Well people, it hardly seems possible that the feast was so many days ago. I’m back in Melbourne and debating whether or not to upload unpublished blogs. Is it weird? There’s so much more to write about, and I will be writing it all for upcoming magazines and newspapers. Can I beg your indulgence?
Cairo didn’t sleep last night – shops were open till around 4am, people wandered the streets eating ice cream, chilling out and waiting for prayers to commemorate Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice.
A walk through Islamic Cairo saw flocks of sheep and tethered cattle in the main squares, being sold off to those who then had them butchered on the streets, which are, actually running with blood. I photographed a slick of blood, only to have a woman shrieking from a window above that I shouldn’t be shooting such things.
But everyone was happy for me to snap them carving the head from cows, disembowelling sheep and painting the walls with their bloody handprints.
There was a tense moment when I nearly fell on a great mound of cow’s intestines on the footpath, but for the most part, everyone’s in a good mood, taxis are giving way to pedestrians, shopowners not charging outrageous prices … it’s only me who’s tired and cranky and needs to sleep… and I’m probably the only one who did in Cairo last night…
You could be forgiven for saying Egyptians just can’t wait to begin the Sacrifice – the annual celebration of Abrahim offering to sacrifice his son for God’s wishes. “The streets will run with blood,” said friends ghoulishly.
So it was a bit of a surprise when I came home tonight for a few hours’ power napping to find that a few people just couldn’t wait, and my doorman, Hosni, was busy slaughtering a sheep in the foyer, with a butcher and a third strapping fellow to hold down the wriggling brown sheep.
“Hello, would you like to take a photograph?” asked the butcher in excellent English (weirdness number two).
Then he invited me to do as the locals do and dip the palm of my hand in the animal’s blood at print my hand on the wall. Which I did. If this is a taste of things to come (in about four hours’ time) I can’t imagine what tomorrow brings…
Well people, I can safely say that yesterday was a day of extremes for Cairo. The morning started with a visit to the animal section of Souk al-Gomma, the Friday market that rambles down dirt streets, beneath freeway flyovers, into the City of the Dead…
Some of the products for sale are indistinguishable from the mounds of rubbish that line the walkways – piles of broken cassettes, single shoes, wonky sunglasses – but there are also clothes, food, antiques… and then there’s the pet section, where a six-month old puppy that threatens to grow the size of a small horse could be yours for LE5000 (more than $1000).
The pet section is grotesquely amazing. Prospective buyers lounge on crates watching a man parade a massive, scarred blue Great Dane for sale, its savage barking at the prompting of teasing small boys attracting a great deal of interest. German Shepards are extremely popular, and young long-eared puppies wait mournfully for someone to befriend them, accepting a soft pat so gratefully, you just want to take them home immediately.
Slim-bodied snakes crawl over the hands of their traders – young boys learning from their fathers – wild-eyed chameleons shudder at the intensity of the noise and the only place the thickness of the pollution and fragrance of the rubbish is forgotten is around the bakhour (incense) sellers.
But the show highlight, for me, was the pigeons. Take a look at London, Rome or even Melbourne and you’d never understand how a population could adore pigeons. Locals rave about their specialist pigeon restaurants, describing the plump birds with almost lascivious glee. Apart from the regular grey flying rats we’re used to seeing, there are some absolute beauties here.
There’s large, white birds so soft they could be mistaken for a handful of tissues. Enormous brown pigeons, like fat chooks, and one black-and-white one with feathered feet and a mop top. I asked if I could take a picture, and was instantly besieged with men and boys eager to be photographed with their beloved birds. They really do love them, though you wouldn’t know it the way one bloke pulled a few large ones out through a small door and tossed them into a big brown paper shopping bag.
The souk has a bad name for pickpockets and the crush of humanity hides a multitude of sins and unspoken dealings, but apart from a light manhandling (saved countless times by my ever alert bodyguard and bag holder:) it was an amazing place to visit.
It was a serious contrast to the rest of the day, which culminated in a drive through Bulaq, one of the poorest and roughest of Cairo’s suburbs, out to a wedding in the new, elite town of 6 October. Lost in Bulaq and dressed in our wedding finery, it was obvious to the people staring into the car that we weren’t from round these parts.
Named after the victory day in the Arab-Israeli war in 1973 which saw Egypt take back the Sinai, (or Yom Kippur War in Israel) 6 October so is far out of town, sort of on the Cairo-Alexander road, I’d dispute that it was actually Cairo. Neat, identical villas make up the suburbs that, from a distance look like ghost towns, so quiet in comparison to the rest of the city.
The wedding was small and intimate by Egyptian standards, but had all the necessary requirements – the couple perched on a love seat on a stage overlooking the reception, the wedding singer with his mic turned up onto full reverb, and the belly dancer a strawberry blonde Russian who I think was actually the best dancer I’ve seen in Egypt. I still find it weird to have a robust woman clad in a pink body stocking, knockers held in surely only by sheer willpower, sliding over the bridal couple, but that’s obviously just a cultural difference. If it was me, I’d have to have a dance-off with her!
There’s a curious phenomenon occuring in Egypt at the moment. Suddenly, without warning, the streets are awash with sheep. Ok, not awash, but in a city the size of Cairo, or even Alexandria (which I’ve heard Cairenes refer to as a ‘nice village’… with a population of six million), you just don’t expect to turn a street corner and be flattened by a flock of shaggy, long-tailed sheep.
They’re tall and lanky, in a motley of brown and cream (pink if they’ve just been shorn and dipped), with long ears, long noses and fat tails. They’re the sacrifice for the Feast, on 7 December. Eid al-Adha, the ‘great feast’ is bigger than the three-day hoop-la that followed Ramadam, and is a celebration of the occasion where Abraham accepted God’s/Allah’s wishes (depending on if you’re reading the story in the Ko’ran or the Bible) that he sacrifice his son in God’s name. At the last minute, knowing Abraham was true, God replaced the son with a ram, instead.
So now Egyptians celebrate by sacrificing a four-legged animal. If you’re rich, you’ll find yourself wrestling with a cow to slaughter and share with your family, friends and the poor. If you ARE the poor, you can choose another smaller approved animal – rabbits are a popular choice.
I’m sticking around for the Feast before I make my way home for our own feast-dominated celebration, Christmas!