treading on camel toes

This morning, Juan and I went to the Birqash camel market, about 45km out of Cairo. We did a very good deal with a smooth-talking guide with car, Tarek, who was hanging around the pension.

I have to remember what the very shady Mr Ali (there are many Mr Alis in this town) said to me the other night, as he held my hand, gently stroking my palm discreetly with his index finger, “Nobody gives you anything for free in Egypt. They will give to you because they will take from you.”

Anyway, the camels were amazing. There were many, many camels. And many camel boys. And camel men, trucks, sticks and much, much camel dust. I had to take a shower when I came home, I smelt like I’d been rolling in camel dung.

The yards are always there full of camels, but sale day is Friday morning. We watched camels being paraded before a dozen arguing men, one adult going for 8500 Egyptian pounds (A$2240/E1150), four little baby camels for just over 1000 pounds each.

The whole process of buying and selling was complete theatre. Everyone was acting. And everyone knew it. The indignation. The anger. The pleading. The refusal and walking away. The disinterest. And finally, the sale.
In between, lively young camels tore away from their owners and galloped through the market, kicking up yet more dust, men trucked in bales of feed, stacking them high on the shelters’ roofs away from long-necked thieves. Naughty little boys stuck sticks up recalcitrant camels’ bottoms, which I particularly disliked.

Most camels had one leg bent at the knee and tied up so it was effectively hobbled. When they load them onto the trucks, they then tie the two back legs. The camels don’t like it, and bellyache loudly. But when they’re all tied down in their open-top trucks, they face the direction of travel and watch the road like hawks, giving their opinion like a bevy of backseat drivers.

They really are very haughty looking creatures, but for some reason I love them, and I didn’t feel unsafe around them at all. Some even came up to my camera while I was photographing them, just for a look. I think they know I wasn’t going to belt them.


Well, you can tell I’m back on form tonight if I’m thinking of food. As Egyptians often are. They breakfast last, lunch later and dinner – a light snack – can be as late as 1am, Tarek told me today. So when we were having dinner at the Citadel view restaurant in Al Azhar at 8pm, technically it could still constitute lunch.

But the real reason for this post is…mangoes. I know you shouldn’t eat them every day, but the season is about to end, and it’s the chance to try some of the 11 (or is it 15, or 18) types of mango on offer in Egypt. Hindi and Alphonse are most people’s faves, while Oasi makes the triumvirate of the best-loved. I’ve been mainlining Timor mangoes (‘oh, they’re ok, but they’re not Hindi, Alphonse or Oasi,’ say the mango-mad Egyptians) from my local fruit & veg souk.

You can buy fresh mango juice on the street for less than a dollar from bizarrely decorated juice stores (ok, I’ll get you a pic) and am I being un-Australian by suggesting that they’re better than the ones back home? Heaven is a juicy mango…

Pale and uninteresting

It was a poor food decision that’s seen me locked in my room today, feeling wan and looking disgusting. I think I’m over the worst of it, but still fragile. On the upside, I should lose weight, as I haven’t eaten anythis solid today, though the clerks here at the pension have been bringing me in lemonade, made lemon tea and offered a litany of pills, which has been gorgeous. Needless to say: there are no photos today. I think I need to lie down. Oh I already am.

Apartment grief

I saw another couple of apartments today, here in Downtown. These ones work out to about $125/week before I start haggling, which is the same as what I pay at this pension, but of course you get privacy, a kitchen etc. I’m not an industrial chemical kinda girl, but this one requires a healthy dose of Uber-Domestos.

I don’t know what to do. It’s not a rich area (obviously, by the price of the rent), but the lift is DISASTEROUS and the stairwell is filthy. The apartment is on the top floor, with lovely breezes through the doors that lead out to the two little balconies with some furniture and a cleaning lady once a week for about $5. (I know, I’m ok with that!)

It would normally be nice to say you look down on the rooftops of the city, but Cairo rooftops are full of rubbish. It’s by no means glamorous, though it looks right across the city. My rich Cairene friend would be horrified. But it’s cheap enough that I can keep it even though I’ll be away a fair bit of the next 10 weeks, and not have to worry about the cost of rent. The nice expat places are about four times the price. And I am too selfish to share…

Should I just take it? Should I wait to see a few more in a slightly quieter area? One concern is the terrible lift (like those little ones in France, tiny birdcages, but this one is pretty rugged). You have to close the doors properly to make it work. And apparently Egyptians don’t close the doors properly, so it would mean an 11-floor trek.

