliable and cost more. But malesh, at least you can breathe.
But then I got distracted by the ever looming Mogamma. There is always something going on in front of that huge wall of a building.
Here's a little sample of what was happening yesterday: amid the usual smattering of lovers sitting closely together on benches, tea sellers minding their bubbling pots and little boys playing football or jumping on the hoses left out to water the lawns, a blond woman, handcuffed to a really young Egyptian man was unceremoniously escorted by two Policemen across the square to a shady tree just under the Mogamma.
Had I been in Canada or Europe, I would have thought: "Don't stare, it's rude." But this is Egypt where staring is considered a fundamental human right.
I unabashedly stood and watched the scene. Lots of smoking, fist waving (the handcuffed detainees) and calm down gestures (the policemen). I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on but the blond woman looked like she'd been drinking and the Egyptian kid looked like he wanted his Mom. I tried to get closer but the policemen gave me a look that told me it would be better if I just walked away. So I did. I'm Canadian, after all. It doesn't take much to get me to mind my own business.
Directly in front of the main entrance to the Mogamma, an informal market had sprouted on the cool marble promenade. So I went and checked it out. Sunglasses 7.50 LE, watches 10 LE, an entire table with everything for 2.5 LE. Scarves, tops, cellphones, kitchen utensils -- you name it, they had it and it was all under 10 LE (about $2.00) And before you ask: OF COURSE I bought something. It would have been fairly retarded not to.
After I had my fill of the market and emptied my pockets of all remaining small bills, I looked at the gridlock, thought better of getting a taxi and made my way to the Metro.
I love the Metro. Riding it makes me feel part of the city. It allows me to observe life and the people with whom I share the city. And it's probably the most efficient, reliable, enviro-friendly (if that matters to you) way to get around Cairo.
This time, I was asked directions and - eureka - was able to give them. In Arabic, thank you very much. (God only knows what train the poor woman is on now...but I meant well.) The machine ate my ticket. Immediately, a uniformed Metro guy appeared and opened the machine to give me a look at the inner workings of the turnstiles before returning my ticket and shooing me into the stream of commuters heading to the platform. I pushed my way on to the women's car (much less crowded and infinitely better smelling) where little boys and women sporting new born babies hawked everything from safety pins to dress socks to dates stuffed with almonds. After about 20 hot but breezy minutes, I was back in Maadi. No chain smoking, no lead inhalation, no traffic-related near death experiences.
Of course, I must admit there's a charm in that type of journey as well. But I'll leave that for another post.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
We've been playing tour guide and taking them to all the must-see spots in our beloved new home town. While taking photos at Coptic Cairo the other day, as usual, passersby who hear our guests' accents want to know:
An enthusiastic Robert: "Yes! America!"
Little kid gives him a thumbs up: "Obama!"
And then Robert nearly does a jig for happiness and I think he's going to hug the kid. But instead, he gives a thumbs up: "Obama." He sighs a contented sigh. And gives the kid an even bigger smile. And then he proceeds to buy a handful of the papyrus book marks the kid was hawking for one crisp greenback.
My friend Stephanie just shakes her head and laughs: "You don't understand. This is the first time in years that we have traveled abroad and are proud to tell people we're American."
Since then, Robert has been greeting anyone who makes eye contact (and for those who know Cairo - that is no small number of people) with a peppy: "O-Bama" He's even developed hand gestures/ makeshift sign language to go with it. In case they don't get what he is trying to communicate. Normally, I would worry about my hulking 6 foot something American guest getting into peoples' faces but 9 times out of 10, he's met with an enthusiastic smile in return and a "yes yes, Obama -- Mabrook" (congratulations).
Seems the whole world has Obama fever. We even stayed up all night watching the coverage while the Canadian election came and went without us giving it a second glance. And I will admit that I could feel a little lump rising in my throat with every "Yes we can" in Obama's victory address.
But I also wrote political speeches by the dozen in my last job, so I am not drinking the whole jug of kool-aid...
There is, however, something catchy about the shift in mood, the optimism and the hope. And in honour of that, I am choosing to silence my inner cynic -- the one that questions how much a new American president is really going to change the state of the world -- and getting on board.
So to our American neighbours, I say: Mabrook! May your new president live up to the hype.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
The project was supposed to be an exercise in building bridges and fostering inter-cultural understanding and dialogue. Some of the bloggers had been educated in the American system and have had a keen interest in American society and politics. They were all excited to be going to the States to be part of one of the most exciting elections of our lives.
This week, they went back to the States for part 2 of the project: to be there on election day and blog from their host journalism schools. Two were detained and treated quite badly at the US border and others were selected for "further screening" on each connecting flight. All this despite the fact that their visas were issued by the State Department, despite the fact that they were sponsored by USAID and sent by the AMERICAN university in Cairo and had all the paperwork to prove it.
Can you say: The left hand doesn't know who the right hand is screwing over? While one part of the American government is spending a good chunk of change to try and build bridges with the rest of the world by showing them how great their democracy is, the other part of the American government is showing visitors that their detention centers are just as bad as the ones they left behind in their home countries.
