Tag Archives: cairo

EGYPT’S INTIFADA: A LEXICON

Now that my eyeballs have all but dried up and fallen out as a result of staring at TV and computer screens for approximately 20 hours a day, in the vein of Sarthanapalos’ excellent piece, A Guide: How Not To Say Stupid Stuff About Egypt, I’d like to provide a handy companion to the language and discourses surrounding the uprising. Not afraid to be servicey!

REVOLUTION & UPRISING

Calling this a revolution is all well-meaning and good, but I need to emphasize that this will not be a revolution unless radical change is implemented, and facts on the ground suggest that the Mubarak security apparatus is allergic to radical change for the time being. The United States’ commitment to “stability” and “orderly transition” further establishes that a likelihood of radical change is small, at this point. (Have I mentioned how much I hate my administration right now? Radical change in Egypt, and radical change everywhere.)

“PROTESTERS CLASH” & “PEACEFUL PROTESTERS”

I’m aware that the horrific events that occurred yesterday (and that are still occurring, as I write this) have largely been broadcast as clashes, but it seems a little bit (a lot bit!) unseemly to conflate peaceful (peaceful. Do you know what that means? PEACEFUL. Rinse. Repeat.) demonstrators’ attempts at self-defense (never forget that these thugs are out for blood. Seven died in Cairo alone in the past 24 hours) with “clashes”. If someone was coming at you with tear gas, on a camel brandishing a sword, or with chains, or  knives, perhaps you would pick up a rock too?

TURMOIL & CHAOS

Al Jazeera English, lord love ’em, has finally ceased its headlines of “turmoil” and “chaos.” Again, make no mistake: Even in the absence of police on the streets, Cairo did not see anything resembling chaos or turmoil until their return. Neighborhoods self-organized and localized defense teams against thug looters. Communities cooperated and fed each other, sheltered each other. It was not chaotic until Wednesday 2nd February, when paid thugs went out in full force.

PRO-MUBARAK PROTESTERS & THUGS

All of the “pro-government counter-protesters” detained and handled by anti-government demonstrators yesterday held state security ID’s. These are men who have been paid by the government to enact the government’s wishes to silence the opposition. Calling them protesters illegitimates the word itself. These were orchestrated demonstrations not-so-coincidentally timed with the return of the Internet to divide opposition movements. Unfortunately, it might be working.

Do your best to not let this 82-year-old curmudgeon and his goons win. Do what you can to hold the regime accountable, do what you can to hold the international community accountable.

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FAVORITE FIVE [VERNAL EQUINOX EDITION]

From time to time, I just want to inform my limited readership about some really awesome things! In this episode, you all can celebrate the unseasonable cold (warmer in Boston this past weekend! QUE??). It’s almost like you’re here with me (except you’re not, and there’s a you-shaped hole in my heart)!

KUNST GALLERY & CAFE [DOWNTOWN]

There are a million reasons to adore this space, especially when you live in the world’s most difficult place to focus. What differentiates KUNST from other downtown Western-style “cafes” is its quiet atmosphere (a coffee place that’s conducive to studying? Cairo’s NEVER seen that. SERIOUSLY.) and its (wait for it) DELICIOUS coffee. I can say with little hesitation that this is the best American-style coffee I’ve had in Cairo that hasn’t been brewed in my own household (that’s not testament to my big ego. It’s testament to how awful coffee is here). Also? Free wi-fi. It makes the heart ache a little less for beloved hometown fixtures (e.g. Allston Cafe).

THE MARRIOTT BAKERY [ZAMALEK]

My mom was just in Cairo with me and at ten minutes to closing time on Egyptian Mothers’ Day (‘Eid al-Umm, bil Araby.) she waltzed in, ever the would-be Egyptian Madame, and demanded that she and her de facto offspring (me, Kelsy, Max) each purchase a treat. Perfect little custards and cheesecakes; significantly cheaper than anything else in that entire palatial complex. (did you know the original palace was built as a gift for Princess Eugenie by the Khedive Ismail? Now you do!) Just don’t eat your treats in the Garden Cafe; the waiters are Nazis about eating outside food there. Also, they charge 35LE for a Stella which is nothing but egregious.

VINTAGE GLASSES SHOPS [BAB EL-LUQ]

When I first moved to Egypt I was faced with the knowledge that biweekly trips to Urban Renewals had gone the way of the leggings-as-pant (a memo, by the way, that AUC’S undergraduate student body hasn’t yet received), which is good for me, I guess, since I am a self-diagnosed shop-a-holic. For my first three months I dreamt nightly about fictive items of clothing (red lace-up fleece-lined galoshes; $3 neon sunglasses from 1968) and grimaced daily at poly-blend turtlenecks. It turns out that my yearning was for naught, since there’s places like Wikalit al-Balah in Bulaq where you can find silk high-waisted trousers and old-school Benetton mini-dresses for a mere pittance. Fortunately for everyone involved, Egyptians love their glasses (so style!) and accordingly, you’ll find a lens shop on almost every block. Fortunately for us vintage-lovers, a lot of these places, notably in Bab el-Luq (arguably my favorite ‘hood in all of Cairo, in so many ways) carry vintage frames. Today, ever the impulse-shopper, I bolted into a glasses shop and picked up some glorious vintage sunglasses for 50LE a pop (that’s about $10). Check out my sick new look:

WELCOME TO MAY 1968, BABEH.

