Cairo: The palace walk

Lined with palaces, mosques, merchant’s mansions and markets, Cairo’s Al-Muizz is a contender for the Middle East’s most beautiful street.

It’s the ancient thoroughfare of medieval Cairo, the lifeblood of a dozen centuries: every time I return to Cairo, I find myself walking the length of Al-Muizz li-Din-Allah. Like most before me, I’m lured by the street’s imposing palaces and caravanserais, its dusty mosques and vivid markets.

I’ve walked this street countless times over a decade, and each time, I make a new discovery. A forgotten tomb. A synagogue. Cool, dark water cisterns that plunge deep underground or a merchants’ mansion, instructive in the ways of generations of traders, aristocrats, craftsmen and families who filled the streets of Islamic Cairo when it was established by the Shi’ite Fatamid regime in 969AD.

In case you haven’t twigged, Egypt is back on the tourism trail after seven years languishing in the doldrums after its revolution in 2011, which overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak, who’d run the country as his personal fiefdom for 30 years. They’ve now got another army brass running the country – plus ça change, plus c’est la même.

Cairo’s Citadel, which overlooks the city. Photo: Belle Jackson

But finally, with stability and growth taking place around the country (think, highways remade, new airports open, Nile cruise boats dusted off), it’s fabulous to see the return of one of Egypt’s major industries.

Cairo often gets but a cursory glance while everyone rushes to the Pyramids then down to Luxor, but spend the turn of the day in El Muizz for what I think is one of the world’s most beautiful streets.
Thanks to Vacations & Travel for again going ahead of the trend and publishing my feature on this beloved street.

https://www.vacationsmag.com/palace-walk-cairo/

Ten travel experiences that will change your life


Characters of Egypt. Photo: Belinda Jackson.

If you’ve been living under a rock (or possibly not in Australia), you may have missed the launch of the fabulous new Traveller website, from Fairfax Media. To kick off, a handful of us were asked for 10 travel experiences that changed our lives. I nominated hanging off a glacier on Russia’s Mt Elbrus and watching the cultural puzzle click in India, but also experiencing the absolute inability to communicate (in South Korea) and travelling in the Middle East (oh, there are SO many ways this has changed my life). 

Here are my two published experiences below, and you can click here to read the full story, which includes seeing Rome’s Colosseum, going on safari on the Masai Mara and visiting the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.

There are holidays that help you relax and unwind, then there are
travel experiences that change your entire outlook on life. Here, some
of Traveller’s most well-travelled writers name the experiences that
changed their lives – and could change yours, too.

Where: South Korea and beyond

The experience: Finding yourself in a truly foreign culture
How it will change your life:
One
of the great joys of travel is connecting with a local without a tour
guide babying you through the conversation.There are those little
milestones – the first time you buy water, order a meal, score a date in
a foreign language.
I thought I was pretty slick: I could fumble
French, shout Spanish, read Russian. My mime skills were excellent, the
vocabulary list in my travel guides well-studied. But my global
communication skills foundered, profoundly, in South Korea.
I’m
sitting in an empty café in Seoul. According to the photos around us, it
sells noodles. I would like noodles. Every time I suggest a noodle
dish, the waitress shakes her head. So I point. She shakes. Point.
Shake. Point. Shake. I give up, I find a vending machine. (Later, I
learn I was sitting in a closed restaurant.)
Having the complete inability to communicate is a humbling experience. It is a reminder that the world is a far bigger place than just you and your orbit. – Belinda Jackson
More: english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/index.kto

Where: The Middle East

The experience: See life beyond the newsreels
How it will change your life:
They do things big in the Middle East: the Great Pyramid of Gizas,
Iran’s Persepolis, the Sahara desert and the Empty Quarter, to name a
few. Steer clear if you like orderly queues, traffic lights and 10pm
bedtimes.
The standard backdrop for the Middle East in news
bulletins is of tanks, screaming masses and men in epaulettes. The
reality on the ground – save a few war zones – is about traffic jams,
happily shouting friends and men in epaulettes (what’s not to love about
a good uniform?).
Men and women live in different spheres, pork
and booze are largely off the menu and if you’re foreign, you’re rich.
Yes, there are camels and shisha (tobacco water pipes) and you will see
belly dancers. Yet there are also chic beach resorts, the sneaky
late-night bars and saucy cabarets, the deep and abiding love of
football (that’s soccer). And while headscarves can polarise a nation,
from Iran to Oman, the passion for fashion is alive and kicking, with
the same obsession for black.
Let go: travelling in the Middle
East requires sinking deep into a rich, cultural morass. Deep down,
you’ll realise, we all just want the good life. – Belinda Jackson.

