The night before Eid

The streets are filled with sheep and the occasional cow in the last days before Eid, the Feast of the Sacrifice. The sheep have been set into makeshift pens and are guarded day and night by a shepherd. They are going for LE1500, or about A$300 each. That means there’s a whole lotta cash messing up the roads here in Cairo

However, it seems that not theft, but small children are the issue most concerning the shepherds. Kids are hanging delightedly around the sheep, trying to wrestle their long horns and ride them the minute the shepherds’ backs are turned. The guys have big sticks they wave at the kids, who fall back slippery as eels, then resettle around the pens, totally uncatchable, laughing and jeering.

It makes logistical sense, but it’s also a bit grim that the sheep are living outside the butchers, snacking cheerfully from wooden troughs. Above them hang the carcasses of their peers but being sheep, they don’t seem to have made the connection. Or perhaps they’re in denial.

Today, Egyptians fasted on the last day before Eid, then the sacrificing begins after prayers at sunrise tomorrow morning.

I took pix down the street last night, got mobbed by about 20 kids, and the old market women who kill the rabbits and pigeons for a living were shouting in the street, “Our cow’s getting photographed by Australia!” I also snapped two happy bakers with one of the huge mountains of bread on the street that tomorrow will become part of fattah, the traditional Egyptian dish of rice, fried bread and meat that I’ve eaten slathered with garlicky mayonnaise.

For the four-day holiday, I’m skipping out to the desert oasis of Siwa with a bunch of friends-to-be, 50km shy of the Libyan border, on the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Land of sand dunes, palm gardens, hot water springs and those weirdly giant plastic date palms that are actually mobile phone towers. Kul sanaa wento tayebeen (Best wishes to all)!

Animal kingdom visits Cairo

Cairo is gearing up for Eid. Last night, as I closed my windows, I heard the familiar sounds of geese disturbed in their sleep, the rooster trying out his pre-dawn lungs and a new sound, the baa-ing of sheep. This is in central Cairo.

Farmers are bringing in their livestock to sell for slaughter during Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice. The other day, in Gamaliya (Islamic Cairo), a man was whistling a herd of sheep through the main thoroughfare of el-Muiezz. Then I rounded a corner and nearly took out a large cow, one of those mournful Egyptian cows with skinny legs, huge ears and the saddest face that would break your heart.

Walking back from the fruit & veg market, my street has suddenly sprouted several sheep pens with brown shaggy, horned animals milling about, and the sidelanes are like a scene from Animal Farm.

Thursday. It all starts Thursday.

Football: the drug of the nation?

It’s been days now. Days since Egypt was defeated by Algeria in its last chance to play in the 2010 World Cup. But Egypt’s not letting go.

Even though Ireland is calling for a rematch from a goal handballed in by a French player who admitted his deed, and the whole European soccer scene is plagued by allegations of widespread match-fixing and subsequent healthy but unusual betting wins, Egypt is still shaking its fist at its North African rivals.

Even I am getting hate Skypes because I’m in Cairo, with someone skyping me and my mother bad names. After giving me a serve in Arabic because I rejected the call, he beat me to the ‘block’ button, spraying venom by text then declaring “iam algerien”. How rude! How badly spelt!

The football channels are full of news of Algerian youths rioting in Marseilles, of stories (quickly disproven) of 11 Algerian deaths in Egypt, of reports of Egypt fans threatened in Sudan, where the game was held. Footage of Algerian fans waving knives (so much for the 15,000 Sudanese riot police) as they chanted in the stadium are flooding the net, and on Friday, what started as a peaceful protest outside the Algerian embassy in leafy (well, as leafy as you’ll get in Egypt) Zamalek ended in yet another riot.

“They are not our Arab brothers,” say my football friends. “We have ended diplomatic ties with them.”

It might come as a surprise to some of you that there are some people in Egypt who are not into football. “At least we’ll talk about something else,” one said to me. Yeah, like bread prices. As my lovely Arabic teacher pointed out, Egypt is full of families who can’t afford their daily bread, which has doubled in the past year to what equate as 12 cents for a plain round of aish balady (brown bread – the processed white is, of course, more expensive again). Instead, they’re reliant on the government bread, at half the price and, apparently, half as palatable.

