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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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.

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!

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.