The plight of the pigeon

The first time I looked up, properly looked up, in medieval Cairo, I noticed weird wooden towers built on the top of apartment blocks. “What are they?” I asked the old man showing me the view from a mosque in Cairo’s City of the Dead. “Hammams”, he said. “Bathrooms?” I thought. How weird! People climb up those rickety little ladders to go to the toilet? “Hammans?” I asked, just to be sure. Yes, yes, he nodded. “Hammams.” What I later discover in the great game that is learning Egyptian is that a hammam is a bathroom, but a hammam…is also a pigeon. Something to do with more or less ‘m’ pronunciation. Yes, winged rats despised by the Anglo world, scourge of European monuments. Yet all over Egypt, these little boxes on stilts are where one of Egypt’s great delicacies are nurtured. In the evenings, you can hear a whistling as the owners call their beloved flocks home. “They’re very intelligent,” someone tells me. A first I’ve heard that, but then I’m not a pigeon fancier. The best restaurants in Cairo are said to include Farahat in the medieval part of the city, Gamilaya, as well as upmarket Nasr City. I’ve eaten pigeon in the alleyways of Khan al-Khalili, where a boy rushes up to you, asks you, “How many?” then rushes off again to grab the required number of pigeons, salad, bread and a peppery, watery pigeon broth and slaps it all on the table without any ceremony or cutlery. It’s oily and messy, the little bodies stuffed with fireek, or crushed wheat (think bulgar, Aussies). In comparison, I ate pigeon at a friend’s home. His wife is obviously the mistress of pigeon cooking – she stuffed hers with rice, which sits just beneath the skin. Less oily, less messy, infinitely more tasty. “Eat like you’re at home,” she said as she dropped two platters of pigeons on the table. “With both your hands, your feet…whatever.” Then I learned what is considered the pièce de résistance amongst this breed of pigeon fanciers. A quick tap on the head and voila, pigeon brains. I have only one word to describe them. Small. But then, what do you need a brain for if you’re a pigeon? Thinks: eat. Thinks: procreate. Thinks: eat. Sounds like utopia. If only the accommodation was better. Still, city views are good…

About the author

Fear is found on a creaking glacier in the Caucasus mountains and joy is encapsulated in the perfect Shanghai dumpling. And while I love a $500-a-night hotel room (who doesn’t?), sometimes the best stories are found in a $20 guesthouse. With an eye always out for good markets and great street eats, I write the travel news and features for the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age newspapers, and features for whoever else asks. I have a particular soft spot for the wilds of the Middle East, scarves and carpets. My articles and photographs have been published in a range of consumer magazines and newspapers in Australia and abroad.

3 thoughts on “The plight of the pigeon

  1. Hi Belle, it was really funny that what has happened with you with pronouncing of Hamam and Hammam. By the way, of course you know that the right pronouncing for both of the starts with 7 by the internet engloarabic language so they are 7amam or 7mmam in Arabic it is حletter. You know this remind me with "Gazmma Awee" 🙂

  2. Aaaah, Aladin, don't force me into confessing in public how bad my Arabic is! I am still debating whether I will blog that one. But then perhaps nobody will ever speak to me in Arabic again – after they stop laughing.

    I thought about writing it 7amam, but most non-Arabs wouldn't know about the use of numbers in the alphabet, which actually is an incredibly sensible idea and helps pronounciation immeasurably. Thanks also for your earlier comments on the role of music and film in Islam. It's great to have a local's opinion, though always daunting to have Egyptians read a blog about their home country.

  3. Well, I think you should bolg it nothing wrong with that beside you will paint a beautiful smile on your readers' lips.(you know,I'm still laughing on it whenever I remmber,sorry and thanks :)).
    I know that non-Arabs don't know about the use of numbers in the alphabet in internet chat and I used it for you to make the pronounciation in 7amam and 7ammam clear, but tell me how did you know the numbers usage in the alphabet?!!!

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