Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Artistic Expression

I took my first painting class last night.

I suck.

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...

Sabah al Khair

My taxi cab arabic was limiting my Cairo experience. There's only so much you can really do when your vocabulary is restricted to: "take the next left" "turn right" and "here is fine"... So I've finally started my Arabic lessons. My tutor, the lovely Hala, comes to our place three days a week at (are you ready for this?) between 7.30 and 7.45 AM.

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

Weekend in the Western Desert

This weekend, we drove 350 kms west of Cairo, to the Bahariya Oasis. We ate a hearty lunch at the Hotel Desert Safari Home while our host, Mr Badry worked with our guide and driver to load up our 4-wheel drive for the trip into the desert.

The desert landscape varied so dramatically. From sandy dunes to the volcanic rocks of the Black Desert to Agaba's rounded landscape to the Old White Desert and the New White Deserts that ignited our imaginations and made me think about what life might look like on Mars -- I was scared to blink, lest I miss something.

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

Go Misr!

Everyone in Cairo is in a great mood this morning. And EVERYONE is talking football.

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

Tried to make me go to Rehab

And the consensus is: No no no

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

Movin' on up

The AUC campus is moving to New Cairo. If we stay where we live now, Yasir will face a 2 hour commute in insane cross-Cairo traffic. Tomorrow morning, we're taking a faculty services day trip to check out (ugh) the suburbs. We both hate the suburbs and (no disrespect to anyone who lives there) have always strongly fought against any such move, preferring to pay whatever premium it took to stay in our urban, downtown hood.

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.

Dinner and a Movie

One of the things Yasir and I most like to do is go to the movies. It had been months since we had seen a film, so the other night we jumped in a cab and headed over to the Nile City Mall to catch a flick.

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....

No ordinary love

Life is good: latte in hand, Sade belting out one of my faves from the '80s, I am sitting in a comfy chair with a view of the sun setting on the Nile and unlimited internet access. I am in one of my favorite spots in all of Cairo: The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (sigh) I get filled with love just writing it's name.

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.

Not so intrepid tomb raiders

I realise I have been a collossal slacker on the blogger front.

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).