The post-feast hangover hanging over Cairo

Well Ramadan has ended, and so has Eid el-Fitr, the three day ‘small’ feast that follows. It’s back to work, though the first day was a lot quieter than a normal working day in Cairo. It’s as though a collective hangover has dropped onto the city.

The first night of the feast was celebrated by a shopathon of epic proportions (it’s the time to buy new clothes, and yes, I obliged), followed by three days of peace. The traffic was so quiet, I could hear the birds in the trees, normally muted by the belting of a million car horns. Where were all the people? We found them…

Last night, we went to the Pyramids, to ride. It was pandemonium here, people. We went to our usual stable (it’s called NB, in case you’re asking) but to get to the stable, our cars had to dodge between horses of every shape, size and colour being led by small boys, dragged along by the handful to be saddled up for the armies of young guys that were pouring into Giza at midnight. Occasionally a few camels lurched slowly in front of the headlights, to add to the fray.

Hundreds of boys on rented nags barrelled out into the desert in packs of 10 to 20 at a time, riding as though their lives depended on it. Fearless, stupid. Choose your words. To the sides of the packs were the stable boys on ponies or donkeys, employed to holler and crack whips to keep the horses running.

Normally horseriding up here is most popular during the full moon, when the desert is lit up. But it was just after the crescent moon (Ramadan ends at the sighting of the crescent moon), so the desert was quite dark, and rang with shouts and whooping as everyone yelled out to keep sight of their mates.

I had a near miss and Karim’s horse reared at an oncoming horse and fell on its side. I asked what happened to him. “He reared and the next minute, I was standing beside him,” he said, still surprised at his own fortune, and we saw at least one riderless horse fleeing down the path, saddle and reins dangling. Dangerous? Yes. Crazy? Yes. Exhilarating? Absolutely.

Cash cows vs cash crisis

I’m taking a jump from markets in Morocco to a global wage comparison survey just released by UBS.

The annual survey finds that Zurich workers are the best paid in the world, Sydney’s so-so and Cairo? Hmmmm.

Here’s an extract from

“To crystallize the meaning of earnings in different countries, the study introduced a contemporary but ubiquitous item to the basked of goods–an iPod Nano. Taking into account pay, taxes and the price of goods, workers in Cairo would have to toil for 105 hours to get their hands on one of the MP3 players, while those in Zurich and New York can pick one up after working for the least amount of time of all the countries surveyed: 9 hours – roughly a day’s work.”

The survey also took 14 occupations in 73 cities and compared the wages, taxes and working hours, finding that a female factory worker brings in $18,200 in Chicago, but less than a tenth of that – $1,800 – in Cairo.

And also on a generic basket of food, priced across the globe, the most expensive was in Oslo, at $112, while Sydney came in at $68.50, and the cheapest in Delhi and Mumbai, where the shopping basket costs $37.60 and $30.90, respectively.

Sold on Marrakech

Marrakech’s streets are so full of markets and shops you hyperventilate with the desire to buy everything, all at once.

Long strips of brightly coloured woven fabric made from aloe vera plant. Nomad’s carpets. Natty leather slippers, babouches, in a rainbow of colours. Leather bags, cushions, belts. Spices. Kaftans.

What do you want?

Oil from rare argan bushes? Saffron stamens? Fragrant amber? Sandalwood beads? The finest kohl?

Or perhaps wax scented with jasmine, to smear on your warm wrists and scent the air? Antique bracelets, Berber amulets, the protection of Fatima’s hand. A monkey. A chameleon. A snake to dance for your pleasure. What’s your purse, a few dirhams or a prince’s bank balance? Your past or your future. It’s on sale: name your price.

Luxury trademarked:La Mamounia

Hotel porn: I’m sorry, there’s no other way to describe the new La Mamounia. It is an absolute privilege to be able to test drive a hotel before it opens to the public – there are just 20 or 30 of us staying in this hotel of about 200 rooms.

The staff are there before you can say, “Can I have…” I have been spoilt rotten, test driving the three restaurants – French, Italian and last night, notably, the Moroccan, with its OTT entrée of Moroccan salads. Don’t be fooled, this is a 12-dish extravaganza. Who thought salads could run to so many dishes? Lamb brains, people, are back (tho they never went in Egypt).

The champagne is always on ice, the guest relations people appear to need no sleep, and the pool boys are constantly combing the 28x28m pool outside, seemingly day and night, waiting for me to swim up an appetite.

The signature scents drawn from cinnamon, cloves and dates steal through the hotel, the bar staff are playing with the same ingredients for a series of Marrakechi cocktails and orange blossom water is sprinkled about with gay abandon.

They’re still ironing out the minor details such as the music in the rooms, though the iPod docks are working fine, the spa has yet to open (yes, devastated, but I’m living with it) and Mssrs Gucci, Fendi and Chopard have yet to unpack their bags in the shopping gallery.

The only thing that hasn’t worked is the weather – at this time of year, apparently, it’s rare to see the High Atlas mountains without heavy cloud, and in fact this morning there was a rare glimpse of their outline but now, half an hour later, they’ve disappeared behind white cloud again, so that iconic Marrakech shot of palm trees and snow-capped peaks eludes me. But it’s sunny and a temperate mid-20s, and the best time to visit Marrakech.

This is not a hotel for everyone: to wit the E600 price tag, which peaks at E8000 a night for the self-contained three bedroom riads down the back of the gardens. But with a sensitive and lavish restoration that’s taken three years to get off the ground (do you really want to know how much it cost?), La Mamounia has been restored to iconic status.

