Ghost town Cairo

When I went to my Arabic class early on Thursday morning, the taxi skimmed through empty streets so fast, the driver HAD to give me change (normally they will shamelessly pocket whatever you put in their hand, even a 100 pound note, unless you put up a fight).

Where was everyone? They’d all scooted up to the North Coast for the long weekend which celebrates Revolution Day when King Farouk I was toppled from his throne by military coup in 1952, led by a handful of officers, three of whom (Sadat, Naguib and Nasser) would go on to become the first three Prime Ministers of Egypt and have metro stops named after them.

(Egyptian trivia: Farouk’s full title was His Majesty Farouk I, by the grace of God, King of Egypt and Sudan, Sovereign of Nubia, of Kordofan, and of Darfur. He might have been but a puppet of the English, but love the throne! So much more colourful than the incumbent black hair dye addict, Hosny.)

So Cairo has been a ghost town…well, as much as a city of 16 to 20 million people (give or take 4 million) can be. Even chic Sangria, a nightclub, bar and open-air restaurant on the Nile, was quiet on Friday night. Walk straight in and get a riverside table for eight! No crawling between elegantly exposed knees to get to the bar! Room in front of the mirror in the ladies! Bouncer let the men in wearing ‘slippers’, ie cool leather thongs!

While we chilled over cantaloupe (rockmelon, for you Aussies) shisha, we heard that the normal 1.5 hour journey between the city gates of Cairo and Alex took double the time, the traffic on the mega-freeway actually stopping for an hour late at night. Knowing Egypt, though, some enterprising young guys would have appeared from the farms along the roadside selling tea, cigarettes and blow-up beach toys at 3am.

Ghost town or not, the Corniche along the Nile was still bumper to bumper traffic when we left Sangria at 1.30am in the Victorious City which I’ve heard not described as the city that never sleeps, but the city that sleeps…in shifts.

Check out: Sangria, Corniche el Nil, opposite the Conrad Hotel, 2579 6511. Reserve on Thursday and Friday nights if you want a table outdoors. If all else fails, the garden below is often nearly completely empty, even though its dreamy white curtained lounges are gorgeous.

(Pic credit of Sangria:

Peter Pan of the Arab world

It’s been just three weeks since Amr Diab’s latest album, Wayah, was released, and I’m convinced that all Egypt knows every song, every word.

For those playing catch-up (I was ignorant till I came to Egypt) Amr Diab is Egypt and the Arab world’s most successful pop star. He’s the face of Pepsi in this neck of the woods, and his face, for that matter, changes with every album. He gets younger and more sculptured with each year, a fact not lost on Egyptians. But they love him, so they forgive his love of the surgeon’s knife. The boy from Port Said is 48 years old this year.

This album, Amr’s been doing cheekbones and arms, which are on display in his tight, white singlet as he launches his brooding ‘street brawler’ look. Despite the tough-boy stare (think ‘Blue Steel’, people), he still adheres to the principle that all Arabic pop songs are composed primarily of just five words: habeeby (darling), hayeety (my life), donya (the world), alby (my heart) and bahebik (I love you).

This being Egypt, there is sport to be had with Amr’s album releases. The game is to see if you can download the album beforehand illegally from the internet, then blast it from your car speakers to the envy of all listeners. Indeed, those who managed it this year were infinitely coooooooool, as the album has been long delayed – being at least three months late.

Despite the delays and the internet leaks, my mate Wiki says the album sold more than 1.22 million copies in its first week, so he must be doing something right, eh?

Egypt morphs into the Gold Coast

For those of us on the other side of the world, it’s easy to forget Egypt is on the Mediterranean. Countries such as Italy and France have already cashed in on that claim to fame. But the north coast of Egypt is hundreds of kilometres of big, blue Mediterranean sea.

Mind you, it also has 80 million people wanting to swim in that same sea (and it’s a sobering reminder when you’re in the water with 200 or so other people that peeing in the water isn’t exactly a novel idea), so a little snobbery goes a long way.

On a weekend pootle along the coast, we drove west from Alexandria to Marina, half way between Alex and the famed blue waters of Marsa Mattruh, where the sea is cleaner and the action less hectic than in the cities closer to Cairo.

In the private enclave that is Marina, the bling is real, girls wander through cafes in shorts and singlets thrown over the top of their bikinis, guys are in their Billabongs and t-shirts, kids run wild on sugar and trikes.
It could be anywhere in the western world. Just the shisha pipes in the pool and a lack of alcohol make the difference. And the Remembering Allah billboards on driving into Marina. Leading into the hedonistic beachside paradise, the series ran as such: “Remembering Allah,” then “Remember…His door is always open,” followed by the ominous “Remember… He is always watching you” to the downright scary “Remember…you could meet Him now!”

Marina’s landmark is the massive Porto Marina, a clutch of towers that have been painted red-and-yellow stripes, amongst other colours. It erupts like a giant pimple from the desert, but once you’re inside, it lures you into its thriving outdoor café scene, and there’s even a fake Venice built inside, complete with canals and gondolas that were busy churning up the waterway. Yes, really.

