Monday, February 22, 2010

Writing and Being Touristy

The title should tell you what I've been up to lately, actually.  School is keeping me fairly busy, as is my social life and work.  Hallah and I have new costume designs we've been casually photographing to get up online and hopefully sell, so I will be posting those pictures up when I get home from AUC this evening or perhaps tomorrow, as well as pictures from the gorgeous Citadel which I finally got around to seeing in the day time!  Unfortunantely it was a very hot day as we're having a small hot snap and the tempuratures are getting up to 80+ during the day.

In the mean time I wanted to share some excerpts from an article I'm working on for Gilded Serpent right now.  I wanted to share with the belly dance community what life is like just living and hanging out here, experiencing Egypt at the human level rather than at a grand tourist scheme of things, so I decided to talk about what I at night over the course of a week.  Here are some excerpts from the unedited piece so far:

I often get asked what life is like in Cairo by everyone from friends to family to strangers who have stumbled across my blog. In a way the blog readers are the luckiest because they can read through various accounts of what I've been up to just on a day to day basis. The beauty of Cairo is often in the every day things, the small things that we wouldn't consider so worthwhile but in fact make up the real substance of what it's like to live here. I don't go to museums or monuments or see famous belly dancers every day, but I am here in Cairo every day and that is special in and of itself.

Arabic class lends itself to group homeworking activities with our Egyptian friends included, so we dove into putting together the Khan al Khalili movie assignment as soon as Jon arrived. Our British friend Dave dropped by after work and we made the executive desicion to hit up an excellent Chinese restaurant around the corner from my house. I love that place to death, because it looks like a tiny, sketchy, hole-in-the-wall place that you would walk right by but in fact has some of the best Chinese food I've ever had. Plus, with the serious lack of truly good Chinese food in Cairo, it has become a hotspot for my group of friends so one of us is usually there every other night. In fact, shortly after we arrived my good friend who is German/Egyptian (she speaks English, Arabic, and German fluently--I am so jealous) showed up with a couple people in tow and we managed to take over the entire four-table restaurant.

I have lots of great memories of fooling around at that place, mostly because a lot of Egyptians have only experienced Chinese food through the lens of Egyptian chefs before. I remember a Chinese-themed buffet got to experience in Hurghada that was just horrible--the spring roll wrappers were basically made from puff-pastry! Finding a good, inexpensive, Chinese restaurant in Cairo around the corner from my house was like finding the Holy Grail. After a lot of dragging their feet I have gotten most of my Egyptian friends to go there, and now they all love it. They agree pretty much unanimously on hating the tea, which I admit is far too weak and subtle by Egyptian standards, but adore the food. To the extent that we are having a very hard time teaching them to learn how to use chopsticks because they give up in the face of hunger and delicious Kung Pao Chicken. I can't blame them though.

I don't get back from the American University in Cairo where I go to school until 9pm on Wednesdays, due to a late seminar and the somewhat sporadic bus schedule. However, I was determined to meet up with my language partner and do some exchange and just hang out, so I grabbed a very fast dinner at home and then ran out the door to grab a taxi to the Metro, Cairo's subway/train system. It's about a 5LE (90 cents) cab ride to the Metro, then you can ride anywhere along the Metro for 1LE (18 cents). The Metro is great as it's fairly clean and runs fast so you never end up stuck in Cairo traffic--the only downside is that it can get pretty crowded at rush hour.

The 'ahwa is such a staple of my life here that it's important to me to talk about what these street cafes are, but unfortunantely it's uncomfortable to get good photos as to label oneself as a tourist or foreigner in an 'ahwa is sort of asking for trouble. Your typical street cafe is compromised of plastic lawn chairs crammed in close together at the edge of the road proper, around parked cars and various other obstacles, with tiny spindly tables rising up in between to prop up games of chess or backgammon and glasses of tea. Shishas are ubiquitous, and clouds of smoke waft up to the palm trees above heads bent in conversation, with laughter punctuating the general dull roar of the crowd. The floor is the street, dirty and trash-strewn with bottle caps that have been flattened by cars and feet into a mosiac of American branding in Arabic, and the walls are of whatever buildings are nearby, painted with various pictures, including ones depicting the kaaba to honor those going on Hajj to Mecca. Wild dogs run around out in the street, fighting only half-seriously over scraps, and street cats of all colors slink underfoot in search of food. The air smells of fruity tobacco and cigarettes, and that special dirty-sandy-polluted-but-pleasant smell of Cairo that feels like home. It's not exotic, it just IS.

We met up with a friend of Mohamed Ali's, a Chinese boy named Josh who is staying with an Egyptian family as part of an International study program. He was there with two Egyptian guys, soft-spoken tall and skinny types one of whom speaks English enthusiastically and is eager to chat with a new foreigner, and the other of whom was a bit more shy and reserved. They were both fluent in English though, yet again reminding me that my Arabic is still embarassingly underdeveloped. Mohamed greeted everyone like old friends, before laughingly admitting that he had just met the 3 guys in this cafe a few days once before. We chatted quite a bit about Egypt as Josh has only been in town for a few weeks, which is as good as being almost brand-new here, so he still has lots to talk about and remark on and that brings out in me some of the same. At some point Mohamed Ali and I headed around the corner to buy some grilled kofta off a small stall restaurant where the man grabbed the skewer straight off the coals, removed the steaming meat into some flatbread, wrapped it in paper and forked the huge sandwich over, dripping and delicious. I indulged in some Ruz Bilaban (rice pudding) too, my possibly my favorite Egyptian dessert.

Sherif, the enthusiastic guy, revealed that he lived in Indonesia for three years, and is fluent in Indonesian, so then we started in on an extensive 3-way comparison of Egypt, the US, and Indonesia just as my friends Alex and Ibrahim arrived. Alex is Malaysian but lives in America so he and Sherif immediately started in on a language comparison and began to chit-chat in various combinations of languages. Mohamed Ali and I gave up at that point and began to drill my Arabic vocabulary for class on Thursday; finally getting down to business around 11pm. He's also learning Spanish from a Mexican family living in Cairo so the group began to have a Tower of Babel moment when the various languages are shooting around--it didn't help that at some point Sherif and Alex switched to German, which Alex can only swear in rather than anything useful.

As the night wore on people stopped complaining about being tired in a joking way and started talking earnest about going home, so we all set down the shisha hoses, grabbed our bags and snagged one of the guys running around with trays of tea to pay and get out. Trudging down the back streets downtown at midnight conversation was no less animated, but showing the strain of the day. Alex and I joke that we're always tired in Cairo because once you get out for the evening you can't stop until the night is done or you can't move--even if you do have class the next day!


  1. I am DIssapointed,,not even a single word abt me,, :P !!! & btw Kung Pao Chicken ROX :P

  2. I don't really comment here, but I do love your blog! I make annual two-week trips to Cairo, but obviously I'm not immersed in the culture like you are. While it can be difficult at times, you'll never regret the time you are spending there. Cheers!