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...