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…

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)!

The tonic of life

“Here’s your G&T,” says my current visitor, Andrew. Surely one of the nicer sentences in the English language.

Tonic is a soft drink regarded with an evil eye here in Cairo as the locals are sure the only reason we foreigners want to drink it is to dilute our gin. So it’s not so easy to find. The foreign supermarkets sell it, but you’ll never find it in the Egyptian chains or in the fridges at the little kiosks at every street corner, which sell everything from water to phone cards, chocolates and cigarettes. All the essentials. I learned the lesson about tonic after I rolled into a little supermarket nearby and asked for tonic.

“Noooooo-ooo,” replied Ahmed behind the counter, waving his head like a bull with a fly in his ear. “We never sell tonic. Because you will mix it with alkoool.”

Ethical consumerism, it appears, is not yet dead.

My grandmother, who firmly swore by a diet of tonic water and natural yoghurt while travelling in foreign climes, would surely have turned in her grave.

Egypt morphs into the Gold Coast

For those of us on the other side of the world, it’s easy to forget Egypt is on the Mediterranean. Countries such as Italy and France have already cashed in on that claim to fame. But the north coast of Egypt is hundreds of kilometres of big, blue Mediterranean sea.

Mind you, it also has 80 million people wanting to swim in that same sea (and it’s a sobering reminder when you’re in the water with 200 or so other people that peeing in the water isn’t exactly a novel idea), so a little snobbery goes a long way.

On a weekend pootle along the coast, we drove west from Alexandria to Marina, half way between Alex and the famed blue waters of Marsa Mattruh, where the sea is cleaner and the action less hectic than in the cities closer to Cairo.

In the private enclave that is Marina, the bling is real, girls wander through cafes in shorts and singlets thrown over the top of their bikinis, guys are in their Billabongs and t-shirts, kids run wild on sugar and trikes.
It could be anywhere in the western world. Just the shisha pipes in the pool and a lack of alcohol make the difference. And the Remembering Allah billboards on driving into Marina. Leading into the hedonistic beachside paradise, the series ran as such: “Remembering Allah,” then “Remember…His door is always open,” followed by the ominous “Remember… He is always watching you” to the downright scary “Remember…you could meet Him now!”

Marina’s landmark is the massive Porto Marina, a clutch of towers that have been painted red-and-yellow stripes, amongst other colours. It erupts like a giant pimple from the desert, but once you’re inside, it lures you into its thriving outdoor café scene, and there’s even a fake Venice built inside, complete with canals and gondolas that were busy churning up the waterway. Yes, really.

The whole complex is built on a series of man-made lagoons and islands; Australians, think Gold Coast. In fact, when the jet boat, jetskis and parasailers zoomed past, I was taken back to Broadbeach in a flash. Aside from the hideous building, Marina is a series of tasteful villas built along the waters’ edge and it’s all so deliciously clean and shiny, and correspondingly expensive.

If you thought you’d nip in for a look, beware: Marina is a gated community which means you’d have to be hitchhiking with a member to get in there (or a friend of a friend who’s borrowed a card…).

It’s all very weird and challenges my principles of equality. But if you were the elite and money but a boring concept your accountant deals with, you’d love it – my neighbour and good mate Hosny Mubarak (aka The President), as well as the big guns in the military and anyone who’s vaguely noteworthy, all decamp here during the summer.

Check out: Tahiti beach and pool, a chic, up-market beach resort, and Studio Misr for traditional Egyptian food with gargantuan portions. The chicken fatta is exceptional, both in Puerto Marina. Zalabia (sweet dough balls soaked in rosewater honey) from Patiserrie Hamama in 6 October. Dental suicide, but worth it.

McArabia: would you like dogma with that?

Far be it from me to plug a multinational food chain, but … rules were made to be broken. Let me phrase it this way: if there was no other option to eat in Egypt except at a McDonalds, you could do far worse.

Stop gasping people – I’m talking about the McArabia. Hurrah, McDonalds has forgone its cultural imperialism for one moment and come up with a passable alternative.

The McArabia is tasty flat bread with beef or chicken kofta, fresh lettuce, tomato and tahina inside. We have tried both and thoroughly rate the beef out of the two. At around LE25 (about A$5), it’s not cheap but it’s damned tasty.

They haven’t gone so far as to serve it up with the Ko’ran or a glow-in-the-dark plastic mosque alarm clock (yes, they are out there), but instead the standard fries and a drink.

Get some pork on your fork

This is an old rumour, but a deliciously naughty one worth repeating in the light of the swine flu fanaticism: word has it on the streets that the government has been selling pork meat for the stunningly low price of LE5 (just over a US dollar) a kilo.

Of course, the pork comes from the pigs who have been slaughtered in the fever of swine flu. A further rumour, which I’m SURE is not true, is that unscrupulous butchers are mixing the meat with that of beef and lamb to flesh out their supplies.

