Ramadan

Ramadan, that special month when Muslims fast during the day, feast at night, and spend most of their time watching TV, has been upon us for a few weeks now in Cairo. It has modified the texture of the city, disrupting its schedule, its sounds, its atmosphere. We’ve heard people complain and people celebrate. One thing is certain: Ramadan is impossible to ignore.

Businesses have shorter opening hours to accommodate for afternoon sleepiness/moodiness, and to give people time to get home and eat at sundown. Cairene traffic downtown, along the corniche, and on the flyovers usually peaks around 5:30pm, but now it’s at its worse around 2:30, when offices close and people head home early. Our favourite pastry shop is as busy as we’ve ever seen it in the afternoon, when people order large platters of fresh basbousa and baklava to share with family and friends. Everything is closed for a couple of hours before and after sunset, but some shops open again around 8 or 9pm, and restaurants—empty during the day—are crowded long into the night. Drinkies, our usual purveyor of alcohol, has shut down for the month, so we had to stock up on beer and gin back in May. For weeks grocery stores have been decorated with lights and brightly coloured fabric. They sell Iftar boxes, meant to be given as gifts, and have elaborate displays of nuts and dried fruit. The streets are festooned with tinsel and hanging lamps. Absent—during the day, at least—is the usual parade of tea and coffee delivery boys with their metal platters, and so too are the usual smokers lined up along the sidewalks.

Despite the inconvenience, sunset brings a special magic. I love going out at Iftar time, around 7pm. There’s a box of dates set out on a counter in the lobby of our apartment building—it’s tradition to break the fast with three dried dates. There are almost no cars in the street, where banquets are organized along usually busy arteries for different groups of workers, such as taxi drivers. In a restaurant, a couple of guys have ordered their food in advance, everything is laid out in front of them. But they wait patiently for the prayer on TV to be over before digging in. The waiter goes outside to smoke his first cigarette of the day; he looks delirious with joy.

One evening we went out for dinner at Sequoia, one of Zamalek’s fanciest restaurant, located at the northern tip of Gezira Island, right on the Nile. The usual tent-like structure had been pulled back and replaced by beautiful lamps, suspended under an azur sky. Like many places, they have a special set menu for Iftar: fresh juices, soups, hot and cold mezzes, mixed grill, pastries, shisha. The service was expeditious, the quantity of food almost comical. And it all came at once, the plates crowding our table. Cairenes display an exuberant joy in eating and smoking and drinking so much, after having fasted all day.

It’s also interesting to observe delinquencies blooming in the social cracks. A guard nibbling bread behind a bush in the afternoon, someone smoking a cigarette nonchalantly by a mosque, a teenager downing a glass of guava juice at the train station. I left Egypt for a few days at the beginning of Ramadan, and on the daytime flight back to Cairo everyone in the plane accepted and ate the packaged meal. Perhaps there’s an exception when you’re in the air?

The Village of Potters

One thing we quickly realized after we moved to Cairo was that we couldn’t stay for more than a few weeks in the city without going mad or developing serious lung problems. We needed to get out and see some country.

One of our first outings—for my birthday, in fact—was to the region of Fayum, which is located a couple of hours by car south-west of Cairo, in an area bordering a large salt-water lake called Lake Qarun. In Roman times, the Fayum area was a bustling region with many settlements. Many of the famous Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits were found in this region, which is why they are often known as the Fayum mummy portraits.

Today, there is a small village to the south of Lake Qarun called Tunis, which has beautiful views of the lake. In the 1970s, a Swiss woman called Evelyne Porret moved to Fayum and established a pottery workshop in the village. She taught many local children, some of which eventually opened their own pottery studios, and now the village is dotted with a dozen or so of these studios where visitors can wander in, chat with the artisans, and purchase the wares on display.

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G. and I were charmed by the beautiful small hotel we stayed at, owned by another Swiss couple, and by the calm atmosphere in the village. Many walls of the houses in the village are painted with tasteful murals, which adds to the artistic feel of the place, which has become a haven for artists, artisans, and traditional crafts.

The pottery workshops are great, and the artisans aren’t pushy at all about selling—we got the feeling that they make most of their money from large orders for weddings, so they don’t really seem to mind whether walk-ins buy anything or not. We found their beautiful, hand-made products hard to resist, and came away with many bowls and cups of various sizes.

We returned to Cairo refreshed, with ears full of birdsong and eyes enchanted by unobstructed views of palm trees and water.

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Canada Dry

Doing tourist things in Egypt with my parents the last couple of weeks, I’ve had more chances to study the strange social behaviours that arise from the tourist industry. From the humble camel tout (“good price”) to the more elaborate story (“I work at the hotel restaurant, I saw you yesterday…”), many people who live off tourism will say anything to provide you with wares or services you usually don’t need in exchange for some of your money. Taxis, calèches (horse-drawn carriages), and boat rides abound especially in Luxor, where walking along the corniche becomes something of a joke that we then repeated amongst ourselves to lighten the mood.

“Hey, mister! Madame! Where you going? Where you from? Taxi? Good price! Calèche? Need a boat? Five pound. Market this way, market this way.” Some will stop once you say no thank you, many will persist, making you feel even less like saying yes. The pestering is constant, but it’s all part of the tourist game.

Of course, one of the strategies these sellers employ is to try and start a conversation with you. The easiest way is to ask you where you’re from. Ignoring the question is a bit too impolite for our Western sensibilities, answering the truth will inevitably open up some kind of opportunity for further questions or conversation. Sometimes I lie and say Bhutan, which inevitably gets quizzical looks. Apparently not many Bhutanese make it to Upper Egypt.

Whenever we say we’re Canadian, we inevitably get the same response: “Canada? Canada Dry!” It was funny the first time, it got old really fast.

But in fact this ubiquitous response leads to more questions. Do other nationalities get their special response, or are we the only one? Also, how did camel tour sellers and site porters and taxi drivers all come to say the same thing from Giza to Aswan? Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever seen ginger ale sold anywhere in Egypt. So what gives? How do they even know about this brand? Who started this thing and how did it spread?

Looking a bit online, it seems that many fellow Canadians got a similar response: “Canada Dry, Never Die!” It sounds like Canady Dry used to run some kind of successful marketing campaign in Egypt that caught on and worked too well.

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.