The project has yielded so much thought-provoking debate and insight. Their hosts and regular Americans have been wonderful ambassadors for their country and the process. I'm disappointed that the first people most visitors meet when entering the States can undo it all in one fell swoop.
Read the translation of one of the bloggers' experience: Detained
Monday, October 20, 2008
It's the kind of spot you know you can go for a good meal after a hard day at work when you don't want to cook. Or when you fancy something delicious and reliable and don't want to think too hard about where to go. It is close and it is cheap and we go there a lot. The beef bulgogi is to die for and I highly recommend the glass noodles with chicken. My husband is rather addicted to their seafood pancake. Mmmm mmm.
So when you find a place like this, you want to hold on to it, right? Don't want to mess it up. Avoid rocking the boat and just appreciate your good fortune. Maybe it's the Canadian in me, but when I have a good thing going I like to keep my head down and enjoy it.
My husband, of course, doesn't always share my philosophy.
The other night, he wanted to know what the big deal would be if he wore this t-shirt to our beloved Korean restaurant:
Monday, October 6, 2008
We decided to take a day trip and head north east to see the roman ruins at Baalbek. The drive took us up the winding roads to the mountains, across the spectacular range, over bridges being rebuilt after Israeli air strikes during the 2006 war to the other side and down into the Bakaa Valley.
That's when we entered Hezbollah territory. How did we know? The road was decorated with party flags and photos of dead Hezbollah fighters. Young men's faces were framed with slogans like: "You are the men of God" "You are the victory of Islam". Walls painted with Nasrallah's smiling face stood side by side with huge billboards of Khamenei and the late Ayatolla Khomeini. Most notable shop name: "Supermarket of the Oppressed".
We slowed to go through a checkpoint. Once we cleared it, we saw that two men were flagging down cars and throwing glossy, colourful Hezbollah pamphlets into open windows. We grabbed one, thinking what a great souvenir. Doh. We did exactly what they had hoped we would. The men came to our driver's window, demanding money. Our driver gave the pamphlet back, saying they (us) don't want it.
"Give us 5000 LL." (less than $4)
"They are only tourists. They don't want it."
"What about you?" he took back the pamphlet and looked at the money in our driver's hand, "then give us 2000 LL."
"I am just a driver, I don't have any money..."
"Pull over." They pointed like air traffic controllers, trying to guide our car to the side of the road. Our driver just waved at them and kept going.
Suffice to say, no political contributions were made that day.
This little fund raising attempt was the closest we got to anything remotely political during our trip. The rest of the time was spent drinking wonderful coffee, eating delicious sea food and taking in spectacular views. Blissfully unaware of the hardships facing the locals or having the slightest inkling re: the political situation. Lebanon felt more like an upscale European resort than a country recovering from -- and some argue still teetering on the edge of -- civil war.
Elections happen next year. Lets see where this roadside fund raising gets the party of God and it's competitors.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Chand Raat -- aka: the "night of the moon". Chand raat is the last night of Ramadan and the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr. Tonight is chand raat (I'm sure no one in Cairo calls it that) and you can hear the traffic, fireworks and the buzz of the city getting ready for the celebration in the morning.
Growing up, chand raat was busy with preparations. Last minute cooking, ironing our new clothes (no kid of my mother's was going to show up to Eid prayers in already worn threads) and no matter how exhausted my mother was, she always made sure I had henna on my hands. Always. In the morning, we ate "savaiyah" (a sweet vermicelli dish) before dashing out the door to Eid prayers. The day that followed was a marathon blur of endless sweet and fatty food as we went from one Auntie's house to another.
We ate like were on a mission to avenge the month of fasting.
Today, I am in another country, thousands of miles away from my Mom. The traditional Eid sweet here is a cookie with a fig in the middle, dusted with sugar. We have some of those on the table but some things about Eid remain constant for me wherever in the world I go: "savaiyah" (aka: Sheer Korma) are bubbling away on the stove, I'm ironing my clothes for the morning and (much like my mother before me) trying to convince my husband to wear a traditional Pakistani suit tomorrow (he won't).
Tucked away in a little cup on my kitchen counter, some Egyptian henna waits my artistic inspiration (I'll post a photo but my prediction: a two year old child's art project gone wrong. On my hands for the next 4-6 weeks).
Tomorrow after Eid prayers, we're invited to breakfast at a new friend's place and then lunch and dinner with another. So I guess now we're the Aunties on the Eid day circuit...
Chaand Mubarak and Happy Eid to all
Monday, September 29, 2008
So many things. So many that I've decided that I'll just write them down as they come to me:
I used to have coffee at the Segafrado on the main road in Zamalek (July 26). I sat by the window and watched the streetlife and this same scene was repeated countless times: a bus barely slows at the stop. A passenger wanting to get on, reaches out his hand. From inside the bus, two hands pull him on to the bus while a passerby pushes him onto the bus. None of the people involved know each other and go their separate ways. So what? I love that people just automatically help each other. We're all in this together, it says.