It’s true football is a drug. I would have said before yesterday, that it is a drug that’s cheaper and healthier than, say, Egypt’s rough and nasty budget drug of choice, bango, which is famously trafficked from the Sinai. But if the alternative is the severance of diplomatic ties with a North African neighbour and fellow Arab country, makes you start thinking otherwise, doesn’t it?

(ps: apologies to The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy for bastardising the title)

Tension in the hours before Algeria-Egypt match

Palpable. That’s the word of the day. The final qualifier between Algeria and Egypt is being played at 7.30pm local time today, in Sudan. Because it’s not in the Cairo stadium, like Wednesday’s match, when Egypt managed to stave off defeat to go to a rematch, there’s less traffic clogging the streets as we saw when fans poured into the stadium early. Instead, last night, in the dead of night, we spotted buses packed with fans heading down to Sudan.

Word is the Sudanese have waived the usual visa restrictions for Egyptian fans. I heard that tickets cost LE500 (about A$100) but the black market snapped them up and spat them out again for LE2500 (A$500).

TV shows happy Sudanese people rooting for Egypt…but then again, that WAS Egyptian TV. The news wires report that Sudan is “overwhelmingly supportive” of Algeria.

The sport shows have been full of claims and counterclaims of violence: the Algerian team was allegedly attacked in their bus in the airport on arrival into Cairo on Wednesday, and three players appeared on the pitch sporting head bandages. But the driver of the bus said it was all nonsense, that there were a few people managing to sling some mud at the bus, but the team themselves smashed the windows to paint Egypt in a bad light.

Also for a few brief minutes were reports in the Algerian online press of 11 people killed at Cairo stadium at the Wednesday match. The stories were quickly whipped down, but not before they’d travelled the world. Egypt is full of righteous indignation. They know they could lose the chance to attend the 2010 World Cup if FIFA decides they can’t control their fanatical fans.

So it’s four hours to kick-off and the drums are ready…

Monkey business and Pet Shop Boys

Cliched title, I know. Due to popular demand, I went back down to the pet shop that had a monkey/ape (I’m not so good at primate identification) and snapped a pic for you. And there were two!

The one I saw the other day is the larger, hairier one. For your edification, people, he is nine months old, probably from Sudan or Senegal, costs LE1500 (about A$300 – but that’s the first, pre-haggle price) and his name is Hany.

As I was taking pix of Hany, a little girl let go of her mother’s hand to tear past me, exclaiming, “Mama, beautiful! Beautiful!” She had rushed toward some rather mediocre white kittens, dismissing the exotic Hany with a single glance.

The littler monkey is still being bottle fed. He is just eight months old, with a nose that he wrinkled while devouring pieces of cucumber and displaying his manhood for the crowd and the pet shop boys.

Egypt-Algeria match fever

Tickets went on sale today for the Egypt v Algeria match on Saturday. Boys have already started selling flags on the streets in the lead-up to the match, and it’s rivaling swine flu as the top story of the day.

This is Egypt’s last chance to get into the 2010 World Cup, and the build-up is intense. Algeria needs to win, draw or even lose by just one goal to qualify, but Egypt needs a three-goal margin to qualify. If they come out two goals ahead, they’ll go into another play-off in Sudan on 18 November.

The match will be held at Cairo Stadium, which holds 80,000 fans, and organisers are upping the security to stop them from bringing in fireworks and…lighters. Um, hello, in a country where smoking is a profession? When we watched the Egypt v Zambia match at the stadium, they even took the poles out of our flags.

Fans on both sides have been slagging each other off online for weeks in what’s been described as a cyber-war that’s downright nasty. They’ve hacked the websites of the major newspapers and even the prez, Hosni Mubarak, isn’t immune, with his own website getting done over.