A different side of Egypt: from Alexandria to Marsa Matruh

So I stuffed photographer and a crate of beer in a red 1975 Landcruiser and we aimed for Libya. Here’s the result…

:Away from the famous sites and Red Sea resorts, stretches of Egypt’s coast are opening up to tourism.

The sky is bright blue, the sand bright white, the sea perfect, and there’s not a soul on the beach. The only other visitors are a couple of young goatherds in fluttering white gowns or djellabas, and football shirts, who pose for me as they lead their blank-eyed charges to freshwater wells. Could this really be the Mediterranean?

Um el donya, the mother of the world, as the Egyptians call their country, has an embarrassment of attractions and sites that the world visits en masse, yet beyond the pyramids and tombs, Cairo and Luxor, glitzy Sharm el-Sheikh and the other diving and cruise hotspots on the Red Sea, there still remain superb areas that tourists are only just beginning to discover.

Click here to read the whole story in today’s Guardian, UK (!!!)

Because you asked…

Well it’s been three weeks since I hit home after almost a year in Egypt. There’s a definite pattern in the questions I’ve been asked since I’ve been back, so let me run you through the answers (I probably should have done this weeks ago, which would have saved me sounding like a parrot).

Did you wear a headscarf? No. I’m Christian and I’m foreign. People don’t expect me to cover my hair. However, I did cover my knees and usually upper arms. Having said all that, in the chic nightclubs and private beaches, anything goes, from belly button rings to crop tops and miniskirts.

Were you scared living in Egypt as a lone woman? No. Cairo is an incredibly safe city. Like any place, there are some areas you don’t want to go (and not just women, but men, too!) – such as super-poor districts – but to get there, you’d really have to work hard: either take a cab or coax someone into to driving you. Hordes of drunks cruising the streets causing havoc are unheard of in Cairo. In fact, I attribute a large part of Cairo’s safety to the lack of alcohol in the country. Which brings me to the next question…

Could you drink alcohol? See Answer 1. Christian and foreign means alcohol is fine. However, wandering around drunk is very poor form. Some waiters were uncomfortable with serving women alcohol, but I am not quite sure why they were working in such establishments if they felt this way. Compared to average consumption in Australia, it was all severely curtailed. The local wine, friends, was generally dreadful, but alcopops, spirits and beer are in easy reach…24-hour delivery, if you really need it.

And what about pork? I think when you travel to places with different diets to your own, you either (a) obsess about the food you can’t eat – think Australians’ obsession with the thick, black, salty paste called Vegemite that we slather on our toast – or (b) you just forget about it. There was some pork floating around Cairo – most notably at the Italian Club and in an Italian-style café in Zamalek, but after Egypt knocked off all its pigs, ostensibly to prevent swine flu, neither love nor money would get you a slab of bacon. However, there were rumours going around the expat network recently there was a guy in Alexandria…

Work or holiday? Well, since my rich great-aunt died, I have spent my life on cruise ships and safari, without needing to work. That was sarcasm. Yes of course I worked, but Egypt being a far less expensive country to live in compared with Australia (no car registration, insurance, overpriced taxis and cheap, fresh food) meant I didn’t have to chain myself to a desk five days a week, and could instead travel to surrounding countries which I’m still publishing the stories for.

Did you learn any Arabic? Yes. Well, it was either learn Arabic or spend a year doing Marcel Marceau mime impersonations. While plenty of Egyptians told me I didn’t need to learn any Arabic, they are obviously delusional as to how much English is actually spoken in Egypt. And I think it’s pretty shoddy if you can’t at least say thanks. Also, if you can’t count, you’re just leaving yourself open to being fleeced (a nice way of saying ‘ripped off’).

So… were you fleeced? Of course. But then Egyptians are an indiscriminate bunch, and will try the same tricks on their fellow Egyptians. It’s just that as a foreigner, I’m obviously insanely wealthy and therefore fair game. The more Arabic I spoke, the less it happened.

Any essential travel things you would never go to Egypt without? An enormous cotton scarf. I bought an awesome one in Cairo and, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it has worked as a headscarf when entering mosques, to wrap up in freezing planes and um…. as an emergency towel. And Lonely Planet’s fantastic Egyptian phrasebook. I carried it every day. It is still recuperating from its year-long workout.

And finally, do you miss Egypt? Cairo’s a dirty, crazy city of 20 million people. The pollution is ridiculous, the noise intense, and you can stick out your finger and poke the energy. I miss it every day.

Arabic 102

My word for the day is sorsarrrr – which uses the letter ‘sohd’, not to be confused with the normal ‘s’ sound, or ‘seen’, as the letters are called. TECHNICAL: NO NEED TO READ! The sohd (to give it a phonetic value) is a sound made deep in the throat, one of the many letters not found in European alphabets; sohd, dohd, thor, zord, ghein and the ain are just some of the letters that twist the tongue to get the rolling, guttural sound going.