The other day, YK and I were on the metro and a blind man got on. He was alone. Two groups of unrelated travelers were crammed on the metro on either side of him. Without a word, one man from the group on the left and one man from the group on the right offered their arms to the blind man and escorted him off the metro when his stop came. They asked if he needed anything more and went off in opposite directions to carry on their journeys.
I cannot count the conversations that have taken place as we barrel full speed ahead in Cairo traffic. Car to car, people will pass comments on a third car or a scene taking place in the next lane or by the side of the road. They'll share a joke as they cut each other off or change lanes. So many times, our cab driver has leaned out and given directions to the car driving beside us.
I love Cairo because everyone is interacting with the people around them. They are INVOLVED. I know there is no way a Cairene could walk past someone in distress without offering to help. A Cairene will give you advice and directions (granted: whether you ask for it or not) and will strike up a conversation wherever there is a sliver of a space for it. If a Cairene catches your eye, he/she cannot help but say "Salaam" and ask you how you are. It would be unnatural not to. Unheard of. Impossible.
That is just one of the things I love about Cairo.
The irony that a blogger project has kept me from blogging is not lost on me.
Stay tuned, I promise to write more soon.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
So much so that we've changed our tickets (at some expense and inconvenience) to return 2 (count em: TWO) weeks early.
That's right. And I can't wait. Ah, to chew, er, I mean, breathe that air (ironically, my asthma is 10 times worse here in north america than it ever was in Cairo) and be in the middle of all the bustle and noise. I can't wait. To have my baker, butcher, vegetable guy greet me, ask me how I am and wish me a good day. To see the sun twinkling on the Nile, feel the intense sunshine and smell the lush Indian jasmine that grows in the roundabout in front of our flat.
I have loved being home and especially spending time with family, so it's obviously bitter sweet to be returning. But the great thing is this: I consider Cairo home at the moment and I love it. Even after visiting NYC, a city I absolutely love, I still want to go back to Cairo. Even after visiting London, a place I always imagined I would settle, I still want to go back to Cairo. Even after being spoiled by all of north america's conveniences like drive-through banks, modern plumbing and coffee choices and instant everything....I still want to go back to Cairo.
Maybe everyone is right. Maybe I am crazy.
Crazy like a fox.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
All photos and text copyright Sufia Lodhi 2008
Friday, May 2, 2008
Doha passport control was a polite breeze, accompanied by a friendly: "Welcome to Qatar, we hope you enjoy your stay."
Return to Cairo? Not so much.
We arrive at the same terminal where the baksheesh incident took place less than 4 days before. Once again, my passport sailed through and when they got to YK's, they asked what his nationality was. YK said Canadian and I (because I cannot control myself) said rather snidely: "That's why he has a Canadian passport." Duh.
The passport guy had already called on a gopher to come get YK's passport. It was deja vu. Except this time, they didn't have the element of surprise or intimidation because we already knew what they were after. And they weren't going to get it on my watch.
This time, as he took the passport, I stopped him and said: "If you are taking this in the hopes of getting a baksheesh, you can give it back right now. We aren't going to pay you anything."
He looked at me blankly and walked towards the end of the wickets. I followed him, my blood boiling. He told YK to go back to the other side of immigration and something in my brain snapped. I held YK's arm and told him to stay put. I think all the protective Lionesses and Mama Elephants on safari had had an effect on me... all of a sudden, we were in "Mean Girls" re: how this would be settled in the animal world.
Insanely angry me: "There's nothing wrong with his passport or his visa. It has already been stamped and checked. He is not going anywhere except out of this airport and home. And you (insert culturally inappropriate finger point) are going to give his passport back right now."
I was, admittedly, blindly tired and reaching off the charts rage, which explains my clear lack of prudence. Rarely am I so ballsy -- especially around people in uniforms with the power to detain us or worse. Clearly, my exhaustion was getting in the way of my better judgement. But stay tuned, perhaps my insanity was the key to success in this country...
Passport gopher: "Hindia?"
Not this again.
Me: "NO. Canada -- see?" (waving passport manically in his face)
YK was trying to get me to calm down, but the scene had begun and there was no stopping me now. They were not going to get away with this two times in one week. I suddenly felt a real bond with Michael Douglas's character in "Falling down" in MacDonalds when he's had this terrible day and wants breakfast at 11:02 but they stop serving breakfast at 11:00.
Me: "This happened to us two days ago. There is NO reason for you to hold this passport or delay us. We are not going to give you a baksheesh, so give back the passport now."
Uniformed officer: "Please wait -- no English." Insipid smile.
Postal Me: "No English? Nice. (flash of obnoxious fake smile) Well, me: No Arabic. Give me back the passport now."
The uniformed officer held up his hands in a "calm down, don't shoot me" gesture, laughed a little and gave YK a look of pity, as if to say: You poor man having to live with such a crazy wife...
But he gave back the passport, no money changed hands and we went to baggage claim.
