Cairo’s Weasels

Although Cairo’s “informal” system of trash collection works surprisingly well—it’s managed, for the most part, by groups of copts who collect the trash and haul it off to “trash city,” where it is sorted and reused when possible (for example, organic waste is fed to animals)—it’s still not uncommon, even in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods, for the streets and sidewalks to be littered with refuse, including food.

Therefore, it’s a real surprise that Cairo isn’t overrun with rats. Of course, there is no shortage of cats lounging about Cairo’s streets, but Cairenes should be thankful for another small mammal that keeps the rat and mouse population in check: the Egyptian weasel.

This mysterious animal is very small, with round ears, a fusiform body, and a short furry tale. They’re nocturnal animals that are very fast and can fit through tiny openings. In fact, the Egyptian weasel is so shy and hard to spot that it took us several months before we saw our first one, a little patch of brown fur darting underneath cars near Costa Coffee. At first, we didn’t even know what we’d seen. A squirrel? A rat? It took a bit of online searching to find out about Cairo’s underground population of mustela subpalmata, as they are known scientifically.

Now that G. and I know about the weasels, we’ve been lucky enough to glimpse one every few weeks. They usually come out at night, when they can be seen as they cross the street, darting under cars and disappearing in cracks almost as soon as we spot them. It’s virtually impossible to get a picture of them. The other morning we were lucky enough to see one almost head on, in full daylight, as we came out of a Vodafone shop. It sped across the street right in front of us and slipped away between the gratings of a garage gate.

Bonus content: Listen to artist Far Flown Falcon’s song about a weasel, recorded in a street of Fatimid Cairo!

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?

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.

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!