Belly dancing on the Nile: the ultimate cliche?

Tonight, I teamed up with John and Mohommad again to discover new ahwas (cafes) and brought along Juan, a Spaniard who’s also staying at this pension. I love the carte blanche that being with Mohommad brings. The cafes are down back alleys, through the slimmest streets and in the courtyards of apartment blocks. Most have a tv, though this one, my new favourite for its cardomon-scented coffee, has elegant timber bistro chairs with the cafe owner’s name, Abdul Karim Osman, carved on the back rest and Cleopatra on the seat. So I’m parking my backside on her face. Nice.

We walked down to Doqqi to talk to a man about apartments, but it’s still holidays, so tomorrow (Sunday) everything kicks back into life after almost a week’s break. I feel Cairo’s heading for one mother of a hangover tomorrow.

Cool things: the metro has women-only carriages until 9pm each night, though foreign men are tolerated (they don’t appear to understand the red sign with the woman’s picture on it, or perhaps they know that it will be less crowded than the carriages for the great unwashed.

We walked along the Nile this evening, promenading as Egyptians do. There were little boats that do a quick 20 minute spin up the Nile for less than a dollar – definitely a local scene as the foriegners were all going into the big ships for those corny cruise meals (of which, I might add, I did in Dubai). The outboard motor stinks, the PA plays tinny Arab pop, but a couple of kids got all excited and one little girl jumped up and gave us a surprisingly good belly dance, then a boy about the same age did a traditional men’s dance that’s normally done with swords. We all clapped along while the kids danced. It was a quite wholesome, totally charming cruise.

On another note, this pension is interesting – it is such good value and a really good vibe that a lot of people prefer to stay here instead of the faceless five-stars (well, yes). But there are two girls here who butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths (you can play guess the nationality). But every time the ice queens enter the room, like the white witch of Narnia, they freeze all conversation. So imagine my delighted surprise to find at the front desk yesterday afternoon the two biggest, roughest, nastiest looking Saudi blokes (ok, we’re conjecturing here), asking for them by room number (no names, didn’t know…) Dirty girls!
I tried to get you a nice pic of me up on the very British lions on Qasr el-Nil bridge, but Mohommad isn’t the best photographer. I have suggested a trade of Arabic for photography lessons. Here’s his effort… (God, that means I’m going to have to climb up there AGAIN while the cops aren’t watching!)

Tomorrow, I am going to a performance by the Cairo Opera Ballet at the Opera House – can’t wait!

One-legged bar hop

Continuing the saga of delving deep into the seamy side of Downtown Cairo, last night I went for a beer with my new friends John, a Londoner, and his mate Mohammad. They’ve kindly let me tag along with them as John’s apartment hunting as well. I have to say – there were some highs, there were some very, very low lows. Some places you’d be frightened to take your shoes off in, and one that had me worried the floor was going to drop out of the ancient lift.

So after cruising about six apartments, we lashed out and went to a bar. Cap D’Or is apparently (according to my guide book) used to foreigners, and you know I’m fairly intrepid in this regard. But there is no way I’d have set foot in here alone. It was like when the stranger throws open the saloon doors and the music stops and everyone shuts up.

I’ve posted up a pic of the bar snacks – sliced tomatoes with a herb salt in an old soft drink bottle with holes in the lid, foul (cooked butter beans, taste fantastic, look um, foul hahaha), and termis, more unidentified pulses. All exceptionally healthy stuff. We got the bar boy to grab some cheese from the shop across the road as well, and I fed snippets to the tiny kitten beneath my chair.

The beer we drink round here is Stella, (“Authentic Egyptian Lager Beer since 1897”) at 4.5%. Cap D’or is also one of the cheapest bars around, selling it for LE7, about A$1.50. The bar snacks are free.

Just as we left, I said to John, I wish I had the guts to take a pic, but I’m too embarassed. He said, don’t be soft. So I handed him the camera. He took a bad pic. I took the camera back, asked the barman if he minded? He preened and ran a smoothing hand over his bald head. I took the pic. The entire bar watched, then someone waved a hand. I asked the bar, ‘Mumkin?” (Do you mind?) The bar said, “La!” (No!) All assumed the pose. I took a snap. “Gameel! Shukran.” (Beautiful! Thank you). The bar all waved goodbye.

