Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Eid was awesome and the city was quieter than I had ever seen it. Still, it was the city. And now that most people are back from their holidays and the roads are busy and smoggy again, it's time for a little escape.

We're off to Dahab in the South Sinai. Dahab is a little fishing village on the Red Sea and you can walk from one end of town to the other in less than 45 minutes (and that's taking your time). The water is shallow and warm, the village is quiet and laid back.

The main dive shop has a little Cafe on the water and (get this) a south Indian chef! Ah, Nirvana -- both the name of the Cafe and the state you reach when you are lounging on a comfy chaise, looking out onto the twinkly waters of the red sea, drinking a cool and fruity fresh juice and eating aloo parathas chased by a spicy masala chai.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Iftaar in Embaba

I often feel that we, as expats, live in a cushy bubble removed from the reality of our surroundings. I feel this because it is true.

My first real Egyptian friend is our housekeeper, Mrs Khalifa. She, more than anyone else, has shown me what life is really like in Egypt. Without her, we may never have experienced half the things that have made me fall in love with this crazy place.

Every Ramadan, she invites us to her home. Either to share an Eid lunch or - like last Friday - join her and her family as they break their fasts deep in the heart of Embaba.

Embaba is like no other part of our life in Cairo. But it is a place I have been to many times before ever arriving in Egypt. The streets are narrow and unpaved and the asymmetrical buildings rise up to the sky. Rickshaws (from India, no less) motor through passageways that a car can barely navigate. And all of a sudden, it takes me back: to Paposh market in Nazimabad, Karachi; to the chaotic alleyways near Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi; to the side streets behind Anarchali in Lahore; to Laad Bazaar sprawling out at the foot of Charminar in the old city of Hyderabad.

Embaba pulsates with life. Especially during Ramadan. We arrive just before iftaar time and are greeted by a frenzy of activity: street vendors barely able to match the flow of fruits and vegetables to the outstretched hands of last minute shoppers; ladies in colourful galabayas holding a kid (sometimes two or three) with one hand and gesturing with a fist full of LE (Egyptian pounds) with the other. Aish baladi (local bread) flying out of ovens and onto cooling racks like mini UFOs and the sheesha guy putting out his little chairs and tables in anticipation of the post iftaar rush. Mrs Khalifa's son-in-law waves and smiles at every man on the street and they greet each other like family. Lights are strung from every balcony and window, creating a glowing canopy of red and golden bulbs and colourful fanooses (Ramadan lanterns) that practically block out the sky above us.

Everyone is rushing to get home before the Magrib (sunset) call to prayer. Slowly but surely, all activity grinds to a halt and the din fades as every resident of Embaba retreats home to break their fast. As the call to prayer begins, the streets are completely empty but for the sound of the muazin's voice.

Mrs Khalifa and her family have prepared a feast for us. Some of the best food we've eaten in Cairo has come from their kitchen. She tells me about how her father was a chef in Alexandria and taught her to cook when she was just a little girl. We talk and laugh and eat. And then, when I am sure our systems can take no more, we're offered a much needed chai. Ahh, heaven.

Eventually the neighbourhood below, like some kind of sleeping giant, begins to shake off the quiet and ramps up for a night of activity. Too bad I cannot get up from Mrs Khalifa's sofa. The juice guy says it's pomegranate season? hmm. One more cup of chai and we'll see...

Monday, September 7, 2009

How rude is it

to ask the cab driver to turn down the Quran?

One of the things I love about living in Egypt is that I am surrounded by Islam in all it's living complexities and contradictions.

It's nice during Ramadan to not have to explain what Ramadan is. It's wonderful to hear the call to prayer, be invited to iftaars and celebrate the fun (don't tell the Ayatollah) in Islam. I love being in a place where my religion lives and breathes. Where traditions I thought were only within my family belong to a greater community.

Where I can hear beautiful verses of the Quran as I ride along in a cab... Um, If all the taxi drivers weren't half or completely deaf and playing the holy word of God at 250 decibels, maybe. But as things currently stand, my ears are assaulted by crackling speakers turned up so loud that no word or phrase is decipherable. It's all a garbled mess, blaring from souped-up woofers positioned only inches from either side of my head. But how can I ask a devoted worshipper to take the volume down a notch? Especially during Ramadan.

Me, I don't got that kind of schutzpa.

So I barrel down the corniche, windows open, unable to hear even the horns and traffic, counting the minutes until I can get out onto the Cairo streets and hear myself think again. This is a far cry from the soothing recitations that inspire spiritual enlightenment and peace. I am literally diving out of the cab to get away.

Only slightly more than 10 days left of Ramadan and then it's back to Egyptian dance music. THAT I can ask them to turn down with no problem at all. Whether or not my voice will be heard above "Habibi, ya albi, habibi habibi" is an entirely different story....

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

And we're back

We've been back in Cairo for less than 48 hours and already seen five (count 'em: FIVE) car accidents. One replete with an eight car pile up and a street fight. Twenty guys duking it out on the main road in from the airport with two anemic policemen trying to break it up. Ramadan Karim, folks.

On the homefront, my plants are barely clinging to life but otherwise, our flat is as we left it. The bird in the window of our den is back and has laid another egg. Aiy ya ya, what is it with me and birds here in Cairo?! (see my post: Mafish Mushkilla) My good friend Villy says it's good luck. I'm not so sure. As long as they don't poop on my windowsill, we're good.

Our housekeeper has left our Iranian carpet upside down. No matter how many times we flip it the right way, it always ends up the way she wants it: face down on the tile floor, backside up.

Because we arrived in the middle of the night, we drove through the city instead of taking the autostrade. Homes and buildings were lit up by colourful lights and gaudy but gorgeous Ramadan Funoos (crazy lanterns that hang in doorways and balconies across the city every year to celebrate Ramadan. I'll try and get a photo and post it asap.) Around the corner from our place, there is a huge one with tassles and a fringe. Real classy.

When we pulled up to our building, the guards on our street greeted us (at 3 am) with enthusiastic salaams and good wishes for a happy ramadan ("kullu sana wa intu tayubbine": may you be well for the whole year) (My Arabic is still a little feel free to jump in and correct my translation)

No doubt this crazy, disorganized, chaotic, noisy, dusty place will infuriate me within a week....but at the moment, it is good to be home.