The City Always Wins

They come at dawn with a crane and trucks. The army soldiers push the crowd down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, away from the Ministry of the Interior. The crane drops concrete blocks on the asphalt. Block by block a wall is built. Doctors from the Muslim Brotherhood, dressed in their white coats, their beards cut close, climb on the wall. One stands hand in hand with a general and shouts out to the crowd over a megaphone:        

“Go back to the square. The revolution is in the square! The army has put this wall up for your own safety! Go, you can safely protest in Tahrir! Go back to the square. The revolution is in the square! The revolution is in the square!” 

One of the books I read to get into the proper headspace for Egypt was Omar Robert Hamilton’s début novel The City Always Wins, which was published in 2017. The author is a filmmaker and political activist who participated in many of the street protests and demonstrations during the 2011-2013 revolution in Egypt.*

Hamilton has fictionalized his experiences, building a novel that follows a group of young Egyptians, including the strong and determined Mariam—with whom the novel opens in a powerful scene in a morgue—and Khalil, an Egyptian-American (like Hamilton himself), who struggles with being accepted in Egypt because of his dual identity. Mariam, Khalil, and their friends run a media collective that broadcasts “real” information to counter the propaganda of the state-run media during the chaotic months of the revolution.

One of Hamilton’s interesting choices is to begin the novel not in January 2011, but 9 months later, when political events are beginning to sour. The book ends in 2013, with the characters severely disillusioned by a revolution they believed would bring about a completely new Egypt. The broken idealism is mirrored in Mariam and Khalil’s relationship, which is at its strongest in the heat of their activism, and slowly frays as political events unfold.

Short chapters written in a close present-tense voice, newspaper headlines, tweets, jumps in time, monologues from the point of view of parents whose children were killed during the protests… Hamilton has thrown everything he could at this book, and the effect is accumulative and powerful, a layered and ambiguous portrayal of political awakening and social upheaval.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the events of Egyptian revolution. It shows, from the inside, how a country can break itself open and then put itself together again.

*He is also the son of the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif and the British poet and literary critic Ian Hamilton.

The Bawabs

Anyone who rents an apartment in Cairo has to deal with someone called a bawab, a sometimes quaint, sometimes frustrating fixture of Cairene city life.

The bawab is a kind of porter cum guard cum building manager. They are always men, and most of them wear the traditional gellabaya. They can usually be found sitting in front of their buildings, on plastic chairs on the sidewalk. They often sleep in sad little rooms on the ground floors of the buildings they keep. Tenants pay them monthly fees, and they also make a little money on the side when they help tenants with repairs, errands, or car cleaning and parking. Each apartment building in Cairo has its own bawab, plus a team of helpers if the building is large enough.

Bawabs usually come from Upper Egypt, which means they bring a little bit of country-life sensibility to the big city. They are meant to act as custodians of correct behaviour, keeping tabs on the comings and goings of the residents of their buildings, and making sure, for example, that they are receiving appropriate guests.

Thus, they can be influential in making the life of their tenants a breeze or a living hell. There are stories online of tenants plying their bawabs with beer so they’ll turn a blind eye on overnight guests of the opposite sex…

Bawabs are also very useful when apartment hunting in Cairo. They’ll bring you up to view any apartments for rent in their buildings, or point you in the direction of other buildings on their street that have available flats.

Except for a kerfuffle about electricity bills, we lucked out with our bawab, Y., who is a very nice man. He doesn’t speak a word of English and our Arabic remains pretty basic, but somehow, we’re able to communicate about most things. And we were grateful to have him and his team of acolytes last week when we locked ourselves out of our flat.

Bonus content: Check out this sad but excellent article about bawabs in the New York Times from 1995

The Tent-Makers Souq

The other day, G. took a cheeky afternoon off from her work so we could go visit the tent-makers souq together.

Markets of every kind abound in the old quarters of Cairo, just east of downtown. In fact, as you drive on the flyovers in that area and look down at the web of streets and alleys below, it seems like the entire neighbourhood is an open-air market, bustling at any time of the day and night.

Most tourists end up at Khan el-Khalili, Cairo’s most famous souq, where you can find shiny dresses, tacky souvenirs, jewellery shops, and brass lamps. We went there a couple of times, and while there are some nice old buildings and lots of atmosphere, the vendors are used to seeing tourists and we didn’t find the wares all that attractive. Also, seeing the coachloads of tourists being driven in and away from the maze of small streets is a little depressing.

Head south, however, and things get interesting. The tent-makers souq itself is a two-storey, covered strip of market lined with stalls that sell rolls of fabric and handcrafted “tapestries” with different designs. You can hang these on walls or use them as bed covers. We bought several cushion covers with beautiful motifs at very fair prices, including some with adorable birds for our baby nephews and nieces. The shop owners here hassle a lot less than the ones in Khan el-Khalili.

