Friday Morning Quiet

Since Egypt is a Muslim country, the weekend here is on Friday and Saturday in order to accommodate for the most important prayer of the week, on Friday at midday. As many Egyptians prepare for this prayer, or maybe cool off after staying up late Thursday night, most shops and restaurants are closed on Friday morning and the streets are almost deserted.

Cairo is known to be a chaotic city, and like anything else there are two sides to this reality. On the one hand, it makes for a lively urban atmosphere: there are always people around, it’s easy to find a taxi at any time, shops are open late, and you usually feel safe walking around at night because the streets are busy. On the other hand, traffic is pretty bad, streets are smelly and loud, sidewalks are like obstacle courses, the honking is incessant, and there’s always people, people, people, everywhere, walking, sitting around waiting for something to happen, standing, talking… It can be a little exhausting.

So, as you can imagine, Friday morning is a special time when the pulse of the city slows considerably. I love Friday mornings because there’s absolutely no guilt about staying at home—you can’t get much done outside the house anyway. It’s a great time to catch up on work, reading, cleaning, or just play a game. My gym is open on Fridays, but I’d rather wait until after midday prayer, when the city comes to life again, to go out.

Those who do venture out on Friday mornings are rewarded with an uncanny experience. The streets are quiet, there’s almost nobody about on the sidewalks—even most bawabs aren’t sitting around in front of their buildings. Cars are few and far between, and there are moments, sometimes very long moments that can last for minutes, during which you can’t hear any honking! When I went out earlier today, I actually heard bird song from the trees. Bliss.

As exhausting as the chaos can get, at least it makes you appreciate peace and quiet when they do come.

Baladi

One of the first Cairene words we learned when we moved to Cairo was “baladi,” which is an adjective that roughly translates to “local,” “traditional,” or “of the street.” We first started discussing this term with our hostess, M., whose B&B we stayed in during our first couple of weeks in Cairo. She has a crazy orange cat called Baladi that she picked up as a famished kitten in the street. The alley-cat genes remain strong: Baladi has been known to jump onto things where he doesn’t fit, like lamps.

In French, we were used to hearing baladi as a term for belly dancing, but as it turns out Egyptians also use it for anything that is local or traditional: cats, dogs, neighbourhoods, music, cafés… We most often hear it applied to food. The elastic, slightly spongy flatbread that is ubiquitous in Egypt and sold on so many street corners is known as “baladi bread,” while the traditional side salad of cucumber, tomato, and herbs that accompanies any Egyptian meal is also known as a “baladi salad.” You get the idea.

Of course, baladi can also be a pejorative term. In a novel I read set largely in the early 20th century in Cairo, one upper-class character marries a young man from a lower class—he doesn’t wear the right clothes or go to the right beachside resort in the summer. The rich woman’s friends remark: “Isn’t he a little baladi?” But that, of course, is part of his charm.

The other day my parents were visiting me in Egypt and we headed out to one of the city’s baladi souqs, south of Bab Zuwailag, one of the old town’s most famous gates. It’s the kind of street where live chickens, ducks, rabbits, and pigeons are on sale, where grinning men push in carts piled high with mint, and where old ladies wait in line for bread at the subsidized bakeries. We ogled and gasped and greeted back those who greeted us. My mother said her own mother used to talk about the ice vendor coming round the house, and she was delighted to find a man delivering blocks of ice from a horse-drawn cart.

As foreigners, we can do no better than look and try to understand; what is truly baladi will never be truly accessible to us. That, too, is part of its charm.

Cairo’s Last Bookbinder

Tucked away behind Al-Azhar Mosque, on a street lined with Quran sellers and butcher’s shops, a modern glass door opens into a shaded, cave-like shop with stone floors and walls lined with shelves of dark wood. This is Abdelzaher’s, Cairo’s last traditional book binder.

On display are beautiful leather-bound notebooks and photo albums of all sizes. The prices are more than reasonable for the workmanship, and they include a personalized inscription in gold letters. They make great gifts! I love watching the book binder get to work to make the inscription: lining up the movable type from trays against the wall, heating the metallic letters on an open flame, pressing them down carefully but forcefully on a ribbon of gold leaf.

If you wish, you can get your entire personal library rebound here—just keep an eye on your baggage allowance if you want to bring your books back home afterwards. I opted to get a single book rebound, Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, which came back to me a few weeks later bound in dark red leather with the title and author engraved in tiny gold letters on the spine. It’s beautiful and very luxurious.

