Last night, Cairo went off. Off, I tell you, going into overdrive in the days before Eid, the three-day holiday. It is pumping down there in the streets. Thousands of people in the squares, drinking tea, eating sweet biscuits and honey cakes, smoking sheesha. They will go until dawn, damn them and their car horns. And they’re already warming up for tonight, where apparently the city will ring to the sound of fire crackers. I can hear them now, and the sun is only just setting…
I stayed out till about 1am, drinking tea occasionally on my own and occasionally with lots of strange people, mostly men (“my wife she stays home and watches the television and the children”), and eating in an insane amount of sugar. It really is the drug of choice in Egypt. Especially now, as they can blame the end of Ramadam for their excesses – as they devour kunaafa and a honey and coconut biscuit that’s awfully like a macaroon. Unfortunately, you can’t just buy one. And that’s not my inability to control myself, but they sell everything only the quarter kilo, minimum.
Eid is a time of not only mainlining sugar, but also giving gifts, so the streets were packed with young guys selling carts of clothes on the footpath. There might be seven or eight in a group, roaring out their wares. Faux Diesel, CK, lots of weird pseudo-surf brands. And the women’s clothing shops were packed while the pastry and cake shops had crowds spilling onto the streets, It was like the night before Christmas in a one dollar shop.
Interestingly, I had a couple of exchanges (non-verbal, of course) with women last night. One was with a couple of little kids in a real, grungy part of Cairo, up near one of the main stations. They were practicing their English with me (they knew almost as much as my Arabic) and there was a woman, quite young, with her baby, who was watching and gave me a big smile, and then another woman, who was fully veiled, with just her eyes visible – and even then, there’s a piece of fabric between her eyes, almost like a hawk’s mask – and we were being squished by the crowd, and she’d smiled at me. I could see her eyes crinkle upwards, it was a strange, but nice moment.
I also had a more substantial encounter this afternoon with a very glamorous acquaintance from my last visit in Cairo. A Coptic Christian, she doesn’t fast, doesn’t wear a veil (instead, terribly chic trouser suits and lots of Bulgari jewellery) and, interestingly enough, doesn’t identify herself as an Arab. We had high tea in one of Egypt’s best hotels (from pension to five-star…it’s all about adaptability, you see) and talked about an article in one of the English language newspapers about women who want to go to taraweeh, the evening prayers held during Ramadam. Apparently, some women want to go but their husbands want them to stay home (watching tv, watching the kids). But the women are saying that it is better to go to the mosque, because you’re in a sisterhood, and young women have a chance of marrying better if they hang out at mosques. I had never thought of it that way.
If I peer over my little balcony, I can see into a small mosque. With an aerial view, it looks like a coal bunker, a long, curved arch. There is always a green carpet out the front, as it gets packed, here in Downtown, which is an enclave of poorer Cairo. My glamorous friend is very keen to take me over the other side of town, past the expat enclave of Zemalak to Mohandiseen and Agouza, to show me that parts of Cairo are as sophisticated as any other city in the world. And what’s with the camels, she asks me. Camels are for the desert. They weren’t used to build the Pyramids. So why are they synonymous with Cairo? That’s a very good question…
The taxi driver to the airport in Abu Dhabi was Egyptian, and after going misty-eyed about his homeland, where I was bound, he told me to watch out for the traffic. He’s right, it’s manic. “But people help you cross the street,” I protested.
“Only for money,” he responded. I thought about it. In fact, it had happened only once that I was asked for money in exchange for not being splattered across the road. It was by Mohammad, a dapper gent in his 50s with greying ringlets. He escorted me across the road, pointed me in the right direction to the mosque I was trying to find, and pulled some photographs out of his pocket of when he was young and described by the newspapers as ‘the Egyptian Schwarzenegger’. There he was, buff to the eyeballs, snapped with a volley of incredibly beautiful models with their big hair and liquid eyeliner, everyone in indecently small bikinis or (in Mohammad’s case) mankinis. So we chatted, but as we parted, he asked for a few pounds to get a cool drink. I baulked, as I thought this was a genuine exchange, not a cash scam, but I relented and gave him some money. So, imagine my surprise when, last night as I was trawling the streets for a home, in a city of 20 million people, I ran into Mohammad. He remembered me, thanked me for the drink, and bought me a glass of mint tea, in return. It’s a nice ending.Amazing co-incidences 102.
I know three other people in Cairo. One I rang today on my NEW EGYPTIAN MOBILE! The second, who I met at the airport yesterday and lent me his phone to call my hotel, is an expat who lectures in Islamic art. I ran into him on the same street in Doqqi this morning. I like this street. I have also moved from the Concorde (am missing the blue carpet already) to the Pension Roma, and have a small but perfect room, with polished floor boards and a little balcony that I have opened the doors onto, and set up my desk and fan. It is a fifth of the price of the hotel, cleaner and has free internet. Perhaps it was all just meant to be…
Welcome to Cairo. I think I’ve heard that phrase more than 10 times in the past four hours. You could never accuse Cairenes of being inhospitable.
True to previous form, I have managed to find a hotel room where the “L” from the neon hotel sign is right outside my window. The good news is that it doesn’t look like the sign’s worked for years. I’m in the district called Doqqi –as well as the L, you can see the Nile from my window, and if you drive 10km down my street, you’ll run into the Pyramids. Just across the Nile and across another bridge is thumping Downtown, home of the Egyptian Museum and a thousand souvenir shops selling Nefertiti’s head on fraying papyrus. That’s not to say I haven’t met my own purveyor of such exquisite goods. In less than two hours, I’ve acquired Hassan, a jovial, rotund, moustached shop owner who has happily offered to become my Egyptian fixer. As well as selling scarab beetles carved from jade and said papyrus, he also runs private tours out to the deserts and oases, can unlock my phone to take a local SIM, has shown me where the cheap internet café is and is making calls to help find me an apartment.
My hotel, the Concorde, isn’t the Abu Dhabi Shangri-La, but then, there aren’t many places that are the Abu Dhabi Shangri-La. But the blue curtains and the carpet match, the textured cream wallpaper isn’t peeling too obviously and while there are a lot of mirrors, I’m taking this in a positive light – honest scrutiny is occasionally motivating.
Ramadam is in full swing, so while it’s poor form to be eating on the street while Muslims fast, they really know how to kick on till late, eating, drinking and, if they’re good, praying till the wee hours. There is a down side: my Abu Dhabi driver yesterday was from Bangladesh, and hadn’t eaten since sunrise (about 6am) and had two hours’ sleep, so after our long day’s drive to Al Ain so I could sate my thirst for camel photography, he was nodding frighteningly at the wheel till we pulled over at a service station so he could wash his face (I suspect he even drank some water in the loos as well).
Not quite sure what I’m doing here, but I reckon a nap and an internet fix and it should become apparent…
Ok, so maybe this is a bit premmy – I’m not even in Egypt yet. But I got hounded so much about my shabby correspondence record so much, I thought I would just run away and not talk to anyone for a few months. Then Miss Rebecca, beauty editor-cum-psychic (she SO knows next season’s colours already), shrieked down the phone that I should blog the next couple of months.
So here goes… ok, let’s see how this one works…