An Algerian song on YouTube is poking at Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 Six Day war with Israel (“We are not the ones who sold Palestine to the Jews”) while Egypt slapped back with the gibe, “”We liberated you when France made you slaves/Talk to me in French because your Arabic is so broken.” As you can see, they’re playing nice.

I love the fact the National Heart Institute has issued a warning to heart patients, telling them not to watch the match. Quoting a Swiss study that found a 60 percent rise in heart attacks in the last World Cup, the good doctor has advised Egyptians to exercise, avoid smoking and drinking alcohol and refrain from fast food before watching the match.

Women and girls are being told to stay home (they can’t shout loud enough, anyway), though with a history of rioting at previous games between the two countries, many girls will be happy to steer clear.

If Egypt wins, Cairo will burn and the car horns won’t stop till dawn. If she loses, this will be one sorry city.

Getting piggy

I got a call from a friend today: he was livid. His kids’ expensive school here in Cairo has been closed because of an outbreak of swine flu – a common story, even my bro is enjoying a little paid holiday due to the same at his school in Ukraine.

However, when my Egyptian friend took his kids to hospital to have them checked out, he found people crammed in the hospital, flu or not, all breathing the same ikky, sickky hospital air while they waited their turn.

Yesterday, the Egyptian health minister announced hospitals would no longer test people with suspected swine flu – doctors have been told just to whack the suspects full of Tamiflu and the usual anti-viral medication because it’s cheaper than throat swabs and lab work.

Egypt has reported its sixth death due to swine flu (compared with 4000 or so in the US), so it’s no wonder I get the hairy eye when I get on the metro, as we foreigners are considered the culprits. Like the kids in the photo above, some women are wearing those white face masks beloved of Asian countries (I heard eyewitness reports of a group of Japanese tourists climbing through the pure air of Mt Moses in Sinai wearing white masks), while muniquabbas, women who wear the face veil and gloves, must surely feel insulated and protected.

Egypt loves a good conspiracy theory: is it an American plot? A disease created by cash-hungry multi-national drug companies owned by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defense? The work of an anti-pig lobby group? It’s been labeled a pandemic, and there are rumours that 20,000 Egyptians are being infected every day, but the Ministry of Health says there are precisely 1881 cases of swine flu in Egypt. Aaah, nobody takes the government figures seriously. The one good thing about swine flu is the government’s personal hygiene campaign – perhaps Egyptians will stop throwing their used tissues out car windows and on the ground.

(Photo credit: AFP)

Copping it not so sweet

Yesterday there was a loud bang outside my window. I went outside to check to find police blocking off street. Mild panic, as I live beside one of the city’s palaces, where Obama dossed for an hour or two when he was in Egypt earlier this year.

The traffic started to pile up as the two policemen in their summer white uniforms (they should be changing to winter black soon) waved the traffic into a side road.

Then I realised that the police were trying to jump-start their car and the banging was actually the police car backfiring while it blocked the road. How can they chase the baddies when they’re in the worst cars on the road?

The traffic cops are hilarious. They’ll be holding up half of Cairo’s traffic, minibuses with boys hanging on the outside walls, little taxis on the school run crammed with a dozen wriggling children, dudes revving their hot engines, women drivers with big dark sunglasses and their hands permanently on the horn, everyone champing at the bit.

But the cops are having a fag and a cuppa tea, perving on some pretty girls or having a natter on their mobile, completely oblivious to the mountain of heated angst and black exhaust fumes pouring from the cars behind their hands. Then finally the din of a hundred car horns gets their attention when someone finally starts shrieking, and they’ll step back to unleash hell.

The official stats say 6000 people are killed in road accidents every year in this country which until less than 10 years ago put a luxury tax on seatbelts.

But a friend disputes this. Whipping out his calculator, he tells me that’s 16 people a day. “No way. No way,” he says, reckoning it’s at LEAST double that. We’re bouncing over the most potholed road on the Sinai as we continue the conversation, the car’s underbelly thumping on a bed of rock. “Look at this,” he says, pointing at the crumbling road. “There are more than 80 million of us Egyptians. Maybe the government thinks there should be less…”

Bedouins and Beyonce

About a month ago, Adam, spotter of weird internet stuff par excellence, sent me a link to a ‘beautiful camel’ competition in Dubai with a question: do they have anything like this in Egypt?