The whole complex is built on a series of man-made lagoons and islands; Australians, think Gold Coast. In fact, when the jet boat, jetskis and parasailers zoomed past, I was taken back to Broadbeach in a flash. Aside from the hideous building, Marina is a series of tasteful villas built along the waters’ edge and it’s all so deliciously clean and shiny, and correspondingly expensive.

If you thought you’d nip in for a look, beware: Marina is a gated community which means you’d have to be hitchhiking with a member to get in there (or a friend of a friend who’s borrowed a card…).

It’s all very weird and challenges my principles of equality. But if you were the elite and money but a boring concept your accountant deals with, you’d love it – my neighbour and good mate Hosny Mubarak (aka The President), as well as the big guns in the military and anyone who’s vaguely noteworthy, all decamp here during the summer.

Check out: Tahiti beach and pool, a chic, up-market beach resort, and Studio Misr for traditional Egyptian food with gargantuan portions. The chicken fatta is exceptional, both in Puerto Marina. Zalabia (sweet dough balls soaked in rosewater honey) from Patiserrie Hamama in 6 October. Dental suicide, but worth it.

The price of Paradise

This weekend, I went to Paradise. Entrance costs 50 Egyptian pounds ($12). But if you know a guy who knows a guy, you can do it for maybe 20 ($5)…

Summer in Cairo? Insa! (Forget it!) Come Thursday evening, the highways are packed with cars and minibuses taking Cairenes away from the city and to the nearest body of water – the Mediterranean. Much of Egypt pours up to Alexandria for at least one month, while the north coast, ie. everything west of Alex, is littered with beach resorts whose names range from the chic to the corny: my favourite was the humble, unassuming, ‘Nice’ resort. A fake Dolce & Gabbana t-shirt is this year’s must-have accessory, worn by the sharp-eyed, dark-skinned boys of Upper Egypt, out for whatever havoc they can create on their holidays.

The beaches are a bewildering mix of public and private, and the private beaches can range from a strip of sand cordoned off from the great unwashed with a few beach umbrellas and seats to the lavish – bean bag at the water’s edge, shisha pipe in the pools, chaise longue on the white sand beache.

Their names are as evocative as they are global – Paradise, Cuba Cabana, Tahiti, La Plage…
Paradise is the basic number, with lifeguards on duty as this stretch of beach is notoriously dicey, with a strong undercurrent and waves that have no qualms about dumping you on the beach, swimmers full of sand, in front of hundreds of amused Egyptians.

After you have found your spot, hired your umbrella and beach chairs and settled in, guys wander past selling everything from ice creams to cappuccinos, frecia (a sweet wafer peculiar to Alex) to blow-up beach toys. You want it, they’ll run for it. They’ll even take your money and bring your change a half hour later, remembering your spot amongst the crowds. Australia, take note.

In comparison, entrance to Tahiti, a beach resort further up the coast in the gated community of Marina, costs LE75 (about $17) entrance (absolutely no alcohol, they even looked in my bag) and the scene was coooool. Lots of bikinis, lots of long hair tossed about, belly jewellery, Gulf Arab families with Filipina nannies, young actresses spotted in the mix, funky music and the smell of pizza wafting through the air. We lazed along the beach on chaise longes and bean bags and swam and drank coffee then moved to the pool and the lounges to order pizza and watch the big orange sun slide down past the palm-lined horizon.

Another night, we nipped into an open-air beach club at Agamy Bay. Slap bang on the beach, its location is impeccable. Blue has a reservations-only upstairs section, which this night was into bottle service (ie a bottle of Jack Daniels or vodka on each table, resting in an ice bucket) while downstairs was more into the dance floor.

Surely to be Dutch means you must be a great DJ? (Think Tiesto, Armin van Buuren etc). Wrong. The Blues DJ was cashing in on his famous brothers, but himself was a dud, yelling heavily-accented inanities into the mic whenever he got excited, “Take it easy, guys!” when a rare fight threatened to break out on the dance floor to “There’s a girl dancing on the beach!” as well as the obligatory advertisement for tomorrow night’s foam party, every third song.

Arabic 102

My word for the day is sorsarrrr – which uses the letter ‘sohd’, not to be confused with the normal ‘s’ sound, or ‘seen’, as the letters are called. TECHNICAL: NO NEED TO READ! The sohd (to give it a phonetic value) is a sound made deep in the throat, one of the many letters not found in European alphabets; sohd, dohd, thor, zord, ghein and the ain are just some of the letters that twist the tongue to get the rolling, guttural sound going.

Actually, the Egyptian accent is much softer than that of the Gulf states, which has got the whole throat-gagging-spitting thing going on.

Sorsar, by the way, means cockroach, a word I have become annoyingly familiar with thanks to the gargantuan beasts who galloped down the hallway playing tag with each other, every night after lights out in my old (temporary) apartment (here’s a pic).

