Milan: passion for passion…and fashion

What to wear today: shall I choose the black outfit, or the black outfit? The question asked by a thousand designers in Milan each morning for the past week. Interestingly, the people of Milan are not adverse to uber-bright colour. There were plenty of canary yellow accessories and memorably, yesterday, a woman walked past me in a short black skirt with thick, tomato-soup red stockings on her long legs. They really were the most spectacular red. It was a sight to behold. Girls mix it up with plenty of sneakers and stripy long socks – just by being in Milan makes them edgy, whereas in other cities, they’d be dubbed walking fashion crimes. Boys are immaculately turned out, as is the young Italian man’s want, with perfectly pressed shirts turned up neatly at the sleeve to expose plenty of jewellery, large sunglasses, a coiffed ‘do and a pastel jumper knotted at the neck. The look is complete with the girlfriend’s large handbag. It’s also funny after spending months in such a publicly polite society as Egypt to see couples pashing furiously in any spot they deem fit – say, on the way up the stairs, leaving people behind waiting while they finish exchanging throat secretions. They operate in groups on the metro platforms, everyone’s jaws working simultaneously in the pursuit of romance.

Conversation from Milan during design week

Me: Can you suggest somewhere good to eat around here (in the design precinct Zona Tortona)?Design fetishist: Sure Go down via Savona, past the garden full of Dedon furniture, and turn right. Conversation 2: ‘Dark Matter’ by Wyssem and Cécile Nochi. The blackest and most humorous display around, the signature piece of this display of sculptural objects is a biodegradable, 100 percent cashmere body bag, also conveniently available in reusable acrylic. “We are all dark matter,” Lebanese designer Wyssem Nochi told me, in an intense fashion. “And when we decompose, what’s left becomes human consciousness.” Wins points for the most original conversation at Milan ‘09.

Designs on life

You may or may not know, but I’m in Milan at the moment, at the Milan Design Fair. It. Goes. Off. Officially goes off.

There are 400 events on this week, from cocktail parties to art gallery launches. Apparently this number is down on last year, thanks to boring credit crunches.

I think I have second-day blues: I feel totally overwhelmed and have barely touched the surface. Last night, I narrowly avoided putting my drink on a Mark Newson marble table in an art gallery. Luckyyyyyyyy. If yesterday was the day of emerging designers and weird protoypes, today was the big designers: Starck, Urquiola, Jasper Morrison. Had a lot of fun in Edra, Moroso and Kartell.

By the bye…
I loved the Pudelskern rung made from Tyrol sheep wool by a group of young Tyrol based designers. Ditto Chiara Lampignami lights. Gorgeous in an iridescent finish that changes from copper to green to purple. Both are very new on the market, from designers in the design incubator that is iSalone Satellite.

Talking Points
Campana Bros new Cipria sofa in faux fir, like a series of big fluffy marshmallows. EVERYONE was getting photographed on it. So I did too. I will post a link and show you that I am bucking the trend of designer black: how can everyone talk about inspiration and innovation when they are always wearing top to toe black. Today I wore white trousers and a red tunic/blouse and wheeled my red press bag – THE SAME RED. WE MATCHED.

The Him & Her chair, designed by Fabio Novembre for Casamania, takes ‘moulding to the human form’ to a new level, don’t you think?

And finally, Objects for Obama was an exhibit by an American design college, hinged around a series of key words he used in his campaign like Diplomacy, Honesty etc. It was one of the few seriously funny gigs in this massive fair. Nuff said.

HOT WORD: upcycling. It is where you recycle something, but add extra value, like turning a car tyre into a woven rug.

The disgusting and the divine

If you were ever after a slice of streetlife in Downtown Cairo, taking a bench at Restaurant Zezo the Disgusting’s (est 1962) would give you ringside seats.

