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.

Cairo’s Last Bookbinder

Tucked away behind Al-Azhar Mosque, on a street lined with Quran sellers and butcher’s shops, a modern glass door opens into a shaded, cave-like shop with stone floors and walls lined with shelves of dark wood. This is Abdelzaher’s, Cairo’s last traditional book binder.

On display are beautiful leather-bound notebooks and photo albums of all sizes. The prices are more than reasonable for the workmanship, and they include a personalized inscription in gold letters. They make great gifts! I love watching the book binder get to work to make the inscription: lining up the movable type from trays against the wall, heating the metallic letters on an open flame, pressing them down carefully but forcefully on a ribbon of gold leaf.

If you wish, you can get your entire personal library rebound here—just keep an eye on your baggage allowance if you want to bring your books back home afterwards. I opted to get a single book rebound, Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, which came back to me a few weeks later bound in dark red leather with the title and author engraved in tiny gold letters on the spine. It’s beautiful and very luxurious.

A word of warning, however: I won’t pretend the bookbinder’s shop is always as charming as I make it out to be. The shop is well known among tourists and expats, and located around the corner as it is from one of Cairo’s main tourist attractions, a lot of people stop here to buy a notebook and have it engraved with their name. Okay, there aren’t busloads of people, but engraving the books takes a while, so the wait can be long and boring. One time it took so long that the guy told us he would finish our books later and have them delivered to us—he never did, and when we came round the shop again a week later our books were still lying around his worktable. Similarly, when I went to pick up my rebound novel a few weeks ago, they couldn’t find it anywhere even though they knew it was finished, so I had to leave empty-handed and wait for them to deliver the book later that day. Thankfully, that time they did.

Despite the minor annoyances (this is Cairo, after all!), bookbinding is a beautiful craft and I’m glad this place is keeping it alive.

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.

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…

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.

Zamalek

Since we arrived in Cairo, we’ve spent a lot of our time in Zamalek, a central neighbourhood located on Gezira Island. Gezira means island in Arabic, so Gezira Island basically means Island Island. At least it’s straightforward!

Gezira Island is sliced in half by the 26th July flyover and the corridor underneath it. The top half of the island is occupied by a district called Zamalek, while the lower half is dotted with many famous Cairo landmarks, such as the Marriott Hotel (on which more at a later date), Cairo tower, the Cairo Opera House, and the legendary Gezira Sporting Club.

Zamalek is a leafy, upscale neighbourhood, somewhat quieter than other parts of the city, although you still get lots of local flavour (read: honking). Many foreign embassies are located in beautiful mansions in the area, often surrounded by gardens, and sometimes impressive concrete walls, which means that many expats call the area home. They’re usually at work during the week, but on Friday afternoon and Saturday you can spot them walking about or going to the grocery store. There are several supermarkets in Zamalek that are popular with expats because they offer a good selection of foreign products.

A couple of things I like about Zamalek: Helwan University’s Faculty of Fine Arts is located on the corner of two main streets, so during the week the nearby sidewalks are flooded with art students carrying their rolled-up works. One of my favourite places nearby is a traditional ice cream and pastry shop called Madarine Koueider, where the service is a little mad (you have to order, pay, and get your pastries wrapped at three different counters) but the sweets are delicious, chock-full of butter, nuts, and honey.

For tourists visiting Cairo, there might not be many things to see or do in Zamalek, but it’s a nice place to walk around, shop in fancy boutiques, snoop in the numerous art galleries, and stop for a coffee or a meal. One of the best places to go is Pottery Café, where expats and well-off Cairenes come to drink mint lemonades and suck on shishas by the Nile.