PS Egyptians please note: the E600 is euros. Euros.

An update: here’s the piece in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Sunday papers

The beating heart of Marrakech

Djamma El Fna is pumping. Smoke from the grill of stand 29 pumps out across the square, putting a mystical haze across the snake charmers, fortune tellers, monkey pimps and men who are dressed like lumpy women, with a scarf across their faces, bellydancing to a crazy band, money in the tambourine, please.

I take a seat at Number 29 and order tehan. For 12 dirhams ($2) I get a thick round of bread on paper, and two aluminum bowls. One is filled with bright red pureed tomato sauce, the other with tehan, chopped and sautéed with onions and fat. It’s the first time I’ve knowingly eaten spleen. Hopefully it doesn’t result later in venting my spleen.

Walking home, I collect my landmarks. The fruit market with its barrows of bright yellow melons. The crazy display of taps and pipes with a badly handwritten sign advertising a ‘plomber’. The mosque with the dicey-looking WC beside it. The neon flashing telephone shop. And finally I take the turn down the chopped up laneway that, every time I do it, makes me feel like a local.

I know where I’m going. I’m going home. To the white cat that sleeps at the door, so still I could assume he was dead if I didn’t see his scarred ears twitch occasionally. To the jasmine-scented courtyard. To the hum of the staff in the warm, friendly kitchen and the slice of tart apple flan they have left out for my late-night snack. It’s good night from me…

First look at Morocco’s revamped La Mamounia

The orange Hermes everywhere! The brass chandeliers! The bed that could fit a football team! The incessant petit fours at every turn! The pillows, the linen, the Dedon furniture on the extended balcony, the views over palm trees and the High Atlas mountains – Morocco (and North Africa’s) most famous hotel, La Mamounia, is nearly open.

We’re one of the first to flounce through the hotel in its soft opening, before it all becomes official and splashed about the world’s press on 29 Sept. So here’s a sneak peak, about to do an official tour of the glorious gardens and the beautiful bars and restaurants – will report back. It’s a job…

Villas Fawakay

Doris the pregnant donkey wanders past, going home to her corral, the peacocks, Frank and Stein, sleep on the thatch roof of the bar, the two long little dogs, Woof and Whatsit, are sitting at our feet while we have a glass of wine as the sun sets over the pool. The villas are all open, just curtains drawn against the elements.

Set up by a British couple who moved their family of four young children to Morocco four years ago – in a record five months – Villas Fawakay are three villas 20 minutes from the heart of Marrakesh. Each has its own little plunge pool, as well as a long, luscious main pool. The gardens are a rich green thanks to recent rains, which the pet goats and Doris attack with gay abandon.

It’s no hardship to hang out here. I napped in the afternoon on my fluffy bed, to awake to the peahen, Stein, staring in the window at me. She and her husband, Frank, had been napping in the shade on the rattan loungers outside my window.

The sounds of traffic horns and revving buses are long gone. All I can hear is Doris’ steady munch and the adaan from a nearby mosque. Each meal is prepared in the main kitchens and brought to my villa, and at the end of the day, I join the family for dinner by the pool. But this idyllic time must end, and it’s into the fray of Marrakech today…

Rabat and the spirit of Ramadan

It is raining. It is SO raining. Rabat and Rain. Rabat is an hour by train from Casablanca, and I’m sure it’s a nice town. Pretty. Whitewash buildings echoing the Portuguese style. I read about the pirates and prisons, I saw cannon holes and fortresses. The studded blue doors and pretty pots of the rocky outcrop of the Kasbah des Oudiaias. All through a veil of water. My feet were so wet the dye in my leather sandals ran and have stained my feet a dark brown. So very attractive.

The journey home was in sodden clothes on a train with the air-con turned up to 10. Made all the more special by a 45 minute delay in the wilderness. We were there so long, it was time for fitar, or breakfast, the first meal of the day in Ramadan, at 6.45pm. The carriage literally turned into a moveable feast, to steal and bastardise Hemingway.

Middle-aged men all around me suddenly pulled out elaborate picnics packed by their wives – plastic boxes of dates, thermoses of hot water, good-smelling pastries. I had some water and harsha, that deliciously calorie-laden puffy fried bread of semolina that’s sold hot in the markets, and took my seat in the train to eat.

Then the kind man in the next seat poured me a cup of hot, mint tea. Heaven, I started to thaw! He then handed me a small bowl of bright yellow harrira (thick, traditional Moroccan soup) and a sweet crisp fried pastry stuffed with pistachios, then put on his hat and coat, and disappeared into the engine room to drive the train home to Casablanca. Truly the spirit of Ramadan.

Of all the gin joints in all the world…

This being Casablanca and all, my Casa-based friend Jody and I wandered into Rick’s Café, modeled on the gin palace that appeared in the Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall Hollywood movie, Casablanca. Beautifully decorated and spanning three levels with a terrace (closed because of heavy rain) and a comfortable lounge area that has that movie playing every night of the week, there’s something still missing. I think it’s the layout of the place – too narrow and tall – but beautiful acoustics for the piano, whose 1940s tunes trickle up to the high ceiling.

The cafe, a concept bankrolled by a swag of American expats, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year.

This night, the clientele was a mix of tourists and expats, with a few tables of Moroccans. Perhaps it was so quiet as this is Ramadan. We ordered long vodka & tonics and took a seat at the tall bar, feet dangling from our bar stools. A word: don’t try falling off these devils.

(Interestingly, Misty is the song playing when you open Rick’s website…see earlier post, spooky)