It's a few days later and I am STILL so mad. I hate that the only way to avoid this is to go back to having the University people take us through immigration and customs. So much for trying to transcend a stratified society. We should have stuck to our station instead of trying to be down with the people and clearing customs on our own. Lesson unpleasantly learned.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
We arrived on the red-eye this morning, an hour and a half late. The customs hall was empty and we were third in line at passport control. Thanks to my pre-trip visit to the Mogamma, my Canadian passport sailed through, ka-chunk, ka-chunk -- entry stamps, done. Pass to the guy in back. He looks at me deadpan. I smile. He gives me back the passport and I go through.
YK's passport -- ka-chunk, ka-chunk. Pass to the guy in back. He passes it back to the guy in front but today, they did something different. This surprised me because YK has a much more legit and influential visa than yours truly. And they had already stamped and machine read his passport, so what was the holdup?
One white uniformed officer took the passport to one booth. We waited. Me on one side of immigration, YK on the other. Another uniformed officer took his passport and went to the left. Gave it to a guy who took it to the right. Back and forth, looking serious, for no apparent reason.
Finally, the officer called YK to the exit lane where I was waiting. He looked at me and said: "India?"
I held up my passport (the one he had just seen and stamped) and said, "No. Canada. What seems to be the delay?"
Officer to me again: "Hindia?"
Me to officer: "No Hindia. Canada. See?" flash passport once again.
YK passed through the barrier and the officer smiled at him broadly.
YK: "Is there a problem?"
Officer: "No, no problem at all."
YK reaches out for passport: "Great. Thank you, I'll just take that then."
Officer still holding on to the passport and smiling: "What about baksheesh?"
The penny dropped: So THAT is what this had all been about. We are such square Canadians that we don't even see the signs. But the thing is, we're such square Canadians that we don't pay bribes to get through international airports either. So we said, thanks buddy, but we don't think so. (Actually, YK's exact words were: "No baksheesh, you are a civil servant.") We grabbed the passport and went to baggage claim.
I've been in plenty of situations where extra money was requested or I was over charged. And in fact (see previous post: Malesh) I feel in some cases that me getting "taken for a ride" and paying extra during these hard times in Egypt is fine.
But today was not on. Officials using their position to intimidate us for money rattled me. And it left a really bad taste in my mouth. After returning from a holiday in Kenya where poverty is rampant but people are friendly, gentle and humble -- this was a jarring and unpleasant re-entry to life in Cairo.
As we pulled out of the airport, Cairo looked like an ugly hungry, beast. It was the first time in the six months I've been here that I felt that way.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
I want to make sure that I did not give the impression that the Mogamma is inefficient. Because it is remarkable really that they manage to get so much done. The sheer volume of traffic in and out is astounding. Most of the work is done by hand, with paper forms (ie: gasp! no computers) and somehow, they manage to keep track of everything.
When I went back today every person I had dealt with a few days ago remembered my face, smiled and bid me salaam and a good morning. I did get shunted to a few different windows, but it was painless and quick. After scribbling on all my documents, they politely asked us (yk came with me this morning to watch the show. I think he was disappointed that it wasn't more of a zoo) to come back in an hour. So we meandered over to the Nile Hilton, had a croissant and a coffee and did some shopping. Upon our return, the nice lady at counter 42 asked me to pay the stamping fee (a mere LE3 and 50piasters) and I emerged into the bright Saturday afternoon sunshine with my residency visa neatly pasted into my new passport.
Expenses in all:
5 photo copies-- LE2
2 turkish coffees -- LE5
1 new visa -- LE3.5
I know, I know, it's over done, but I cannot resist....
Experiencing the Mogamma: priceless
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Ready for our safari? Not quite. Cathy at the Canadian embassy: "You know you have to now go to the Mogamma and get your residency visa transferred from your old passport to your new one, right?" Gulp. The Mogamma? "Don't worry", Cathy assured me, "It's really straightforward: you just have to go there and wait."
The Mogamma is a gigantic semi-circle wall of a building that towers over Tahrir Square like the fiery eye in Lord of the Rings. It is the central government complex and we see it several times a day as it looms ominously over everything downtown. I always imagined that once people went in, they never came back out again. It seemed to me like a giant, hungry beast that fed on anything that passed in front of it.
I found out today that the inside of the Mogamma is part railway station, part open air market, part stock exchange and part major highway at rush hour.
It has all the provisions to make a long wait bearable: beyond the metal detectors (I went through so many, I lost count) in the long, grey corridor just before the service counters, a man had set up a shoe-shine stall, another was selling biscuits, fruit juices, sandwiches and water. A little further, there was a counter with a huge boiling pot of tea with steam shooting out of it, it's lid dancing gingerly on top. Around another corner, a tray of about 20 glasses were prepped with sugar at the bottom and Lipton yellow label tea bags placed carefully in each.
I could not estimate how many people were in that building. It felt like millions. From every nation around the world. Women, children, men and families. Sitting in the waiting area, standing in the corridor and walking from counter to counter, department to department. It had the same feel as a public hospital I once went to in Karachi.