SHRIMP SANDWICHES [GARDEN CITY; BAB EL-LUQ]

It won’t be much longer before it gets too hot to eat seafood without risking miserable hours clutching the toilet, so get thee to a fish source while you can. A personal favorite? The fried shrimp sandwiches at el-Nil fish restaurant on Sharia Bustan in Bab el-Luq (also, the best calamari I’ve had in Cairo, and, again, insanely cheap compared to other, more mediocre places that serve it) run you around 12LE, which, although it’s like four times more felooz kateer than koshari, is a whole lot more delicious. I also enjoy the shrimp sandwiches near my house on Qasr el-Aini (the Garden City side). If you eat in you get delicious salads (bonus!).

PROTESTS [DOWNTOWN]

Given my ‘hood’s immediate proximity to Cabinet, Parliament, and many a Ministry, and given increased leniency to protesters (I need not remind you that I reside in a police state, at present), there have been a rash of workers’ protests, most of whom have been negatively affected by privatization (I know. SHOCKING.). Most recently are the Petrojet workers. Go fistbump them over on Maglis el-Shaab. They’ve started in the wake of the Amonsito workers’ recent departure, who, in turn, started up their protest on Qasr el-Aini mere days after our beloved Tanta protesters left the street I live on. I shan’t elaborate at present on the difference between protest here and in America (I guess what affects me the most is that here, a) it’s risky and b) it actually means something), but it would be a lie to say that it hasn’t really affected how I’ve been thinking about the Egyptian nation-state in the wake of the global neoliberal economy (in other words, I’m still a Marxist).

BONUS: This downloadable 12 volume Reference of Female Fronted Punk Rock 1977-1989. Helping me slosh through midterms like nothing else! This Holly & the Italians jam adequately sums up the way I miss America, especially Allston and Cambridge, right now. Lucky for me, there’s an ever-rotating list of favorites to help me cope with missing people and things and cats too much.

DOUBLE BONUS: I have two new cousins! David Frederick and Emily Halo (both surname Brown). Can’t wait to come back to ‘merica and meet these beautiful babes!

THINGS THAT I AM EATING

While I’m in the process of reconsidering my role as an itinerant blogger (thusly expressed in a Christmas acrostic poem by my dad, Cliff), I think I’d like to talk to you all about one of my favorite things in the entire world.

Not clothing (though I have a lot to say about that!), EATING!! This one time (Bostonians will appreciate this, I think), I had only recently been to my beloved Allston staple Yo Ma and was waxing poetic to Joel and Luke about it. I think I was going on a rampage about Burmese tofu and chickpea flour and shallots and tamarind and FLAVOR and they both went off in hysterics about how I should be a food blogger. I don’t think I should be a food blogger, or any kind of blogger, because I don’t think I have the adequate descriptors (or discipline) to talk about food ALL the time, but let’s be honest. I THINK about food MOST of the time, and even though Egyptian cuisine is ubiquitous at best, bland at worst (and food poisoning at VERY worst, but I have an iron constitution, SO.), with the help of a few friends I’ve discovered some really amazing establishments that seriously boggle my mind and bring tears to my eyes (yes. delicious food is apt to make me cry. along with beautiful mosques and deaths of authors).

All these establishments are considered “holes in the wall”, I guess, but I feel like enough khowagat frequent them for them not to be totally Baladi. I also take some issue with claiming authenticity because it’s a really muddled and contentious thing to claim, so I’m not writing this to talk about how I’m oh-so-Anthony-Bourdain, but more to talk about some really delicious and insanely cheap food that I ate and loved.

POMODORO is this place on Tahrir Street (a little past Hurriya, and on the other side of Midan Falaky) where you hang around awkwardly until the waiter brings you plastic stools and rickety tables and you plop down on the sidewalk. Then you wait for about an hour (at this point you’re getting relatively hangry, because you were hungry an hour and a half ago). Then you are handed a MASSIVE platter of pasta COVERED in seafood (clams, squid, fish, et. al.) and a big ol’ crab on the side. It sounds super sketchy to get seafood (street seafood at that) in a city that is three hours from the ocean, but TRUST. This ish will BLOW YOUR MIND. It’s a) SPICY (such a rarety in the Cairo of Secrets!) b) FRESH (hence the hour it took to cook it. I bet they have a little pond in the back!) and most importantly c) MIND BOGGLINGLY DELICIOUS. Even my gourmet friends like Max agree. Then you’ll be really full and have to take a doggy bag home and only have paid approximately $3 for this meal that would have cost $30 in Amreeka. WIN.

