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?

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 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 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

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.