The employees quite possibly outnumbered the people they were there to serve. The ladies at the visa section were gossiping and laughing so loudly and raucously their tea just barely missed spilling on my pristine passport. In the middle of my application, the lady serving me dropped my papers and went into an inner office where we could all see four women yelling at two very skinny men. One man was obviously the manager, the other some sort of offending party. A guy with a long beard, short pants, prayer beads and a Brooklyn accent in line beside me said: "This is Egypt -- get used to it."
I went from counter 2 to 12 to 38 to 42 and then back again. Twice. I got yelled at in arabic multiple times, got shoved out of my place in line and smiled at by a guard with a machine gun.
I had people offer to help me many times as well. Even though the section manager had asked me to come back on Saturday, the PR manager stopped me to ask if I had gotten everything I needed.
Me: "Aywa, shookrun (yes, thank you) I will come back on Saturday, insh'Allah."
Helpful PR manager: "Saturday? Why Saturday?"
Me: lame shrug of shoulder (bloody useless Arabic lessons....) I don't know Mister, this is your government, I'm going to do what the nice lady from counter 38 told me to do.
Helpful PR manager:"No Saturday. You get what you need now. Canada: very nice. Take this. "
He scribbled something (in arabic) on a piece of paper and sent me back into the fray. At this point, I was happy to just pay my money fresh at the airport and forget the whole thing. But noooo, satisfaction guaranteed seemed to be this man's motto. Admittedly, the piece of paper got me more respect this time around but several counters later, my visa was no closer to being affixed in my new passport.
I was starting to feel dizzy. And I think I might have cut in front of a family of Somali refugees (sorry, it's not me, it's the note) and a group of Palestinian students but still no new visa. I couldn't take it anymore, so I left the building (careful to avoid the helpful PR manager) with my business half done. Ever the Canadian, I was more than happy to just come back on Saturday.
Turns out the Mogamma does not eat people alive. It just chews on them a little.
Monday, April 14, 2008
The standard cab fare from Zamalek - where we live - to the AUC campus - where we work -- is normally about 5LE (a little less than $1). When I first arrived, I made sure I knew just enough Arabic to make my way home and negotiate the appropriate fare. I constantly tried to find ways to get 5LE notes as change so that I could hoard cab fare. I was going to pay 5LE and not a piaster more.
The trick is to know how much is standard and how much you are prepared to pay, hand the money to the driver and walk away. If you turn back or hesitate, there's a long, loud, pointless negotiation for more money. And my Arabic just isn't strong enough for that.
Everytime I got in a cab, I would make sure the driver wasn't taking the scenic route to increase the fare. "Ya Mohammed, just because I'm going to the American University, does not mean I don't know how much this ride is going to cost". "No, no, turn left here -- it's shorter this way." "Why would you take July 26 at this time of day?" I was constantly on guard, lest someone tried to rip me off or take me for a "foreigner".
In recent weeks, I've begun to hear about rising food costs and shortages of daily staples. We work for an international institution, live in the most priviledged part of town and spend money like it's falling off a monopoly board. We are so far removed from the challenges of the average Egyptian, it is ridiculous, really. What we spend on a dinner with friends is often the monthly income of a local policeman or teacher.
Learning this has made me more philosophical in many ways. I no longer get angry at the cab driver or stress out if my ride is 30 minutes instead of 20. Malesh, we'll get there when we get there. Me sitting in the back of his cab squacking in my incomprehensible Arabic isn't going to clear the traffic. If we take the longer route, sometimes that means we move the whole time instead of taking the shorter route that literally soaks my every pore with lead and diesel exhaust. Sometimes it means we take the longer route and there's no upside, but there you go. At least I have the priviledge of being able to afford to be driven to and from my work.
I am probably not making an ounce of difference in the overall situation of the people around me. But I'm finding that my stress levels are lower. And that is worth the all the 5-10LEs notes I can find.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
I had already been to Sharm el Shiekh -- nice but very much a commercial resort town. We wanted something a little more chill. Friends suggested we spend the weekend in Dahab, a small coastal village just an hour's drive from Sharm el Sheikh on the Sinai penninsula. Sitting in the lap of incredible red and brown mountains and facing the dancing blue-green sea, it was breathtaking. Very relaxed and not historic or adventurous from any angle.
As a result, we didn't do much. Our days consisted of sitting on the beach, staring at the Red Sea (I personally could do it for hours), taking naps and pretending to read (I think I got through 5 pages the whole weekend).
One afternoon, I got ambitious and tried a new combo: guava, banana, strawberry. All that fresh fruit looked irresistable. It was incredibly delicious but impossible to drink! Have you ever tried sucking undiluted fruit puree through a 1/4 inch straw? aiy-ya ya. Another fave was sugar cane juice and lemon. My teeth hurt just thinking about it. And when we weren't trying to drink baby-food through a straw, we were getting our Indian food fix at this little place called Nirvana. And it was. We ate aloo-parahata and saag paneer at every opportunity. Mmmm-mmmm good. Y. even snuck out one morning before I woke up, just to have a masala chai on the beach before we left.