Continue walking south past the tent-makers souq, and things get really interesting. The main street itself is a large food market, especially lively in the morning, where women haggle for fruit, veg, and meat–even live ducks, chickens, and pigeons.

The side streets are occupied by artisan’s quarters—these are real craftsmen who are making objects for the local market. We saw wood shops, including one tiny place that makes wooden buckets and barrels by hand, as well as lots of people handcrafting wire lamps for Ramadan, stone cutters, leatherworkers, carpet shops… The locals here don’t seem quite as used to seeing foreigners in their midst; they looked mostly surprised by our sudden appearance and we didn’t get hassled once in this area. Only the usual “welcome to Egypt!” which they love to shout out at foreigners.

We stopped at a little place specializing in hardwood floors. We loved the designs they displayed at the front of the shop and thought they would look really cool as a tabletop, so we ordered one for ourselves! Now we just have to figure out a way to bring it back and turn it into a table…

Hibiscus G&T

It’s been hot in Cairo lately, so my mind naturally turns to ice-cold drinks.

One of the most popular (non alcoholic, of course) drinks in Egypt is an infusion of karkade, or hibiscus flower, which are grown in Upper Egypt and Sudan. The beverage can be drunk hot or cold; it has a vivid red color and a deliciously tart taste.

One of our local grocery stores in Cairo sells pre-made hibiscus juice, and G. had the genius idea of mixing some of the juice into one of our favourite cocktails: the gin and tonic.

The G&T is one of the only cocktails that we’ve found is easy to make here in Cairo, so I should include a few words about the other ingredients.

First, the gin. In Egypt, alcohol can only be bought from specialty stores such as Drinkies. But alcohol production is heavily regulated, and most of the beverages you can buy in these stores are Egyptian-made, or at least Egyptian-branded—that includes the beer, of course, but also the wine, the gin and, yes, the whisky. They have alluringly appropriate names like The Auld Stag and Butler’s and Château Granville, but you must not be fooled. The quality isn’t great, but we’ve found the gin, in particular, tastes fine when mixed. Also, at 200 Egyptian pounds (just over 10 USD) for the 750 ml bottle and hour-delivery, I won’t complain.

Second, the tonic. We were a bit disheartened when we first moved here because we couldn’t find tonic anywhere in corner shops or grocery stores. When the grocery store nearest to us finally did get some after a couple of weeks, we bought all the bottles on the shelf. Since then, we think we broke their ordering system by creating high demand and they’ve had entire shelves stocked full of tonic, so we never run out (yes, we do drink a lot of G&Ts).

So what about the cocktail? Drop in a small lime cut in half and a couple of ice cubes. Then add a healthy pour of gin and a splash of hibiscus juice. Top with tonic. The tart hibiscus flavour melds with the citrus and balances the sweet quinine of the tonic, and the bright red colour—just nudging towards pink when diluted in the drink—sets off the green of the lime. As refreshing as it is beautiful.

When we were last in Upper Egypt, we purchased a bag of dried hibiscus flowers at the souq so that we could make our own karkade infusion back home when we leave Egypt and replicate the drink, this time playing around with different kinds of gins and tonics.

The Other Pyramids

When people think about the pyramids in Egypt, I assume they’re mostly thinking about the pyramids of Giza. This cluster of about a dozen pyramids includes the two most famous: the Pyramid of Kufu and the Pyramid of Khafre. The site also has many interesting tombs and, of course, the famous Sphinx. When I first started reading about Egypt before moving here, I was surprised to discover how close the Pyramids of Giza were to downtown Cairo—only a 20 minute Uber ride away (without traffic)! On a clear day, you can see the two largest pyramids from office buildings in downtown Cairo.

Unfortunately, the Giza Pyramids hustle can easily detract from the impressive monuments. First your car gets literally attacked by people selling fake tickets and guided tours (they will jump on or, if the door is unlocked, in your car), then there’s the chaos at the actual ticket booth, then there’s the people hassling for horse and camel rides, then there’s the guards asking for baksheesh (tips) at the entrance to the pyramids… It can be a little bit much.

Thankfully, Egypt has over 100 pyramids (or so Wikipedia tells me), the ones at Giza being only the largest and most popular (read: accessible) with tourists, so there are other places to get your fix for large triangular stone structures.

We actually didn’t get a chance to see that many of the “other” pyramids, but there are some just south of Cairo that we found were worth the drive, if only because there were almost no tourists there when we visited.

The first site is Saqqara, where you can see the oldest pyramid: Djoser’s step pyramid. Basically, Ancient Egyptian kings used to have large mudbrick structures called mastabas (large, flat-roofed buildings with sloping walls) built above their tombs. Djoser’s architect Imhotep had the idea of stacking mastabas of decreasing sizes one on top of the other, creating the first pyramid. Although it is historically significant, the structure itself isn’t that impressive—but there are many interesting tombs and monuments in the surrounding area, including several small pyramids that now look like heaps of rubble, as well as a very good museum devoted to Imhotep and his revolutionary architectural designs.

