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.

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.