Actually, the Egyptian accent is much softer than that of the Gulf states, which has got the whole throat-gagging-spitting thing going on.

Sorsar, by the way, means cockroach, a word I have become annoyingly familiar with thanks to the gargantuan beasts who galloped down the hallway playing tag with each other, every night after lights out in my old (temporary) apartment (here’s a pic).

Happily, I don’t have to use the word so much in my new apartment (which I’ll tell you about later) but I think that’s cos I started off as the boss, walking in brandishing a big can of sorsar spray, complete with explanatory pictures on the can in case they can’t read, the spray as super-toxic as toxic as only second- and third-world chemicals can be. I think the sorsareen (what IS the plural for cockroach?) get the pictures…

Learning Arabic 101


A friend who lives in another non-English speaking country made a wise observation recently. “You can ask for a drink and say ‘no’ and ‘thank you’, and you think you’re a hero of the language. It’s when you go any further that you realise you’re a complete novice.”

It’s the classic case of the wise man knowing he’s a fool.

I have hit that stage. I can argue with taxi drivers, buy and order most food, read menus and signs, as well as haggle, but to explain to someone the concept that my male friend is just a friend who happens to be male, and I lose the plot and stand there like a tongue-tied idiot. It doesn’t help that there is no concept in Egypt of non-sexual male friends.

I have stopped doing last-minute Arabic homework on the train because everyone reads my writing and smiles the way you’d smile at a small child or drooling idiot, then runs through the standard gamut of questions – where are you from, what’s your name, how many children do you have, are you married or do you just have a Friend (see comment above re: male friend).

Some people, notably taxi drivers, are most patient when it comes to listening to my mangled Arabic. Hell, I’m in their taxi, they want to get me to where I’m going and take my money. So they’re very complimentary and charming.

But there’s also a certain amount of arrogance amongst Arabic speakers toward the rest of the world, from educated Arabs and the street smart alike.

“You will study Arabic for 10 years and still not be able to speak it,” said my boab (aka doorman) in Arabic, who then informed me that in a month, you can learn to speak English. I asked him (in English) why he hadn’t done so, but he didn’t understand me…

TBC after tomorrow’s Arabic lesson…

PS: this is not my boab, but a pretty good idea of what many of them look like.

Forgiveness, pleasure and grace: a lesson in Arabic

“The Arabic language is very rich,” said didactic Nael, one of my first friends in Egypt, and himself a French teacher. The more I learn about Arabic, the more I have to agree.

The great apartment block I live in is known as Borg el Samah, ‘tower of forgiveness…’Almost everyone’s name has a meaning – my old cleaning lady, Sabah, was named after the morning, I met a girl the other day whose name means ‘inspiration’, and a guy whose name translates as ‘pleasure’. I giggle naughtily every time I say it. He is charmed, but confused.

In a country where English language books routinely cost $50 for the shoddiest paperback, I found the massive, massive Ken Follett ‘Pillars of the Earth’ (the doorstopper about building England’s cathedrals) for a miserly 20LE ($6) on a grubby street corner the other day and today’s find was a $3 copy of ‘Midaq Alley’ by Nagiub Mahfouz, Egypt’s only Noble Peace Prize for Literature for his epic ‘Cairo Trilogy’. The dog-eared book has the names of two previous owners written on the inside cover, both girls, Nashwa (‘ecstasy’ or ‘elation’) and Hala (‘lunar halo glory’).

And this week’s lesson: khartoum (yes, like the Sudanese capital) actually means hose in Arabic. I know this cos my shower hose, khartoum el douche, broke and I had to replace it.

On my way to my Arabic lesson (don’t get too excited, people, my new teacher thinks I’m thick as two short planks) I was reading my notes on the metro and a woman sat down beside me and said, ‘Are you learning Arabic? You are very smart. I will test you. Can you write my name?” Her name, dammit, started with one of the Arabic letters that has no English translation, ‘gh’. For Ghada. I had to stick my tongue out to write it. However, she was very nice, as befits a person whose name means ‘charming; graceful woman’.

Language a labour of love

“The best way to learn a language is in bed,” said Khaled.

“But then you’ll just learn words you can’t use in public,” I argued.

“Get a polite boyfriend,” he advised.

I hasten to add, reader, that we had met just two days before, and were in a car, hurtling through the dark night toward the far-flung Cairo suburb of 6 October on a work assignment.

(BTW: 6 October is the start date of the 1973 Six Day War between Egypt and Syria and Israel and then, in 1981, in the subsequent annual victory celebrations, the Egyptian president Sadat was assasinated).

So I’m sitting in bed with my language books, listening to the warm wind puff around the rooftops. Perhaps that’s not quite what Khaled meant…don’t you think 😉