I don’t rate this one because surely no butcher would be so bad as to mix what’s considered unclean meat to Muslims, who comprise around 80 percent of the Egyptian population. But rumours, like the flu, have no boundaries.

But then, as a Christian friend said to me recently, “Muslims say they don’t eat pork, but once they’ve eaten my pork, they love it.”

Hotly contentious, I’ll leave it at that. I have no beef with pork, either way…

Getting porked

Rumour has it on the streets that the government is selling pork meat for the stunningly low price of LE5 (just over a US dollar) a kilo. Of course, the pork comes from the pigs who have been slaughtered in the fever of swine flu. A further rumour, which I’m SURE is not true, is that unscrupulous butchers are mixing the meat with that of beef and lamb to flesh out their supplies. I don’t rate this one because surely no butcher would be so bad as to mix what’s considered unclean meat to Muslims, who comprise around 80% of the Egyptian population. But rumours, like the flu, have no boundaries.

Sniffing the Breeze

A lot of people have asked what happens in Egypt during Easter. Well, for a start, the Coptic Christian Easter kicks off a week later – so it all starts happening this weekend.

It’s a holiday for most of the country; like anywhere in the world, people are happy to take a public holiday for another religion’s feast days, so the Muslim population will enjoy a long weekend, as will the Christians.

I popped into a Catholic church last Sunday (Palm Sunday), walking in while Mass was just about to start. It was in English, and the congregation was a real mixed bag, with lots of Asian worshippers, elegant old French ladies with big gold earrings and black scarves tied over their coiffed hair, black, black Africans and a few stray whiteys. A Christian friend told me that on Easter Sunday, they will go to church for three hours (three hours!) then picnic with friends and family afterwards.

The weekend culminates in a holiday on Monday called ‘Sham el Nissem’, or ‘Sniffing the Breeze’, where everyone gets out and picnics. One website says that this feast, which is also regarded as the first day of spring, has been celebrated by Egyptians for over 4500 years, making it one of the world’s oldest.

Interesting name, the traditional thing to eat is salted anchovies, sardines and mackerel, so the breeze will be interesting indeed.

Cairo on the run

You know there are days when you’re SO lazy, you just want to bunker down and order out for everything. Happily you can do just that in Cairo, from razors to bread, laundry, home-cooked meals, plumbers or cleaning ladies.

The takeaway food scene is hyper-developed: McDonalds delivers well into the dead of night, another place, Cook Door, has stickers everywhere and has an almost cult-like following for its Viagra burger (grilled or fried, it’s a heart-stopping brew: a long white roll stuffed with mayo, calamari and fish), and a lady slipped a photocopied note under my door advertising home-made kofta, a kilo for about $11.

When I needed a plumber, my fixer, Hegazy, whipped one up out of the blue in a few hours, which surely will bring a tear to the eye of any Australian home renovators trying to get a tradie into their homes before 2010. However, friends, some things never change. He smoked in the bathroom, left sticky grease marks on the taps and cigarette butts in the loo. The upside is the price was about a tenth of his Australian cousins.

So my phrase of the week is ‘Mumkin te gibli…” Can you bring…” I have a welter of cards, from pharmacists to little supermarkets all with small boys ready to deliver at the trill of a mobile phone. Even if their shops are, literally, next door to my apartment block. The three security-slash-doormen guys have listed their phone numbers and when I run downstairs to grab some foil or tomatoes, they’re like, ‘Why? We can do it!”

There are so many people offering to deliver – who’s doing all the receiving?

Pigeon English

‘Begoon,’ it reads on the menu. I’m getting pretty good at menus, but this one has me stuffed. And stuffed it is. Begoon is the Arabgleeze for ‘pigeon’. (is there a word for Arabic-English, like Spanglish? Let’s make one up!) Yes, the flying rat.

So I order the begoon, sitting in the most touristy midan or plaza, of Cairo. I have taken up residence in the front seat of a café that faces the country’s most holy mosque, Al Hussein (died AD 680), the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Its holiness derives from the tomb inside, which is said to contain Hussein’s head.

As we’re in sight of a mosque, there’s no beer (though they serve a non-alcoholic version, Birrell) and the square is packed with tour buses, tourists more touts than you can poke a sheesha pipe at.

They’re selling shoe shining, Ko’rans translated into a Babel-like number of languages, tacky headdresses supposedly worn by belly dancers, cheap papyrus, leather wallets, fake watches…what do you want? One boy is carrying a standard wooden crate of flat bread on his head. If he can’t sell you the bread (and he’s pedalling to café patrons) he’ll sell you a photo opportunity of him with said picturesque bread on head. Some, like the woman with a sleeping baby, are just out-and-out begging.

The begoon when it arrives, is a taut drum of well-cooked, oily skin containing rice and a few scraplets of meat on the tiny legs. The bones, of which there are many, go to a battalion of waiting cats beneath my chair, the scene of open warfare between a big-headed ginger tom and a black, malevolent creature that hovers just out of ankle’s reach.

So what does pigeon taste like? Chicken. Of course.