Happily, I don’t have to use the word so much in my new apartment (which I’ll tell you about later) but I think that’s cos I started off as the boss, walking in brandishing a big can of sorsar spray, complete with explanatory pictures on the can in case they can’t read, the spray as super-toxic as toxic as only second- and third-world chemicals can be. I think the sorsareen (what IS the plural for cockroach?) get the pictures…

Learning Arabic 101

A friend who lives in another non-English speaking country made a wise observation recently. “You can ask for a drink and say ‘no’ and ‘thank you’, and you think you’re a hero of the language. It’s when you go any further that you realise you’re a complete novice.”

It’s the classic case of the wise man knowing he’s a fool.

I have hit that stage. I can argue with taxi drivers, buy and order most food, read menus and signs, as well as haggle, but to explain to someone the concept that my male friend is just a friend who happens to be male, and I lose the plot and stand there like a tongue-tied idiot. It doesn’t help that there is no concept in Egypt of non-sexual male friends.

I have stopped doing last-minute Arabic homework on the train because everyone reads my writing and smiles the way you’d smile at a small child or drooling idiot, then runs through the standard gamut of questions – where are you from, what’s your name, how many children do you have, are you married or do you just have a Friend (see comment above re: male friend).

Some people, notably taxi drivers, are most patient when it comes to listening to my mangled Arabic. Hell, I’m in their taxi, they want to get me to where I’m going and take my money. So they’re very complimentary and charming.

But there’s also a certain amount of arrogance amongst Arabic speakers toward the rest of the world, from educated Arabs and the street smart alike.

“You will study Arabic for 10 years and still not be able to speak it,” said my boab (aka doorman) in Arabic, who then informed me that in a month, you can learn to speak English. I asked him (in English) why he hadn’t done so, but he didn’t understand me…

TBC after tomorrow’s Arabic lesson…

PS: this is not my boab, but a pretty good idea of what many of them look like.

Sweating it out on the sauna express

The temp in Cairo is ramping, up with 40 degrees and sunny blue skies the norm. It’s the time when the city fills up with gulf Arabs coming to the cooler climes for summer, escaping their countries’ 50+ degree heat.

Yesterday, I made the mistake of travelling on the metro in morning peak hour. It was the MOST intensely crowded train I’ve ever been in – breasts, waists, heads, handbags, children – all enmeshed to create a jigsaw of human flesh, with not even a puff of air between. And the fans overhead in the carriages were broken. Just lucky this was the women’s carriage. Otherwise, it would have been a frotteur’s paradise.

When I got to my destination, I washed the sweat of other women from my skin.

Sometimes, there’s a funny camaraderie on the metro. Those fortunate enough to get a seat will take a standing woman’s heavy handbag and put it on their laps or, which I saw yesterday, even take their children, covering them with kisses.

On the way home, two girls sitting in front of me stood up to leave, and another woman and I took their place. Except the other woman was the size of the two skinny girls, and we just squeezed in on the bench seat.

Finally, she was replaced by another woman holding an infant. She hauled up her robes and, the baby’s head hitting my arm, she fed the child, all the while squished up against me. Mind you, opposite was another woman with a child maybe a month old, much admired in the carriage, when another woman sat carelessly beside her and rested her large handbag on the baby’s head. She felt something under the bag and casually moved it off his tiny head. No prams in Cairo.

McArabia: would you like dogma with that?

Far be it from me to plug a multinational food chain, but … rules were made to be broken. Let me phrase it this way: if there was no other option to eat in Egypt except at a McDonalds, you could do far worse.

Stop gasping people – I’m talking about the McArabia. Hurrah, McDonalds has forgone its cultural imperialism for one moment and come up with a passable alternative.

The McArabia is tasty flat bread with beef or chicken kofta, fresh lettuce, tomato and tahina inside. We have tried both and thoroughly rate the beef out of the two. At around LE25 (about A$5), it’s not cheap but it’s damned tasty.

They haven’t gone so far as to serve it up with the Ko’ran or a glow-in-the-dark plastic mosque alarm clock (yes, they are out there), but instead the standard fries and a drink.

Kartell does Cairo

Last night, I went to the opening of the new Kartell store ( Yes, Kartell, the Italian home of Phillipe Starck – he of the occasional tables made from plastic garden gnomes and transparent furniture – amongst others of the designer world’s elite. I confess I was super surprised by the annoucement – sure I know there’s enough cash in Cairo to buy Kartell, I just wasn’t sure it was so firmly within the Egyptian taste point. But hey, I’m wrong.

It was a bit of a blast back to Milan, with the red carpet up to the door, though a few differences – the glamorous building is still being finished so they were running on generator power (though you’d never know) and the cocktails were mocktails, as far as I could see. Beautiful Egypt was out in force, with lots of leggy young girls in fashions you’d never see on the metro, and plenty of interested young blokes serendipitously placed outside for a rare glimpse of nude legs.