I asked friends who said,”Belle, where are you living? Of course we do!” But they’re not easy to find like those in the Gulf states. A beautiful camel competition, for those of you who are unawares is, obviously, a beauty competition for camels.

Popular in the Arab region, the most fetching animal can haul in a swag of cash. Beautiful goat competitions have sprung up recently too, in a part of the world where displaying your womenfolk in skimpy bikinis to be ogled by other men is considered uncouth.

So I hunted around but found mostly just camel races, with a gathering each May in south Sinai the big event. The exception was the Characters of Egypt gathering. In only its second year, the event gathers tribes from across Egypt to play traditional music, compete in tugs-of-war and other physical feats and yes, to race camels.
As to be expected, it’s organised by a foreigner. The reaction from some Cairenes when I mentioned I was going to head down past Marsa Alam (12 hours by bus, 1:20 hour flight) to hang out with Bedouin tribesmen, was lots of giggling and slight disbelief. However, others were more impressed.

“We saw it on Facebook and thought it’d be a cool thing to go to,” a young, funky banker told me on why she and her friends had made the trek. There were representatives of tribes from Siwa on the Libyan border, the Farafra oasis in the Western Desert, Nubia, north and south Sinai and the local tribes from by the Red Sea or in the nearby mountains, way down here on the Sudanese border.

We spent two days at the camp, learning to tell the difference between the tribes – all wear light-coloured gellibayas, but some, like Al-Bashariya and Al-Ababda, put a black waistcoat over the top, while the North Sinai men wear red-and-white scarves (kufiya) with the black ring (iqal) to hold it down, a sight common in the gulf states, which they’re closest to.

The Nubians were set apart because they’re darker, and now not so nomadic, and also they were the only people to bring women with them. Yeah, they had the girls. And sexy girls, too. Unveiled and all, being presenters for Nubian TV, which was there in force, along with plenty of other media. The older, heavily cloaked traditional Nubian women gave me a quick lesson in zagaroota, the ululating they do when celebrating or dancing and one another painted a henna design around my arm, the tribes discussed the steep rise of hotels on their land, and everyone was dragged up for a dance around the fires at night.

The local tribes brought their camels and caretas (carts) to take people out into the nearby Wadi Gamel, travelling also with their flock of goats and a few tall donkeys who roamed about our tents like grey ghosts in the night.

Amazingly, I met old friends including Gomma, my young guide from Siwa who proved to be an enthusiastic stilt dancer, some of the organisers of the Egyptian 4WD rally I went to in Bahariyya oasis in February, and an old Bedouin remembered giving me a ride in his pick-up in Sharm el Sheik (to prove he knew me, and wasn’t just doing a line, he told me, ‘You said you wouldn’t give me your phone number because your husband will get mad,’ a line I use every day).

The camel from North Sinai won the race pot, LE15,000 (about US$5000) and Siwa won the hotly-contested tug-of-war.

Logistically, it was amazing. Held in the desert in a national park about 60km from the town of Marsa Salam, you could either stay in a nearby five-star hotel or pitch a tent, the admission fee covering three meals a day and however much tea or coffee you could cadge from the kitchen. There were even tents for hire and the media tent had internet that was fast, but sporadic. The tribes also displayed their handcrafts in the ‘giftshop’, a tent selling everything from elaborate musical instruments to cartons of cigarettes (the most popular item).

If you’re here next year, I would absolutely recommend going, so you can get up close and personal with a way of life that’s completely different to many in Egypt.

Marsa Alam is a mess of half-baked construction sites, a ratty bus depot and a flash new airport where, three days after we’d all packed up and gone home, Beyonce flew in to perform in a remote luxury resort. From Bedouins to Beyonce, Egypt once again shows two its many faces. www.charactersofegypt.com