We skipped out to try another bar opposite the Swiss Embassy, more local, less used to chicks, as was obvious after I went to the loo and, as I was coming out, surprised a bloke just about to use the pissoir outside the loo. He was slightly disgusted, I think, as he had to zip himself back up and step out of the room back into the to let me pass. Everything I wore last night now stinks, absolutely stinks, of cigarettes.

Mohammad also pushed open the door on a bar full of prostitutes (VERY BIG and SCARY prostitutes) where the beer is three times the price and the girls expect seriously big tips. It was not a place for me to be drinking in.

PS Can I just mention that this is the seedy side of town? Will hit the glam side as well to prove Cairo’s not all so rugged.

PPS Can I also ask whether am I the last woman alive to know that female circumcision was de riguer in Egypt, for ALL Egyptian women, until just five years ago??? The things you learn in bars…

Omar Sharif causes riots Downtown

When I finally woke up late this morning, after slinking in at 2am, I spent the day on the balcony writing a story about a $1200/night spa in Thailand. It’s a far cry from this $10 pension in Egypt. The difference is hard to comprehend. Most of Egypt slept late, I think. The streets were quiet, but as I woke, I heard something I hadn’t heard since I’d been here – the radio. During Ramadam, it’s forbidden to play music, unless it’s religious/Arabic traditional music (as well as eat, smoke and drink in public during daylight). Now, Arab pop is well and truly back on the soundscape, blurring in with the car horns, sirens and the roar emerging from a city of 20 million people.

I also noticed when I wandered out for a late lunch, a pub – all dingy with blue neon lighting inside (interesting design concept), and also an off-licence. I must post it up on an expat website I was on today, which had a long involved discussion on offies in Cairo. Apparently foreigners can buy up to three bottles of imported spirits at the duty free shops within three days of arrival, and after that, you can by the local brands, though one contributor said the local stuff has formaldehyde in it, and advised all readers to avoid it.

But tonight, most shops were shut, even up toward Khan al-Khalili, where normally you’re shoving to walk up what passes as a footpath. Instead, the youth of Cairo, who were until 5am selling faux designer shirts on the streets, tarted themselves up and headed Downtown, near my pension, to eat ice creams and visit one of the three cinemas on the first night of their three-day holiday (apparently there’s a very good, new Omar Sharif movie out).

It sounds innocuous – watchig movies and eating ice cream – but there was a weird pack mentality, the first time I’ve felt it) but I got adopted (again!) this time by a young news journalist, Sharif, who’s just dying to make it in the States.

He just stuck his arm out and pushed everyone back so I could get through the crowd. Sort of like a modern-day feminist Moses scenario. It was a bit embarrassing, but it was good to get out of the crowd.

I had read that in previous years, there were some sort of riots down here, so there were plenty of white-clad police about (the irony of a city that turns your snot black is that their coppers are decked out in bright white, with long black boots – it’s terribly butch).

I also learned tonight that the slangy greeting I was taught last time I was here (‘saida’ sp?) is actually a Christian expression, so saying it to a Muslim is just weird. Hmmm, that’s why they were giggling. In fact, they giggle a lot when I speak Arabic.

Slightly sheepish

Cairenes, it has to be said, can talk the leg off a donkey. It is actually quite hard to be alone, when you are on your own. Nobody believes you want to sit solo, so the invites to join their table or to walk and talk are constantly forthcoming, which is very welcoming, but at times kind of frustrating.
Last night, up Khan Al-Khalili, the uber-hectic traditional market, I was adopted by Mimo (a funked-up shortening of Mohommad), who steered me through the markets, always talking, in his excellent English. In return, I’m afraid I grilled him. I warned him, but I grilled him. About where to eat, shop, find an apartment and what those bold boys had just said as we passed.
I could have used his translating skills today when I popped out for a late lunch, and the cafe owner charged me what I know to be double the going rate. I queried it, he said, It is laaaamb. It is very expensive. For that price, I must have eaten the arse of the ram with the golden fleece.

The night before…Eid

Last night, Cairo went off. Off, I tell you, going into overdrive in the days before Eid, the three-day holiday. It is pumping down there in the streets. Thousands of people in the squares, drinking tea, eating sweet biscuits and honey cakes, smoking sheesha. They will go until dawn, damn them and their car horns. And they’re already warming up for tonight, where apparently the city will ring to the sound of fire crackers. I can hear them now, and the sun is only just setting…

I stayed out till about 1am, drinking tea occasionally on my own and occasionally with lots of strange people, mostly men (“my wife she stays home and watches the television and the children”), and eating in an insane amount of sugar. It really is the drug of choice in Egypt. Especially now, as they can blame the end of Ramadam for their excesses – as they devour kunaafa and a honey and coconut biscuit that’s awfully like a macaroon. Unfortunately, you can’t just buy one. And that’s not my inability to control myself, but they sell everything only the quarter kilo, minimum.