Then there is this place off Talaat Harb, down a little alleyway with a lot of lady-friendly ahwas off Mohammed Bassiouny. Y’all turn the corner, and there’s this little kitchen set up (outside, natch.) and this young lady tells you what she’s serving today (standard Egyptian mom cuisine, so a lot of mashi and beans, et. al.) and you tell her what you want and her mom COOKS IT FOR YOU. RIGHT THERE. So you get this super sizzling fried chicken and kofta and fresh SALAD and amazing beans and potatoes, et. al. and again. Tears stream down your face because what you just placed in your mouth is so much more delicious and cheap than the overpriced excuse for Baba Ghanouj you ate at Estoril two nights ago. Again, you’ll pay less than $3. WIN.

And, I just went to a new place on Falaky (I forget the name, of course) that serves pigeon. Pigeon isn’t super meaty, but besides the pigeon (which is funny to say in Arabic because it sounds like BATHROOM. ha, ha.) your waiter (once he acknowledges you) inundates you with this chicken broth and amazing salad and tehine and PICKLES (good, half-sour pickles! not the gross, limp kind you get with your falafel). Then you get your pigeon, stuffed with delicious rice, head still on and all (yeah, not for the faint of heart, I guess) and you pig out and you are SO FULL. Oh, and with a Coke it’s like $7. WIN.

In addition to all that, I also am apparently a great judge of character because I’ve somehow got friends who are AWESOME cooks. Last week Max made calamari with chili peppers and wilted arugula and beet and carrot salad and drool drool drool. Last night my friend Sam made us Iraqi beans and livers with rice and eggplant salad and garlicky yogurt pasta and okay. I just realized that it’s kindof cruel to boast about all this delicious food so much. I guess just think of it as incentive to come visit me so I can take you to these places and we can have a snaccident together. Okay? Okay.

SITUATING MYSELF (PART ONE)

Readjustment is two-fold, here.

First, a readjustment to Academia. Time management (ever my weak suit), course loads (I hurt already), nocturnal schedules (this, at least, I can take a liking to).

Next, a readjustment to Cairo. This provides the real source of my exhaustion. If you’ve never been here, then you need to picture it in your mind as a sort of dirtier, noisier, low-rent version of Manhattan¹. Save a brief few years as a youth in Small-Town New England, most of my life experience has been informed by an urban setting, so it’s not the city itself so much as atmosphere that lends to fatigue. While fair New England seems to be exhibiting symptoms of Autumn already, Cairo is still in the throes of summer. I’m a child of Sun, so it’s not the heat so much as it is the heat-cum-pollution, this in addition to cultural readjustment: waiting in lines, navigating sidewalks, crossing the street (my friend Javier calls it his favorite extreme sport!), enduring leers and cat-calls², stumbling through your broken lexicon of Egyptian Arabic- you get the point, I think! Readjusting to school after two years’ absence would be overwhelming enough without the cumbersome aspects of learning and relearning how to live in a place. There are days, and there are Days. My mom is certainly not wrong though. She noted once that the best thing about living here was that every day there was a Story, and I’ve found this to be completely true since my arrival.

Fortunately, Egyptians love a good holiday, and with the end of Ramadan comes a lovely ‘Eid el Fitr, during which I’ll be traipsing through the Sinai on a relaxing journey to Dahab. It hasn’t even been a month, and yet I feel that this is a well-timed and well-deserved vacation!

With all this complaint though, there is something to be said for living downtown and being able to hear the thousands of calls-to-prayer throughout the city. With every negative feeling comes an extreme sense of gladness that here, at least for the time being, this must be the place.

¹This is not to portray NYC as exemplar of The Metropolis, but since most of my readership is American, it’s a fair enough frame of reference, I think.

²Harassment here requires an entry unto itself. Forthcoming!

HOUSE HUNTING IN CAIRO

It is common sense not to agree to a flat sight unseen (THOUGH I CAN’T SAY I HAVE NOT DONE THIS IN THE PAST), so I arrived in Cairo in a very transient moment, in the midst of hundreds of other international students trying to do the same thing. I am lucky, because I have a billion (or, like, five) surrogate aunts and uncles who are infinitely gifted in the realm of hospitality and serve as this reminder that I’d be hopelessly lost without this vast, global network of friends, loved ones. I’ve been staying in my old ‘hood of Maadi, which is a fairly Westernised south-eastern suburb of Cairo, and since I grew up in this district primarily I feel very comfortable here. It has seen rapid, rapid development since my family left, so there are more grocery stores and skyscrapers than there were thirteen years ago, but it maintains the same quietness that makes it appealing to a lot of expats, and to girls who need to recover from jet lag, but now that I’ve adjusted to the time zone, it’s time for me to apartment hunt for my picture-perfect, Egyptian flat (gilded Egyptian furniture requisite. Cat-friendly would be nice, too!).