The restaurant is a string of benches and trestle tables set on the roadside opposite one of Cairo’s city gates, Bab el-Futah. Built in the 11th century, the gates lead into Gamilaya, the heart of Islamic Cairo, which is why Zezo’s little kitchen is topped with a perky imitation of the gates.
Zezo’s is most famous for its sandwiches – soft white bread rolls – filled with fried liver or spicy oriental sausage, and a super-sweet, hyper-activity-inducing roll filled with halva, cream and… honey (omg!!!) for around LE5 each. The floor is the city’s dirt and there’s a constant stream of taxis, donkey carts, garbage trucks and cheap Chinese motorbikes tearing past, spilling pollution onto the scene. Best eat at night, then.
Last time we visited the 24-hour Zezo’s, a bride sat, in full white regalia, at the next table, intermittently weeping and fainting till her groom back-handed her and manhandled her into the bridal car watched in a mix of amusement and horror by the rest of the cafe.
The perfect follow-up to a late-night dinner at Zezo’s is tea and a shisha pipe at Lord’s, inside the city walls. The cafe’s pets include a handful of stripy kittens, a scattering of small, colourful birds and a large duck, which I reckon is so cranky because it’s sleep deprived. Come too close, and it’ll take a bad-tempered swipe at your ankles.
“What time do you close?” we asked one of the busy cafe boys at Lords.
“There are no walls at Lords,” he replied, with a mystical look in his eye that could have either been the result of the late night, indulgence in sufism or a particularly strong hash…

Well noted

In between slogging around Cairo and assorted towns, I’ve occasionally been doing some non-travel work – here’s a new blog from fabulous Australian colour and trend forecaster Bree Leech, who put up with bad phone lines and weird time zones to pull together this feature for Home Beautiful magazine. The blog might go a bit wobbly next week cos… we’re off to the biggest, beautifulest Milan Design Fair!

Sniffing the Breeze

A lot of people have asked what happens in Egypt during Easter. Well, for a start, the Coptic Christian Easter kicks off a week later – so it all starts happening this weekend.

It’s a holiday for most of the country; like anywhere in the world, people are happy to take a public holiday for another religion’s feast days, so the Muslim population will enjoy a long weekend, as will the Christians.

I popped into a Catholic church last Sunday (Palm Sunday), walking in while Mass was just about to start. It was in English, and the congregation was a real mixed bag, with lots of Asian worshippers, elegant old French ladies with big gold earrings and black scarves tied over their coiffed hair, black, black Africans and a few stray whiteys. A Christian friend told me that on Easter Sunday, they will go to church for three hours (three hours!) then picnic with friends and family afterwards.

The weekend culminates in a holiday on Monday called ‘Sham el Nissem’, or ‘Sniffing the Breeze’, where everyone gets out and picnics. One website says that this feast, which is also regarded as the first day of spring, has been celebrated by Egyptians for over 4500 years, making it one of the world’s oldest.

Interesting name, the traditional thing to eat is salted anchovies, sardines and mackerel, so the breeze will be interesting indeed.

Life in Cairo, as the newspapers see it

Cairo has a number of rather slim English language papers, mostly condensed versions of their Arabic bretheren, including Al-Ahram, the Egyptian Gazette and the Daily News.
In a quick flick through the papers this weekend, here are a few of the key news items:· Up to 50,000 private medical clinics went on strike against doctors’ low salaries, which can be as little as LE470/month (about A$120) after graduation, rising to a hefty LE1000 (A$250)· A group of followers of the Bahai’i faith were attacked with stones and firebombs in their homes. There are between 500 and 2000 Bahai’is in Egypt, who recently won the right to hold government identity papers, which don’t list their religion (opponents say only Muslims and Christians should have the right to hold identity papers).· Taxis over 20 years of age have until 2011 to get off the roads, replaced with newer taxis that run on natural gas. There are more than 40,000 taixs on Cairo’s roads. Their models read like a who’s who of former Soviet and central European countries: Russian Ladas, Romanian Dacias, Italian Fiats, French Peugeots, Turkish Shahins and lastly, the home made Egyptian Nasrs. Taxi drivers are, to a man, horrified. · A man beat his daughter to death after she received a phone call from her boyfriend. · Around 27% of Egyptians have high blood pressure caused by eating junk food, smoking, obesity and lack of exercise. And, most importantly for a front page story:· Nefertiti had wrinkles.

The Oracle speaks

The wind rustled the dusty palm trees and tickled the waters of the salt lakes down below as I stood on a hilltop, surveying the Siwan oasis.

The hill has particular significance – it was the site of the Siwa Oracle, where Alexander the Great came in 331 BC to ask the question he would take to his grave, most likely seeking advice for annexing the rich lands of Egypt for his empire.

The only sound was the wind as the midday heat grew and my guide Ibrahim and I were silent as we overlooked the oasis. Then I heard it:

“You’ve got the longest lifeline, girl!”

The voice was pure Camp Australia and I turned to find a large group of Antipodeans (with a few Americans?) reading each other’s palms on the historical hilltop. Oracles…palm reading…

Well, I guess the site’s always been a place to find your destiny.

