Cairo on the run

You know there are days when you’re SO lazy, you just want to bunker down and order out for everything. Happily you can do just that in Cairo, from razors to bread, laundry, home-cooked meals, plumbers or cleaning ladies.

The takeaway food scene is hyper-developed: McDonalds delivers well into the dead of night, another place, Cook Door, has stickers everywhere and has an almost cult-like following for its Viagra burger (grilled or fried, it’s a heart-stopping brew: a long white roll stuffed with mayo, calamari and fish), and a lady slipped a photocopied note under my door advertising home-made kofta, a kilo for about $11.

When I needed a plumber, my fixer, Hegazy, whipped one up out of the blue in a few hours, which surely will bring a tear to the eye of any Australian home renovators trying to get a tradie into their homes before 2010. However, friends, some things never change. He smoked in the bathroom, left sticky grease marks on the taps and cigarette butts in the loo. The upside is the price was about a tenth of his Australian cousins.

So my phrase of the week is ‘Mumkin te gibli…” Can you bring…” I have a welter of cards, from pharmacists to little supermarkets all with small boys ready to deliver at the trill of a mobile phone. Even if their shops are, literally, next door to my apartment block. The three security-slash-doormen guys have listed their phone numbers and when I run downstairs to grab some foil or tomatoes, they’re like, ‘Why? We can do it!”

There are so many people offering to deliver – who’s doing all the receiving?

Currying favour

Body of Lies seems to have become the textbook movie for the Middle East. Starring Leonardo di Caprio and Russell Crowe, it moves between Jordan, Iraq and other countries in this region – rumour has it Egypt, with its notoriously bloody-minded attitude toward movies, which has seen pyramids constructed in Morocco countless times, wrote itself out of the script. In it, one of the main guys is an elite para-military called Hany. Throughout the movie, he’s referred to as Hany Pasha, ‘pasha’ being the old Ottoman term for ‘general’. (Except with the Egyptian accent, it comes out as ‘basha’.) When I was in Khan al-Khalili the other night (see pic, pre-bombing, have yet to go up there since) talking with my jeweller friend Shaggy, the café boy brought his drink and said, sycophantically, ‘Here you are, pasha”. Shaggy looked at the boy and said, ‘I’m not a pasha, I work in the market like you.’There are so many terms like this, ‘bey’ is one below ‘pasha’, which my book translates as a title to apply to a wealthy person, while ‘doctor’ is one who is educated. So when Aya, my cleaning lady, called me doctora (the feminine version of doctor) today I, for once, knew what the hell she was talking about.

bombing in khan al-khalili market

Yesterday’s bombing in the world’s greatest tat market is such a shock – what possible motives could the bombers have? I was up at Khan al-Khalili a couple of days ago, visiting a jeweller friend, and had left a watch up there to be fixed. I meant to go up to collect it yesterday, but was too lazy, and the shops close earlier on Sundays, the quietest day of the week at the market, though that’s little consolation.

I rang Sharban and he was ok, it was his day off (hamdo allah, he said a hundred times), but he had said the other night, when we were in a cafe drinking cold mango juice, that business is down due to the problems with Gaza. Poor thing, I feel so sorry for him as I can imagine his livelihood disappearing down the drain.

Perhaps I had my head in a bucket, but I didn’t know about it for a few hours, as my main news source, CNN, was FAR more concerned with the Oscars.

From here to Infiniti in the desert

Just spent two days in the desert on …. of all things… a 4wd rally. Cold (but sunny), I went along to the rally as a volunteer photographer, snapping blokes hauling their rally cars over sand dunes.

Frightfully un-pc in terms of saving dunes etc, too much fun camping in the desert – these Arabs know how to do it in style. We finished the last leg in the late afternoon of the first day at the Red Bull-sponsored winner’s arch, to find a massive, massive communal tent erected for dinner for 100 of us, rugs laid out on the floor, the tent walls a traditional brightly coloured fabric all supported by massive timber beams – it all just sprung up that day by the volunteers and local Bedouins who like a bit of down and dirty dune bashing. Who knew??? This is a shot of a Chinese-made Sperenza that two guys were trialling – the aim was to prove that it could actually hold up in a rally. There were no sand dunes injured in the production of this photograph though the driver fell out of his car on the next leg, looking for pain relief for his back. The medical team obliged – you could pick their 4WD, it was the one with the puffs of shisha smoke coming out the tailgate as the doctors’ drivers took time out to have a pipe, even flying down dunes sharing a smoke together…aaaaahhhh, Egypt. These long dunes are a wall between the sandy desert and a long, flat stretch of stony ground that once was a sea bed, and I snapped petrified wood while others picked sea shells from the earth. But SO glad to get home and remove sand blown into ears, nose, hair and to not have to find a convenient dune for privacy:)

Victorian bushfire appeal

Hi all, take a look at this fundraiser by the Victorian wine industry to help with the bushfire appeal. It’s being put together by www.winestar.com.au and the prizes are amazing, there are 33 in all, but of course the key thing is you’re supporting a Victorian industry as well as the appeal.