The second site is Dahshur, about 10 km south of Saqqara. The so-called Red Pyramid, found here, is the first true pyramid (with smooth sides) and it really is a majestic site—especially because you can actually take the time to admire it without getting elbowed by other tourists or approached by men with camels. The way inside is frightening—up steep steps outside, and then down an angled shaft to the three chambers deep in its heart. The engineering and craft it took to carve and align those giant slabs of stone is awe-inspiring.

Nearby is our favourite pyramid, the so-called bent pyramid. I found this one interesting for two reasons: number 1 is the obvious fact they messed up on the angle when they built it, and when they realized that the structure was unstable, they changed the angle halfway up. It gives it a funny shape. Number 2 is that the limestone casing on this pyramid is more intact than on any other pyramid, which means you can get a decent idea of what the pyramids looked like when they were gleaming white in the desert sun.

Looking east from there, a crumbling mass of weathered mud bricks is all the remains of the so-called black pyramid, whose foundations were unstable because they were built too close to the Nile.

For all their massiveness, one thing you come to understand about pyramids when you visit Egypt is how fragile they actually are. And for all the skill and engineering prowess the Ancient Egyptians demonstrated, a lot of what they made was a result of trial and error.

Le Tarbouche

“We were not expelled. We did not force ourselves out. The truth is somewhere in between. We have always been in between: between two languages, between two cultures, between two Churches, between two chairs. Papa used to say, ‘It’s not very comfortable, but that’s how are buttocks are made.’”

I just finished reading a wonderful novel called Le Tarbouche, by the French writer Robert Solé.

Le Tarbouche is a sprawling family saga set in Egypt, from the end of the 19th to the mid 20th centuries. It follows the Batrakani family, from their humble origins as Christian Syrian immigrants arriving in Alexandria, until their departure from Egypt after the revolution in the 1950s. It reveals a lot about the large ethnic communities that once existed in Egypt—Greeks, Italians, Syrians, Armenians. They owned businesses, started newspapers, built entire neighbourhoods in Cairo at a time when Egypt was turned towards Europe (largely because of their colonial occupants…).

The members of Batrakani family are all Francophiles. Even as the British take control in Egypt, they go to a French Jesuit school and keep up-to-date on the latest fashions in Paris. Some of them even struggle to communicate in Arabic with their maids. And that, of course, is their downfall. Unable or unwilling to become fully Egyptian, despite having invested so much in the country and having earned some healthy returns from these investments, the Batrakanis eventually have to flee when a wave of nationalism seizes the country in the 1950s. The British are kicked out, and with them go everything that represents the “old” order.

One of the things I enjoyed about this novel is that it’s not told in a strict chronological way. Rather, it’s built up in short chapters that form recollections, digressions, anecdotes—so many snapshots for a family album. It’s like meeting an interesting person at a café, and having them tell you family stories. In fact, this book reminded me of a shop-owner we met here in Cairo—someone I’ll try to write about in more detail in the future—who grew up speaking French, English, and Arabic and who still feels more culturally aligned with France.

The book’s title, of course, refers to the tarboosh, that traditional, tasselled red hat, also known as a fez, which became unpopular when Egypt took control of its own destiny in the 1950s. In the novel, one of the family’s businesses is a tarboosh factory, and the “flowerpot” hat becomes a potent metaphor for changing fortunes in changing times.

As far as I can tell, Le Tarbouche has never been translated into English, which is a real shame. You can find some of Solé’s other books, such as The Alexandria Semaphore, in English, and they might provide an interesting introduction to his universe.

Where to Eat in Cairo? Zööba!

Zööba doesn’t particularly need additional advertising: the place is always packed, you can see their delivery mopeds everywhere, and it boasts six locations throughout Greater Cairo. Still, it’s the restaurant we keep going back to (and ordering in from) again and again, so it deserves to be celebrated a little here.

We love Zööba because they serve dishes rooted in traditional Egyptian street food and made with fresh ingredients, but modernized with a little bit of zing. People come here for their takes on local classic dishes such as pickles, salad, koshari (Egypt’s national dish of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, tomato sauce, and fried onions), the fuhl (warm bean stew served with bread), and tameya (Cairene word for falafel). Everything is delicious.

G. usually gets a tameya sandwich, served in baladi (local) flatbreads and offered in different flavours such as spicy pepper, eggplant, or pickled lemon. I can’t get enough of their chicken shawarma plate, which is served on perfumed rice with fresh argula, pickled beetroot, lightly pickled cucumbers, lots of veggies, and tahina sauce.

The Zamalek location is stylish but small—you sit down at a shared zinc table in the middle of the restaurant and try not to elbow the other diners in the face. I love the counter at the front, which is where the koshari gets made: a giant beaten metal bowl of carbs, smaller pots over bricks and flames to keep the spicy tomato sauce nice and hot.

If you want to try out delicious, quality Egyptian street food without any risk of indigestion, this is definitely the place to go.