Veiled truths of Siwa women

Out here in the remote oasis of Siwa, the women of both dominant species – donkeys and humans – are kept under wraps and away from temptation. The women are heavily cloaked, walking fabric shops, while the female donkeys are kept in a village away from the town, the males brought there to mate with them.

Photographing women is out of the question, and even tiny girls on their way to school refused my requests. The boys were less reluctant, the men: media tramps.

So for once it paid off to be a female journalist (the downsides: bathrooms and leery men), and I was met two groups warm, funny girls who work in a co-op arrangement, performing the traditional embroidery for which the oasis is known, as well as weaving palm leaves and trunks into an array of household goods, such as pots and beautiful baskets.

I met a girl called Mabrooka today, which means congratulations. I thought I’d heard wrongly when she told me her name. I thought she was congratulating me for something. She and her friends paid out on me in Siwan, laughing as they worked.

Their work ends up in the US and they have a regular client in Italy, and they are paid well – more than many men earn working the traditional agricultural pursuits of date and olive farming. They are not city girls: their eyebrows are ungroomed, their skin is sun darkened and they don’t have the obsession of colour coordinating of the flashy Cairo city girls.

They are not pretty girls. Their features aren’t fine and there’s not even the addiction to large amounts of eye kohl. They’re all unmarried, only the unmarried ones are allowed such freedom to be out of the house.

When Siwi women marry, they won’t venture out of the house socially except for extreme cases – weddings, the birth of a child… and when they do leave the house, they are heavily cloaked in a blue and white embroidered piece of fabric over their clothes, that covers from head to toe, and black gauze fabric across their faces. You see them tearing past with children in a cart on the back of a donkey or motorbike, the wind whipping at their robes, nothing but black faces. (I took a pic of a dummy in the local museum to give you an idea – naughty hussy, she’s not covering her face!)
Of the working girls, one wore a niqab, but the others had just scarves thrown over their heads, hair covered with a sort of cummerbund.

They let me take a photograph of them, but only once they had covered their faces. I caught big eyes looking into the camera from behind a thin veil of fabric. The girl in the niqab could almost have been smug, but then I couldn’t read her face. She was the meekest of them all, compared with a couple who were positively ebullient. I was struggling with them with language, then toward the end, I remembered my book in the car, we started to hit it off, and then it was time to go… I was sad I had to leave just as it was all going off.

I did feel so bad learning that it takes up to six days to weave one basket. It really shows how much we devalue this work.

[PS In between, hundreds of economic refugees fleeing Africa for the riches of Europe were shipwrecked off the Libyan coastline. Here’s an interview for RTE Radio…

Oasis life: Siwa

What is it that makes people fall in love with Siwa? Is it the isolation? With an 11-hour bus journey, or eight hours by car, Siwa’s not exactly on the way to anywhere.

The oasis is 50km from the Egypt-Libyan border, set on the lip of the Great Sand Sea, which stretches the length of the country, where thousands of sand dunes shift shapes as the wind takes them. Siwans identify themselves as Siwi first, and Egyptian second. They speak their own, unwritten language that is shared with Berber tribes from across north Africa, including Morocco and Tunisia, and dress, think and act differently to that of their Egyptian counterparts.At night, Siwa town, population 10,000, is quiet as only a desert town can be quiet. The sand seems to suck the very sound from the air. In comparison, Cairo’s ever present grumbling, even when asleep, is like an old dog revisiting grand fights, growling and moaning while its eyes are closed. All I can here is the click of my keyboard, the crackling of the beeswax candles and what I think is the occasional night bird.Instead of heavy trucks and souped-up cars, the main mode of transport is by careta, or donkey cart. However, like its brethren, the less remote Bahirayya oasis, Siwa’s young guys are far more interested in cheap Chinese motorbikes than donkey carts. The main town is built around old Shali fortress, a collection of mudbrick buildings huddled together for safety. For hundreds of years, Siwans defended their turf against ravaging invaders and greedy governments but, the story goes, a deluge of rain here in the desert in the 1920s washed away the structures which today cling to the ground like a dinosaur’s carcass, sliding gently back into the earth from which they came. The oasis has all the hallmarks of an Arabian fantasy; palm trees, cool sweetwater springs, pink flamingos and shallow salt water lakes, also a delicate shell pink from the salt that lies beneath the surface. Siwa doesn’t wake early, so the sleepy soundtrack is one of calls to prayer and the braying of a dismayed donkey as each morning the oasis awakens slowly to its contemplative life, far from a world of package tours, shouts and touts.