Winestar’s Bert Werden says, “The events of the past week have touched all Australians and hit home hard for the wine industry with the tragic death of Rob Davey (of Rob Davey Wine Merchants) his wife and two young daughters… I appreciate many of you have already given to the cause, but if you can find it in your heart to give a little more, and maybe even win some great wines, please do. “

I haven’t listed all the prizes, you can see on Winestar’s website. First prize is wines to the value of $25,000 while the smallest prize is $400.

Australian Wine Trade Bushfire Raffle

– Tickets are $25 each
– Proceeds to go to the Australian Red Cross – Victorian Bushfire Appeal 2009.
– Raffle runs Tuesday Feb 17th – Wednesday March 11th
– Raffle to be drawn Friday, March 13th. Details TBA

Where To Buy Tickets: go to http://www.winestar.com.au/forum/viewtopic.php?t=20182 for a full list of retailers and links to purchase online.

What’s a weekend?

As with all Muslim countries, the official weekend starts late Thursday and all day Friday, which means the city absolutely pumps on Thursday nights as everyone mainlines sugary pastries and soft drink – surely a lethal combination but the only way you can hang out till 4am, hey?

For a city that’s always bubbling, it can be surprisingly difficult to know when things are open…or not.

Take for instance, the hairdressers and barbers. They are all closed on Mondays. (Why? Who knows?) Many Christian-run businesses will close on Sundays, regardless of whether they’re locksmiths or watchmakers, the traders at the traditional uber-souq of Khan al-Khalili shut up shop early on Sunday evenings, regardless of the many wandering tourists loitering aimlessly with money to burn on sheesha pipes and Arabian slippers.

In summer, siesta is well and truly enforced as the heat drives Egyptians to their beds in cool dark rooms. I rang a shop the other day to see what time it opened in the mornings – the shutters don’t go up too 11am, so it was a shock to meet a friend who works…wait for it…9am-5pm.

And me? Well…Australia comes online at midnight, Cairo time, so it seems the only way is to go with the flow – I guess one way to not have to readjust to a different time zone is to just stay with the one you left, even on the other side of the world.

Back to the city…

The first glimpse of Cairo wasn’t encouraging…what you could see of it. Flying in at 10am, all that was visible was the desert road from the east Egyptian city of Ismalia leading straight and true into the heart of a very large, very grey cloud. It was purely educated conjecture that led me to assume 20 million Cairenes were in there, in amongst the smog somewhere. For all the pollution, the weather is still sunny, warm and bright, a light jacket at night is the only concession to the concept that it still is winter. It seems such a short time ago I was coasting Cairo’s motorways in the cool evening air, yet it is two months since I was last in town. This time, it’s is going to be much different to my last visit. Instead of living Downtown, I’ve opted for the comparatively middle-class Egyptian region of Heliopolis, in the city’s north. The change is dramatic. In an exploratory amble today, I saw only a handful of foreigners, compared with the many that collect around Downtown’s hostels and hotels. It is quieter – no industrial tailors above my bedroom this time, the traffic is more a distant grumble than a shrieking roar, and when I leave my bedroom doors open to the balcony, I hear the twitter of budgerigars from the nearby pet shop.I’m making it sound like I’m in the ‘burbs. But I’m just a handful of stops from the city centre by train, and a quick, 10-minute walk or even quicker tram ride takes me to El Korba, one of Cairo’s most spectacular streetscapes, a string of turreted, whitewashed Moorish-style buildings that I dream to live in. There are also palaces aplenty, a basilica and formal (albeit dusty) gardens open to the public for a few pounds (about 70c).Some things never change, though. As ever, the industrial rubbish hoppers are a haven for Cairo’s animals. The cats, the cats! Spilling out of the bins, mothers first, followed by a slick of scrawny, big-eyed kittens. And beggar women sell packets of tissues for a pound (30c) from their staked-out posses on the streets. Urban myth has it that a tissue crone died and when she was buried, her body was found buoyed with money, and her miserly home a hotbed of riches.

Experiences of Jordan

The cultural custard that is the world is painfully evident in Amman at 4am today, as I decamp from Bangkok for a four-hour killer stopover till Cairo. The toilet attendant is Egyptian, the woman naughtily smoking in the loos and chatting with her is Iranian, but gets her Australian citizenship in April. The Starbucks is the only place open, playing trad jazz and while it won’t accept American Express credit cards, will take (and give change in) US dollars and the bored baristas are all perfectly fluent in English…

One of the ways to kill time is playing with this blog so I’ve changed the colours and thrown my hand open to something about ‘followers’. Painful, I know. Don’t make me suffer the embarrassment of having to invent false followers:) I’ve also made it easier to make comments after a couple of you said you couldn’t give out to me publicly online;) Go sick, people.