Past lighthouse point, the beach gets a little quieter. European holiday makers are replaced with local families. We saw a group of young kids playing at being fishermen...
In the evening, we hung out at the Shams Hotel lounge where we ate light meals of salad, mezze and grilled fish and enjoyed the groovy tunes played by the brilliant dj and our host, Ahmed. Our biggest challenge was trying not to fall asleep on their comfortable floor cushions. Ahhh. Talk about taking a break from reality. The next day, we would be fighting the filth, pollution and traffic of Cairo. But no need to think about that yet: Bukara, insh'Allah. For now, another chai, min fadluck.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
A few weeks ago, we took a trip into the Western Desert. Golden sand, blue sky and spectacular mountain ranges. Inspired by the vast and majestic space, my husband and our friend Dwight who was visiting from Toronto decided to mark our travels with a quintessentially Canadian symbol.
They decided to build an Inukshuk.
I was sitting comfortably on a rock nearby, sipping Bedouin tea and documenting "The Making of." Take a look:
It is a symbol with deep roots in the Inuit culture, a directional marker that signifies safety, hope and friendship."
Sunday, March 9, 2008
The head Eng said to our housekeeper: "You know, most people call us and say they have a big problem and then, it is nothing. Today, she (ie: me) said she had a small problem but this, this is a huge problem!"
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
The teacher said something about everyone else's painting but mine.
But I didn't care. The whole experience was thrilling. It was the absolute cliche I always imagined: easels forming a circle around a table with an arty still-life arrangement, teacher strolling around the class commenting on students art (well, most students...) brushes, paint, pallettes -- all I needed was a beret and a skylight and my fantasy would be complete.
The painting I made last night was, well, er...too....crap to post here. But stay tuned for future artistic genius. Insh'Allah...
Haram anna, as they say: Poor me.
It's pretty safe to say that mornings are not my best time. I start functioning around 11.00am, after I've had a coffee and a carb. So what was I thinking, booking my tutorials so early in the day? Far from being my first choice, my tutor was only available at two times: crack o' dawn or after 6.00pm. Rather than cut into my evening socialising, I decided to bite the bullet and give the early morning lessons a shot.
To my absolute SHOCK -- it's the best thing I ever did for myself. I am learning the language much faster than I ever thought I would and (eureka) getting up so early means I have a head start on the day and remarkable clarity and energy that I was missing out on when I woke up late. (I can just see my mom laughing her head off when/ if she reads this...)
I am loving my lessons and have turned into a bit of a keener (another suprise, since I never was much of a student) I think a large part of that is that she understands my lifestyle and tailors our lessons accordingly.
Example? I have recently learned arabic for: "Waiter, can we have another bottle of water please?" to "Do you have black eyeliner?" to "Thank you, I've had enough coffee and would like the bill."
Ahhh, I can feel myself settling into life here. Al a tool, lao samhaat, al atool.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Below are the limestone rocks of the White Desert that form Dali-esque shapes in the light of the setting sun. This is how I imagine life (or lack thereof) on the moon...It is called the "New" White Desert because it is more remote than the Old White Desert. This was where we camped overnight (more on that later)
All Photos copyright Sufia Lodhi 2008
Monday, February 11, 2008
Last night, Egypt won the Africa Cup of Nations. It was the second time in a row and their sixth victory in total. The score was one nil and when the game ended, even the Egyptian announcers on the sports show I was watching (in Arabic, but it didn't matter, I knew exactly what was going on) lept out of their chairs and started dancing in their ill-fitting suits. Out of nowhere, an Egyptian band appeared, dressed in traditional costumes, singing and dancing in between the crappy chairs and faux coffee table of the show's set.
On the football pitch in Accra, Ghana, it was pandamonium. The Egyptian goalie climbed on top of the goal post and waved to adoring fans who were trying desperately to break through the barriers and run onto the field. Zidan tore off his shirt and ran towards the crowd with his arms reaching for the sky, mouthing the Arabic equivalent of "YES!"
When the match was called, the Egyptian coach and several players dropped to the ground, prostrated in thanks and kissed their Qurans' before proceeding to kiss eachother, the cameras, the referees and anyone within their reach. One player kept kissing his wedding ring, smiling and pointing into the camera. When the Cup was finally presented, it disappeared under a human dog pile, covered by frantically waving limbs and team Egypt jerseys. Eventually, the team captain emerged to hold it up for the crowd.
Back in Cairo, the city erupted. I could barely hear our tv over the roar of crowds that had left their homes to pour into the night and celebrate the win.
From our 14th story balcony, we had a clear view of the street below. It was a heaving sea of people dancing, cars honking and egyptian flags waving. The main drag that our balcony looks out onto is a street called July 26. It is a 4-lane thoroughfare that cuts across the island of Zamalek and is the corridor between downtown and the more residential area of Mohandessin. Usually, it takes commuters to and from downtown and is filled with cars, buses and the occassional delivery/ transport truck. Last night, jubilant fans were running through the traffic, wearing egyptian flags on their backs like capes, jumping on top of cars and trucks and dancing and singing for joy. They were, quite literally, bursting with pride.
