Flesh and modesty in the name of religion

There are a suspiciously large amount of semi-naked men walking around Cairo airport as I am on my way to Nairobi. They are clad only in sparkling towels and shawls.

Obviously, it’s time for the Haj – the revered pilgrimage to Mecca that should be undertaken by Muslims at least once in the lifetime.

The surly customs guards have melted, wordlessly pushing them through the customs queues while we look on.

Otherwise, there are plenty of people pulling down their swine-flu face masks to drag on a last cigarette before they board their late-night flights to Kenya, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia.

Cruise control

Like many other countries, Egypt can’t see why a motorbike or scooter should cope with just one or two people (even if the cost of petrol is, by our standards, incredibly skimpy, at just LE2, or about 22c/litre).

Newborn babies balanced on women’s laps as they ride side-saddle is common, while six is the highest count I’ve seen on a small Vespa, children hanging via the foot pegs and the will of God.

But tonight in Cairo, I saw two guys on a scooter, and the one on the back had his laptop open and was surfing the net as they cruised down the cool night streets. A blend of first-meets-third world, surely it takes geekdom to a whole new level?

Sufism in Cairo

The Hussein mosque in one of Cairo’s main square is one of the holiest in the country – take a look inside and encased in a silver casket is the head of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad (though as the Lonely Planet points out, a mosque in Iraq alleges it has the same head of Hussein.)

Men enter in the main door, women at the side, and the mosque is completely divided in two. The same guidebook says non-Muslims can’t enter, but I’ve never heard of anyone being turned away. The men’s section is spacious and calm, while the day I entered the women’s section, it was full of kids and picnics, and women ululating by the casket, which is visible from both quarters.

On Fridays, the columns out the front of the Hussein mosque bloom into beautiful umbrellas to shield worshippers from the hot summer sun.

The area around Midan Hussein is also a hotbed for Sufism, a tearaway arm of Islam that most people know through whirling dervishes, the religious twirling to rhythmic chanting in a bid to enter a trance-like state to get closer to God.

A troupe of Sufi dancers perform three times a week in the Wikalat Sultan al-Guhria, a caravanserai (doss house for travellers) that dates from 1504AD in Islamic Cairo. The sufis wear full-circle skirts (tannoura in classical Arabic) while a singer cries over a blisteringly loud band of drums, rebaba (a two-stringed violin from Upper Egypt) and the strident clarinet-like instrument, the nay, which is said to date back to Pharonic times.


Meanwhile, as the six men (it’s all men) in white skirts spin and whirl for up to half an hour, a seventh, in the middle, wears brightly coloured skirts. At different points, he peels off layers of his skirts, a jacket, and holds aloft a flag with Allah’s name written on it.

Be warned: like all Egyptian music, which has just two levels, off and 10, it’s seriously loud. It’s ear-splittingly loud and it’s mesmerising.

Details: Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troup, free admission, Mon, Wed, Sat 8.30pm.

The tonic of life

“Here’s your G&T,” says my current visitor, Andrew. Surely one of the nicer sentences in the English language.

Tonic is a soft drink regarded with an evil eye here in Cairo as the locals are sure the only reason we foreigners want to drink it is to dilute our gin. So it’s not so easy to find. The foreign supermarkets sell it, but you’ll never find it in the Egyptian chains or in the fridges at the little kiosks at every street corner, which sell everything from water to phone cards, chocolates and cigarettes. All the essentials. I learned the lesson about tonic after I rolled into a little supermarket nearby and asked for tonic.

“Noooooo-ooo,” replied Ahmed behind the counter, waving his head like a bull with a fly in his ear. “We never sell tonic. Because you will mix it with alkoool.”

Ethical consumerism, it appears, is not yet dead.

My grandmother, who firmly swore by a diet of tonic water and natural yoghurt while travelling in foreign climes, would surely have turned in her grave.