A word of warning, however: I won’t pretend the bookbinder’s shop is always as charming as I make it out to be. The shop is well known among tourists and expats, and located around the corner as it is from one of Cairo’s main tourist attractions, a lot of people stop here to buy a notebook and have it engraved with their name. Okay, there aren’t busloads of people, but engraving the books takes a while, so the wait can be long and boring. One time it took so long that the guy told us he would finish our books later and have them delivered to us—he never did, and when we came round the shop again a week later our books were still lying around his worktable. Similarly, when I went to pick up my rebound novel a few weeks ago, they couldn’t find it anywhere even though they knew it was finished, so I had to leave empty-handed and wait for them to deliver the book later that day. Thankfully, that time they did.

Despite the minor annoyances (this is Cairo, after all!), bookbinding is a beautiful craft and I’m glad this place is keeping it alive.

Ride-Sharing in Cairo

Since we arrived in Cairo a few months ago, we’ve relied heavily on Uber to help us get around town safely and easily. Ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Careem, its Dubai-based competitor in the Middle East and Asia, have been a boon to locals and expats alike in Cairo: there’s no exchange of money, the price is agreed-upon in advance through the app, and cars are often cleaner and safer than the local white taxis, which are infamous for their colourful drivers and arguments about the fare.

Naturally, the popularity of ride-sharing apps has resulted in taxi drivers getting more and more frustrated with the loss of business. Incessant honking and chaotic traffic is a part of any walk across Cairo’s streets, so it took us a while to realize that the white taxis were actually honking at us almost every time they passed us, presumably to get our attention in case we needed a ride.

On March 20, Egyptian media reported that the country’s Administrative Court had officially banned Uber and Careem in Egypt and ordered them to shut down their apps. The companies are being sued by a group of local taxi drivers who argue that drivers who rely on ride-sharing apps are breaking the law because they drive for commercial purposes without the correct license. Uber and Careem appealed the ruling, but the situation on the ground in Cairo was ambiguous over the next few days. The apps were still functioning and drivers were available, but once when we rode to the airport our driver asked us to say we were his friends if the guards at the checkpoint asked (they didn’t).

Riding with Uber isn’t always as straightforward here at it is in other countries, even on the best of days. We’ve found that drivers often don’t like to meet passengers at the meeting point—they’ll stay parked where they are and wait for you to walk over to them. Also, it’s happened to us several times that drivers either can’t or won’t follow the GPS instructions to get to the destination, so I’ve had to pull up the map on my own phone and give them instructions myself.

As for the court decision from March 20, it appears to be part of a broader issue between the Egyptian government and ride-sharing apps. In June 2017, an article by Declan Walsh in The New York Times revealed that the Egyptian government had requested that Uber and Careem provide them with access to all their data. Naturally, many rights activities were alarmed—and with data privacy very much in the news these days, companies like Uber have to be extremely careful about how they handle user data. Careem and Uber refused to hand over their data to the Egyptian government at the time, but the government is currently pursing a legislative route to access the data through other means.

Peter Hessler’s Cat

Journalist Peter Hessler spent five years living in Cairo with his wife and twin daughters, from 2011 to 2016. He’s been writing excellent pieces in the New Yorker about his experiences in Cairo, for example one about his neighbourhood garbage collector (the piece ends up being about the broader social, political, and cultural implications of the garbage business in Egypt, as well as men-women relations in the country), and another about Chinese expats who sell kinky underwear in Egypt. I highly recommend his writing, which, as the best non-fiction often does, starts by describing something small and then expands to encompass larger questions.

Last week, the New Yorker published a new piece by Hessler, which is, among other things, about the cat he got while he lived in Zamalek in order to keep rodents at bay (he lived on the ground floor and, rather frighteningly, his baby daughters were getting bitten by mysterious rodents). The cat in question is a traditional Egyptian breed called Mau, and he called his Morsi, after the Egyptian president who’d just been elected at the time. Before the year was out, the president had been deposed, but the cat remained. Hilarious adventures ensue when the cat runs away and the expat has to run around the neighbourhood calling after him.

Hessler mentions that the apartment building he lived in had distinctive railings of wrought iron made to look like spider webs. G. and I both took a short walk in Zamalek after our Arabic lessons the other day, looking to see if we could spot it. G.’s hunch led us down a street we’d never walked on before, and we came face to face with the building we were looking for at the end of it. There’s now some construction on the street right in front of the building, which probably wasn’t there when Hessler lived here.