And it was contagious. Even though we hadn't watched the whole series and admittedly, I had only caught the last 20 minutes of the game, that didn't stop us from heading down to the street to join the celebrating crowds.
At street level, people were hoisting eachother up on their shoulders. Everyone was singing and playing drums -- or plastic cans or anything they could get their hands on that would make a loud noise. Even the security guards at the Lebanese Embassy (obviously local Egyptians) had overturned the stools at their stations, transforming them into drums they played while smiling ear to ear. Young men were lighting fire to aerosol cans, releasing long ribbons of fire into the sky as a row of hapless policemen watched on. Even the policemen seemed more interested in enjoying the show than putting a stop to any of it.
Firecrackers went off like gunfire. Okay, so maybe it was actual gunfire...I'd rather not think about it since it was all happening only steps from our home.
Hijab-wearing aunties, uber-stylish beautiful people, young kids and men and women of all ages had painted their faces with the colours of the Egyptian flag. Car after car overflowed with girls and guys yelling: "MISR!". Pedestrians were smiling and high five-ing eachother in the street. Motorists offered outstretched hands from their car windows as they inched by in thick traffic.
Egyptians are proud of their country at the best of times. Last night, Egyptian pride was on overdrive. The horns honked and the crowds "olaaay-olay-olay-olaaay"-ed till well into the early hours.
I was lucky enough to be in Paris when the French won the world cup in 1998, in NYC when the Yankees won the world series in 1999 and in Toronto when (unbelievably) the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. Every one of those victories resulted in a spontaneous street party and outpouring of national pride.
In the streets last night, the music and celebration joyfully eclipsed -at least for one night - the drugery and struggle of the every day. Last night, every Egyptian was a champion.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Rehab is a gated community about 4kms down the road from AUC's new campus and a million miles away from our current life in Cairo.
Beautiful, clean and orderly. It is everything downtown Cairo is not. Even our idyllic Zamalek seemed utterly chaotic compared to Rehab. The wire fence and entrance gates are designed to keep out the riff raff (we only got in because we were on an AUC bus...) and as we drove around, I half-expected to hear classical music wafting through the air as the soundtrack to this carefully planned la la land. It reminded me a little of Sharjah -- convenient strip malls, concrete curbs and orderly sidewalks, grassy knolls and clear blue fountains.
"Breathing the air in Cairo is like smoking 40 cigarettes a day"
"One year of breathing Cairo's air can lead to cancer"
"Constant noise pollution causes depression"
"Did you know that all the traffic cops are impotent due to the high levels of lead in the air?"
Hmmm. Compelling reasons to move out into the 'burbs, no doubt. But I think to myself: if clean air was our only priority, surely we would have stayed in Canada, no?
And not to paint a completely negative picture of Rehab: I will admit that the clear sky, fresh air and subsequent ability to take deep breaths and open our windows are all appealling.... the palm trees (both natural and artificial) were pretty. And if I ever craved "Gauchos Argentina Grill", it would only be moments away.
After spending the day in Rehab, I felt a renewed love for Cairo stirring in my heart. Returning to the city, I found myself embracing the buzz of Cairo traffic, admiring it for still functioning despite the madness. I was proud of the four fully grown men ducking and diving through rush hour traffic on one small motorcycle. I gave props to the woman with six large boxes on her head, crossing a 10 lane motor way. In the wrong direction. While holding hands with several small children. I found that I was (could it be?) happy to once again be stuck in the middle of Cairo gridlock.
It may be chaotic and it may not always make sense. But Cairo is full of life, in your face and a constant source of entertainment, insight and inspiration. I would much rather live a life of thought-provoking frustration than a carefully planned, pristine life of certainty.
I guess it that same philosphy that has drawn me to live in the middle of some of the great cities of the world -- London not Richmond, Paris not Nieully, Manhattan not Larchmont, Toronto not Oakville.
No point in breaking the pattern now that we live in one of the most living, breathing, spitting, seathing cities in the world.
Friday, February 1, 2008
The gated community we're seeing tomorrow is called "Rehab" (Insert Amy Winehouse crooning "no no no")
One of my uncles recently pointed out: "Life is filled with compromises."
Unless we want Yasir to lose his mind in gridlock every day, our urban existence could be coming to an end very soon. Granted, our life in Cairo is ultra-urban. Some greenery and an escape from the heavy lead and particulate matter in the air might not be such a bad thing.
Another option is el Maadi. It is also a suburb, but one that is linked to Cairo via metro and only about a 20-25LE cab ride away from downtown and my favorite cafe (I think we've established how important that is to me -- see entry entitled: No ordinary love). It is green and residential and if we can get enough of our friends to move there....it could work. Lets see.
Cairo is filled with surprises. There are so many different worlds and my expectations of what I'll find around any given corner never cease to be challenged.
When we arrived at the cinema, I was surprised to see a brand new Starbucks selling lattes, machiatos and various snacks to take into your movie with you. And unlike the chaos of other things in Cairo, each film had it's own line up and ticket counter. The concession stand was a zoo -- thank God, I mean, I needed SOMETHING to remind me that we were still in Cairo....