AUC, future Alma Mater and Beacon of Bureaucracy, provides incoming students with a vague idea (in brochure form) of how to go about apartment searching, so, like good little students, my Selected Roommate and I followed suit.

SUGGESTION: “Walk around in pairs, ideally with an Arabic speaker, and when you find a building you like, ask the doorman, or bowab, if there is an apartment for rent.”

Energized by some freshly squeezed ‘asir limon (that’s me, being hoity-toity and evading the obvious English word, which is lime juice), we bopped on down Qasr al-Aini, which is where many government buildings are located (many embassies are in close proximity, as well) and established that, yes, we like this ‘hood (Garden City, if you like the visual) for a variety of reasons. And so we commence wandering into buildings that we like. Tips for the Cairo Traveller: don’t think about what they look on the outside. Just don’t. A lot of these places are less than a hundred years’ old, but a hundred years’ worth of Cairo dirt and dust makes them look Decrepit and (not to be subjective, but…) Ugly. But if you know me then probably you know that I really love Ugly, Dirty things and thus this isn’t exactly a deterrent. Garden City apartments are mostly built between 1905-1940 so, if you can overlook the dirt (Real Talk: if you can’t overlook the dirt then you should not be here), you’ll find some pretty stunning early 20th century architecture up in this piece. But this is bordering on tangential.

There were essentially two things we overlooked when we ventured out. One was Ramadan, and the availability of bowabs. Ramadan, in general, leads to an overall decrease in productivity from the Egyptian Workforce-At-Large¹, so, instead of engaging in requisite bowab activity (watering plants, drinking tea, smoking, fetching groceries, carrying heavy things), most bowabs are sleeping (most WORKERS are sleeping, I should note. EVERYONE is sleeping because they’re HANGRY²!)

Our second major faux-pas was the convenient notion that the bowabs we encountered spoke English. Uh, whoops. Between my roommate (arriving straight from Texas) and I (hi, I’ve taken Arabic courses on-and-off since I was five and still know zilch³), we can manage “please” and “thank you” and “how much?” and “NO” and “WHAT, DO YOU THINK I’M CRAZY?”, but this is about it. The one bowab we encountered who was not napping or hiding from the hot sun hadn’t the foggiest idea what we were trying to pantomime to him (guess I should brush up on charades) and so we left, awkward, dejected, determined to improve our Arabic skills.

SUGGESTION: “Many people get apartments by hiring local brokers, or simsars, who are sometimes bowabs. They might show you a lot of places that are unacceptable, prolonging your search. It’s possible to negotiate out of their fees because landlords usually pay them, but you’re likely to pay half or full month’s rent.”

On Day 2, we went for angle #2: the simsar. Bottom line in Cairo: all venues that you are pursuing will be totally shady in some way, shape or form. That’s the beauty of it: everything here is infinitely more relational, so you’re not finding out about products from stupid Yelp reviews, you’re establishing a network and finding out from experience, or from hearsay, and hopefully, 3 out of 10 times, maybe, you’ll have some success. With all this said, utilizing a simsar is almost identical to using a broker in my old digs of Allston. The only discernible differences will be the Office* and the Service**. Some career fields are just universally sleazier than others, I guess, but at least Egyptians offer you food!

In the end, we didn’t go either traditional route and instead opted for an offer on the Cairo Scholars email Listserv, which serves as another venue for building up a supportive network here. Traditional “networking” and conceptions of that leave a bad taste in my mouth† (I do not schmooze, and never, ever will) but when you’re utilizing networks in a situation like this, you understand why they exist in the first place.

¹I mean, duh. Don’t eat for 12 hours and see what it does for YOUR productivity. At least here, there’s a support network! So much harder for Muslims in the States, in this regard.

²This term explains itself, I hope.

³I am not sure why I didn’t get Baba Cliff’s linguist gene. I thought I had it, but it turns out it’s only an interest in linguistics and not an actual penchant for it. 😦

*Allston brokers will have a nice one with A/C and weird uncomfortable modernist furniture, Cairo simsars will have one that is currently “under renovation” with The Count of Monte Cristo on the bookshelf and a sagging sofa (they will be smoking indoors, of course).

**Allston brokers will forget your name and act stand-off-ish and snooty and insist that there is nothing in your price range in That Neighborhood, Cairo simsars will offer you soda and coffee and cigarettes and insist that there is nothing in your price range in That Neighborhood, and then they’ll say that you’re all family and invite you to Iftar that evening.

†Network theory, on the other hand, is a whole other ballgame…