Eid is a time of not only mainlining sugar, but also giving gifts, so the streets were packed with young guys selling carts of clothes on the footpath. There might be seven or eight in a group, roaring out their wares. Faux Diesel, CK, lots of weird pseudo-surf brands. And the women’s clothing shops were packed while the pastry and cake shops had crowds spilling onto the streets, It was like the night before Christmas in a one dollar shop.

Interestingly, I had a couple of exchanges (non-verbal, of course) with women last night. One was with a couple of little kids in a real, grungy part of Cairo, up near one of the main stations. They were practicing their English with me (they knew almost as much as my Arabic) and there was a woman, quite young, with her baby, who was watching and gave me a big smile, and then another woman, who was fully veiled, with just her eyes visible – and even then, there’s a piece of fabric between her eyes, almost like a hawk’s mask – and we were being squished by the crowd, and she’d smiled at me. I could see her eyes crinkle upwards, it was a strange, but nice moment.

I also had a more substantial encounter this afternoon with a very glamorous acquaintance from my last visit in Cairo. A Coptic Christian, she doesn’t fast, doesn’t wear a veil (instead, terribly chic trouser suits and lots of Bulgari jewellery) and, interestingly enough, doesn’t identify herself as an Arab. We had high tea in one of Egypt’s best hotels (from pension to five-star…it’s all about adaptability, you see) and talked about an article in one of the English language newspapers about women who want to go to taraweeh, the evening prayers held during Ramadam. Apparently, some women want to go but their husbands want them to stay home (watching tv, watching the kids). But the women are saying that it is better to go to the mosque, because you’re in a sisterhood, and young women have a chance of marrying better if they hang out at mosques. I had never thought of it that way.

If I peer over my little balcony, I can see into a small mosque. With an aerial view, it looks like a coal bunker, a long, curved arch. There is always a green carpet out the front, as it gets packed, here in Downtown, which is an enclave of poorer Cairo. My glamorous friend is very keen to take me over the other side of town, past the expat enclave of Zemalak to Mohandiseen and Agouza, to show me that parts of Cairo are as sophisticated as any other city in the world. And what’s with the camels, she asks me. Camels are for the desert. They weren’t used to build the Pyramids. So why are they synonymous with Cairo? That’s a very good question…

Amazing co-incidences 101

The taxi driver to the airport in Abu Dhabi was Egyptian, and after going misty-eyed about his homeland, where I was bound, he told me to watch out for the traffic. He’s right, it’s manic. “But people help you cross the street,” I protested.
“Only for money,” he responded. I thought about it. In fact, it had happened only once that I was asked for money in exchange for not being splattered across the road. It was by Mohammad, a dapper gent in his 50s with greying ringlets. He escorted me across the road, pointed me in the right direction to the mosque I was trying to find, and pulled some photographs out of his pocket of when he was young and described by the newspapers as ‘the Egyptian Schwarzenegger’. There he was, buff to the eyeballs, snapped with a volley of incredibly beautiful models with their big hair and liquid eyeliner, everyone in indecently small bikinis or (in Mohammad’s case) mankinis. So we chatted, but as we parted, he asked for a few pounds to get a cool drink. I baulked, as I thought this was a genuine exchange, not a cash scam, but I relented and gave him some money. So, imagine my surprise when, last night as I was trawling the streets for a home, in a city of 20 million people, I ran into Mohammad. He remembered me, thanked me for the drink, and bought me a glass of mint tea, in return. It’s a nice ending.Amazing co-incidences 102.
I know three other people in Cairo. One I rang today on my NEW EGYPTIAN MOBILE! The second, who I met at the airport yesterday and lent me his phone to call my hotel, is an expat who lectures in Islamic art. I ran into him on the same street in Doqqi this morning. I like this street. I have also moved from the Concorde (am missing the blue carpet already) to the Pension Roma, and have a small but perfect room, with polished floor boards and a little balcony that I have opened the doors onto, and set up my desk and fan. It is a fifth of the price of the hotel, cleaner and has free internet. Perhaps it was all just meant to be…