We decided to see American Gangster (loved it) and the cinema reminded me of the Manulife VIP (which I've only be in thanks to Ameena and her Mom) -- small and modern, with gigantic, comfy seats. Tickets were cheap - 25LE (less than $5) and popcorn was a mere 6LE (about $1.25)
I recently heard that a new cinema has opened up in the City Stars Mall across town and get this: all the seats in the cinema are Lazy-boys! Each has it's own adjustable, reclining seat. And the pampering doesn't stop there: you can order food from the Intercontinental hotel and it will be delivered to your seat....
Delivery, by the way, is a big thing here. Groceries, fast food -- anything you want can and will be delivered to your door. I knew that Yasir was getting into this a little too much the other day when he called in a delivery of a pack of cigarettes and a diet coke....
I don't know what I expected when I came to Cairo but it sure wasn't this. I would be hard pressed to find a comparable cafe in Toronto (maybe Far Coast on Bloor, MAYbe). It is on a sunny corner, overlooking the corniche/ Nile river with an imposing statue of Umm Kulthum marking the square. It is modern, chic and filled with Zamalek's beautiful people. The service is good (not too much blah blah, they just make my coffee without fuss) and I can literally sit here for HOURS without the suggestion that perhaps I should move my butt to make room for new customers or that I should buy something more than the latte I have been nursing for the last decade.
If ever I wonder what's in fashion, all I have to do is come here and people watch. The women are so stylish and of the moment, I cannot even tell you. Today, for example, it's sunny and the terrace is a SCENE. Gucci, Dolce, Prada -- the women are immaculately dressed, looking like: "This old thing? Oh, it's just something I threw on." And even the guys are sporting all the designer accessories du jour. But somehow, it's not obnoxious -- it just is. This is their reality and no one is trying hard -- they just are stylish and beautiful. It's a fact of life. I normally find this scene unbearable in other cities but...I think the grit of Cairo makes me crave some beauty and connection to "what's hip"...
This cafe has literally saved my sanity. Whenever I wonder what the hell I am doing in Cairo, I throw on my coat, sunglasses, grab my handbag and head across Zamalek to my beloved Coffee Bean. There are dozens of other cafes within walking distance of our place. But each of them has something wrong with it....Beanos -- is tucked away between somewhere between the Sri Lankan embassy and the Dutch embassy. I can never find it and always (without fail) end up at the gates of the All Saint's Cathedral (I suspect there is a message in there for me somewhere)....Cilantro -- watery coffee, snotty servers, it's dark and they clean up after you the second you put your cup down (the only good thing about Cilantro is the mini brownie they give you with your coffee - yum)....Barista -- the air is grey with smoke and the light in the bathroom never works... I have passed some really interesting Egyptian coffee places but I only see old and young men and the odd blonde obviously foreign woman in there sticking out like a sore thumb... so uh, no thanks. There is an Italian place on the main drag (the Illy coffee sign beacons me) -- but the problem with that is that it's on the main drag and I don't find it relaxing to chew diesel or listen to the deafening sound of car horns. But that's just me.
No, the Coffee Bean is perfect. It's my escape. I think all you really need is one place that is your sanctuary, somewhere you can go, recharge and chill out. If you have that one place, I think you can face whatever the city throws at you.
In my defence, we have been travelling a lot (more on that later) and I got Ramses Revenge. Praytell, what is that, you ask? Every one of our friends who went on a Nile Cruise went to the Valley of the Kings and visited the tomb of Ramses II and all came back with debilitating viruses. Could we blame the extreme temperature fluctuations (23-25C during the day and 1-3C at night) or the fact that the cruises were very busy (up at 6.00am and entertained til well past midnight) or that we were all tired from travelling to Upper Egypt and back with coughing hacking masses from all over the world. Nooooo -- the consistent theory among our friends is that we have all picked up a pre-historic bug, contracted deep in the heart of the tombs we visited...
I guess it makes a better story than "we caught it from snotty kids and coughing old people." Whatever it was, it was BRUTAL. Fever, chills, coughing -- just hellish. I cannot remember the last time I was so sick. Luckily, we have cable and a million (I am not kidding) channels. I installed myself on our sofa with a fuzzy blanket, the remote control and a steady supply of hot drinks (supplied by my lovely husband. Maybe he was sick as well because we were having a lot of delirious conversations... Me to Yasir: "I'm feeling better, I think you cured me." Yasir: "Caribbean?")
We have downloaded all our photos, I'll sift through them and write more about our trips over the holidays (holidays that are only ending for Yasir next week). Here are the Coles notes: we spent new years in a desert oasis close to the Libyan border. Then, we returned, played tourist in Cairo, visited Islamic Cairo, Sayeda Zeineb (the granddaughter of Prophet Mohammed)'s grave and then decided last minute to book a cruise from Luxor to Aswan and all points in between. We even splashed out and spent a night in the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan (over the top colonial hotel overlooking the Nile).