It’s always nice to see a place in real life after you’ve read about it, and we had a good time imagining some of the scenes from the piece and trying to figure out which unit Hessler and his family probably lived in. Although that elevator shaft will probably give us nightmares for weeks to come (I won’t give it away, so you’ll just have to read Hessler’s article yourself if you want to know).

Hessler has a book on the way titled The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, and I look forward to reading it when it comes out next year!

Cairo’s Gold Island

A few weeks ago, our Swedish friend took us to discover a secret Cairo destination: Gold Island, or Gezirit el-Dahab. This island is just one of many that dots the Nile near Cairo, but it is remarkable because it isn’t connected to either shore of the river. There’s a flyover that goes right across it without actually having any entrances or exits, which means the only way to get to the island is by boat. One fine morning, we negotiated with some pleasant boat owners near the Semiramis hotel and they dropped us off on the island, promising to come get us a couple of hours later.

There wasn’t much to do or even see on the island, but it was interesting to walk about and soak in the atmosphere. You’re in the middle of a city of 20 million + inhabitants, and yet the lifestyle for those who live on the island is completely rural: green fields, dirt roads, donkeys, cows… Not a car in sight. It felt as if we’d landed in the middle of the Egyptian countryside, although we could still see the apartment buildings and high rises on either shore of the Nile.

We walked around for an hour or so, sharing an old dirt track along the water with some men astride donkeys. We even came across a mysterious palace, which a bit of online sleuthing has revealed is called Dahab Palace (Gold Palace). Apparently it was built twenty years ago by the rather mysterious Prince Naguib Abdallah, an art collector and aesthete (who probably deserves a post all to himself: he was apparently  the lover of the late socialite São Schlumberger in the 70s, and these are some pictures Architectural Digest took of his London flat in 1995). The palace was founded as a centre that raises awareness about environmental issues, whatever that means, but it was nearly demolished last year because it doesn’t follow building regulations along the water. Something must’ve happened to save it, because the palace was still standing when we went.

More online sleuthing has revealed that you can even rent a guest apartment inside the palace on AirBnB. The place looks lovely, and it appears to be rented out by Naguib Abdullah himself, along with a professor of architecture at the German University in Cairo.

Cairo Delivers

When I move to a new city, I always put some thought into how I’ll make my morning coffee. Preference usually goes to a moka pot stovetops, which are light and relatively inexpensive. My preferred brand is, of course, Bialetti, although we had a beautifully designed Alessi that served us well for many years in Vancouver and California and which we had to leave behind when we moved. RIP little Alessi moka pot, you were loved and you helped us get through many early mornings.

In Cairo, I had a really hard time finding a decent moka pot. After some searching, we did find a cheap no-brand model in a supermarket, but I’ve had a bad experience with one like that in the past so I was looking for better quality. Everyone always says that everything in Egypt gets done on social media, so finally I decided to contact the Bialetti Egypt Facebook Page by private message. Within a few hours, they had answered my message and given me a call. As it turns out, there was a stock shortage as they were having some import trouble, but they offered to deliver me one of their MokaCrèm, the one model they did have in stock. The next day, as we were cleaning our new apartment, someone knocked on the door. I gave him money and he gave me a new moka pot. The rest is caffeine history.

The point of this post is not, in fact, to address the quality of my morning coffee, but actually to discuss the fact that you can have anything delivered in Cairo. Chaotic street life, incessant traffic, high levels of harassment, and low wages all create a perfect storm that leads Cairenes to rely on others to get them what they need, so they don’t have to leave the comfort of their homes.

If you find this as interesting as I do, check out this hilarious New York Times article from a few years back that discusses everything you can get delivered to your door in Cairo, including a haircut, your birth certificate, and even an X-Ray.

Other than my precious coffee machine, we actually haven’t expanded our ordering skills beyond food—but cheap deliveries have definitely made us progressively lazier as the weeks have passed. We order-in dinner more often than we’d like to admit, and reached new heights recently by having a meal delivered to our apartment from a restaurant located in our building. I could’ve gone in my slippers… but why bother when I can have someone bring it to me for less than a dollar? We also regularly have booze delivered to our door when we run out, and we often order in these little fava bean snacks we like because they can be hard to find in stores. That’s right, we get chips delivered to our flat. No shame.

To avoid feeling too guilty, we tell ourselves that’s just the way the economy here works.