Wissa Wassef

A short drive away from the pyramids in Giza, behind a block of informal apartment buildings on the canal road that leads south to Abu Sir, Saqqarah, and Dahshur, there is a humble enclave of peace called the Wissa Wassef Art Centre.

Ramses Wissa Wassef was a 20th century Egyptian architect. In 1951, he founded an art centre here in order to teach children from the surrounding villages how to develop their intrinsic artistic skills in crafts such as pottery and weaving. The skills they learned would also give them a means to make some additional money by selling their creations at the centre.

Today, the second generation of these children, now middle-aged men and women, still weave beautiful artworks out of cotton or wool, entirely by hand. These tapestries, which can be very large, are veritable paintings made of fabric—usually done without any preliminary plans or drawings.

The centre has a large gallery space, where visitors can also purchase the works on display. If you’re lucky, as we were a few times, you can also visit the workshops and see the men and women at work. It’s a humbling experience that will inevitably make you want to purchase one of their pieces.

It’s worth visiting the Wissa Wassef Centre even if it’s just to marvel at the beautiful architecture, which is made of traditional adobe bricks and rammed earth: lightly ascending staircases, soft angles, rounded archways, and delicate domes. But it’s hard to leave without buying a woven work of art once you’ve seen the artists at work.

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Cairo: The City Victorious

But sometimes – in April especially – the wind changes ominously. Brewing up from east or west, it sweeps the desert blustering into the city. Stifling hot and teased with whirlwinds, the sandstorms counterpoint the river, serving to remind Cairo that even as the water of life flowers through its centre, death lurks at the edges of the valley. Cairenes need reminding. The city’s ceaseless urban racket casts an amnesiac spell. It is easy to forget how close the utter empty silence of the desert lies.

Eager to learn more about Cairo’s history and to keep my Mamlouks straight from my Fatimids, I’ve been reading Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious, which was published by the American University in Cairo Press back in 1998.

It’s an interesting book, and I’m glad I picked it up, although I found it a bit dense and couldn’t read much more than 10-20 pages at a time. There’s a lot of stories and information here, with some chapters following a more thematic approach, and others running through the chronology of Cairo, from its origins in the pre-historic city of Om (today located in the upscale suburb of Heliopolis) to the metropolis of 20+ million people it has now become. Rodenbeck is also lyrical at times, crafting the right phrase or finding the right metaphor to capture a smell, a sound, or a sight.

While I learned a lot reading Cairo: The City Victorious—it’s obvious that Rodenbeck adores the city and knows it very well—I think the book suffered a bit from a problem of personality. At times it read like a straight up “biography” of Cairo, encompassing large swathes of Egyptian history condensed into a few pages, while at others Rodenbeck couldn’t help but describe a few of his personal experiences in the city: meeting a workshop owner from a baladi neighbourhood, having dinner with a gossipy gin-sucking upper-class lady, encountering a Sufi mystic in a tent during a night festival. Yet Rodenbeck deals with scenes like these ones hastily. He offers the minimum of context before zooming back out into a broader social history of the city.

Max Rodenbeck is a correspondent for The Economist, and perhaps that’s why he appears to be so uncomfortable in the first-person mode. Yet the parts of the book where Rodenbeck swoops in on tangible moments gave me the strongest impressions. I would’ve loved for the author to make this book more personal, to offer more details about his own life and experiences in Cairo, while offering some of the historical material as background. Instead he seemed too intent on erasing himself from the story, unless when absolutely necessary.

This book was a bit of a missed opportunity for me, but it was still a very interesting read. And, yes, I can now tell apart the Fatimids apart from the Mamlouks.

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.