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!

Where to Eat in Cairo? Zööba!

Zööba doesn’t particularly need additional advertising: the place is always packed, you can see their delivery mopeds everywhere, and it boasts six locations throughout Greater Cairo. Still, it’s the restaurant we keep going back to (and ordering in from) again and again, so it deserves to be celebrated a little here.

We love Zööba because they serve dishes rooted in traditional Egyptian street food and made with fresh ingredients, but modernized with a little bit of zing. People come here for their takes on local classic dishes such as pickles, salad, koshari (Egypt’s national dish of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, tomato sauce, and fried onions), the fuhl (warm bean stew served with bread), and tameya (Cairene word for falafel). Everything is delicious.

G. usually gets a tameya sandwich, served in baladi (local) flatbreads and offered in different flavours such as spicy pepper, eggplant, or pickled lemon. I can’t get enough of their chicken shawarma plate, which is served on perfumed rice with fresh argula, pickled beetroot, lightly pickled cucumbers, lots of veggies, and tahina sauce.

The Zamalek location is stylish but small—you sit down at a shared zinc table in the middle of the restaurant and try not to elbow the other diners in the face. I love the counter at the front, which is where the koshari gets made: a giant beaten metal bowl of carbs, smaller pots over bricks and flames to keep the spicy tomato sauce nice and hot.

If you want to try out delicious, quality Egyptian street food without any risk of indigestion, this is definitely the place to go.

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.