Oases in Cairo

This week, the temp ramped it up and the aircon died, so it was time to road-test two places to swim in (or near) Cairo. The first, the Atlas Zamalek Hotel has a rooftop pool that the Lonely Planet says is usually empty. Which of course made us deeply sceptical as once it’s in that guidebook, nothing’s ever the same – to travellers’ annoyance and owners’ delight. However, they were right. We were the only people there on a weekday afternoon. The LE40 ($9) charge lets you swim and order from the café. So we swam in the cool water and ordered salads and burgers, fresh strawberry juice and club sandwiches. The water wasn’t so clean, so I’d say no to opening my eyes underwater. But when it’s this hot…

The hotel wins bonus points as we were two girls in bikinis (yes we had sarongs to cover up when walking around), and the marked absence of perving from the charming middle-aged waiters was downright refreshing.

The second place was the Sakkara Palm Club (in the pic) just up the road from the ancient pyramids of Sakkara. Entrance is either LE65 to swim only or LE95 including a buffet lunch. Cool music from the DJ, large pools with little palm islands and *gasp* a swim-up bar! We spotted some bad, bad girls on the submerged bar stools snogging dodgy looking men. But apart from that, the crowd was a mix of locals larging it up and lots of foreigners in packs. The pool attendants were constantly combing the water to keep it clear, and stopped anyone from the worst excesses, such as taking plates of watermelon on the pool (hey, I agree, no food in the pool. Who wants to swim alongside soggy tomato slices?) but indulged us by bringing an ashtray so our nicotine-dependent friend could smoke in the shallows. Ah Egypt. Lovely, lovely Egypt.

Details: the Atlas Zamalek Hotel, 20 Gameat El Dewal El Arabeya St. Mohandiseen, 02 3346 6569
Sakkara Palm Club, Marioutiya Canal Road Tel: 02 33819 1775

Shopping on the metro

This morning on the train, I bought some hair pins and that liquid glue that instantly sticks your fingers together.

A woman in a niqab (the black robe that covers everything but eyes) was doing a roaring trade in eye liner pencils for about 50c each.

This is one of the great things about Cairo (and many non-first-world countries). Your shopping comes to you. Forget newspaper sellers, you can buy screwdrivers, pens, combs, washing-up cloths, scouring pads… sometimes all hanging off the one body.

Of course, tissue sellers are a given on every carriage, every metro station, every corner, and I even saw Vodafone top-up cards being hawked on the train the other day. My best investment to date has been a pretty fold-up paper fan, perfect when the fans on the metro carriages’ roofs break down.

Kids often work with their parents or alone, rushing down the carriages to drop lollies or gum in passengers’ laps, shouting the price as they go, then sweeping back up the carriage to collect the unwanted sweets. Sometimes, a woman will silently drop religious leaflets throughout, instinctively avoiding the non-Muslims.

Of course, they’re all illegal traders competing in an economy where unemployment is officially at 9%, but most pundits place in the mid-teens. A recent Reuters report stated that 20% of the population live on less than US$1 a day.

Pilfering the petrodollar

You know I’ve mentioned before that Cairo’s full of Gulf Arabs at the moment, who will enjoy Egypt’s ‘cooler’ weather (it’s all relative) until just before Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, which starts on 21 August and continues until 19 September.

Apparently the rush of new movies and theatre is another drawcard for the influx of Gulfies, as such luxuries were banned in Saudi Arabia until recently.

Sure as an obvious foreigner I have the occasional moan about being treated as a wallet with legs (and chest) and subsequently charged double or triple the going rate, but the Gulf Arabs say they cop it far worse.

“[Egyptians] see my face, and they see a barrel of oil,” one Saudi banker was quoted as saying in an article in The National, a newspaper out of Abu Dhabi.

To help protect their petrodollars, Egyptian Tourism has established a phone hotline so foreign tourists can complain about being ripped off by hotels. Maybe they need another one for the camel touts and the papayrus ‘museums’…